Source: Eritrea Digest
Living with Trauma: Eritrea’s Youngest Generation
Born and raised after the independence of Eritrea in 1991, the youngest Eritrean generation (“nay Hmamey”, which literally means “of my illness/sickness” that’s apparently what they call each other, which I recently heard for the first time), is perhaps the most traumatized generation of all the generations before it. By giving each other the epithet “nay Hmamey,” they are telling each other “you have the same illness, the same pain that I have.”
That sickness is their experience, their pain, and their trauma they suffered under the dictatorial regime of Eritrea and their efforts to free themselves from it. This generation, generally those under thirty, while too young to fight in the war with Ethiopia from 1998-2000, nevertheless (beginning in the mid-2000s), was forced into the slavery of “National Service” (NS). The NS was traumatizing not only because of its very harsh conditions but, by the time this generation was sent to the military training center at Sawa, the last high school grade (12th) was decreed to be taught at Sawa. Therefore, the NS began one year earlier for this generation, which meant, instead of going to military service as adults (18+ year olds), sixteen and seventeen year old underage children were forced into military service. The NS, run by unscrupulous officers and trainers, was cruel to these children. The NS recruits would be punished severely (left tied to a tree in the hot desert sun, to mention just one example) for minor infractions such as missing or being late for training due to illness.
Eritrea does not have any published census data, although population counts were conducted routinely, in the last thirty years. Therefore, we do not know what the population of Eritrea is. Various estimates are given ranges from three million to six million. We know there are hundreds of thousands of Eritrean refugees in the Sudan, hundreds of thousands more are also in Ethiopia, thirty to forty thousand in Israel, tens of thousands in the Arab countries in the middle east, and tens of thousands in Europe, North America, Australia and elsewhere around the globe. A quarter of the Eritrean population may have left in the last thirty years alone. Hundreds of thousands had fled their homes mainly from the lowlands beginning in the mid 1960s when the Ethiopian military adopted a scorched earth policy in order to fight the freedom fighters.
It was not surprising therefore that many members of this generation (as many of the generation before them) opted to flee the country instead of living in a militarized society devoid of not only freedom but also of any opportunity for decent life, education, work, and starting a family of their own. Initially, they would abscond from their units and would go back to their homes in the cities and towns or their ancestral villages around the country and hide for weeks, months and even years. Eventually, they sought to leave their country altogether.
Many of these young people managed to reach Libya crossing the Sahara desert from Sudan and attempted to cross the Mediterranean Sea on rickety boats paying thousands of US dollars to human traffickers. And many have drowned in the process. The 2013 tragedy of the boat that capsized and sank near Lampedusa, Italy, took the lives of more than three hundred Eritreans with it. Some were shot dead at the border with Ethiopia or the Sudan. The shoot-to-kill policy of the regime only stopped after the “peace deal” with Ethiopia in 2018. Reportedly, some migrants were shot and killed by Egyptian security services while trying to enter Israel after crossing on foot not only the Sahara desert but the Sinai as well.
The recent news of multiple suicides among Eritrean refugees in Europe was particularly disturbing and saddening precisely because this phenomenon is occurring amongst this youngest generation. This generation, undoubtedly suffers from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a serious condition. “PTSD happens when an individual experiences a horrifying ordeal that involves physical harm or the threat of physical harm. PTSD was first brought to public attention in relation to war veterans [in the United States,] but a variety of traumatic events can cause PTSD including combat exposure, child sexual or physical abuse, terrorist attacks, sexual or physical assault, serious accidents, natural disasters such as earthquake, flood, fire, and tornado ad hurricane.“ Signs of PTSD include flashbacks, nightmares and panic attacks. Some PTSD sufferers resort to substance abuse in an effort to self medicate to alleviate their pain.
Unfortunately, not only has this youngest Eritrean generation been untreated for PTSD but they are also undiagnosed. Therefore, their condition is unrecognized and obviously untreated. Some have killed themselves after reaching their destination in Europe and elsewhere. They commit suicide because of hopelessness when their refugee status is denied or is not approved, and when their station in life becomes unbearable to them. Apparently, the trauma they have suffered weighs heavily upon them.
Previous generations of Eritreans have suffered their own trauma as well which may point to what psychologists call “intergenerational trauma.” The national trauma had begun long before 1991. In the past such trauma was not recognized as PTSD and no treatment was available for those who suffered from it.
What can we do to help? First, we have to tell their story, obviously. Secondly, we need to find them in our communities and encourage and help them to seek medical attention. In America and Europe, conditions such as PTSD are viewed now as mental health issues not as personal problems. Health insurance companies tend to cover costs of medical treatment. The youngest Eritrean generation must therefore seek professional help. In order for that to happen, our communities need to de-stigmatize mental health. Traditionally, we Eritreans looked down on people with mental health problems. We need to understand that these people (especially our youngest generation) did not bring this condition upon themselves. This isn’t VD. This is a serious illness that afflicts our young; and they need our help in order for them to heal themselves and become, once again, a productive member of society.
I hope our medical professionals, including the physician, psychiatrists, and other clinicians will lead this fight to save our young by providing their services. Let’s understand and embrace their pain and let them know that we care. For, their illness (“Hmam”) and their pain is our illness and our pain as well.