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Journey from Eritrea to Australia

Published 27 Nov 2015
Samuel Afeworki

An American acquaintance of mine in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, once asked me where I was heading to pursue my Masters in International Affairs. I replied I was going to Australia. My answer fetched a sudden bewilderment, as my new friend felt Australia was too far from everywhere to study international affairs. Nonetheless, this did not diminish my eagerness of travelling to Australia; the longest distance I have ever travelled in pursuit of my studies.

To reach Australia from Eritrea, I canvassed through Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia, Turkey and Norway. I had unrelentingly pursued entry into major universities around the world and succeeded in convincing a few universities that it would somehow pay off if they provided me with admission, as well as financial assistance, to study in one of their Masters programs. I accepted an offer of a joint scholarship and admission from the Australian National University (ANU) and the International Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO).

I was born in Eritrea, one of the world’s poorest and most war-ravaged countries in Africa. My birth country topped the world ranking in 2014, for sources of refugees per capita.[1] With a political history moulded by incessant wars, it is believed that the convergence of the interests of regional and global powers for almost a century (particularly during the Cold War years), is to blame. Thirty years of bitter war with neighbouring Ethiopia is one of the consequences of this. It has devastated the economic, social and political infrastructures in both countries.

My childhood memories are filled with a heavily militarised and war-infested environment. In the small town where I grew up, there were more armed people than unarmed, more killing than rearing, more destruction than construction, more displacement than resettlement, and an overwhelming fear for our freedom. I vividly remember being trapped between fiercely battling armies with my family and neighbours, mostly women and children. Having a naïve awareness of the fatality of war, I would try to slip from the desperate grasp of my mother and run out to the battlefield. I was excited and curious about the gruesome noises of the conflict.

Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia in 1993, along with other regional political developments, marked an opening of a new chapter. However, the country’s social and economic infrastructures were virtually non-existent. This caused ambiguity about the political future of the Horn of Africa. Despite general expectations of peace in the region, the emergence of a “diasporic state” has made the political dynamics of the Horn no less violent than its previous history.[2] Inter-state political and military conflict almost immediately surfaced with neighbouring Sudan, Djibouti, Ethiopia and Yemen in the aftermath of Eritrea’s independence. The border war of 1998-2000 with Ethiopia, a “hegemonic power” of the region,[3] brought my newly-independent country to its knees once again.
Eritrea engaged in the total mobilisation of its meagre material and human resources. This included those from the diaspora and retired independence fighters, as well as new national service recruits.[4] Immediately, the war became an issue of national survival, which tested the Eritrean polity from top to bottom.[5] This time, I was conscripted to join the army to fight resurgent Ethiopia. Needless to say, my childhood ignorance had subsided and I became brutally conscious of, and reluctant to see, the brutality of war.

The impact of the latest war with Ethiopia was cataclysmic to the nation. Eritrean official figures put the number of its soldiers killed in the war to a conservative 20,000 lives, without counting the disabled, or those who fled or surrendered during the war.[6] Prior to this, 60,000 celebrated fighters had died in the thirty-year war of independence.[7] Eritrea also relinquished a significant part of its landmass to the advancing Ethiopian army, which resulted in the massive civilian loss of life and displacement.[8]

Lucky to be alive, I was still exposed to the sheer brutality of the renewed war, which claimed the lives of 100,000 young people from both countries, leaving many more internally displaced.[9] Others suffered the loss of their belongings. Livelihoods and families were tragically uprooted from both countries before a ceasefire in 2001. Unfortunately, the social and economic consequences for both countries will continue for many more years to come.

I arrived in Oslo, Norway in winter 2008 to commence my first semester of study. I then arrived in Canberra in early 2009 for my second semester. Whilst in Norway and upon my arrival in Australia, I was warned by friends that Australia might be unfriendly to me. During the first few days of my arrival, I curiously inspected the streets of Canberra for any warning signs, but there was barely anything that made my arrival in Australia unpleasant.

It was not long before I realised that there was hidden turbulence behind the quiet streets of Canberra. This turbulence is located in the confines of the Parliament of Australia. The foray of political contention in the parliament is no less antagonistic than that of the Horn of Africa. However, it was far less bloody and the battle of ideas fell short of the fire arms accompanying politics back home. I had become very envious of the level of agency Australian politicians have in advancing their views without the need for sabre rattling.

2010-2013 were unique years in modern Australian politics. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who came to power with a landslide victory, was removed from his position by internal party dissidents. Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, replaced Mr Rudd. However shortly afterwards, her predecessor, Mr Rudd, made a successful coup on her leadership. Rather than saving the misfortunes of the government, the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd change in leadership played into the hands of the opposition. Tenaciously led by Mr Tony Abbott, the opposition eventually defeated the incumbent government. Tirades of endless election slogans were all the opposition needed to win the public’s vote.

I thought that Australia’s involvement in international politics would be much less wavering. I imagined Australia to be more than a middle power in the global order. My perception shifted when I found that my university professors could not imagine Australia, even hypothetically, being capable of invading smaller countries across the Tasman Sea. In the business of diplomacy, Australia is known to punch above its weight. This signifies the effectiveness of Australian diplomats in the international sphere. However, it might also underline perceptions that Australians are afforded diplomatically when throwing their punches.

With the exception of the late former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser, Australian politicians seem to lack the foresight or motivation to pursue an independent Australian foreign policy beyond isolated issues such as asylum seeker policies. Australia has the national interest, as well as commendable political and social values, to pursue independent foreign policy initiatives.

Australia’s unique advantage of geographic distance from centres of global politics has shielded it from much of the troubles of the world. However, with an increasingly interdependent and interconnected world, Australian foreign policy could benefit from additional levels of nuance and sensibility that reflect its diverse social, economic and demographic realities and values. In fact, Australia’s relative geographic and economic proximity to Asia makes it necessary to adjust aspects of Australia’s foreign policy, currently influenced by a de facto alliance with other western democratic countries.


Samuel Afeworki is a Research and Evaluation professional based in Melbourne. Before coming to Australia, he worked in research projects relating to agricultural transformation and peace building in Eritrea, his home country.

He completed a Master of International Affairs at the Australian National University. Samuel was selected to be a recipient of the Oslo Peace Scholarship jointly from ANU and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo (PRIO) in Oslo. He also completed an MA in Social Research and Development Policy (2011) at ANU.


[1] Welde Giorgis, Andebrhan (2014) Eritrea at a Crossroads: A Narrative of Triumph, Betrayal and Hope. Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Co: Houston TX.

[2] Iyob, Ruth (2000) “The Ethiopian-Eritrean conflict: Diasporic vs. hegemonic states in the Horn of Africa, 1991-2000” in The Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 38, No. 4, p. 659.

[3] Iyob, above n 2.

[4] Bernal, Victoria (2014) Nation as Network: Diaspora, Cyberspace, and Citizenship. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, p.15.

[5] International Crisis Group (2010) Eritrea: The Siege State. ICG Africa Report: Nairobi. No.163.

[6] Lortan, Fiona (2000) “The Ethiopia-Eritrea conflict: A fragile peace” in African Security Review, Vol. 9, No. 4.

[7] Hoyle, Peggy Ann (1999) “Eritrean national identity: A case study” in North Carolina Journal of International Law and Commercial Regulation, Vol. 24, No. 2.

[8] Lortan, above n 6.

[9] International Crisis Group (2003) Ethiopia and Eritrea: War or Peace? ICG Africa Report: Nairobi, No. 68.