ASMARA (Reuters) - God surveys the world one day, seeing the mountains, valleys, seas and all there is.
Suddenly God stops and exclaims: “Why is Eritrea so green? I specifically made that country dry and yellow!”
The angel Gabriel leans over and whispers: “My Lord, those are army uniforms.”
So goes a joke about mandatory national service in Eritrea, a Red Sea state that keeps an estimated 1 in 15 people in the army often for years beyond the obligatory 12 to 18 months.
One of Africa’s newest and smallest nations boasts one of the continent’s largest armies in an area where a war in Somalia and Eritrea’s own border dispute with Ethiopia fuel instability.
At least 320,000 Eritreans are in the army out of a population of 4.7 million, the World Bank says.
Asmara has the largest armed forces in sub-Saharan Africa, ahead of arch-foe Ethiopia with 138,000 troops, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
The government in this tightly ruled country says a large army is needed because of tensions with Ethiopia. Troops also work on development projects, it says.
But many young Eritreans say they are frustrated with having to spend years doing national service and only making around $20 per month. Some have even begun fleeing the Red Sea state.
“I want to serve my country, but not forever,” said one young man, who has served four years so far and asked not to be named -- like many in Eritrea when talking to journalists.
All Eritreans over 18 and under 40 must do 12 to 18 months of national service, according to a proclamation that followed Eritrea’s independence from Ethiopia in 1991.
But in practice, military service can be extended indefinitely, analysts and human rights groups say.
Up to 25,000 Eritreans leave illegally each year, most crossing into Sudan and Ethiopia to make their way to Europe or the Middle East, diplomats and aid agencies say.
Many say they are fleeing national service. Eritrea restricts exit visas and passports of military-eligible men and women under 50 and 47 respectively.
The military culture runs deep in a country that was born of war: most people here know how to use a Kalashnikov.
Eritrea fought for 30 years with its neighbor Ethiopia before independence. Then, conflict over their shared border raged between 1998 and 2000, killing 70,000 people.
Eritrea says Ethiopia’s failure to comply with a 2002 border ruling by an independent boundary commission means it has to keep a big army.
“Eritrea is forced to have the army it has now due to the threat it has had since the border conflict,” said an article on the Web site of the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), www.shaebia.org.
Rights groups accuse President Isaias Afwerki and his government of using the border impasse to crush dissidents and imprison thousands for alleged political crimes.
The government denies this, saying it has taken some temporary security measures forced upon it by a “no war, no peace” situation with Addis Ababa.
The simmering border dispute is not just a political issue: it is also affecting Eritrea’s growth. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) says the deadlock will continue to hurt the largely agricultural economy.
The IMF has said Eritrea’s gross domestic product (GDP) grew in 2007 by an estimated 1.3 percent due to construction work and a better harvest, after the economy shrank by 1.0 percent the previous year. The IMF estimates Eritrea’s economy will grow by 1.2 percent this year.
Eritrea is believed to be rich in gold and industrial metals, but few hard facts are known about its economy, which depends heavily on remittances. The mining sector is however expected to stimulate growth in coming years.
Eritrea’s long-established diaspora -- which helped fund the independence war and is found mainly in Europe, the United States and Gulf countries -- continues to provide up to a third of the nation’s gross domestic product through remittances.
But analysts and diplomats say the diaspora -- estimated at a quarter of all Eritreans -- has yet to produce an organized opposition force.
At night in Asmara, military police in distinctive sandy-colored uniforms and carrying yellow sticks patrol the streets. Diplomats say that as well as providing security, the military search for Eritreans dodging military service.
Young Eritreans say they will not venture outside without an identity card and movement papers, which have biographical facts and, crucially, their national service status.
Without those papers, they can be arrested.
According to IISS and U.N. data, Eritrea makes up some 18 percent of sub-Saharan Africa’s total armed forces, but only about 0.6 percent of its population.
“I love my country, but I‘m a young man and I want to earn money to support my family,” said one Eritrean national service recruit, who makes 145 Nakfa ($9.6) per month. “We have a saying here. Service without reward is punishment.”
As well as serving on the border with Ethiopia, recruits are a crucial source of labor for development and commercial projects and for the civil service in a country where the World Bank says there are few private companies.
The ruling PFDJ says recruits work in defense, infrastructure, agriculture, education and capacity building.
For those who decide to leave rather than serve, the risks and costs are high, activists say.
Diplomats say Eritreans pay middlemen several thousand U.S. dollars to lead them to Sudan. If caught, the would-be migrant will spend months in jail and be interrogated for days for information about the middlemen, according to rights groups and diplomats in Asmara.
Even if they leave, activists say illegal immigrants’ families can be fined up to 50,000 Nakfa ($3,333) -- an enormous sum in a nation where the average per-capita income is $200.
Isaias told Reuters in an interview in mid-May that U.S. and British intelligence officials and the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) were luring away Eritrea’s youth.
“Hundreds of young have been misled that there is heaven outside ... It’s an orchestrated attempt to deplete this nation of its young,” he said.
Eritrea has brokered deals with some neighboring countries to repatriate fleeing citizens, rights groups say. In June, Egypt deported up to 1,000 Eritrean asylum seekers, despite activists’ concerns they might face torture at home.
“(Eritrea’s youth) have no educational and career prospects, and the only thing they can look forward to is a lifetime of quiet servitude,” said a foreign-based Eritrean opposition Web site, www.awate.com.
(For a feature on Eritrea’s history of self-reliance, please double-click on))
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Editing by Clar Ni Chonghaile