The minaret in Shire, Ethiopia, where Osman and I first meet

Following Osman

From Ethiopia to Oakland: An Eritrean refugee and I cross paths, again and again

“I smell blood.” The robed man twisted around to eye Osman, seated behind him on the camel.

The previous night Osman had fallen into a crevice and dislocated his left knee. He had crawled out and over to nearby acacia shrubs. Swollen, bloody, and useless, his knee prevented him from walking, so he spent the night under the shrubs. It was there that the robed man found him the next day.

Osman would have died if not for the scant shade of the acacia. Danakil, the volcanic desert in southern Eritrea, can reach 145 degrees, the internal temperature of well-cooked meat.

The Danakil Desert in Eritrea. Credit: Rolf Cosar via Wikimedia Commons

At 17, Osman had just escaped from the Eritrean military, where desertion is punished by prison, torture, or death. He distrusted everyone, especially this man, who was a member of the Rashaida tribe. Osman had grown up hearing stories of Rashaida killing people simply for being weak.

Instead of killing Osman, the man poured a trickle of his precious water on Osman’s knee and wrapped it. He brought Osman to a tented camp, where the man’s family fed and lodged him. Another close call, and far from Osman’s last.

Four and a half years later, Osman would be resettled to the United States from a refugee camp in Ethiopia. I was to see Osman at both ends of this journey.

On July 31, 2010 I was in the northern Ethiopian town of Shire. I had come for my work with the Resettlement Services Center, an organization that prepares files of African refugees being considered for US resettlement. The US government had recently agreed to accept virtually all Eritreans who made it to Ethiopia. While the Americans touted it as a humanitarian program, their cozy relations with Ethiopia also factored.

The building in Shire, Ethiopia where I first interviewed Osman

At work I sifted through the files of refugees with interviews that day and chose one at random. Then I walked to the waiting tent, where two-dozen hollow-faced young Eritrean men looked up at me. I read aloud the full name and case number marked on the file: Osman Ismail Ahmed, ET123456.

A thin young man stood up, with curly black hair and feline features.

“My age is short,” Osman told me recently over tea in Oakland, California. His jaw clenched. “But my experience, it is too long.” Osman’s tale starts in 2007, when he was 17, and newly minted Eritrea was only 14. Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea’s national hero-turned-maniacal dictator (who remains in power), had become increasingly paranoid about threats from Ethiopia, the country’s former ruler. Since 2000, Afewerki had been expanding the military by forcing all men and women but the severely ill or weak to enlist. By 2007, all strong enough to hold a Kalashnikov were made to serve, usually indefinitely.

In June 2007, Osman had just finished tenth grade when soldiers captured him and dozens of his peers, transporting them to Klima military camp, a three-day truck ride from Osman’s hometown. Osman immediately started plotting his escape. After two weeks, an afternoon sandstorm allowed him to flee unseen.

The next day, patrolling soldiers caught him and sent him back to Klima. As punishment, they put him in an underground prison the size of a walk-in closet with four other deserters. Soldiers beat them daily. “Every prisoner in Eritrea felt these beatings,” Osman later recounted. “It was normal, like breathing.” A month later he signed a paper saying he would never escape again and was released to enjoy the “freedom” of mandatory military training.

Two weeks later Osman ran away for a second time. His goal was home, some 200 miles northwest through the desert. The daytime heat was paralyzing so he travelled mostly at night, while packs of hyenas circled and howled.

On his third night, Osman fell into the crevice and injured his knee. After being rescued by the Rashaida man and spending the night at his family’s camp, another Rashaida gave Osman a ride on camelback to Osman’s hometown.

Osman’s mom cried when he hobbled through the door, having feared she would never see him again. Life became normal again until one evening the following January. Osman was studying with three friends who, like Osman, were members of the minority Saho tribe. Soldiers from the majority Tigrinya tribe arrived and accused Osman and his friends of plotting against the government, a common charge against minorities. The soldiers imprisoned Osman and his friends. Five days later the prison director released Osman with a warning: “We’re watching you.”

Osman knew then that he had to leave the country. “At any time I could be taken. In Eritrea you cannot escape the government; there is a day they will come.”

A week after his release, on February 17, 2008, Osman played a final soccer game with friends. Then he started walking towards Ethiopia. He told no one he was leaving, not even his mother. Twelve hours later he reached the border. Ethiopian soldiers welcomed him and sent him to Shimelba Refugee Camp. Life stagnated for the next two years in the bleak camp, until the possibility of resettlement arrived in 2010.

When I interviewed Osman in Ethiopia he told me a shorter version of his story, enough to satisfy the rote legal questions required by the US government. At the end of our interview we shook hands, and I said I hoped to see him in the US. Osman laughed and replied through the interpreter, “Me, too.”

In 2012 I stopped interviewing refugees in Africa because the lifestyle was grueling. I moved to Oakland, California and started volunteering at a refugee resettlement agency while deciding on my next step.

One day in April I was helping teach English to newly arrived refugees in a windowless basement of a skyscraper in downtown Oakland. Ten minutes into the class, a gaunt latecomer dressed in oversized khakis and a stiff tan baseball cap walked in. His face, angular with delicate features, was familiar.

He sat next to me and I asked where he was from. Eritrea. I asked if he had been in Shimelba Camp in Ethiopia. Yes. Suddenly a smile spread across his thin lips. Was it you there? Before I could respond he added, Yes, it was you! He sputtered words in Saho to himself, then translated for me: This is a dream. I agreed, and we hugged.

Over the next two months Osman told me the story of his flight in detail. We met a dozen times, usually on the grassy shores of Oakland’s Lake Merrit. On rainy days we chose a booth at a nearby bakery. Depending on the setting, spandex-clad joggers or waiters with Hispanic names bustled past us as Osman returned inward to the heat of Danakil, the stench of Shimelba Camp, and other points along his journey.

As with most refugees who arrive in America from isolated camps in Africa, Osman’s first few months in the US were not easy. He was fired for being late to his first job as a liquor store cashier. He learned that he needed to wait at least two years before attending a community college. And he felt the caseworker assigned to help him resettle, an ethnic Tigrinya Eritrean, was intentionally preventing him from accessing food stamps because he was Saho.

One day in late spring, Osman was leaning back in a beige-colored plastic booth at our favorite bakery, venting about this caseworker. A rotating display-case of cakes and a poster of a sunflower framed his face. “For the fourth time she tells me she’s busy and that I should come back tomorrow,” he said. “It’s always tomorrow!” He started speaking in Saho, then translating to English, a sign he’s agitated.

Suddenly he paused, his brow unfurrowing, and laughed. “I’ve made it through the Danakil desert. I survived Rashaida and hyenas! I’ll be OK.”