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Devotion quotient

"Devotion quotient" Continued...

Issue: "Terri Schiavo: In memoriam," April 9, 2005

When Ethiopia annexed Eritrea in 1962, Eritrean guerrillas fought back for the next 30 years. While Ethiopia received Soviet weapons and backing, the Eritreans had to go it alone; they scavenged arms from Ethiopian soldiers on the battlefield and survived on the individual contributions of Eritreans around the world. With its borders and sovereignty still vulnerable, Eritrean leaders stake the country's survival on unwavering loyalty to the state.

The government requires men and women ages 18 to 40 to undergo six months of military training and a year of national service. With the last border war with Ethiopia (1998-2000), demands grew. Youths who went into the military "never came out," Mr. Ghebre-Ab said. The army swelled to 300,000, almost a tenth of the population. The stringent life prompted many to turn to religion, creating a Christian revival of sorts. But the government tolerates faith even less in the barracks than in homes.

"I think the ruling party really sees that as a great threat-young people over whose minds they have no kind of control," Mr. Ghebre-Ab said. "The 100 percent allegiance of young people is most important."

"What about the ones who lost their lives?" said Sarah Gebremicael, an 11-year guerrilla war veteran whose brother and sister died fighting in the war. "It was not for this they lost their lives. How many friends, classmates, neighbors have been lost?"

Ms. Gebremicael, who now lives in the Washington area, is active in the U.S. Eritrean evangelical community. During the independence war, one-third of Eritrean forces were women, and she was one of them. "Eritrean Christians don't have a problem being Christian (brothers) with everyone, even Ethiopians," she said. The authorities "don't like that. They want Eritreans to remain Eritreans."

Eritreans resent the strong-arm tactics of President Isaias Afewerki and his administration. His government refuses to implement a 1997 constitution that guarantees freedom of religion and other democratic rights. Prominent politicians who challenge the party line are jailed. Privately owned newspapers are forced to close. For many now, the sacrifice for independence has yielded only more authoritarianism.

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