A Muslim flees discrimination, treks across the Balkans

Harassed and threatened for practicing his religion, Islam, Mussa fled to Sudan, flew to Turkey, caught a boat to Greece, and walked through the Balkans.


ZURICH—Mussa is a Saho Muslim from southeastern Eritrea. He left Eritrea in 2006 spent close to four years in Sudan and another year in a Greek prison before trekking across the Balkans to get to Switzerland, his final destination.

Mussa grew up in the Red Sea port of Assab where all his teachers were Tigrinya-speaking conscripts from the national service who seemed uninterested in teaching and ill-trained to do it. Most of the students, Saho and Afar speakers whose second language was Arabic, could not understand what they said in the classroom, causing many, like Mussa, to fall behind. Once they did, they became liable for call-up to national service themselves on the grounds their were overage for school.

He said all government offices were staffed by Tigrinya speakers who required Sahos and Afars to bring translators with them to do business. This was the backdrop for a series of protests by Saho and Afar elders against new government regulations that limited their fishing rights and required them to pay new fees and taxes on all economic activity, as tensions between the Tigrinya administrators and the general population there intensified in the middle of the 2000s.

In June 2005, Mussa was called for national service, along with others his age (he was 15 at the time). Two buses were sent to Assab to pick them up. “I was very young then,” he said, adding that he had never been away from home before. “The first day I was at Sawa I got surprised and I cried. It was so different. I don’t have any idea how the military works, when to sit, when to stand, what to do. Whenever you made a small mistake, they beat you with plastic hoses. There was no mercy, not anything.

“Sometimes when you made a mistake, the commander makes an appointment to meet him at 12 o’clock. When you come, he tells you to lie down on the ground without letting you speak or explain. Maybe you stay 20 or 30 minutes in the sun when it is 30˚ or 40˚. Then he calls to you: ‘Do you regret your mistake?’

“But sometimes I don’t understand my mistake, and I ask him what I did. Then he pours water on me and leaves me for another 30 minutes. At last I learned to say nothing, and he let me go. These things became normal for us—often hitting us with sticks or plastic tubes or slapping us. One time he head-butted me.”

At one point Mussa heard that three of his friends, also members of ethnic and religious minorities, were planning to go to Sudan. He was afraid for them, he said, and he urged them not to go. He later heard that one had made it but two others were shot, one at the border.

Meanwhile, the incident triggered a wave of harassment of Muslim conscripts, which came to a head on one of the holiest days on the Muslim calendar, the Eid al Fatr, when a group of them tried to pray and were caught. (They had already been told they would be arrested if they tried to fast during the month of Ramadan.)

“A group of us gathered to pray secretly,” he said. “I don’t know why they are so afraid. We got in lines of about ten and said ‘Allah ou Aqbar [God is great]’ for not more than three minutes. But when we stood up, we were surrounded by soldiers with their guns.

“I thought they were guarding us, but when we finished, one leader came and told us to lie on the ground. Three of us tried to talk with him, but he refused. When some of the youths refused to lie down and began to protest, the soldiers were shooting in the air. Some tried to run but all were caught and forced to lie down. About ten people were beaten very badly and taken away; the rest of us were marched to a local prison with only one small window. Inside, it was all dark, but we stayed there through the night with no food, nothing.

“On the third day, they came and asked if we would try to pray or not. Two said they would pray and were taken away to an unknown place. After a week, the rest were let out when we said we wouldn’t pray.

“Then a leader came, a Tigrinya, and said, ‘I hate you Muslims—I don’t ever want to see you again.’”

At the end of his training, Mussa was posted to an army unit where the commander took out a file on the first day and recited the “mistakes” he had made at Sawa, adding: “If you pray here, I will disappear you.”

“From that moment, I know this is not my country,” said Mussa.

On his first escape attempt, he was caught and left tied up and lying in the hot sun for more days than he can remember. Upon his release, he was returned to his post as a border guard. At the end of 2006, he tried again and made it to Kassala, walking by himself and passing himself off to people he met on the way as another nomad.

He immediately contacted his family, who sent money to get him to Khartoum where he stayed three-and-a-half years, working in a small restaurant and tea shop and tutoring children in English. In 2010, he called his family again and asked help to get to Europe. They phoned a relative in Australia who contributed funds to purchase him a green passport—he is not sure what country it came from—and an air ticket to Turkey. A smuggler escorted him to the airport on the day of his departure and filled out his exit forms. When he arrived in Ankara, he was met at the gate and taken to a private home to spend the night. The next day he was put on a small boat with a mixed group of Africans and Arabs and taken across a small stretch of water to Greece where he spent several days in a camp before being released and put on a bus to Athens.

Upon arrival in the Greek capital, Mussa called a number he’d been given for a place to stay but was otherwise on his own. He spent two years there, taking odd jobs and struggling to survive but never able to save enough to improve his situation or move on from there. Smugglers wanted €3,000 to take him to Italy, but he had run out of funds and could get no more from his family. Then in 2012, he was caught in a round-up of refugees and migrants and put in a Greek prison for nine months. On his release, he was given a travel paper and told to leave the country.

Near the end of that year, he joined a Sudanese friend on a low-cost journey through the Balkans with 20-30 others of mixed nationalities. They went by bus from Athens to Salonica and then by foot to Macedonia on a two-and-a-half-day trek. Another smuggler led them on foot into Serbia where they rested in a camp for asylum seekers near Belgrade before going another 170 kilometres to a small city in northern Serbia. They stayed there a month during which Mussa again called his family for help. This time, they contacted a relative in Saudi Arabia who wired him money for the rest of the trip, which took him to Hungary on foot and then by car across Austria to Italy and finally Switzerland, to which he said he was attracted because he had heard “they give you an opportunity to learn.”

Today, Mussa is studying German and hoping to find skilled work, but he said he would go home if there were a change “that gives justice to all people, not just one nationality [ethnic group].”

“I don’t think there’s a person anywhere who hates his homeland,” he added, saying he would wait a year after a change to see how enduring it was and then go back.