A strange thing happened recently on the long and twisting refugee trail to America.
More than 4,000 war-displaced pastoralists belonging to Eritrea’s Kunama tribe, some of them languishing in this malarial holding camp for years, received a golden offer that the world’s 9 million other refugees only dream of: free resettlement in the land of riches and liberty, the United States. Yet, to the bewilderment of aid workers, the overwhelming majority of Kunamas answered with a resounding, “No thanks.”
“People don’t want to be sold as slaves in America,” refugee Dawit Feliche, 30, explained matter-of-factly in his dank camp hut. Sensing skepticism, he added gravely, “And they don’t want to be killed by your police.”
In one of the more surreal cases of a liberation movement intimidating refugees, the insurgents—a tiny Eritrean group that depends on the camp for recruits and war taxes—have been replaying old episodes of “Roots,” the 1970s miniseries about the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, to convince Kunamas that whipping posts and shackles await them in America.
The name of Kunta Kinte, the series’ hapless 18th- century protagonist, was on many refugees’ lips during a recent visit to the remote camp. So were anxious questions about the ultraviolent cop shows that rebels were screening to impress the tribe with U.S. police brutality.
The result: By last week, barely 700 Kunamas, a disappointing fraction of the thousands of grizzled herders who have fled persecution in neighboring Eritrea, were packing up their sandals and flying off to new lives in U.S. towns and cities.
And, for many Kunamas, tragic. Most of the refugees duped by the rebels’ Hollywood fare won’t get a second chance to seek haven in the United States, immigration experts said.
“We got our first surprise when three-quarters of the eligible Kunamas didn’t even apply,” marveled a U.N. refugee worker. “We had people walking 50 kilometers [31 miles] to tell us they didn’t want to go to America.”
In separate interviews, more than a half-dozen frightened Kunamas detailed a crude but effective intimidation campaign being waged against U.S. resettlement by the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of the Eritrean Kunama, an obscure rebel group opposing the rule of Eritrea.