MAI-AINI, Ethiopia -- Alem Teke watched her crops in Eritrea shrivel and die from drought. She braved landmines and escaped being raped by soldiers to save her children from starvation by fleeing across the border to a refugee camp in neighboring Ethiopia.
Alem, a farmer's wife, made it to the Mai-Aini refugee camp in Ethiopia. She was more fortunate than some of her friends who were raped. Like many people fleeing famine that has hit parts of the Horn of Africa, Alem has overcome the odds to escape hunger, but as the world focuses on famine in Somalia, Eritrea suffers in silence.
Eritrea, a nation of 5 million people that borders Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti, has also seen failed rains and widespread food shortages. But its autocratic government, which faces international sanctions, refuses to acknowledge a drought has swept its territory. Satellite images show that the Red Sea nation has been hit by drought conditions similar to those in Somalia, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
Nearly 1,000 Eritreans arrived at a refugee camp in northern Ethiopia in July alone, officials said.
Alem has also taken a dangerous political stand by fleeing to Eritrea's archenemy, Ethiopia. The two nations severed ties in 2000 after a brutal border war that killed more than 80,000 people.
To return to Eritrea would mean certain punishment. Alem said government officials took away the lion's share of last year's harvest. She said they promised to pay but didn't and she couldn't feed her five children anymore.
"It was a matter of life and death," said the 40-year-old. "The government bleeds us farmers dry to feed the army. My husband is enlisted and I haven't heard from him in years. I couldn't wait any longer, not while my children were starving."
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs, Johnnie Carson, said last week that many of the Eritrean refugees crossing borders into Sudan and Ethiopia suffer from malnutrition. He urged the reclusive Eritrean regime, led by longtime President Isaias Afwerki, to address the hunger and work with humanitarian organizations to prevent catastrophe.
Over the last few years, more than 48,000 Eritreans – most of them young, educated men or soldiers who have deserted the army – have fled to Ethiopia. Some 1,000 Eritreans risk death each month by crossing the border. Among the refugees are large numbers of children sent by their parents to escape future military service.
Simon Girmaw, a protection officer for the U.N. refugee agency, said the influx of refugees usually slows dramatically during the rainy season, from mid-June to mid-September, because flowing rivers deny access and farmers are busy preparing for the harvest.
But this year, he said, refugees are able to cross the ankle-deep or dry rivers by foot at most places. And many farmers aren't waiting for rains to come this year. Berhane Hailu, who screens refugees for Ethiopia's refugee agency, said an increasing number of Eritreans mention lack of food as their reason for fleeing.
One of the refugees, who said he was a statistician at the country's agriculture ministry, said the nation's food supplies are exhausted. He asked to remain anonymous for fear his family would face reprisals – other refugees have cited examples of their families being fined or jailed after their flight – as he painted a picture of spiraling problems in the pariah nation.
The statistician said the government has now rationed each family to only 22 pounds (10 kilograms) of grain each month. He said authorities have run out of stock and are trying to import wheat from Sudan, paying with mining revenues, Eritrea's only source of income besides remittances from Eritreans living abroad.
Refugees from southern Eritrea said their families haven't been able to buy food from the government for the last three months and that food prices have spiraled.
Refugees said a goat is now selling for more than $200 and a cow nearly costs $1,000. Soldiers are paid about $30 a month.
And, the statistician said, rains have failed.
"If the rains continue to fail, large parts of the country could be hungry in October, when farmers are supposed to harvest most of the staple crops," the statistician said.
On top of those problems, the country doesn't receive foreign aid and is sanctioned by the U.N. because of human rights violations. It is also believed to support extremist groups, including Somalia's top militant group, the al-Qaida-linked al-Shabab.
The U.N. World Food Program says it hasn't distributed any food in Eritrea since 2005, nor has it received requests for food assistance.
Farmer Bereket Zere braved landmines to walk for days across the border to Ethiopia.
If he returns, he faces certain punishment for skirting the military service that is required of all men and women.
"I realized there's no use in staying," said the 21-year-old. "I was waiting to be enlisted in the army, there was no work, and, even if rains come, there will be hardly any harvest this year."
Another refugee, teacher Gebrehiwot Zere, said the food problems were the last straw for him. He said he was already exhausted by economic hardship and the country's authoritarianism before he decided to take the journey that requires traveling by night, hiding in bushes during daytime, and creeping through hostile areas where soldiers have been instructed to shoot at anything that runs.
Some refugees have described crossing one of the minefields near the border, where the soldiers don't patrol, as the safest option.
"That's why most who make it are young and strong," Gebrehiwot said. "If the drought continues, young children and elderly will be in trouble: There is no escape for them."