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'I Had To Break Free': Former Child Soldier Tells Her Story

Fiori Giovanni experienced the worst of the world long before her 16th birthday.

Born in Eritrea, a small country in northeast Africa, Giovanni's marriage to a 25-year-old man was arranged when she was just 12.

Having seen her older sister marry and give birth to her first child by the age of 13 -- still a child herself -- Giovanni defied her parents.

"After seeing my sister's torment I basically put an ultimatum to my parents," she told Studio 10 on Friday.

"If I was forced to marry, I would take my own life. And so that worked, they cancelled my wedding."

Now settled in Australia, Giovanni is a successful businesswoman and mother, detailing her journey in her new book Defy Your Destiny.

At the height of 2018's media coverage surrounding "African gang violence", during which Home Affairs Peter Dutton claimed Melburnians were "too scared to leave their homes", she was outspoken in her support of the state's migrant community.

Under the reign of its first and only president Isaias Afwerki -- now in his 26th year of power-- Eritrea is subject to what the Human Rights Watch describes as one of the world's most oppressive governments.

No national elections have been held since 1991, there are no independent media and no nongovernmental organisations are permitted.

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By law, Eritreans must serve a mandatory 18 months in the military from the age of 18. In reality, children are conscripted often long before this and serve indefinitely.

"At the age of 14 I became a child soldier," Giovanni explained.

"We had a summer school training where it became a military training, and where I learnt to fight, shoot and kill in the military."

Eritrean soldiers react on September 11, 2018, in Serha, Eritrea, as two land border crossings between Ethiopia and Eritrea were reopened for the first time in 20 years in Serha. Image: Getty

At 15, Giovanni made the decision to flee, travelling to neighbouring Sudan by bike.

From Sudan, she crossed the desert to Libya before travelling by boat to Italy -- a journey her brother attempted years later, only to be lost at sea -- and was eventually granted asylum in Belgium.

"I felt like I had to break free even if it meant dying in the process."

The harsh conditions of national service in Eritrea remain the biggest driver of migration from the country. The UNHCR estimates in 2016 alone, 52,000 people fled the country.