MAI-AINI, Ethiopia – Alem Teke watched her crops in Eritrea shrivel and die from drought. She braved land mines, escaped being raped by soldiers and saved her children from starvation by fleeing across the border to neighboring Ethiopia.

Teke, a farmer’s wife, made it to the Mai-Aini refugee camp. Like many people fleeing famine that has hit parts of the Horn of Africa, Teke 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 experienced a dearth of rain 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, officials said.

Teke has also taken a dangerous political stand by fleeing to Eritrea’s archenemy, Ethiopia. The two nations severed ties in 2000 after a border war that killed more than 80,000 people.

To return to Eritrea would mean certain punishment. Teke 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.”

Johnnie Carson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said last week that many of the Eritrean refugees crossing 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.

During the past 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 United Nations refugee agency, said the influx of refugees usually slows dramatically during the rainy season, from mid-June to mid-September, because swollen rivers deny access and farmers are busy preparing for the harvest.

But this year, he said, refugees are able to cross the 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 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 past three months and that food prices have spiraled.

Refugees said a goat is now selling for more than $200 and a cow costs nearly $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,” he 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 aid.

Farmer Bereket Zere braved land mines 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.”

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,” Zere said. “If the drought continues, young children and the elderly will be in trouble. There is no escape for them.”