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“It Is Like Dying Ten Times Daily”

The news spread fast. In a dictatorial regime, where almost anything is out of reach for ordinary citizens, the cheapest commodity is rumor, gossip and chit chats commonly known to Eritreans as bado seleste (03)

The following is a conversation in Libya:

“Abdelaziz was found! And they found  Munir jebrani.”
“Munir who?”
“Are you Sleeping or what! Munir the lawyer, of Tajoura.”
“I see. I heard they found some prisoners deep underground in Bab Al azizya, they say 600 of them, including Haj Khelifa.”
“No way, Haj Khelifa diad long time ago, how can that be?”
“Miracles of Allah, you don’t know…”  

Subsequently the news that some prisoners are found alive in  hidden underground cells after so many years of incarceration when everybody lost hope to see them alive again, was a phenomenal news, especially to a mother. There is no stronger bond in this world than a mother’s love to her child; mothers understand well what I am talking about.

On hearing the astounding news, the eyes of Meriem El-Essawi a 65 years old Libyan who resides in Tripoli, shined. Uncharacteristic of her for a long time, suddenly she was full of energy and vigor.  Neighbors, relatives and some of her children were surprised to see old Meriem in such an uplifted and ecstatic mood. News mixed with rumor told of advancing rebels of the transitional national council (TNC) and local neighborhood vigilantes uncovered an underground prison in the a Tripoli neighborhood of Souq Al-Jouma’a where prisoners who were rotting there for as long as twenty years were found alive! Meriem’s eldest son Abdel Hamid El Essawi, was a twenty-something old student at Al Fateh, a university in Tripoli which was a hotbed of anti Gaddafi movement for quite some time. A number of students were hanged at the gate of the university by Gaddafi’s secret police as a lesson to others while other students simply vanished. No one knew what role Abdel hamid played or how active he was in the student movement, or even if he was interested in politics at all. His mother and those who knew him said that he was a sad person seething with anger about what was taking place in his country.  Then one day in 1987, two Toyota pickup cars parked across the apartment of the El Essawis; three people got out of one of the pickups and went straight to the Essawi’s house. They knocked at the door and when Abdel Hamid’s younger brothers opened the door, the  two men (two beasts!) stormed into the house and grabbed Abdel Hamid who was sitting in the sofa and reading . “Where are you taking him?… what did he do? Please for Allah’s sake…have mercy, his father is sick, can’t you see? We love our leader. Please, I beg…..” The cries of the mother and the bedridden father didn’t move a the soul of the animals who took Abdel Hamid away. The trucks  sped  away and vanished into the nights of Tripoli, never to be heard of or seen again—for over 24 years. Just like that!

Times went by and many things changed, including people. But nothing can alter a mother’s deep affection and memory of her child; Meriem never forgot or gave up on her son. Despite the passing of time and despite he being almost certainty he was not alive after all the years, and despite her children’s insistence to overcome the sadness as it was significantly affecting her health, she never stopped from being optimistic  that someday she will see her son alive. Inshalla one day, she said to the doubters. You can imagine what the news about hundreds of prisoners found alive meant to the poor woman. She pleaded and nagged  Mudaser,  her younger son, to take her to the offices of the TNC and the Libyan Red Crescent in Souq al -Jouma’a. The Essawis lived in the vicinities of Tajoura, around the Libyan capital city and quite far from the stronghold of the TNC. The rebels had just routed the Gaddafi Dogs and there was still some fighting going on. Security was lax and transportation services were negligible; people were still in great fear and anxiety. Despite all that, Meriem and her son began the long trek to the newly liberated areas of Souq al-Joumaa with high spirits, buoyancy and the rarely mood of utter joy eager to see the long lost Abdel Hamid. Mudaser was doubtful and cynical about finding Abdel Hamid alive. Nothing was heard about his elder brother for years. Only few survive and emerge from the hells of Gaddafi’s dungeons after so many years of torture, inhuman treatment and degradations. Mudaser was even told by some high ranking intelligence officer that his brother was likely killed soon after he was taken by the dreaded security police and the revolutionary committees. But he kept it all by himself and expected  a miracle. Besides, who has the nerve to tell a mother of her son’s death?

When Meriem and Mudaser arrived at the compounds of the Libyan Red Crescent, it was full of people from all over the city and surrounding towns. They had come to the compound and offices of the Red Crescent and temporary headquarter of the TNC, to look for lost sons, brothers, cousins, uncles, and other family members. The news credible; the dreaded prison of Abu Salim (Libya’s EraEro) was just stormed by the rebels and many prisoners were freed. Though people were told to wait in an orderly line, many people pushed and shoved to go inside the office to inquire about their loved ones.

Someone emerged from the office crying of Allahu Akbar (God is Great). He said his uncle was found in Abu Salim and is alive! Another shouted, “Rashid Al Kurdi is found! God is my witness I saw him with my own eyes… Another person stepped  out from the building,  knelt down and bowed, “I couldn’t find my brother, maybe he is somewhere maybe I don’t know…” A man tried to reassure him, “don’t give up Jelani brother, they are still finding prisoners everywhere, have you checked in Gargaresh?”

After some shoving and jostling, Meriem and her son entered the offices of the TNC rebels. Three revolutionaries with guns and a bespectacled middle aged man were inside the room with many files and papers. Photos of martyred rebels and slogans were festooned all over the walls: Gaddafi is a dog! A mad one at that! We will avenge the bloods of our martyrs. Long live free Libya! Justice to the patriots of Zawya.  Saif , the hairless rat,we need to talk, but we have to cut your tongue first.

Meriem said, “I am looking for my son, my dear eldest son, the son of the late Essawi mahmoudi, a true Libyan loyalist..” But before she could finish her sentence one of the rebels interrupted and ask her, “What is his name and when did he disappear?”

“ Abdel Hamid Al-Essawi, he was a student at the university, he was taken by Gaddafi’s people on August 14 1987.” Meriem replied, her eyes bulged with hope and anxiety.
“1987?” one of the rebels murmured; he looked so young, he couldn’t have been born in 1987!
“Yes 1987, they took him that year, my son, my pearl…. may Allah make Safia (Gaddafi’s wife) a barren and a widow!” Meriem snapped.
“Dear mother, we are sorry, we don’t have him here, we  have people who have been abducted since the start of the revolution in February…some of them might have been here earlier though, we are dealing mostly with people who abducted since the rebellion, I am sorry we have nothing on people who disappeared in 1987”
Meriem replied in a heartbreaking and wrenching motherly: ”Had he been alive, he would have joined you, he would have revolted and fought alongside you, certainly. God is my witness, he was like you…” Everyone was in tears, even the  hardened rebels! Only the devil and the wicked would not be touched by the painful agony of a mother crying for her child.

Aboy Hadera

One hot afternoon of the year 200 in Asmara, I found Aboy Hadera (true name withheld) in his house bedridden and almost blind. The elderly Eritrean grandfather might have beeen 80 or so years old and in poor health. Alarge extended family lived in the house and children played outside.  Two women were arguing about something: gidefena bejaki hijis abzihkhyo… In a secretive land with no zip codes or other identifiers, and where everyone is suspicions of strangers (understandably so), you have to resort to the method of the Roman times when asking information. That is what I and my friend did: ”Enda aboy Hadera delina nerna abbey iyu gezo’om.” (we are looking for Mister Hadera’s  house which one  is it..?) A mistrustful woman with a piercing eyes replied,”Aboy Hadera? Bidehan dikhum?”(Mister Hadera? What it is for?)
“Ay bidehan iyu  beteseb ina (It is ok we are family), we replied. After a long pause and examining us from top to bottom with her sharp owlish  eyes, the old woman reluctantly showed us the house and said in a low voice: “abti inhelkum keyih kanshelo.”( that is the house with the red painted gate.) I didn’t know the family of Aboy Hadera and never met them before. My friend, who is still in Eritrea, thought his story would be good for my newspaper or to be reported to human rights organizations in the then naïve hope of someway assisting the tormented family. 

Aboy Hadera’ son returned from Sudan to visit his ailing father. We were told he had been in the Sudan and the Middle East for quite some time. He was a member of the ELF, an Eritrean opposition group. Like many young Eritreans of the 70’s, he joined the liberation fronts and after the ELF was disbanded, he stayed in Sudan. According to the information I had, he was a low ranking member of the ELF and many people haven’t heard his name. Outside of his family and some close friends, few knew him as a person, let alone as an opposition figure or a known dissident. But the EPLF gangs were monitoring his activities and that of thousands of Eritreans all the time. Just like the Stasis of East Germany, they have files and dossiers, full of names and activities of Eritreans, from well known business men in the United Arab Emirates, to simple hot-dog vendors in the states, and many other gullible citizens. Temelso (name withheld), Aboy Hadera’s son contacted the Eritrean embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, to get passport and permission to go to Eritrea to visit his ill father whom he didn’t see for a long time and who now was confined to bed  on the verge of death. I am sure he knew the looming danger of entering into the jackal’s land, but I think a son’s love and longing for his father overcome all that and prevented him from understanding the reality of life in Isias’s Eritrea.

According to the family, after three days or so in Asmara, Temelso went to visit a relative in the outside Asmara. Alas!  He never come back, and after that, no one saw him or even bragged about seeing him as is sometimes the case. I vividly remember the family’s fright and uneasiness when they talked to us. Though my friend was a close relative of the family, they were still hesitant to talk openly or  in detail of their ill-fated circumstances. They were reluctant to even talk about their son and brother and his disappearances. In a fascist state like Eritrea, you don’t know who is who and people are well accustomed and have mastered the art of suffering silently. All they said was, “dehan iyu dehan alena yimesgeno dehan iyu kulu dehan alo tsibuk alena sala mengistna mengisti yiaser yifetih izi zelo iyu ….kemelekhum ke zom deqey. “

The brutality and inhumanity of the PFDJ regime is so gigantic and ever present, and as a result, panic is deeply entrenched in every Eritrean’s psyche that in a very perverse way, Eritreans are unwittingly turned into comedians.  From the small child to the adult government employees, people live and survive by pretension and faking everything:  from simple emotions of love and affection to how they feel about their nation. One has to read upside down just to have a glimpse of what is going on. Just imagine asking a friend about his health and he repliesd that it looks like it is going to rain. You  would think that he is insane or something is wrong with him.  Not in Eritrea, the land of the largest number of unconscious, unpaid, untrained born again comedians.

Though it is saddly a corrupt way of existence, that is how Eritreans live in one of the worst regimes in the planet. That is why the families of Aboy Hadera replied in a cynical, almost sarcastic way about the disappearance of their son: kulu tsibuk alo dehan alena ‘mesgeno  sala mengistna hanti aygodelenan. mengisti yiaser yifetih.  kemelekhum ke izom dekey? abey adikha  izi wedey? Amleset shahi iski nezom agayish.

Tenth Anniversary: September 18, 2011

Esteemed readers, the 10th anniversary of the arrest and subsequent disappearance of prominent Eritrean dissidents, politicians, journalists, religious leaders, and others is a few days away. September 18 is a day of infamy for Eritreans all over the world. Even though the arrest of the journalists and other prominent figures on September 18 2001, is a well known and well reported event that unveiled the real nature of the terrorist regime in Asmara, for countless Eritreans, Sep 18 is just another day or another episode of life of slavery and evilness under the gruesome regime of the Shaebia republic. From its inception in early 70’s to this very day, inestimable umber of Eritreans have been kidnapped, snatched, thrown into the hundreds of jails all over the land, made to rot in prison without a day in court and died a terrible death. well-known Muslim religious leaders and simple adherents, pastors and priests of several denominations, sizeable number of Jehovah’s Witnesses, highly regarded businessmen, teachers, scholars, tribal leaders, trade union advocates, people who have been employed by former Ethiopian administrations, members or suspected members of opposition groups, even Ethiopian, Sudanese, Somali and other exiled politicians have been disappearing in thin air every day! The list of Eritrea’s disappeared, vanished, jailed, tortured, executed, dumped, thrown into pits, those of men and women who are languishing in dungeons   without a single day in a court and whose whereabouts are unknown  henceforth, is quite so long and enormous, it needs a department with full time employees  just to compile and prepare a somehow  a satisfactory list, though the full scale of the horror might not be known in the foreseeable future.

 Like many people in the world, we Eritreans are guilty of short memory. Let alone remembering the victims of the EPLF gangs of the 80s or 90s ,we in the Diaspora didn’t  accomplish adequate job in publicizing, advocating, organizing, lobbying, disseminating information and news to government and non governmental agencies all over the world, or in helping the families of the jailed or disappeared Eritrean patriots and other tasks. It is undeniable fact that many courageous  and devoted Eritreans did and are still doing a commendable  and exemplary job in this matter. From the individual endeavors of the Swedish/Eritrean parliamentarian Mister Mussie Ephrem, to civic and trade organizations like the AEJE (Association of Eritrean Journalists in exile),ELS (Eritrean Law society),EYGM (Eritrean youth global movement), EGS (Eritrean global solidarity), Eritrean human rights advocacy group (EHRAG),  a highly laudable work in this regard by Aida Kidane, a magnificent work of alerting and informing the world about the plight of Eritrean prisoners and those of the disappeared ones  by  Eritrean websites, especially www.awate.com and www.assenna.com  and others are doing a praiseworthy and historical work in this unending saga and painful dilemma of Eritrean political and other prisoners, and the thousands of other missing persons (dehay zeyblom). Though the international community and other non-Eritrean personalities and agencies’ action in this most tragic events of our time is inadequate and quite embarrassing to say the least, there are some  steadfast friends and firm allies ; friends of Eritrean victims and unyielding campaigners against  the criminal and genocidal Eritrean regime, that deserves to be mentioned here.

 The Paris based Reporters Sans Frontiers (RSF) is a leading force among international actors in campaigning and fighting for the release and justice to Eritrea’s prisoners, especially independent and other media Journalists. RSF and particularly its highly dedicated African affairs staff have been determined and strong willed friends of Eritrean journalists and the right of freedom of expression from day one of the current regime in Asmara. It was RSF and its former energetic and passionate African desk head and Eritrophile Leonard Vincent that did a tremendous amount of job in publicizing and informing the world about all kinds of threat, harassment, arrest and forceful induction into the army of Eritrean journalists by the Eritrean government from the beginning, (long before Eraero and adiabeto!) and at a time when few people even heard the name Eritrea itself. From the first closure of the Catholic based paper(brhan) to the earliest  arrest of a journalist after independence, that of Miss Ruth Simon of AFP, RSF did  a highly creditable and extraordinary job in exposing the real anti-Freedom of expression, anti- press  and the overall intolerant nature of the Eritrean regime. (In a  time when the Western media and institutions were calling the Eritrean regime’s , Isaias Afewerki  one of  Africa’s  renaissance leaders,    a George Washington , or a Mandela,  when he was one of  the greatest jailer of journalists in the world. RSF was almost alone for long time among international  organizations that begun to understand  early on, and alert the world about the looming danger facing the media and journalists in Eritrea. T

he current chief of RSF African affairs Ambroise Pierre, though young and never experienced life under despotic systems, he and his small team of avid supporters of journalists and freedom of expression are doing a superb job in this fight for justice and right of Eritrean journalist and the media in general.  From speaking to the big medias like the BBC and Al Jezeera to speaking to the powers that be, like the EU and the UN, monsieur Ambrose and RSF did a fantastic job in defending, advocating and fighting for justice for the otherwise forgotten Eritrean journalists and in divulging the true horror stories from inside Eritrea and the heartbreaking calamites that befell on Eritrean journalists and other media personalities. The recently inaugurated Radio Erena is a prime example of this. The American Author, journalist, freelancer and time tested friend of Eritrea, the respected Mr. Dan Connell  (a.k.a wedi konel) also deserves a special recognition. After realizing the true nature of the PFDJ ‘s delusional  and callous administration, Mr. Connell daringly  switched sides and stood for human rights, democracy, release of prisoners and dignity for the Eritrean people. From his revelatory  and shocking  book on Eritrea’s political prisoners, to his tireless effort in teaching, giving seminars and lectures, writing in topics regarding Eritrea and its unfortunate and painful history, Mr. Connell has been one of the handful and dwindling number of Westerners who are truly and keenly true to Eritrea and Eritreans.

The Hampering Factors

The efforts mentioned above, and efforts (fights) are severely hampered by a number of factors: lack of a unified and a strong opposition; shortage of funds and other resources to fully engage in this venture; the culture of secrecy and the fear of many Eritreans in discussing or disclosing information about arrested or killed family member; the fact that many Eritreans, especially the youth are not interested in engagement and their unwillingness to talk about it (bejakha chinqi ayfetun ‘ye gidefena ‘ski!)  Also, the lukewarm interest of the international community and the media coupled with the brutal day to day struggle for survival of many Eritreans exiles in the West, add to that the lack of a strong ally or a single friend of Eritreans from within the US Senate to the German parliament and other world bodies, are some of the factors that are hampering the divulging the full horror stories of Eritrean prisoners. This is hindering the confrontation against the Nazi-like regime head-on for its  appalling crimes against humanity .

As I tried to state earlier, the colossal crimes of the Higdef administration didn’t begin on September 18, 2001 nor will it end any time soon, save for the inevitable demise of the regime and the dawning of a  free, democratic Eritrea. Long before Sep 18, and even before some those reading this article were born, from the very beginning of its foundation, the EPLF/PFDJ killing-machine was in full gear. Some of the arrested, the disappeared, the departed or those held incommunicado are well known many are advocating for their release. But  there are thousands of less known, unfamiliar and nameless Eritrean prisoners fading away slowly in the  nightmarish penal colonies and  mind boggling torture chambers all over Eritrea. Have you ever heard of Yirgalem Fisseha, a female journalist for the government radio? Who knows Tedros Debesay, an engineer taken away from his workplace never to be seen again? What happened to Ustaz Humed (himed?) of Barka,  who was snatched in the middle of the night from Aqordat? What about thousands of Kunamas and other ethnic Eritreans rotting in notorious prisons all over Eritrea, from Karsheli to Track B, Zara to Maareb’a? What happened to the former Eritrean air force chief B. General Habtezion Hadgu? Did anyone heard of Ansara Abdella, a butcher from Keren, unheard of since over a decade? What happened to the mayor or administrator of Faulina in Gash Barka? Do you know or have you heard about Mulubrhan Habtegebriel, a journalist who disappeared long ago? I am not sure.

When I was sent to Track B prison with a journalist from Tsigenay news paper some times in 1999, I found all kinds of prisoners deep underground , the faces of some of them were ashen from lack of exposure to sunshine and  from living in the dark a long time. Some, I found out were just suspected of  being Muslim fanatics, others were accused of being pro-Ethiopia or Weyane sympathizers (there was a person from Ghindaa whose name I forgot); he was accused by his battalion commander for not firing all the his bullets during the war with Ethiopia. They had found his mother was Ethiopian, but the fact that he had never been to Ethiopia and that his mother had died when he was 5 years old didn’t matter at all in the eyes of the regime’s officials. One spiteful battalion commander who had had an issue with the person, just charged him of being pro-Weyane and he was condemned to crumble without a minute of seeing the light! There was also a teacher, accused by a co-worker for secretly contacting the opposition groups outside Eritrea. There were all kinds of prisoners in the jails I knew and saw, and imagine life in the more secretive and the more dreadful prisons? There is no way of explaining the living horror and bizarre daily torment of Eritreans which has a few analogous and comparisons in history.

A few years ago, credible news and human rights organizations reported that there are at least some twohundred or so prisons and concentration camps in Eritrea. For a nation of 4 to 5 million people, I think Eritrea has one of the highest number of prisoners per capita in the world. With the collapse of the Libyan regime, the Mugabe government of Zimbabwe which seems will be overthrown soon, and the advent of freedom and human rights in the Middle East and elsewhere, the last two remaining ruthless and barbaric regimes in this century will be Eritrea and North Korea. That is the reason they nicknamed the terrorist regime in Asmara,  Africa’s North Korea.

As we approach the 10th anniversary on September 18, we have to make an oath and an allegiance (with our selves) not to forget or give up on Eritrean prisoners, our compatriots whose wherea about is unknown to this day. The most terrible punishment for a prisoner is, the sense and the feeling of being abandoned or forgotten by his friends and the outside world. This is worse than any punishment, be it  confinement or other sentences. Those of you who been jailed (God Forbid!) know very well that the best and happiest time for a prisoner is the rare visitation time. It is the feeling and knowing that someone outside the prison walls really cares. So let’s keep the hope and the torch of liberty alive.

To the families and friends of the imprisoned and missing for long, the pain is indescribable in this small article. Let alone this humble writer with limited capability and experience, even a seasoned or a Nobel Laureate author, couldn’t explain well the excruciating  and nerve-racking suffering of the families of the victims. Can you imagine or visualize how a mother, a father, a wife a brother a sister ,a son or a daughter feels everyday and every minute remembering their long lost loved ones? Where is he? Is he dead? By now, for sure he must be. Or, no he is alive. Would he look different by now? He must be alive somewhere….I saw him in my dreams! That is a nightmare and horrendous trial without a closure.

Back to Libya now.

Omar Al Wahil, was looking for his lost son, a police officer under Gaddafi who has disappeared since a long time. He was asking and moving from one office to another in Tripoli’s ransacked offices of the internal security. “Do you know anything about my son, the police officer named Mansour Omar Al Wahil? He was tall, he had a scar in left eye; his wife didn’t have the energy to go outside in a chaotic time to the streets of Tripoli and is staying home crying all day. Omar Al Wahil, the father of the young disappeared Libyan prisoner said, “Not knowing is like having him die ten times a day. It is okay if he is a martyr. We just need to know.”

May the Almighty grant the families of Eritrean prisoners and the missing, abundant energy and plethora of comfort to overcome these deeply painful, soul shredding hardships and personal traumas. May your and our ordeal be over soon!

Amen! Stay tuned and stay strong!

About Milkias Mehreteab Yohannes

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  • I have a problem in understanding the answer for the question Why some bold men try to convince the dectator and change the party like PFDJ to be democratic. I couldn’t answer since the begining. but I am happy to see that the day has come people already understand PFDJ is not a party to be changed or modified but only to be cleaned and cleared from the root. And PFDJ/EPLF is supposed to be out of politcs from the first day not before 20,10,5,1 year or at this hour but since the first day Issays came to the field. let me say “it is better late than never”

  • Thank you Milkias for yet another excellent article! Your statement that “the EPLF/PFDJ killing-machine was in full gear ” ..”from the very beginning of its foundation” and that September 2001 was just another day in the long history of dictatorship in Eritrea is a very important point to underscore because it is often glossed over. While many Eritreans were perishing in various places across Eritrea, some were enjoying certain privileges under the regime that blinded them to the suffering of others. As is often the case, “the plight of the unfortunate is invisible to the privileged”.

    But if we are to understand the true nature of the beast we are facing and if we are to effectively uproot it once and for all, it is essential that we acknowledge that EPLF/PFDJ is not an entity that suddenly metamorphosed into a demonic being in 2000’s but was so from “its foundation” as you aptly put it. The G-15 and G-13’s would not be so easily outwitted by the dictator if they had such an insight, . I am not against the G-15s or G-13’s by the way. In fact, I have publicly supported them when they first appeared and even warned them openly against meeting the dictator or begging him for anything. Regrettably even after what they went through, they still display inexplicable political naiveté (or is it obdurate disregard for truth? – I don’t know) about the entire affair as would make the angels weep!

    I better stop here before I turn this comment into an article. Keep it up Milkias! With the 9/18 anniversary approaching, I am glad you brought this issue to the fore.

    Ismail (pointblank)