Eritrea: Over 10, 000 Prisoners of Conscience

Ours is not a tragedy; tragedy has some ingredients of chivalry and integrity. Ours is a farce directed by us on us; a cheap drama aimed for prurient, sensory gratification, blithely forgetful of a sense of history and destiny. Willfully employing cynical manipulation of facts, devoid of central moral core, devoid of the organic nature of cause, we ended up becoming masters of self-sabotage and self-deception.

In the summer of 2001, public unrest and vocal opposition to the rule of Isaias Afwerki reached at its peak. The private papers opened their forum to the public for the first time in post-independence Eritrea. It was a brief renaissance. In September 18, 2001, (just 7 days after 9/11), while the world’s eyes were fixed on New York, Eritrea’s tyrant made his move. He closed the papers, jailed political dissidents and activists. After that, the constitution was never mentioned. Eritrea’s leader announced indefinite period of conscription for everybody above the age of 18. All calls and petitions from international human rights organizations fell on deaf ears.  September 18, thus, marked the turning point in Eritrean contemporary history– for the worse.  For those of us who want to be on the right side of history, who chose to struggle on the side of justice, that day tells us how long the struggle has been; how hard it is..and how important it is. “Arc of history is long but it bends towards justice,”  said M.L. King.

Remembering Amanuel Asrat and private press

“I fear the newspapers more than a hundred thousand bayonets,” Bonaparte said.  In my feeble attempt at activism, I have participated in letter-writing in (with the) local Amnesty International chapter. We write letters to political prisoners and their families. It is a cathartic and meaningful exercise. I tell myself without discounting the courage of the prisoners and activists, at least these are visited by Red Cross and their whereabouts are known. Then I remember my friends, like Amanuel Asrat. What about when no one knows of those who are incarcerated?

Amanuel Asrat was one of the finest poets of our generation. He was the chief editor of Zemen newspaper where I worked at. I had the honor of knowing him and his family. He was a gentle, intelligent soul and a creative force. He, along with other journalists, was made to disappear in Era-iro gulags in September 2001.

Amanuel means “God is with us.” I don’t know about that. But I believe so. I want to believe so. I am sure Amanuel, the person, is not with us. Asrat, his last name, means “tithing”– the one-tenth contribution given to Higher Being. Is Amanuel, the person, a tithe given to Higher Cause, to Justice, to Eritrea, to Liberty? I don’t know. I deeply hope he will survive. I deeply hope his suffering and the suffering of others is not without honor, without future.

The dour, sad facts are unrelenting, uncompromising. Today, Eritrea suffers, among other myriad ailments, from a total news blackout. Only government media is allowed to operate under strict monitoring and supervision. More than 90% of the exiled journalists worked in government media or, rather, couldn’t work in government media. In the past 12 years, the only way Eritreans could learn about what is going inside the country is to sneak into the slow and heavily monitored internet cafés and read what is written about their nation from foreign-based media. How many persecutions, wrong policy decisions, disappearances, corruptions, happened but were never known to the public? In the one-party, no elected body, no constitution regime; in a land where absolute dictatorship reigned, I will leave it up to your imagination, (if we can imagine it) the multitudes of transgressions and the sheer weight of the sufferings that remain untold, unheralded, unaddressed because there is no free journalist to report and no free press to publish the stories.

For me, the worst part of PFDJ is its nasty habit of imprisoning citizens and disappearing them without trace. That extra-cruelty, when a less invasive action could sufficiently do the job, is something that I will never, ever, never understand. If I were ever to ask Isaias Afwerki a question, I would ask him simply ‘why?’ Why jail people and make them disappear for simply being at the wrong time or place, for just believing in what you told them to believe–for example, the Eritrean constitution? (It’s not like the Bretton-Woods, SAP; after all ‘it is made by PFDJ.’ ) The Private Papers case of 2001 could have been handled by just revoking their license. The journalists would report back to their ‘ahadu’, their units. All of them were in the national service. What would be the worst that could happen? Leave the nation? There are more journalists in exile than in Ella-Iro. What did we do? Practically, we joined the ranks and file of Eritrean refugees, with occasional commemoration to palliate the guilt. But jailing and disappearing 10 of them only exposed the cruelty, the irrationality of the regime, bringing unending pain and trauma for their families. Yosief Ghebrehiwet (YG) had expertly put this extra-mile act of cruelty as the hallmark of PFDJ. What about the G-15? People who made history with the leader as close friends for 35 years? Do they deserve to rot and die in hell? Why not release them in their twilight years for old-times-sake? If you are afraid that they will leave the nation and start opposition in Diaspora, do that by all means: read Mesfin Hagos, Ali Abdu, Adhanom G. Mariam, Abdella Adem, Paulos Tesfagiorgis, Haile Menkorios…etc.

I digressed.

Xibukat ZenaB’l, Kolkeyna..!

I hate jails and disappearances. I hate jails. If childhood trauma has correlation or even causality, allow me to tell you what happened to my family in 1980s. I never mentioned it before.  In mid 80s, I was ten years old and my mother was put in jail. My mother, at that time a mother of 6 (including an infant of 18 months old who was taken with her), was snatched from home, Edagahamus neighborhood of Asmara and was taken first to Gibbi and then to Hazhaz. It was found out that she was a member of a cell that was collecting and sending money to the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF.) One arrest led to another; then my mother. Suddenly, we were motherless. It was bleak times. I remember relatives tending to us; my father (may he rest in peace) tirelessly juggling roles. The most distinct memory I retain is him dressing us in ‘Saryans’, wearing ‘nay chipolini koyo’ looking presentable in the presence of Dergue officials, like Tefera Wendie, in the hope of evoking their sympathies and releasing our mother. That was the first time I have ever been to the infamous ‘Teklay Gizat’, later the seat of the current Eritrean leader. I wonder: do families dress their kids to plead with the Eritrean leaders? What would it be? I think ‘Saryan’ is out; so are the fancier suit, with fancier shoes. What kind of shoes? These days, sneakers are quite common; kids now in weddings, dress up well, contrasted well with their bored and somebody-please-get-me-outta-this look. They also wear a tie; white-shirt, black bow ties, or rather, are put on them. Maybe we should send money for families with incarcerated loved ones to buy these clothes, or send them these outfits en masse; suits, sneakers, and clip-on bow-tie, necktie. Should we form an organization, a civic group to collect clothing? I suggest Europe could be ideal center for this campaign.

Did Tefera Wendie notice us? Did anyone who has a seat in that building from Martini to Isayas ever notice Eritreans pleading?

When my mother was sentenced to some years jail time, which she didn’t finish, she was transferred to Hazhaz, women’s prison center. It was close to home and I usually passed by, to check if I can spot her somewhere from the backyard, either from Adi Sihel side or from the hospital side. We were allowed to see her every Thursday; and we never missed it. Usually we cried; she cried most. We consoled each other; we prayed. Once while waiting to see her, I couldn’t help my temptation to follow a little bird, that deceptively appeared unable to fly, but gave me a run for my money. The bird eclipsed towards the huge ‘Meqabr Aslam’, and I followed it all the way towards ‘Mehrem Chira.’ That day, I returned in vain without catching the bird; nor seeing my mother. My mother always recounts that story, “Yizekeka d’o…?” I still feel  embarrassed by the story. Maybe that day, more than seeing my mother, I wanted the bird to sing ‘every little thing is gonna be alright.’

Everything turned out all right. My mother was released; the family was reunited. We were and still are one of the luckiest in every sense, as Eritreans go. Whenever I hear stories of arrests without cause, separation of families, I think back to what happened in the mid 80s and shudder. I just hate it. 

Eritrea currently boasts more than 300 detention centers. Sometimes villas, residences are rearranged to be jails and torture rooms. We all have friends who are never heard from. We all have friends who were arrested for flimsy reasons and spent years in detention camps. We have veterans who left Asmara in the 1970s and 1980s who came back as prisoners to Asmara after independence. Most of them are, we are told, incarcerated in Karsheli, 2nd Police Station. When I heard this story, I cried…And we, as youngsters, have drunk, laughed, partied in the vicinities of Karsheli, in Aba-Shawel without knowing, or ‘caring’ who is wailing there. Think of that; there are veteran fighters who left to ‘Medda’ to liberate Eritrea but came back in chains without even knowing Eritrea was liberated.

Have you heard of such a tragedy, such atrocity?

There’s not enough rain in Oklahoma
To wash the sins out of that house
There’s not enough wind in Oklahoma
To rip the nails out of the past…

Don’t you feel singing this tune, with Carrie Underwood? One day, I hope to see, with my own eyes, the closing down, the blowing it away, the ‘honoring’ of the Eritrean detention centers to museums. That is my heart-felt yearning.

Eritreans have deep and long history with incarceration of their loved ones. From the Nakura/Asem days, (‘Atum seb Aseme/atfaenakum gize m’s teleme/ delnakuk gizie mis haseme’ lamented Dej. Bahta Hagos, in a dirge) till now, many have perished after being taken by the powers to be.

I met a former schoolmate once. He told me he was incarcerated in Aderser, another gulag, past Sawa, near the Sudanese border. He almost lost his eyesight because the underground detention center is pitch-dark. Many others did lose their eyesight. In their own nation, they were made deliberately blind so they can’t see what independence brought forth. Another who was posted there told me of colonels of ‘Miktital Dobat’,(border patrol) simply wasting the lives of poor Eritrean internees, shooting them point-blank, simply because the girl failed to sleep with one of them; the other was being lazy. A ‘merah mesree’ (squad leader) was shot in his knee because he was slow to ‘punish’ the internee. It reminds one of Amon Goeth, the Nazi Commandant, shooting the camp prisoners from his balcony for entertainment. Ralph Fiennes depicted the Nazi rascal in the movie, Shindler’s List. 

Ask anyone about detention centers in Eritrea. You will be horrified. We forget to ask; we don’t know. We don’t want to know. We will never know. But we must know; we must ask; we must remember because for now that is one of the things we can do. Narration of our stories are the beginning of our healing. We have to hear them, tell them, tend to them.

More than 10,000 of them, Amnesty International reported. I have once asked a person who worked in Beleza, Central Command Office of the Eritrean Defence Forces.’ He told me of files of people, ‘sugmti zetewesedelom’, (“steps taken against”): those who perished in jail, and those who are in jail. He said there were tens of thousands, kindey emo kinblom, uncountable. He left Eritrea in mid 2000s almost 8 years ago. Since then, how many added? This person gave up on Eritrea. He said he didn’t want to think about Eritrea anymore. He said he didn’t care if it existed or lost, as far as he was concerned, it didn’t exist; only his families matter to him. Another loss, the lucky ones who lacked conviction and hope in Eritrea, dropping out on us, on the cause. The number of people dropping out is staggering. They say “I don’t care about it. I don’t care what happens to it.  I don’t.”

And others who sang immortal songs ‘such as xibukat zenabil kolkyena/dkam wedienayom sidrbietna” are relegated crooning inconsequential songs instead of singing truth to power. Betrayal begets betrayal.

In the face of such reckless barbarity, we may appear powerless. Let us see what we can do; light a candle; contemplate; pray for them (if you are a believer); console family members; pay a tribute; commemorate them on screens, forums, t-shirts. Write their story. Tell their story. In this regard, I would like to thank our compatriots at EYSC-NA and EYSNS for producing a calendar that commemorates the G-11 and Bitweded (in Arabic, English and Tigrigna) and let us show our cooperation by promoting and buying the calendars.

Let us go back to the basic of all basics: Human Rights

Please allow me to make the following observation. So far, we have failed to do justice or right by our heroes, by our history. Taking honest appraisal of our shifting and unfocused exercise, of the mangled panorama drafted and redrafted in the past ten years, that we call struggle against PFDJ tyranny is timely for their sakes, for our sakes. Ours is not a tragedy; tragedy has some ingredients of chivalry and integrity. Ours is a farce directed by us on us; a cheap drama aimed for prurient, sensory gratification, blithely forgetful of a sense of history and destiny. Willfully employing cynical manipulation of facts, devoid of its central moral core, devoid of the organic nature of cause, we ended up becoming masters of self-sabotage and self-deception.

Please, let us go back to the basics: let us trace back what brought us here. Our cause first and foremost is the cause of human rights. It is predicated on the simple assertion that we deserve to live as free citizens in our endeared nation, Eritrea. It is a deeply moral cause that puts the well-being of individuals (Eritrean citizens) at the center.

If anything, September 18 should remind us to revisit and amend our ways: let us consciously try to put the incarcerated and suffering Eritreans back in the center.

Telling stories of the unjustly incarcerated helps us recalibrate our message because they remind us of our fate and the grim realities of our citizens and the courage of the folks in those stories.

Let me end up with this brief excerpt from the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Sam: “..Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.
Frodo: What are we holding onto, Sam?
Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo… and it’s worth fighting for.

Is Eritrea worth fighting for? September 18 resoundingly testifies that the journalists, G-15, elders held on to that belief. The question is: “Do we believe Eritrea is worth fighting for?” I hope we solemnly agree it is worth fighting for and that the lives of thousands of Eritreans meant something for each of us. The lives and possibly deaths of 10, 000 of Eritreans. More than 10, 000 of them.


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