WiA: Testimony of University of Asmara Students

This article was originally published by on September 12, 2005. It is’s translation (from English) of a testimony provided to Elsa Chyrum, an Eritrean human rights activist, executive director of Eritrean Human Rights Concern (EHRC), by a persons who chose to remain anonymous. This is part of a series of testimonies she has provided by Eritrean political prisoners who were detained in Gelalo, Dahlak Islands, and Karsheli. We are re-publishing it because it features Major General Gerezgheir Andemariam (“Wuchu”), who passed away on March 4, 2014. The government media has (as it is expected to) told his biography as it relates to his military achievements and his positive contribution to the liberation of Eritrea. We are presenting the part of his biography that left such a searing impression on young Eritreans that they chose to present this testimony anonymously.

It was in mid-July 2001. The committee of university of students were expressing their opposition, legally, to the call of the Ministry of Education that every university student should report for the harvest drive. Point by point, they provided a rebuttal to the president of University of Asmara, Dr. Woldeab Ishak, that the call is not doable.  To mention some of the points made:

  1. The University of Asmara has an autonomous administration and, as such, the call of the ministry of education does not concern it;
  2. The rainy-season harvest drive is nowhere to be found in the Eritrean constitution and, as such, is not acceptable;
  3. To force students to participate in the harvest drive without their consent and without pay violates the United Nation’s charter against forced labour and human rights, a charter that Eritrea is a signatory to.  It provided a summary that, if they are to participate, it has to be with their consent and with pay.

Nonetheless, the president of the University of Asmara explained that the campaign envisioned that the students’ task would be to conduct census, research and outreach to the people and that the compensation would be 800 Nakfa, meaning 26 Nakfa per day (USD $1.30.)  The students’ committee explained that the amount would not even suffice to cover meal and lodging expenses and asked for their rights in a legal and orderly manner.

Meanwhile, on 31 July, 2001 at 7:00 AM, Semere Kesete, the president of the student union of the University of Asmara, was seized at his home by three security officers who loaded him in a civilian car and arrested him. The students stated that all they did was ask for their rights and, if the president of the student union is guilty of any crime, he should be presented to a court of law.  As a lark, they presented the president of the student union to a court of law on August 9, 2001.  However, because no charges could be presented, the session was postponed for a later date.  In an announcement publicized on radio and television, it was disclosed that all students should report for the harvest drive. The students responded that they would not embark on the buses until he [Semere Kesete] was presented to a court of a law and a verdict rendered.

Right about then, the president of the university, Dr. Weldeab Ishak, disclosed that effective immediately, the academic season had concluded and that he wanted no responsibility [for what was to follow] and physically escorted us out of the campus. And closed the gates.

The next day, 8:00 AM, was Semere Kesete’s appointed time of court hearing and the students flocked to the courthouse to hear the verdict.  While some were inside the courthouse and others were in the yard, tens of soldiers materialized around the courthouse.  Beating and threatening with their guns and batons, they attempted to seize all students at the courthouse. A sizable number of students were seized and forcibly taken to the Asmara Stadium. Precisely at that time, an order was given that every university student, anywhere in Eritrea, should be detained. That night, many soldiers headed to the student dorms and, using their batons and guns, awakened the students and herded them, some with nothing on their backs except what they had on, to the Asmara Stadium. All in all, including the ones that were already there, they numbered around 300. Whipped by winds and drenched by rain, hungry and in pain, they spent the night at the stadium. Fathers and mothers convened outside the stadium, with food and spare clothes. But they were dispersed by the stick-wielding soldiers—there were mothers that were beaten with sticks.

The next morning, they were given derisory snacks and canned food. At about 11:00 AM, they readied the vehicles. And, without providing any explanation, they attempted to load the students. But the students said that they had committed no crimes and that they had asked for their rights legally and in an orderly manner and asked where they were taking them. They were told to embark without asking questions.  They responded that they would not. One of the pistol-carrying supervisors ordered the soldiers to move in.  About 50 soldiers, some carrying Klashnikovs some carrying batons, filed in. They ordered them to embark. The students said they wouldn’t. They locked and loaded their weapons. And those carrying batons started beating the students. Screams could be heard.  Entering from the upper and lower level of the stadium, the soldiers started beating the students wantonly. Many had broken limbs. The parents and siblings who were outside started screaming. The soldiers dispersed them by beating them with their sticks.  Some had broken legs, others fractured skulls and when they were exhausted, they dragged them and loaded them [on the trucks.] They took them, to destination unknown, past Asmara city limits towards Massawa. We had no idea where. But after a few days, all students would follow them, and would see them with their own eyes. This was when every student was taken to Wi’A.

The date was 12 August 2001. This is three days after the students were forcibly taken. Beginning at precisely 6:00 AM, traumatized and frightened students started showing up at the stadium. Gradually, their numbers increased and, having spent the whole day without breakfast or lunch, at precisely 4:00 PM, heavy trucks and N-3 [cargo trucks] entered the stadium. With an empty stomach and without any preparation, nearly 1700 students began the journey. We headed out of the city limits towards Massawa. We did not know where we were headed. We passed Massawa and turned right on the road to Asab.  After six hours, at about 10:00 PM, we reached a place called Wi’A. Without food or water, with all our fatigue, we slept on the rock-strewn ground, without any sheets. We spent the night, our perimeter encircled by soldiers. At around 10:00 AM, they separated the females from us and headed them to a destination to our east.  And we, carrying our bags, began walking. With the military barracks to our left, we headed out, to the northwest. After a while, we were asked to sit. From 6:00 AM [when we met at the stadium] until the next day at 11:00 AM, for 30 hours, we had nothing to eat and we were in pain.

At about 12:00 noon, when the students began fainting from dehydration, they took us to a big stream which flows into the Hadas River.  While we were headed there, a few of our comrades began fainting. We were not allowed to pick them up. When we reached the river, we headed to muddy stream. Still empty-stomached, we drank the muddy waters.  Many fell right there. We carried them up the banks. We were told to leave them there. There were many who had lost consciousness. One by one, they loaded them up a water truck. I remember, hungry as we were, we saw many goats around the river where we drank water. Softly, we headed in their direction. The goats were eating dry bread, left over by the soldiers. Seeing this, we were thrilled. Although the smell was foul, we attempted to share the bread with them. But the bread was so dry we could not chew on it. We placed it on our clothes [shirts] and dunked it in the river to soften it.  We ate some, and we took some to our comrades who were lying down on the banks of the river, suffering from hunger. A bit strengthened now, we began to move about. On the path of the walkway, we saw many students, fallen. Later, we heard that on August 14, 2001, Yirga Yosief and on August 19, 2001, Yemane Tekie had died.  Many had mental and physical incapacitation. For example, one of the students who used to share sleeping quarters with us, a 2nd year biology student, had mental problems and became insane. These big trials, the causes of this pain were the 30 hours without food or water as well as the environment of Wi’A.

A military barrack set in a deep valley, Wi’A is found 45 kilometres south of Massawa on the right side of the road to Assab, about 6 kilometres northwest of the town of Foro. There are mountains to its north, west and south. The weather was quite hot then—we were told by our comrades who were at the clinic that it was 45 degrees centigrade. What is most amazing is that, despite its extreme heat, they have chosen Wi’A as a prison and centre of pain.

Some of the soldiers there told us that they had been given wrong information about us. They were told: “These [the students] were plotting to overthrow the government. They are enemies of the state. They are spoiled. While you are in the bunker defending your country, they want the indulgence of selection.” About a week later, the commander of the 35th division, Colonel Gabriel Woldeselase, gathered about 2000 of us. They separated us into four groups. The next morning, the first group, which included females, was taken to the well-known prison in Gelalo. Fearing opposition, the supervisors of the camp took two groups to Gelalo. Those of us in the other two groups remained in Wi’A. Later, our comrades who were sent to Gelalo told us that Gelalo is a hot place and their time was spent by engaging in heavy manual labour, after walking for two hours each day.

As for the two groups that were left in Wi’A, they segregated us. They gathered some of us at the camp, others at the school. Whether at work or relieving ourselves, we were always guarded by soldiers. Under the intense heat, we would gather rocks for about 3 hours. The rocks get hot during the day.  We would carry the rocks on our shoulders, and clear the ground to construct a road. One night, it hailed; there was no shelter and the rain poured on our backs. At night, we slept in the mud.  The next morning, many of us were ill.

A month later, Dr. Woldeab Ishak showed up and called a meeting. Students poured out tough questions and opinions. But the event was being video-taped and, after a while, our comrades who asked the questions were rounded up at night and separated from us. The bitterness of life in prison continued. On September 8, 2001, the two groups who were in Wi’A were called to a meeting with Colonel Gabriel Woldeselase. In a speech filled with bluster and threats, he told us: “Because you have rejected a call that would have benefited the country and the people, you are guilty. Thus, you should admit your error and ask for forgiveness.” One of us stood up and responded that it was not a crime to ask for your rights. Nonetheless, continuing on with his bullying, he threatened, “Unless you ask for forgiveness, a punishment worse than what you have encountered awaits you.”  The next morning, they prepared buses and headed us out on the road to Asab. On the second day, we reached our destination, a place called Edi.  On September 11, 2001, about noon time, we headed out of Edi in the direction that we had come from [Wia.] Midway, we disembarked at a place called Arkobkobai. There, we were guarded by many soldiers. As we understood it, the plan was for them to ask us to ask for forgiveness and those who would not comply would be mowed down by gun fire.   Some distance away, a man holding papers, and accompanied by soldiers with batons and guns, would call out the students, one at a time.  Everyone was asked a written question: “I, having disobeyed a government proclamation that would benefit the government and the country, am correct or wrong.” The written document further said that if you say that you did not disobey but were exercising your rights, you would be considered guilty. Every student was asked.  We all knew that what we had done was correct. However, using force and intimidation, they compelled us to say that it was wrong. They got what they wanted; and we lost.  Particularly because the cost was Yirga Yosief and Yemane Tekie. Also because many had been taken ill, been incapacitated and imprisoned.  Having completed their interrogation, they returned us back to Wi’A.

On September 18, 2001, after G-15–the officials who had opposed the administration of the government–were arrested, the private press was closed and the journalists arrested, they intensified the guard around us. The prison and the punishment got even worse. Even people who were suffering from diarrhea were not permitted to go relieve themselves.  Day and night, we were escorted by soldiers even when trying to relieve ourselves. We were gathered under a huge tent with a standing order not to talk to anyone.  Many were harmed by the sun, the heat and diseases. On September 19th, 2001, the 2nd year biology student who had lost his mind was taken to the military clinic. He is still not cured.

Finally, Major General Gerezgheir Andemariam (“Wuchu”) called us to a meeting.  And he said as follows: “Like somebody who has been infected with AIDS, you have been infected with G-15.  You are guilty of crimes against the people and the government. The government knows what is best for you; so say ok, to whatever it tells you. As for whatever it is you are guilty of, it is on your head and it will follow you.”  At night, some of our comrades were arrested and taken. But the rest of us, after nearly three months of pain and suffering, left Wi’A and headed to Asmara the next day, November 7, 2001. Our morale was deeply affected and we lost all hope. And we understood, henceforth, our future under this government would be the depth of darkness.  When will it dawn: don’t know!

For the original Tigrinya publication, refer here. For the first publication of the translation in English, refer here.


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