I believe the time is not far off when our prisons open their mouth and we hear the stories they tell.Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu
Nationality at birth: Eritrean
Place of the fight for human rights: Adi-Keih; Asmara;Mai-Serwa Military Prison
|Asmara Teacher Training Institute (ATTI)||2002||2003||Asmara, Eritrea|
|Radio Bana||Educational Radio Programming||2003||2009||Asmara, Eritrea|
|Co-founder, "The Literary Club of Adi-Keih"||Eritrean Writers Club||2000||Adik-Keih, Eritrea|
Reason for entry:
Function / Activity: Author, Activist
Reason for entry:
Function / Activity: Author, Activist
The Literary Club of Adi-KeihLocation:
Reason for entry: Co-Founder
Function / Activity: Poet and writer
How did the story become known?
In 2015, Yirgalem Fisseha was released from prison. In 2018, Yirgalem Fisseha fled from Eritrea to Uganda where she began to publish poems and short stories about her experiences in Eritrean prisons.
When did the story become known?
In 2015, several journalists working at Radio Bana in Asmara were arrested and imprisoned.
Where did the story become known?
The story of Yirgalem Fisseha\’s arrest, as well as the detention of her colleagues, was known in Eritrea, international human rights organizations as well as the Eritrean exile community.
By whom did the story become known?
Through international human rights organizations, international media and the Eritrean diaspora.
2018 PEN International Writer’s Scholarship
2019 PEN Eritrea Freedom of Expression Award
Literature (literature, films, websites etc.)
Yirgalem Fisseha, I’m alive. Emkulu, 2019.
Yirgalem Fisseha describes in her letter to her fellow prisoners that the very thought of taking care of her own health has given her strength. Her friends and family should know this while she was in prison to be able to live with the uncertainty and to avoid that everyone would be in prison.
Right to life, freedom and security
Prohibition of torture or cruel, inhuman treatment
Prohibition of arbitrary arrest or expulsion
Freedom of expression
Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu is one of Eritrea’s most prominent poets, journalists and writers. She was born in 1981 in Adi-Keih, 110 km south of the capital Asmara. Since 1990 Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu has worked with both government and private media. She published poems, short stories and articles until 2001, when the Eritrean government banned all private newspapers and radio stations. A year earlier, in 2000, she was co-founder of the well-known literary association „The Literary Club of Adi-Keih”.
In 2002 she attended the Asmara Teacher Training Institute (ATTI) and worked for five years as a producer and presenter at Radio Bana. In 2009, she was arrested and detained in a military prison for six years without any contact with the outside world. Among other things, she was accused of planning to murder the Eritrean President. She was subjected to severe beatings and torture, which led to repeated hospitalizations. She was released from prison only in 2015. She fled Eritrea to Uganda three years later. There she published her poems and other texts, including a summary of her experiences in prison. Yirgalem Fisseha lives in Germany today. In 2019 she received the PEN Eritrea Freedom of Expression Award. She was also one of five writers and activists who were recognized by PEN International in 2018. In October 2019 she published her book of poems I am alive (in Tigrinya).
Yirgalem Fisseha first published an account of her time in Eritrean prisons in 2018, on the website of PEN Eritrea, in English. How does one survive imprisonment? How does a young woman manage to overcome her fears, isolation and brutal abuse, in order to continue living? The text below is a translation of a four-part series. – Note of the editor
Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu
Survival is Resistance – A Few Days in my Six Years Detention in Mai-Serwa
Translated from Tigrinya by Samuel Emaha, a PhD student of history at Queens University, Canada
“You called for the President’s assassination”
(For the safety of the people discussed in the story, I will not mention names.)
Following a strong official summons from a day earlier, asking all employees of Radio Bana to come to a meeting on February 19, 2009 at 4:00 p.m., everyone congregated in the main office and began to conjecture about the purpose of the meeting. The meeting lasted for about forty minutes, without any clear agenda, leaving many of us wondering why they even had called us in the first place.
The Health Section, which I worked for, had the most spacious office of the building and was located at the entrance corridor. A heavy-built man accompanied, by a fully armed soldier, stormed into our office as members were talking about the intention behind the meeting. He asked for our divisional director and the director general of Media and Adult Education of the Ministry of Education. We told him that the office of the director general was outside the premises. He said he was sure that the director was on the premises. He did not have time for clarifications and immediately left our office.
I called my division head on the internal telephone line and informed him that some people were looking for the director general and they did not seem okay. The man and the soldier were already in his office and he hung up, saying that they were already there. The discussion of the members of the Health Section moved from the possible subject of the convened meeting to the two strangers. A few minutes later my telephone rang: “Yirgalem, can you come to my office for a minute?” It was my division head.
I found his small office packed with people: the director general, some unit heads, staff and employees of the radio station–my colleagues. The man who stormed into our office earlier began to call names. He called many of us, including six female employees. We all gathered in the office.
They escorted everyone – employees, freelancers, expatriates and even non-employees of Radio Bana – to the compound. Then we realized that they were not only two, but the whole area of the radio station was encircled by fully armed soldiers. While waiting in the compound, two members of the central office of the Ministry of Education joined us. Our number reached around forty. Heavily guarded by the soldiers, all of us were instructed to board a truck parked on the side of the central office of the Ministry of Education and they took us to Adi-Abieto** prison center
Later in the detention center, the very same night, I was asked where I had put my laptop and USB sticks; the objectives of Radio Bana; the programs that I produced and hosted; if I listened to Eritrean opposition radio; from where the Ethiopia based opposition Radio Wegahta broadcasts; if I had a bank account; how much money I had.
I became confident that they had apprehended me by mistake and would release me after some investigation. Three days after our detention, on Saturday 22 February 2009, I was summoned from my cell to the prison headquarters. The interrogators asked me multiple questions. Except for one question, I was comfortable with the rest.
“You have said, ‘Has the country run short of bullets to shoot the man?’”
“Which man?” I asked with shock and disbelief.
“I did not say that.”
“You said that. We have witnesses.”
“To whom did I say that? One can’t say such things, just like that. Can you tell me the person who relayed this information to you?”
“We will bring you a witness who will remind you to whom and when you said that.”
They never brought any witness.
Through the years, the interrogators would always return to this point. “You are the woman who called for the assassination of the President.” Whenever they brought this up, my hopes for release from prison faded.
On May 23, 2009, I was transferred to Mai-Serwa prison center. I was first put in cell number 48 and then cell number 22.
Request to provide my e-mail and password
After our detention in February 2009 and eight months of anguished waiting, filled with fearful anticipation, I was summoned for interrogation in October 2009. When I went to the interrogation room accompanied by one of the prison guards, I found seated in the room one of the senior interrogators who was known for his brutal interrogation techniques. Because our case was considered a serious matter of security, it was initially taken up by experienced senior interrogators who were infamous for their ghastly and merciless techniques. Eventually, however, our case was transferred to amateur interrogators. This change came as a relief. I was, therefore, surprised and extremely worried to find one of the most infamous interrogators sitting in the room. Some days earlier, the same senior interrogator had come to our cells to collect email accounts and passwords.
When he came to my cell with two other prison guards to collect my email and password, we had a brief exchange:
“How are you?” He asked me.
“Praise be to the Lord. I am well.”
“You are looking great, eh?”
I did not reply.
“Write down your e-mail account and password here!” He handed me a pen and a paper. I wrote down my e-mail account and password and handed him back the piece of paper. The combination of my account name and password had a suggestive meaning that they most likely would not like, which made me uncomfortable in case they noticed the play on words.
“Do you have only one e-mail account?”
“Yes.” I began to panic.
“Yes. That is the only email account I have”, I replied, which was not true.
I was thus meeting the interrogator for the second time. He signaled me to sit in a chair in front of his desk. He asked me about my health and general condition. And then he warned me: “So we do not have to resort to the worst interrogation technique, I advise you to tell the truth.” I nodded in agreement. Some of the questions he asked me were funny. Some, I could not fathom how they had anything to do with me. And with some other questions it was not clear why they were being addressed to me.
Some of the main questions of the day were:
“You said there is no electricity and telephone services in Adi-Keih.”
“I do not remember to whom and when I said that but, as there is no electricity and telephone services in Adi-Keih, I might have said that.”
As we could not agree on the intent and details of what he claimed I have said about the lack of electricity and water in Adi-Keih, he ended the question by threatening me: “Since you wrote that in an email, I will present to you with written evidence of what you said.”
“Do you know so-and-so from the Ministry of Information?” He had the name wrong, but from the detailed description of the person, I knew who he was referring to. However, I chose not correct him and replied: “I do not know the person you are talking about.” He checked his file and found his correct name and job description.
“Yes, I know him.”
“How are you related to him?”
“We are childhood friends.”
“I know about that. There must be other ways that you are related.”
“We do not have any relations other than that.”
“He is with us in Adi-Abieto prison.”
“If the person claims to have been related to me in different ways, then you tell me.”
“I will bring him here.”
He moved to another question.
“Listen! What do you think is the reason of your detention?”
“I say I am detained for no reason.”
“You think the government has detained you for no reason?”
“Yes, I think the government has detained me for no reason.”
“So, if you are released, are you going to write that you were detained by the government for no reason?”
It was a tricky question.
I might as well have said “If you release me, I won’t say a peep.” However, he would realize that I did not mean it. I imagined him laughing and joking about me begging and prostrating myself for forgiveness and freedom.
“I would write it, if I did not fear for second detention.” I replied in soft and low voice, equivocating between fear and courage.
“You said you only have one email account, right?” He passed on to another question.
“Yes, I have only one email account.”
“So you do not face the worst, speak the truth!”
“That is the only account I have.” I replied. But my stomach turned in fear.
“Whose email account is ‘justice-seeker’?” He stared at me with a frightening look. I avoided his eyes.
I occasionally used the email account to communicate with a certain writer I had never met in person. In the months leading to my detention, our communications with him were very scarce.
The only reason why I did not tell the interrogator about this account was because I was afraid that he might read too much into the account name, ‘justice-seeker.’**** I wanted to escape all possible questions about the supposed meaning and potential associations the interrogators might draw in their mind with the Eritrean opposition.
I was sure that he would not find anything incriminating in my email communications. Still, by denying having a second email account, I helped him to find a talking point.
“Can you repeat it for me.” I asked to find time to collect my thoughts and find justification for not telling him about it. I struggled to hide my fear.
He repeated it confidently.
“I don’t remember it at all. But, I had many accounts that I used to prank my friends and acquaintances with. I opened them for fun and quickly forgot them because I never used them for serious communications. The account you are talking about might be one of the various email accounts I had created for such purposes. But seriously, I do not remember this account at all. The email account I used for serious communications was the one that I already gave you.” He smiled at me and looked at his watch.
“You can go. But, do not think we are done with you. We will continue the interrogation on Tuesday. I will come with the witness and written proof. Be ready.”
He collected his files.
“See you on Tuesday,” he repeated. Even though, the whole session was harrowing for me, it seemed to be sheer entertainment for him. As a Tigrinya saying puts it, ‘what is a matter of life and death for a mouse is an entertainment for a cat.’
He never came on the appointed day. He and other two interrogators would come back to me after a year, on October 20, 2010, with batons and handcuffs.
*One of the various underground military detention centers found in the environs of Asmara, the capital city of Eritrea. The center is used for the detention of many senior military officers, political prisoners, and national service dodgers.
** Another notorious detention center in the environs of Asmara. Prisoners tell the story of torture and extortion. The center came to the attention of the world media after prison guards shot and killed a number of prisoners who apparently attempted escape in 2004 in the wake a massive round up in the capital.
***The largely Eritrean opposition activists in exile call themselves “justice-seekers.”
“I have my period… Could you please change the interrogation for me?”
On Wednesday, October 20, 2010, just after breakfast, the guard opened my cell and called my name.
“You are summoned.”
I followed him.
Summons to the prison head office produces conflicting feelings – hope and fear. Every time someone is called to interrogation, we ask ourselves: What can they possibly ask now? What new charges will they bring? How will I fare under a new interrogation?
The fact that many prisoners have been languishing for years without anyone asking about them, on the other hand, could mean that being called for interrogation might signal a positive development. Around the time of my summons to the office, an old woman in my cell who had been transferred from another cell due to lack of space, sent me off with words of encouragement and blessings.
The guard returned to his post after delivering me to the interrogation room in which two men waited. One was an interrogator whom I had encountered previously, and the other was an acquaintance – a family friend. I only learned that he was working in the prison after I was taken there.
The first thing I noticed in the room were handcuffs, clubs and batons, along with a writing pad and a pen on the table.
After the exchange of formal greetings, my acquaintance said: “I have told them that you are my sister and pleaded with them that I will talk to you before they resort to force.”
“Thank you,” I replied, mentioning his name.
“Therefore, in order for them not to use force, you must tell the truth.” It was a veiled threat masquerading as an advice.
“Your writings are against the people and the government of Eritrea. Why do you write such things?” asked the senior interrogator.
“I did not write against the people and the government of Eritrea,” I responded.
In every interrogation session, they come up with a different set of questions. In previous sessions, the questions revolved around whether members of Radio Bana were working for the opposition Radio Wegahta.
“Isn’t this your writing?” He mentioned my poems and a short story titled “50 Qrshi.”*
“Yes, they are my writings,” I replied. “But I did notwrite them with the interpretation you are giving them.”
“You are a liar. If you were an innocent person, you would have entitled your short story “50 Nakfa” instead of “50 Qrshi.”
“It is not me, it is the character who says ‘50 qrshi’ just like many elderly women.”
“What is the difference? You were the one who wrote the story. What about the other character in the story, the bureaucrat? Are all our leaders and bureaucrats as cruel as you depict them to be?”
“All are not that cruel,” I said, “but the character in the story is.”
They had found the short story in my laptop.
“Why did not you then write a short story about a caring and qualified bureaucrat? Why did you not write about a leader who campaigns to discourage the young from leaving the country?”
I successfully resisted the temptation to tell them that I did not find such a leader or bureaucrat. Rather, I tried to elaborate on the central theme of the story: “The story is a campaign against the youth exodus. The woman in the story plans to bring her son back from Sawa, as she thinks she had found him a suitable match. She borrows money for that purpose. However, she is called to the district office and told that her son has deserted and she is ordered to pay 50 thousand qrshi. ‘Are you telling me to pay 50 qrshi?’ she asks the official in disbelief. ‘No, it is 50 thousand qrshi,’ theofficial repeats. The loans she took out, the punishment the district office levied on her for her son’s desertion, overwhelms her. Worse, she is told her son drowned and died in the Mediterranean Sea attempting to reach Europe. I wrote the story to dissuade the youth from leaving their country.”
We could not agree on the interpretation and intent of the story. Enraged, the senior interrogator began to beat me with a club. At first, I was shocked but then attempted to protect myself with my arms. The interrogator was merciless, however. He continued to brutally strike me all over my body.
“Please stop… one second please!” I begged him.
“Do you believe that your writings are against the country?” he asked while panting and trying to catch his breath.
“I have my period, and I have a heavy menstrual bleeding. Could you please change the date of this interrogation?” I begged him.
“I do not care!” He thundered. He was probably expecting some kind of confession and he continued to beat me violently. I tore the room apart with a loud scream. My acquaintance who had accompanied the interrogator quietly left the room.
The beating continued.
After some time, my acquaintance called the interrogator from outside. I sighed. Using the little opportunity, I tried to collect myself. I did not know what they discussed but my interrogator returned, picked up the club and continued beating me.
“Get out! Go!” He pushed me out of the room. One of the prison guards escorted me to my cell.
My whole body was bruised and swollen, and I was exhausted from vomiting and heavy menstrual bleeding. The prison medic, my fellow prisoners and the woman in my cell did their best to help, but the pain was unbearable.
“You are summoned!”
The following day, on October 21, 2010, a prison guard came to my cell.
“You are summoned!” he said with a mournful,, seemingly sympathetic face.
“Oh, my dear daughter!” my cellmate exclaimed. She rose quickly, picked up a heavy sweater and shawl, and put them on me.
“Now, they will finish me off!” I staggered to my feet, still feeling excruciating pain.
“Chin up,” the guard tried to console me. Some of the prison guards, including this one, seemed empathetic and were sharing in our suffering.
I reached the interrogation room with the help of the guard. The two interrogators from the previous day and a third interrogator, who a year earlier had said that he would come back to me, were all in the room.
They began to question me.
“Why did you write the story?” the new interrogator asked.
“I wrote it based on a true story,” I replied. “A family of one of my former schoolmates was asked to pay 50,000 thousand Nakfa by the government after he fled the country. Unfortunately, he drowned at a sea in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe. His story touched me and I wrote about it.”
“Can you take us to the family?”
“Yes, I can.” I was not sure to which family I would take them. But the story was true.
They shifted to a new topic.
“Kebari, my strapping young brother
I miss you a lot and could not believe I will never see you again
I know who the culprit is, but I blame time, nonetheless
I am crying inside with sobbing tears!”
They were quoting part of a poem I had written in 2006 titled “Longing.” Who is the ‘culprit’?” one of the interrogators asked.
“God. However, I can’t argue against Him,” I replied.
Then they cited two of my other poems and questioned me about their meaning. I tried to explain; they were not convinced.
“Who are you trying to fool? We know everything about your work at Radio Bana and how you tried to agitate and organize the youth against the government using the literature program as a cover-up…”
Though the exchange had not seemed especially heated, before I knew it, they started beating me with a thick stick. My body was very weak from the beatings on the previous day, and after a few minutes I collapsed to the ground. The senior interrogator smashed my head on the cement floor with his feet; the second interrogator stomped on my foot and gagged me with the shawl my cell-mate had given me. I remember the third interrogator was in the room, but do not recall what exactly he was doing.
“We know what you do, where you go, and with whom you meet. We know everything…”
The beating continued unabated.
Tired of beating me, the two interrogators handcuffed and hogtied me so they could catch their breath.
“Please, mercy!” I implored.
“This is the beginning. You will die here,” declared the senior interrogator.
Restrained in handcuffs and tied up, I laid on my back on the cement floor. They obviously intended to terrorise me rather than obtain information. After
taking a break, they resumed striking me.
“Tell us the truth or we will not leave you until you die.”
“I do not have any truth to tell. Write down what you want and I will sign it,” I offered, struggling to make myself audible. I felt that would be the last moment of my life.
“Write down the crime you yourself committed?” the senior interrogator demanded. “You will confess the truth yourself!”
The violent beating continued until – and perhaps even after – I passed out. I do not remember when they stopped. After few minutes, however, I regained consciousness and realized that they had thrown me in the prison compound. They ordered a prison guard to take me to my cell. He ordered me to stand up. I tried but collapsed to the ground and passed out again. They then took me to the prison clinic where my situation deteriorated. The prison medic could not do anything. Since they did not want information about me leaking to the public, they were not willing to take me to Halibet Hospital. I only vaguely remember what happened after that.
*The word ‘Qrshi’ is used to indicate a bank note. It was commonly used when Eritrea was using the Ethiopian currency Birr. Most people used the word even after Eritrea introduced its own currency called Nakfa. The interrogator is insinuating that Yirgalem’s use of the word ‘Qrshi’ in her story is criminal because of the word’s association with the Ethiopian Birr.
“You did not need three men. You could have killed me with a gun”
I assume the medics of Mai-Serwa prison have handled many horrendous cases. It was common to see a young man in good health going to the interrogation room and coming out broken, bruised and bloodied and carried or supported to his cell by the prison guards. My case was not an exception but one among many similar horrible cases.
My situation became the talk of the prison. My condition was critical. Every part of my body except my stomach was bruised, swollen and aching. Once I slept on my stomach, I could not turn at all. The pain was excruciating and I shuddered at any slight contact with anything. I spent Thursday, Friday and part of Saturday under the watch of the prisons medics. But, my situation deteriorated. The medics reported my condition and, on Saturday, October 23, 2010, I was taken to Halibet Hospital.
I recall how the doctor who received me in the emergency unit found it very difficult to even take blood or find a vein to insert an IV drip. He was shocked by the severity of the bruises and swelling wounds I sustained from the torture. The doctor, who is currently living in Britain, was very sympathetic and helpful to the prisoner-patients who visited the hospital. I have heard he had faced a lot of problems from authorities because of that.
I slept in the prison ward of the hospital for days. I underwent an examination and was given medications. For reasons I did not understand then, my inmates and the prison guards were extremely worried about my condition. Top officials who were not willing to tell their names were also incessantly calling the hospital to inquire after my situation. I needed blood transfusions but finding a person with my blood type became very difficult.
The prisoners in Mai-Serwa were asked about their blood types. They could not find a type matching mine. I later learned that prisoners and prison guards at Adi-Abieto were also asked. The unsuccessful search for a blood donor helped spread the news about me to the public. I still do not know how they got it but the hospital eventually succeeded in giving me the blood transfusion I needed.
I have no words to express my gratitude to the hospital medical staff, prisoner-patients, and the guards. They suffered with me and shared my pain. I will never forget their prayers, care, moral encouragement and professional support. My survival was their top priorities and every time the nurses rotated shifts, their first question was if I was still alive. Since I was unconscious many times, there are things that I cannot remember.
Thanks to the great professional support of the medical staff, my condition started to get better after a long time. When I started eating food, it came as good news to the prison authorities. The head of the Adi-Abieto and Mai-Serwa prison centers paid me a visit.
“Has she started taking food?” He asked the guards on duty.
“Yes. She is drinking fruit juice” They replied.
“How are you feeling?” He asked me.
I did not answer his question directly. I wanted the opportunity to say something else. Gathering all my strength, I asked him back: “Aren’t you the one who interrogated me when I was imprisoned?”
“Now, just take care of your health. I will come back another time and will listen to what you want to say.” He was trying to escape from my questions. There were about five guards and prisoner-patients in the room.
“In the name of Martyrs! Do not move before I finish what I want to say,” I strongly objected.
I had IV cannulas inserted into both of my hands: one for blood transfusions and another for glucose infusion. I hoped that summoning the names of martyrs would force him to listen to me. He hesitated.
“You know very well that the charges leveled against me are completely unfounded and the questions I am asked are irrelevant. Do you plan to kill me? If that is the case, you did not need three men. You could have used a gun for that.”
“You just take care of your health now…”
“I have not finished what I want to say…” I replied addressing him by his name.
“You asked me the same questions the answers to which the interrogators have tried to violently beat out of me. Yet, I had replied to your questions in our first meeting. It’s been two years since then and I have been waiting to get out of prison. Why am I asked the same questions? What is new? I do not think you people are trying to find information. Your intention is to implicate me in a crime that I did not commit. Do you search for perpetrators after a crime is committed or you just simply imprison anyone you want to apprehend and then search for a crime to implicate her with? I used to think that interrogators were professionals who uncover crimes not criminals themselves who violate the law…” I vented my thoughts in several bursts, attempting to catch my breath. However, the prison head was only ready to hear me, not to answer my questions. I did not expect answers anyway.
To get better or not?
In the following weeks, my condition improved a lot. Guards and prisoner-patients began to move me around with a wheelchair and feed me. Meanwhile, various rumors whose sources and purveyors were not known, began to circulate. They were mainly about my imminent release from prison. “They will release you; they are worried that you might die in their hands, therefore if you recover quickly, they might reconsider their decision to release you,” counseled some of my inmates. Except for wishful thinking, I was not the commander of my fate.
After I regained a little strength, the question of whether it was better to get better or not bothered me. I wanted to think outside of what people around me were suggesting. In addition to the internal medical complications that only my doctors knew, I had back injuries/pain and weakening of my left leg that anybody could see. I thought if I stayed in the hospital, in the hope that they would release me, worse things might happen. “If they initially prevented me from getting medical attention at Halibet hospital, so that information about me did not get out to the public, they would not dare to send me home with all my wounds and injuries. Therefore, instead of thinking about getting out prison, I decided to think about how to get better; take proper medication, eat a proper diet; and exercise,” I reasoned with myself.
Praise be to God, my plan, combined with the untiring support of the medical staff of Halibet hospital and fellow prisoner-patients, bore fruit. My condition steadily improved. I progressed from moving around with a wheel chair to using crutches and then to walking around without crutches, using walls for support or leaning on someone.
Nurses and assistants in the prison ward of the hospital rotate every three months. In the five months, I stayed in the hospital, I met different kinds of medical staff: some very caring, sympathetic and supportive, and others indifferent, apathetic and outright cruel.
The rumors of my imminent release proved to be only rumors. After five months, I was returned back to my prison cell.
I thank God for enabling me to tell my story of despair, helplessness, torture, hope, and courage. I express my respect to all the peace-loving Eritreans who stood on the side of the oppressed. I extend my heartfelt gratitude to all those who called and sent encouraging notes. The reason why I wrote part of my prison experience in three parts is because I did not want to choose to be silent in the month of September which is dedicated to the remembrance of the unjustly imprisoned. Since my release from prison, this is the first September that I am spending remembering my former fellow prisoners. And I hope that writing this first-hand account will help people have a clearer picture of the horrifying experiences and encourage others to share their ordeals. As indicated in the title of my testimony, what I have written is just a tip of the iceberg and is only about a limited number of days and certain aspects of the six years I spent in prison. When time permits, I will write extensively about it and I hope others who passed through similar experience will tell their stories. My story is only one typical example of the overall prison conditions in Eritrea. It is not the worst or even an extraordinary case. I believe the time is not far off when our prisons open their mouth and we hear the stories they tell.
I know many readers have asked why I choose not to tell the names of my interrogators. Even more than naming the infamous interrogators, however, I wished to express my gratitude by name to the prison guards who gave us light in darkness, hope in the midst of our despair, and relief to our pains. But, it is not the right time to do so.
I would like to conclude my serialized account with a letter to the prisoners who are counting the days longing for the time they will released. I know it won’t reach them. Yet, I want to convince myself, somehow, no matter when, they will hear about it, or it at least will be relayed to them.
I want to write a letter to all of you whom I found and left at Mai-Serwa prison center. I do not know how and where I shall begin. When are you going to read it anyway? Upon your release, you will find it in the internet and Facebook walls. Oh! Facebook is something that was created after your detention and it is a non-physical (virtual) space where everyone openly expresses his or her ideas. I know it is difficult for you to imagine it. Somewhere, Mandela once said, “Prison is a fixed point in a moving world.” Unfortunately, our country has become a fixed point in the fast-moving world. Therefore, do not be worried whether you will catch up with what is going on in the outside world and be able to communicate with the free world or not. Since the [government] has worked hard to make Eritrea lag behind the world, our people are where we left them Worse – there are even things which have regressed significantly.
My respected and loved brothers and sisters. As I embark on the spiritual journey of visiting you, I vividly remember your names, you prison-cell numbers, your health challenges; your courage, your perseverance, and your strong character. Half life, half death in the dark! In the past years, when I learned some of you were released and have joined your dear families, I celebrated it greatly. I pray that the remaining ones will be out of prison soon, too.
Those of you who, in a stifling atmosphere that punishes even greetings among prisoners, tried to boost my morale through facial gestures and stolen eye contacts; those of you who preferred to look at my strengths rather than my weaknesses; those of you who were concerned about my health condition while you had your own worse health problems; those of you who saw your mothers and sisters in me and took great pity of me; how are you? I am asking this question but I know perfectly well how you are doing. I can imagine the darkness, the loneliness, the violation, the torture, the contempt; the hope and despair and the up and down of emotions that the various rumors produce. What good is there in prison except the sympathy and solidarity you receive from a few people?
I am writing you this letter in the month of September which is dedicated to the remembrance of all Eritrean prisoners. How would you know what happens in this month every year? In this month, everyone who is pained by the abuses his brothers and sisters are facing; everyone who is distressed by the brutal mistreatment of his fellow citizens; everyone who is his brother’s keeper is raising the name of prisoners and calling for justice. Thinking of all the prisoners, everyone is condemning the absence of justice and is giving voice to the voiceless prisoners. Everyone is imploring unity among Eritreans in order to solve our problems. In short, everyone is trying to move a stagnant Eritrea forward just a bit.
There are also the naïve ones who think Eritrea is doing well because they themselves are doing well in life. There are also those who do not care a bit or are unable to understand the destruction and failure of the country. There are also those who think Eritrea is marching forward on the path of prosperity and development. We have brothers and sisters who confuse the country with the president and the ruling party. You know, as the Tigrinya proverb says, ‘a mother’s womb has many colors.’
To your surprise, there are Eritreans who believe that there is no one who is unlawfully imprisoned in Eritrea. There are those who argue that Eritrea is governed in accordance with the principles of human rights; there are those who do not mind walking on fire with someone else’s feet and grind stones with someone else’s teeth. There are those who consider questions regarding rights and justice as crimes. There are those who try instill a culture of indifference. There are those who do not consider the conditions in Eritrea a problem until they touch their immediate family members.
Wait… please stop thinking about those friends and family members whom we complained about for not asking after us. You will understand their situation when you get out of prison. They themselves are prisoners of one sort or another. It will grieve you to no end when you come to learn the horrible situation and enormous challenges they have been facing. You will also discover people who did a lot of good things for you without you knowing it. Also do not think about those friends who lied about us and cooperated with the government during our detention. You will find them punishing themselves by trying to either ingratiate or distance themselves from you. You will find their action and behavior amusing and entertaining.
I know what concerns you most is knowing when you will get out of prison and not getting any word about your loved ones. As we think about the situation of our families, our families are also equally concerned and terrified to imagine how you are coping up with the long time in prison. When the prisoner thinks about his loved ones and the loved ones think about their imprisoned, everyone is imprisoned. Whole families and the whole country are imprisoned. Surprisingly, as you have coped with your life in prison, your families are also able to cope up with the constant worry and grief. However, the reward for their longing, for their love and for their concern rests with you. Please take care of your health and your spirit. Be strong as usual. Did you not teach me to not think about when I would be free and instead take care of my health and my morale? Taking care of yourself is the reward for your families and that is a weapon that defeats the enemy.
Fotos: Header ©T https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eritrea#/media/Datei:Eritrean_Highlands.jpg; alle anderen Fotos ©Yirgalem Fisseah.
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