By Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu*
“I am on a period… Could you please change the date for me?”
Wednesday, 20th of October 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 to check on them, on the other hand, could mean 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 awaited. One was an amateur interrogator whom I had encountered previously, and the other was an acquaintance – a family friend – who I came to learn was working in the prison after I was taken there.
The first thing I noticed in the room was handcuffs, sticks and batons, along with a writing pad and a pen on the table.
After 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, lest it is resorted to using force, you must tell the truth.” It was a veiled threat masquerading as an advice.
“Your writings are against the people and government of Eritrea. Why do you write such things?” asked the senior interrogator.
“I did not write against the people and 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 not write them having the interpretation you are giving them in mind.”
“You are a liar. If you were an innocent person, you would have entitled your short story ‘50 Naqfa’ 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 administrator? Are all our leaders and administrators as cruel as you depicted 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 administrator? 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/administrator. 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 thought 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 officialin 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 was 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 am on a period, and I have a heavy menstrual bleeding. Could you please change the date?” 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 cellmates and the woman in my cell did their best to help but the pain was unbearable.
“You are summoned!”
The following day, on 21st of October 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 sympathetic 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, before a year, said that he would return back to me after three days were in the room.
They began questioning 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 sobful 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 organise the youth against the
government using the ‘literature Programme’ 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 stamped 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.
(To be continued)
**Translated from Tigrinya by Samuel Emaha
+The word ‘Qrshi’ is used to mean a bank note, something that was commonly
used when Eritrea was using the Ethiopian currency, Birr. Most
people used the word even after Eritrea introduced its own bank note called Nakfa.
The interrogator insinuating that Yirgalem’s use of the word in her story is criminal because of the word’s association with Ethiopian Birr.
*Journalist and award-winning poet Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu has published her works extensively in Eritrea’s mass media starting from the heyday of the private newspaper era. From September 2003 until the government raid and subsequent ban in February 2009, Yirgalem worked as a journalist and host at the educational Radio Bana, sponsored by the Eritrean Ministry of Education. Yirgalem was released from the military prison on 21st of January 2015 after six years. She left the country in March 2018 and now lives in exile.
**Samuel Emaha is a PhD student of history at Queens University, Canada.