By Tesfagiorgis Habte*
A day reconstructed from memory
June 30, 2012
It is an ordinary day in Mai-Serwa military prison camp, one of the most notorious higher-security military prison camps in Eritrea. Since February 19, 2009, when I was escorted from my office in the Ministry of Education, it has been 1,227 days in state custody. Like all prisoners here, every morning I ask the very same questions: “When am I going to be freed? What wrong did I do? Will I ever see the light of the day and rejoin my family?”
The prison camp – located in the outskirts of Asmara, Eritrea’s capital – has two sections: the concrete cells and the shipping containers. With varying age groups and social status, prisoners of the camp include some people like myself who are trying to figure out why we’ve been charged; businessmen; and former top government officials. We are around 150 prisoners of conscience. The alleged charges may include corruption, political dissidence, human trafficking and other undefined allegations.
While some prisoners only stay few months, others have been held in incommunicado for more than a decade. There’s a steady stream of incoming prisoners, and none of our cases have been processed through an independent court.
For the last 1,227 days, I have been confined in this 2x2x2-meter, cube-like concrete cell. It’s unfurnished and I sleep on the floor. As my thoughts of release slowly evaporated as time passed, now I consider this my home and do my best to make it comfortable.
I was among 28 people who were rounded up on that dreadful day of February 2009; some from their offices and workplace at Radio Bana; other contributors like myself from our respective offices; and yet others such as journalists in the Ministry of Information who have nothing to do with the Radio Bana. Most, however, shared one trait, we/they somehow or other had aroused the animosity of Information Minister Ali Abdu. Although it is difficult to verify it, it is widely believed Ali Abdu has masterminded the raid as his hostility with the educational radio station became increasingly obvious as it gained popularity. Under different guises, he had banned Radio Bana in spring 2008 for about two months.
I usually have “good” sleep; I mean to say enforced sleep. Prisoners act as if they are sleeping and are required to be silent. This time however, my “good” sleep has been interrupted in the night by a scream from a new prisoner or prisoners in an interrogation room. The interrogation rooms are about 50 meters away from my cell.
The nights are mostly characterized by the arrivals of new prisoners and the subsequent interrogation. The interrogators are dictated by one principle: all prisoners will confess to crimes regardless of their truth or falsity if they are beaten down sufficiently. A wild and bitter scream from the interrogation cell disrupted my “sleep” on this occasion. The loud outcry for help reverberated in my skin and made me tremble.
That was how I woke up this morning; of course, this was not unusual. Now I can hear the shouting of the guards. They are going to let us visit the W.C.s. It is about 6:15 am now. Prisoners take turns to visit the restrooms and are expected to finish and return to their cells quickly. A delay of a few minutes usually results in a knock on the door by the guards. That’s better than their second option of banging the door hard with their feet and leaving the restroom door open while prisoners are defecating.
My cell is near the gate and the W.C.s. and has a tiny window. My usual custom is to follow all movements of prisoners in and out of the bathroom and their escort there. It also gives me the opportunity to monitor and keep track of new prisoners. As I heard shouts and cries the previous night, I was sure today I’d see some fresh faces. The guards usually take out the new prisoners last.
Yes, here he is struggling to walk on his feet. I can sense his confusion and bewilderment. That is the usual reaction in the first few days; slowly then they adapt to the environment.
Observing glimmers of the prison world outside our cells through this rare privilege of a micro-window is not always guaranteed. We are strictly required to close our micro-windows from around 5 p.m. to 7 a.m. This ban extends to whenever someone is called for interrogation or if new prisoners arrive during the day. Yet, I manage to see through small openings at the corner of my little window.
I usually try to exercise in my 2x2x2-meter cell after visiting the W.C., though its low ceiling prohibits me from jumping. But I haven’t done it today because I have been haunted by the night cry.
It is breakfast time, tea with a mixture of sorghum and little wheat bread. They also give us one enjera– local flat bread – that would be for lunch and dinner with watery soup. I have some books and Time magazines that I was lucky to possess since my early days in custody – the better old days. I have read and re-read them many times, even lost count. Sometimes it’s not about the content of the articles, but rather seeing and re-seeing the words until their original meanings are changed. I am also fortunate enough to have another rare treasure, Anaïs Nin’s book The Dairy of Anaïs Nin. Through her book, I have successfully escaped the surreal prison camp and roamed around Europe.
Although we are banned from ordering books from outside, we are allowed to buy the government newspaper, Hadas Ertra. Knowing the nature of the newspaper, do I care to read the propaganda of my torturers? Yes, I did buy it just to have a change from the same texts I have read and re-read.
If I didn’t have recourse to this reading, I would be confronted with the ugly reality of being consumed by my depressing situation, asking the same questions over and over, and re-examining the series of unfortunate events that led me here.
* * *
If I do not engage myself in re-reading Nin’s book or every word of that Time magazine and Hadas Ertra including every advertisement, obituary and serious and non-serous article, I would be replaying the usual video in my mind. Since I have re-played these thoughts thousands of times, at last I perfected that memory and feel as if everything about it is true.
The video in my mind starts with my arrest at the Ministry of Education where I have been serving since 2005 as PR officer after my graduation from University of Asmara with BA degree in journalism. This scene is filled with the exchanges I had with the security people who took me from my office whom I challenged about their “inappropriate” character. When I complained about their lack of manners, one security man told me, “You will learn it slowly…” Indeed, he was right; not only did I learn how to behave with the guards, I’ve learned how to give the lesson to newcomers.
Initially when we were brought to the receiving prison Adi-Abieto and had visits from family, although we were consumed with rage, many of us had high hopes that we would be released. (We were transferred to Mai-Serwa on the 19th of August 2009). Other factors helped convince us that our arrests could not be that serious. From the initial arrest list, one of our fellow inmates was imprisoned because he had a first name similar to that of another person. The guy argued that they must have the wrong person. The prison personnel told him they would figure it out, yet he remains with us all these years later. In another incident, someone who was not rounded up – as he was out of the capital during the arrest – had his name called often when they did roll-call. They seemed ignorant to the fact that he wasn’t with us. Yet he was summoned from his deployment and joined us a month later. If our cases were such a serious national issue, would they really be so slapdash in how they operate?
The video continues to the reason for my arrest. In this continuous limbo state of waiting, many of us are forced to invent our crimes. This practice has been common among Eritrean prisoners of conscience. You get arrested; people start to speculate about the probable reason of your arrest; then the intelligence agents hear and digest the town rumors and end up interrogating you about the “charges” they have collected from the town talk. After all of this harassment and torture, you start to believe and even confess to crimes you have never committed.
I wish someone could convince me of these crimes I have committed against the people and the country that I have served since the age of 15 when I joined the liberation front . After independence, I served for eight years with all devotion and commitment as a teacher. So where did it all go wrong?
Two people have been released from our group, which provided some small hope for many of us, yet we also know the fate of the independent journalists who have been languishing incommunicado detention since 2001.
Thoughts of what could have happened to my four children have been consuming me since the first day of my arrest. Being the main breadwinner at the family, the very idea of leaving them behind torments me. I know very well the difficulty in which their mother, the daughter of a martyr, was raised. Are they going to fall to the same fate?
I hope and only hope they are well.
* * *
I have been suffering from recurrent diarrhea mainly because I don’t defecate properly and am always pressured to do it on hurry. This is coupled with the issue of hygiene. This is principally why I always find myself either negotiating with or confronting the prison guards. Although they refuse my request most of the time, I always ask for restroom breaks. Since my requests to visit the restroom have been rejected so frequently by the guards, I am left with only one option – using my food utensils in my cell. Then I have to wash and re-use them for food later. A few of the kinder guards do allow me to visit the bathroom, a privilege for which I have to thank them profoundly.
In hindsight, I have concluded that I may have unnecessarily challenged the guards during my first year, and am partly paying the price now. I repeatedly asked to wash my body and clothes. Such requests prompted reprisals. They immediately countered by scolding in a “how dare you?” tone. Eventually, I gave up and stopped that request. Later I devised my own mechanisms for washing my body and clothes. Thereafter, I never begged them. As for my hair and beard, I forgot everything completely. The only thing I couldn’t bear was this diarrhea.
It is lunchtime now. It seems like it is a peaceful day as I sense no one has been called for interrogation. That humiliating moment of interrogation has no equal. I get consumed with guiltiness and sense of despair when I hear the loud cries for help.
It’s time for the second round of visiting the bathrooms. The guard on duty shouts, “Close your windows!” Only a few of us have our micro-windows open. Most widows are closed 24/7 except for food distribution. For me at least my micro-window serves as a lifeline between hell and the world outside.
I usually try to get a nap in the afternoon. However, on this day, the squad commander shouts from the lower part of the prison blocks: “every one of you! close your windows! I am telling you…you number…” Our cells have numbers and those numbers are our IDs as well. Something bad is about to happen for sure. That is very common. I close the window and am peering through the small opening as always. Yes, here are two prisoners handcuffed. One of them is from our group. They are cell neighbors. The squad commander and the guard on duty, both holding thick hose sticks, are shouting at the prisoners: “What were you talking about? Tell me or I will kill you!”
The prisoners both answer, “We did not talk.” The one from our group is bold enough to answer him loudly and with confidence. “I was singing. And I don’t know about him. I said nothing. In the first place, I was sitting down. How do you think I could talk?”
“You are a liar. Tell me the truth,” the squad commander yells. “You can’t cheat me, you idiot!” They have put wood between the inmates’ legs and bound their hands in a position called ‘OTO’ (adopted from the Italian word which is the shape of number 8). Now the guard is bringing a bucketful of water and starting to pour it on both prisoners, while the boss is beating them. Then they are ordered to crawl on the mud. When the guards get tired of punishing them, they take them to their cells covered in mud.
I think I am getting used to such incidents. Now I consider it the new normal.
* * *
I have been called for interrogation only once since my initial intake. It was two weeks ago. When I entered the room, the interrogator tried his best to be serious. When he ordered me to sit down in front of him, he asked, “Do you know why you are imprisoned?” His question did not surprise me as I am prepared for any question, however bizarre, including the reason of my arrest.
“I hope you are not joking,” I replied. “First of all, I wrote you that you had imprisoned an innocent person while we were in Adi-Abeito. Second, I have been expecting you to come with the good news that we would be released. And now you are asking me the same question that I asked you three years ago.”
He tried to be more serious. He sighed and read me my charges. The charges stipulate that I was the managing editor of an opposition radio station based in Ethiopia – Radio Wegahta – and a reader in the radio station. He had a file in my name, which was stuffed with “exhibits.”I know they could not produce any but just for the sake of curiosity, I asked him to show me one. He refused. Instead he started to read to me. On a cover page at the top was a color photograph of the president, Hagos Ghebrehiwet, Yemane Gebreab, Yemane Gebremeskel, and Ali Adbu. The piece was a critique of them.
I suppressed a temptation to laugh. I pitied the interrogator for he knows nothing about radio production. As he was showing me the evidence of my association with the radio station, the very idea of showing print-out materials with a photograph as an exhibit for a radio broadcast was absurd. I explained to him how come he shows me a print out as evidence for an audio broadcast; and I think he realized the truth, that the evidence was a blatant fabrication.
* * *
Now that we are served dinner, our windows are closed from outside. We can’t open them. The boss along with other team members has begun checking the presence of each prisoner, and whether the doors and windows are locked properly. This round-up check will be repeated at about 10p.m. by other guards. The worst part about the second round is the bang of the doors to make sure the locks are properly locked. Once I am awakened with this bang, I will have ahard time going back to sleep.
This has been my routine in Mai-Serwa.
*Tesfagiorgis Habte who worked as public relations officer at the ministry of education, a freelance journalist and a contributor to the educational Radio Bana was taken into custody with the raid and ban of the radio station on February 19, 2009. Tesfagiorgis was released on March 19, 2013 after four years without charges. Since May 2017, Tesfagiorgis is an ICORN guest writer in Sweden; the writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org