AntiNote: This particular testimony initially appeared in German in the highly praiseworthy refugee-organized Zurich publication, Papierlose Zeitung, a project of the Autonome Schule Zürich. What we present here is a lightly edited version of the English original, with PZ’s headings.
It seems to have been easy for many to forget that refugees coming to Europe in the current swell are not exclusively Syrian. Indeed, even when the diversity of these flows is brought up, even by people involved in and aware of refugee struggles, Eritrea is mentioned with some bafflement as the second largest origin country for people fleeing to Europe, “and we don’t really know anything about what’s going on there.”
There are reasons for that. Among the main ones is that information about Eritrea is being actively filtered by European authorities and media in a transparent attempt to delegitimize refugees and challenge their claims to asylum. This has material results, leaving tens of thousands of people in legal limbo and uncertainty and even in danger of deportation back into persecution. Moreover, as mentioned in another article we posted recently about Syrian refugees in Lebanon, these obfuscations and downright lies also give European authorities moral cover to increase security and development cooperation with the very governments whose atrocious violence and corruption are prompting people to flee.
But some people do know something about what is going on in Eritrea, namely those who have fled from there. This is an attempt at raising up the voice of one such person and providing some of the counterinformation that advocates appear to be in want of but are somehow unsure where to look.
by Tekle Tewelde Yacob for Papierlose Zeitung (Zurich)
26 August 2015
My message to the government and people of Switzerland—especially to those who think the situation in Eritrea “has improved”—is the following: I wish to inform you that right now, at this very moment, thousands of innocent Eritreans are suffering silently in jails and prisons, while their best years slip away.
My name is Tekle Tewelde Yacob. I am from Eritrea, currently living in Switzerland around the city of Zurich as a refugee.
First and foremost, I would like to thank the government and community of Switzerland for allowing me to come directly and legally from Sudan to Switzerland. I want to thank as well my brother Tesfay Tewelde Yacob, who played a major role in facilitating my asylum procedure, and I would like also to thank you for allowing me this opportunity to give an account of my painful experience in several detention centers in my home country Eritrea.
I was born and grew up in a small town in the Southern Zone of Eritrea, the so-called Segeneity. After completing secondary school and obtaining a good result in my matriculation exams, I got the chance to go to the University of Asmara, where I studied educational administration and graduated with a BA degree on 8 August 2006. I was from the last batch to graduate from the University of Asmara before it was closed down and dismantled by the Eritrean authorities. But my own imprisonment followed close on the heels of my graduation.
Soon after my graduation, while I was waiting to be assigned to a national duty, I went to visit my family in Segeneity. On 11 November 2006, five security agents came to my home unexpectedly and ordered me to get into a car. At that time my wife was three months pregnant with my second daughter, and I cried bitterly in front of the soldiers but none of them paid her any attention. When I asked why they were taking me, they told me to follow their orders, forced me to get into the car, handcuffing me tightly, and drove me to Laelay Alla—a place where military interrogations take place.
Torture, Catastrophic Prison Conditions, Forced Labor
When I got to the investigation center, they accused me of an unfounded charge and started to force me to plead guilty. As I protested my innocence and denied doing anything wrong, they tied me up in a very painful position and started to beat, kick and punch me. They turned my face towards the sun to blind my eyes; in this very hot and sunny place they allowed me only very little water, and strictly forbade me to wash my face. As a result, the whole of my body was swollen and I felt a very strong pain and discomfort all over my body. I thought I was going to die there. I was completely shaken and disoriented by this horrific experience.
After subjecting me to extreme physical and psychological torture for eight days, they transferred me to the atrocious Alla Bazit detention center, near the town of Dekemhare. Alla Bazit prison center was encircled by high thorny fences and there were about seven prison cells inside. There were more than 80 detainees cramped in each of the dreadful cells.
Food and water were not only minimal but also of poor quality, and medical care was almost entirely nonexistent. Other unlawful treatment and conditions included the forbidding of family visits, forbidding the changing of clothes and underwear, skin disease, hard and cruel punishments and torture, and labor exploitation by military heads. The prison walls were covered with bed bugs and lice, and the prison leaders would not bother to eradicate the infestation. For them, it was just an additional way of degrading, humiliating and demoralizing us.
We were subjected to daily hard labor inside and outside the prison center. All of the work was without wearing shoes and with an almost empty stomach. Our feet even forgot the feeling of wearing shoes. I would say the whole thing was no different than slavery. All of the leaders were emotional rather than rational; their elites were based on military experience rather than academic qualifications.
It was very common to see desperate detainees trying to escape from the detention center. Unfortunately, except for very few lucky ones, most of those who attempted to escape were either shot and wounded deliberately by the prison guards or caught before getting very far. And those caught while trying to escape were subjected to extreme torture and savage punishment—continuing for weeks or even months. They were cruelly beaten with sticks and batons, kicked and punched. They got their hands and legs bound tightly together and were left either facedown or facing the sun for several days. The extreme punishment and torture that they used was aimed at terrifying and terrorizing the other detainees and discouraging us from attempting to escape from the prison center. Many detainees died as a result of such extreme, harsh, and barbaric punishments, and many more have been left with physical and psychological scars.
One strange and unusual practice was to detain the families of those who managed to escape, as a replacement, or force them to pay 50,000 Nakfa as compensation. What was happening was really terrible and very difficult to understand and contemplate.
After two years of staying in Alla Bazit prison center, I was transferred along with 78 other detainees to another detention center called Halhale. We were not told why we were being transferred, and we could not dare to ask, either. The detention centre that they brought us to was severely overcrowded; there was no space for us to sit or to sleep properly. We joined about 200 detainees and were cramped in a very small cell. The conditions inside this detention center were just as bad as in Alla Bazit.
After some weeks in Halhale, I and some other detainees were taken to Adi Qala prison, which is one of the most notorious and worst prisons in the country. Most of the detainees were physically and emotionally drained as a result of continuous punishment and cruel treatments.
During my stay at Adi Qala prison, I became acquainted with approximately 500 detainees; more than half of them were from the Kunama ethnic group. The youngest detainee was a baby called Abrehet, only 17 days old, who was detained with her mother, and the oldest one was Aboy Sahle Yilma, an 85-year-old man, who later died in the prison due to lack of medical care and attention.
Most of the members of the Kunama ethnic group were detained on pretext of either assisting or sympathizing with the Democratic Movement for the Liberation of Eritrean Kunama (DMLK), an opposition movement raised to defend the rights of the Kunama ethnic group. They were, like the rest of us, arbitrarily arrested and detained in dreadful conditions and, as far as I knew, none of them was formally charged and brought before a court of law for a legal procedure.
The rest of the detainees in this prison were army deserters caught escaping from national service (better to say national slavery) and trying to flee the country, members of banned religious groups such as Pentecostals, and some who were simply caught while attempting to flee the country illegally.
All the detainees I met in all these detention centers from November 2006 until I escaped on 6 August 2011 had many things in common: we were all arrested arbitrarily, cruelly, and savagely, and had all been subjected to irresistible physical, psychological and emotional tortures; our family members were not allowed to visit us (in fact, most of our families didn’t even know our exact location). We also had in common the understanding that, as long as we were not formally charged and brought before a court of law, we are innocent Eritreans.
Right now, still, there are thousands of such innocent Eritreans suffering mutely; their golden age is simply expiring in various prisons and detention centers across the country. They have been given neither a concrete charge nor a concrete verdict. When I think deeply about them and visualize their conditions right now, I can hear their cries of pain and agony, and their loud voice for mercy. I can also see their injuries and scars, and their tears of despair, dejection, helplessness and hopelessness. They are crying for help and for freedom, right now.
The Eritrean regime is soaked and stained with the blood of innocent people. It is a regime which has reached a point of no return but is determined to keep its saddle of power at any cost. It is imconceivable that it will grant mercy to detainees—unless they get help internationally, their lives will probably end inside a prison.
That being the case, I kindly request and call the international community to pressure the Eritrean government to declare peace with its own people, restore the rule of law, and immediately and unconditionally release all of the tens of thousands of innocent men, women, and children who are languishing in prison centers throughout the country. May the suffering, misery, and misfortune of the Eritrean people end once and for all.
Thank you for your attention.
Featured image source: Words I Never Said
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