23 Years Solitary Confinement For A National Hero?

Bitweded
Bitweded

Bitweded Abraha was born in Asmara (Edaga Hamus) in 1953 from his father Ato Abraha Asfaha and his mother Weizero Kidisti Teweldemedhin.

He attended school in Asmara until he completed his fifth grade.  He continued his schooling (from grade 6 to 12) at St. George Secondary School in Mendefera.  Long before he left for the field imbued with strong national feeling, he was working with Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front in underground operations of the town.

It was sometime in1972 when he applied for a job after the end of a school year to what was a Japanese copper mining company in Debarwa.  But job offers depended on who one knows and he wasn’t able to get one.  He wrote a letter and gave it to the person responsible by hand.  A school friend of Bitweded later said that the letter contained threatening material.  His friend had told him not to deliver the letter and that he could be imprisoned; to which Bitweded replied, “Even if I am imprisoned, the truth will never be imprisoned.  Moreover, you should know that whoever puts me in prison will never sleep in peace.”

Contents of the letter contained, “…maybe you have forgotten that this land belongs to Eritreans.  You maybe working for a foreign company for now but you will see the truth tomorrow…”

Soon after, he was imprisoned for about two weeks and was released on bail.  However, before he was due for a hearing and as part of his assignment to recruit fighters, he was taking 21 students from St. George Secondary School to join the armed liberation struggle when 2 of them changed their mind and returned from near Ala to Dekemhare and reported him to the authority.  He left town before attending the hearing and joined the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front in January 1973.

After completing his military training, he   joined a fighting army in Sahel area and was engaged in battles. At the end of 1974, he moved to the southern area of the Eritrean highlands and took army duties.  In early 1977, he worked as a political commissar and after attending the first EPLF congress, he was voted as a non-permanent member of the Central Committee.  Later, he became Head of the Department of Transport and worked in that position until the end of 1979.

He was then given the position of Deputy Head for the Department of Education.  He was a talented leader.  He strongly believed in education and raising awareness rather than using methods that reinforce military discipline and punishment.  He encouraged and worked hard to implement and promote sports and cultural programs and activities.  His ability and devotion made him very popular with the fighters and especially among the younger generation.

When he was assigned to work in Revolution Schools, he made an immediate impact on the pupils. He managed to shift the urge to go to battles to spending some time on education, sports and cultural activities. Under his leadership, the ethos of ‘criticism and self-criticism’ which was divisive and which created animosities among pupils during the previous administration was abandoned. Children were taught to love, take responsibility and respect each other rather than merely criticize each other. His ideas and innovations were received with great enthusiasm and he was much loved and respected by his pupils.

His skillful and civil abilities focused on transforming and developing the fighter irrespective of age and gender.  He was determined to change the methods to achieve these ends by opting for education and understanding rather using strict discipline and punishment.

In 1983, the EPLF declared a campaign to eradicate illiteracy.  Bitweded Abraha became the head of the operation and managed the programme from his office at Adi Tsetser for quite some time.  During the most difficult times of those years, he represented the Central Committee in areas behind enemy lines in managing military and educational operations.  He was different from other leaders in that he didn’t distance himself from the lower ranks.  He was traveling to all fronts (north, south, east and west) to uplift the morale of the fighters and many of them still remember all these.  He was relatively younger than most leaders of that time and he had a better approach in communicating and understanding the needs of ordinary fighters.

From education department, he was moved to the military section and became a branch head for military and food supplies.  He was determined to promote and apply the practice of self-reliance.  He managed to rear sheep and chickens and sell them to   markets in Sudan; secured the purchase of writing pads, pens and pencils and incorporated these to bigger programmes.  He set up training sessions to those in responsible positions.  This was to upgrade their skills in managing their responsibilities. There are still fighters who thank him for helping them to acquire skills.

He also arranged the purchase of TV and video equipment to spread educational films and programmes and to help entertain and develop ordinary fighters.

In 1990, he was moved back to the military section.

He used his usual skills to lead, serve and encourage fighters in many battles.  During the last years of the liberation struggle, he headed a commando unit and was engaged in battles in the vast expanse of eastern desert and, together with Gherezgiher Andemariam (Wuchu), led the fighting army to capture the Port of Assab.

When in Assab, although he was the Deputy Administrator, in reality, he was the administrator.  He was administering the Dankalia region including the military personnel and civilian population.  Gherezgiher Andemariam (Wuchu) was the Administrator but he was not skilled in civilian administration.

Bitweded is a courageous man.  He is the type of person who speaks his mind and doesn’t bow his head easily.  It is this strong character that put him in conflict with Isayas and later contributed to his imprisonment.

It all started not long after May 1991.  Isayas Afwerki, the then Secretary General of the EPLF, declared free access to the Port of Assab to the newly established Ethiopian government without due consultation with high-level Eritrean officials.

At that time, Bitweded Abraha was Deputy Administrator of Assab.  He openly reminded and warned Isayas Afwerki of the blunders committed when Badme area was similarly put under Woyane administration back in 1984.

Later on, Isayas ordered Bitweded to let Ethiopia acquire all the assets it lost after the capture of Assab.  Bitweded replied back by saying, “…these assets were captured and shouldn’t be returned because it cost Eritrea the blood of young Eritrean martyrs…”

Isayas perceived Bitweded’s strong opposition as an affront to his authority.  That was when the weaving of traps to imprison Bitweded began in earnest.

Soon after, the Ethiopian government offered to pay the salaries for port and refinery employees of Assab.  Bitweded again refused to accept the offer by declaring that Eritrea is an independent state and that the salaries should be covered by Eritrea.  He insisted that both countries need to establish their relationship just like those terms done between nation states.

Eritrea’s financial condition was in a poor state.  Bitweded came up with an idea.  He wrote a letter to Romadan Mohamed Noor, the then Head of that region.

There happened to be a large amount of bottled whisky in Assab.  It was part of what was captured when the port was taken.  Bitweded suggested that if these could be sold to Ethiopia, they could cover two to three months of salaries for those working at Assab port and refinery and help other Eritrean establishments run their activities in Assab.  He added that each Eritrean fighter in Assab be given two bottles of whisky for free.

Romadan supported the idea and gave the permission by sending a letter to Bitweded.

Not long after, Isayas Afewerki and Meles Zenawi signed an agreement that allowed Ethiopia to use the facilities of the Port of Assab without restrictions.  And again, Bitweded expressed his dissatisfaction and insisted on consulting and discussing these matters with concerned officials and on the need to base the relationship in accordance to the standard relations of two independent nation states.

The Ethiopian government was not at ease with these differences.  There were some who heard Isayas and Meles talking about these inconveniencies in relation to Bitweded’s reactions.  It came to pass that Bitweded’s strong stand translated to an accusation that sales from the bottles of whisky had been put to his [Bitweded’s] personal use and on this unverified ground, Bitweded was put in prison in October 1991.

His imprisonment was not made public.  For almost 6 months, his family and his colleagues in Army Unit 07 were kept in the dark.  They were told he had left the country to study abroad.  However, as it was later on revealed the main reason for the imprisonment of Bitweded was his popularity as it was so wide-spread among the fighters that it was believed to have something to do with threatening the power base of Isayas Afewerki.  News about his imprisonment was also spread all over, but Bitweded couldn’t defend himself.  His name was tarnished but it didn’t last long simply because there was no evidence to maintain the accusation.

Within a year of Bitweded’s imprisonment, Ato Abraha Asfaha approached Isayas Afwerki and asked about his son’s imprisonment.  Ato Abraha was assured that his son would be released soon.  It was only meant to delay his release.

There was a time when Bitweded’s father openly asked Isayas Afwerki to bring his son to a court of law.  Ato Abraha Asfaha declared that “…his son is a person of good deeds and that many people know that.  The Eritrean people are kind people and I would ask them to help me pay the fines if my son is charged and found guilty of embezzlement.”

It is reported that Isayas Afwerki told the father to leave and was ill-treated by security officers before he left the offices.  He could not pay any more visits to complain because security officers turned him away every time he tried.

In 1992, Bitweded’s father, Ato Abraha Asfaha, met Petros Solomon (the person who was reported to be in charge of Bitweded’s case) and asked him about his son.  Petros said, “It’s OK father.  It’s only a temporary thing.  He will be released soon.” Ato Abraha said, “Listen son, we all make mistakes and so please tell me what he did.  I will do all I can.  Just tell me the crime he committed.  My son and I have many well-wishers.  If you need someone to bail him out on their lives, I can bring ten of them.”  Petros Solomon couldn’t say much.  He said, “It’s OK father.  We need not go that far.  Don’t stress yourself.  He will be released.”

Later on, Ato Abraha Asfaha met Ali Said Abdella, the head of internal security and asked him to clarify the case of his son.

Ali Said Abdella replied, “Father, your son is dearer to us than to you.  There is no one, including myself, above Bitew [Bitweded] who did more for this country in terms of courage and self-sacrifice.  Don’t worry father.  He will be released soon.  Maybe you are not happy because you did not see him long enough and that is natural.  Otherwise, he is in a good place.  It is just that he is imprisoned for the sake of it but he is not being kept like a prisoner as such.  There is no problem.  As for being obstinate, it seems he got it from you.  But you need not worry.

He [Ali Said Abdella] talked like this because he knew what Bitweded had said to Isayas Afwerki.

Later, Ato Abraha is reported to have said, “I saw my son after he survived all that hell and he got imprisoned just before I could see him for the third time.  It is not fair!  And all this for the flag he fought for!  May you not be bitten by a dog you raised!”

Ato Abraha died with grief in September 1993.

In 1995, Bitweded was able to escape prison through the help of a student from the Revolution School, he knew during the struggle years.  He hid at his godfather’s house.  He could have crossed the border to neighbouring countries, but due to his belief, confidence and love for his mother land, he didn’t.

He called Isayas Afwerki by phone.  Bitweded asked for three hours of conversation with Isayas – at a place and time convenient to Isayas.

He also met and discussed with some officials like Mahmood Sheriffo, Petros Solomon, Haile Wolde Tensae (Drue) and others for about 2 to 3 hours. He talked about his case and clarified the issues surrounding his imprisonment. After he finished, he told them that they could take him to prison, and he was put back in prison.  Afraid of what could happen, it is reported that Isayas Afewerki didn’t accept the invitation and never attended the meeting.

Bitweded, even in prison, was determined, and he wrote two books:

  1. Democracy in Eritrea – on the need to remove dictatorship and fight for democracy in Eritrea and;
  1. Civil War and its aftermath – on Eritrean civil war of the 70s and 80s and lives lost; on those who went mad with power and the consequences brought on the Eritrean society

In his second book, he recalls the first woman martyr who died in the civil war.  “She was killed by her brother’s bullet.  Would it not have been better had she lost her life fighting the enemy?”  He ponders.

During the early years of his imprisonment, he used to say to close visitors that he would be released when war breaks out with Woyane.  True to his predictions, he was released in May of 1997 – not that long before the all-out war broke out along the borders of Eritrea and Ethiopia.

When he was taken to a special court and told that he would be released on the day by a group of judges that comprised of colonels and brigadier generals, Bitweded said, “I am not a dog that you can order to come in or go out!  I am a veteran fighter.  I was the head of an army unit you were part of [pointing to one of the judges who was a brigadier general].  You cannot tell me to come in or go out without a rule of law.  Those who have the power to release me must at least have the rank of a major general.  Even then, they will have to state the crime I committed or make it clear that I have committed no crime in accordance to the rule of law and I will accept it only when it is put in writing.  Therefore, you either bring a new set of judges or send me back to prison again.”

They told him to wait outside.

After talking with someone on the phone, they called Bitweded back and told him that no other person can come at this moment and ‘in accordance to his choice,’ he will be returned to his prison cell, and he did.

At about 9:00 in the morning on 24th December 1997, Bitweded was told that he was going to a special court to be released and that he would be talking to Sebhat Efrem, the Minister of Defence and a Major General. He was taken to Beleza and was told by Sebhat Efrem that he was not guilty of any crime and that he would be paid his unpaid salaries and would also be compensated for miscarriage of justice.  All these were put in writing and it was given to him. He was then taken to Hamassien Hotel and he stayed there.

Soon after, his relatives and friends arranged to take a journey and visit his father’s grave at Adi Mengonti.  He placed a bunch of flowers on his father’s grave, and the people of the village had gathered around to express their condolences.

That is when he delivered the following speech.

Dear Respected Guests

I am grateful you are all here with me today to pay your respect on the day I am visiting my father’s grave.  May younotbe visited by sadness! We are your fruits.  We struggled.  You gave us your support but you were not paid back in kind. I strongly believe you will keep on struggling to establish a democratic government and that it will demand more.  A heavy responsibility is awaiting the younger generation.  Do not be confused.  There are so many Eritreans who only have their own personal interest in mind, but pretend as if they have a national interest at hand.

The Government of Eritrea has claimed and spread rumours that I was put in prison because of a financial scandal.  I was put in prison because I believed in establishing a democratic government.  The Government of Eritrea knows this.  It could have brought me to a court of law.  It never did. Five years later, I was released.  There was no explanation and none was given to the Eritrean public in any form of national media simply because they couldn’t charge me with anything. Except for a veteran fighter Omar Hakito who spoke to Isayas Afwerki, no other senior Eritrean government official has raised my case. Difficult times lie ahead and hence, let’s not let ourselves be fooled.  You have to keep on struggling as usual.  

 The speech was received very well and, soon after, to visit three parents of martyred fighters and due to an invitation by his former students from the Revolution School, Bitweded went to Dekemhare.  There, he delivered a speech that conveyed the same spirit to a huge crowd of older guests, young students and friends who knew him during the long struggle for the independence of Eritrea.

Not long after, Bitweded was openly talking about the rising dictatorship in Eritrea and the negative effects it would have on Eritrean society and that people of Eritrea should fight for their democratic rights.  It was also clear that the reason for his imprisonment was not as it was alleged, but it was a problem that started with the key personalities – Isayas and Meles.  To back his argument, he was showing evidences which he had kept.

He openly started his campaign in order to clear his name and also to share his vision of what he predicted that Isayas would be a dictator. Isayas Afwerki was not happy with these developments.  Afraid that this could cause an uprising that might cost him dearly, he decided to put Bitweded and some of his sympathisers in prison two months later.

After the death of Ato Abraha, Weizero Kidisti (Bitweded’s mother) had taken the responsibility to follow up their son’s issue.  Long before the armed struggle for the independence of Eritrea spread to the highlands, she was travelling back and forth to see her son since 1974.  She had a good knowledge and relationship with the fighters and their ranks.  When Sebhat Efrem was around Mendefera in 1976/77, she used to know him very well. It is said that is the reason why she charted a new footpath by so many walks to his office trying to find out about her son.

Sebhat Efrem used to give her so much hope by saying, “Bitweded will be released soon.”

She had met Isayas Afwerki in his office in 1998.  When she asked him about her son, it was reported that the following is what he said.

“Mother, Bitweded is a hero.  I like him.  He has fought and worked for the independence of Eritrea with the back and front of his hand.  But he was put in prison because he didn’t respect us.  And you don’t need to worry much, mother.  I will make sure he will be released in a few days time.”

 

Although she knew that he [Isayas] was trying to fool her, she thanked him and returned home .Six months later, she went back to Isayas’s office again.  When he saw her standing outside the entrance while he was entering in, he gave orders to his guards not to let her in.  One of the guards tried to push her beyond the premises.

She shouted back, “Don’t touch me! You ignorant!  My son is not like you!”

One other guard said, “Please leave her alone.  She is the mother of Bitweded.  It’s because her son is in prison.”

In addition to the above, she has approached and asked Sheriffo, Al’amin and Romadan at different times to release her son from prison.

One day, she went to Sheriffo’s place and asked, “My son, how many times do you have to tell that he will be released soon?  What will you say other than he is an obstinate person?  You all say the same thing.  Is my son the only obstinate person?  And even if he is, is it not for his country?  Why are you not obstinate?  When you were fighting in the front, we all thought you were lions and obstinate fighters.  Have you lost it now?  This country is not in good hands.  Who is fighting for it and who doesn’t care?  My son is fighting for his country and he is in prison?  When you share his fate, you will remember him then!”

It is reported that he shook his head and couldn’t reply back.

Maybe it is because of the above exchange that when a high level meeting chaired by Isayas Afwerki was convened in Dongollo, Sheriffo raised the issue of Bitweded and asked why nothing has been said about Bitweded and why it has not been made public yet.  Isayas is reported to have said that it was outside the agenda of that day and that it will be discussed in due course of time.

Not much longer, Weizero Kidisti was ill.  When relatives suggested she should go to a hospital, she is reported to have said, “I don’t need medical care.  If Sebhat Ephrem could only allow me to see my son, please take me there.”

They took her to Beleza on a stretcher.  General Sebhat Ephrem told those who brought her to step outside and told her in private that they cannot let her see her son and that Bitweded was imprisoned by direct orders from President Isayas Afwerki.”

In the year 2000, Kidisti Teweldemedhin passed away.  She followed her husband without ever seeing her beloved son again.  Thousands attended her funeral.  Those who knew the family very well were in deep sadness.  His brother was crying while saying, “…dear brother… my mother is being buried…won’t you come to bid farewell?” All were in tears.

The suffering Bitweded went through has affected his personal, family, close relatives and friends lives.  Bitweded was married in 1985.  They had a daughter in 1987.  He didn’t even see her growing up.  His daughter is brought up without her father’s love and affection. It’s told that his wife, after waiting so long, left him and she also left the country.

As if he didn’t fight in the wilderness and spent all his youth for the independence of Eritrea, Bitweded wasted further 13 years of his life in a solitary confinement.  He is still there in a very poor state.  Since his first day of imprisonment, Betweded is still not charged and has never been brought to a court of law.

As if he wasn’t a lion living in the wilderness, Bitweded is being kept in a hole like a fox.

This courageous, visionary and brave veteran fighter has been uncared for, and the Eritrea he fought for has been unkind to him.  As if he did not fight for the rule of law and justice, he has been denied those rights.

But, his heroic story will not be forgotten.  Bitweded Lives!

 

Elsa Chyrum

London – United Kingdom

I would like to express my thanks and deep gratitude to those who help in the preparation of this short life story of Bitweded Abraha.

The story was first published in September 2005 in Tigrigna, but revised and translated in English in December 2005.