Eritrea: Ten Years of Torture – An Eritrean ex-prison guard remembers

Interview With Eyob BahtaWhat you are about to read is a transcript of an interview given to Human Rights Concern – Eritrea by Mr Eyob Bahta who was a prison guard from September 2001 until his escape from Eritrea in 2010.

The story begins on the 17th of September 2001 in Embat’kala prison, and moves on to Era’Ero prison where the horror still continues to this day.

Who are the prisoners and what is their crime?

They are normal people who are guilty of being journalists, doctors, ministers, generals, heroes of the revolution and people who advocated for reform and the implementation of the ratified constitution of Eritrea. Since there is no independent judicial system in Eritrea, no charge was brought against them and they have not been on trial yet.

At first, the prisoners were kept in a former training centre in Embat’kala – a small town along the road to Massawa. Eventually however, all prisoners ended up in the purpose-built Era’ero prison. The 35 prisoners were initially guarded by 150 prison guards to discourage a rescue attempt that never transpired. Over the years, the guards were reduced down to 80 because of transfers and escapes.

Eyob himself escaped.

How bad can a prison be when even the guards are trying to escape? It implies that even the guards themselves were prisoners. The guards are still being guarded from a distance.

In fact, the whole of Eritrea is a kind of prison for most of its people. There are few places, however as inhospitable as Era’ero – a purpose-built prison and hard to reach as the location of Era’Ero is far from the capital, towns, villages and the main road. The temperature is so high and it is hard to imagine how prisoners can survive under that extreme heat without any kind of ventilation. It is a prison without adequate health support. The probability a prisoner will receive any kind of proper medical attention is remote.

At least 15 prisoners of the original 35 have died. Nobody knows for sure where they are buried.

Conditions are inhumane. All prisoners have numbers instead of names*. They are only allowed to wash once a week. They are handcuffed and kept in their cells for at least 23 hours a day. Food is limited to an unchanging diet of bread and lentil or chickpea soup with vegetables regardless of medical conditions.

Some prisoners have been driven to suicide and there are some who succeeded on third attempt.

This terrifying account on prisoners in Eritrea must be extrapolated to account for the hundreds of thousands of Eritreans to imagine or show a true picture of what is happening all over Eritrea today. There are prisons everywhere holding ordinary citizens whose basic human rights are non-existent. In fact, some of the prisons are even in a much worse condition where rape and torture are routine. These are typical prisons and that give a glimpse of a systematic process to break the will of the Eritrean people.
In the light of all this evidence we urge the UN Human Rights Council and member states of the United Nations to consider a full investigation into this state of affairs by arranging a fact finding mission to Eritrea and acting upon its findings by passing a resolution condemning Eritrea’s inhumane ill treatment of its citizens in and outside its three hundred-plus prisons.

Elsa Chyrum

for Human Rights Concern – Eritrea

Human Rights Concern – Eritrea, P.O.Box 36199, London SW7 5WS, Tel: +44(0)7958005637, email:hrc_e@yahoo.co.uk, www.hrc-eritrea.org

Part 1

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Part 2

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Interviewer: Elsa Chyrum  (Human Rights Concern – Eritrea)

Date of interview: 4 January 2011

Could you tell me about your background and life story?
I was born in 1975 and became a member of the EPLF (Eritrean People’s Liberation Front) in 1990 until I was demobilized in 1993. I was recruited in the army again to fight again after the border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia erupted in May 1998. On the 17th of Sept 2001, I was assigned to work as a member of the prison security personnel in Embat’kala until 5th of June 2003 and was transferred to work at Era’ero prison until 2010.

Could you tell me more about Embat’kala prison? When did it start its operation and how many prisoners were kept there?
At first, it wasn’t a prison facility at all. It was a school and a training centre for various kinds of skills. It was the place where the first 11 members of the so-called Group of Fifteen (the G-15 high level Eritrean government officials) arrived. Not much later, another 19 more arrived before they were all transferred to Era’ero with one more prisoner. Of these, 9 were journalists and the rest were government officials. I could give you all the names.

Could you give me the names?

1. General Okbe Abraha
2. Ahmed Sheriffo
3. Brigadier General Estifanos
4. Major General Berhane Ghebre Ezgi’abher
5. Humed Hamed
6. Beraki
7. Haile Woldetensae
8. Petros Solomon
9. Saleh Kekiya
10. Aster Fessehasion
11. ?

More Government Officials:
12. Feron Woldu
13. Kiflom
14. Ali
15. Al’azar
16. Mehari Yacob
17. Kidane
18. Miriam
19. Said Aree
20. Dr. Siraj
21. ?
22. ?
23. ?
24. ?
25. ?

The Journalists:
26. Fessahaye (Joshua)
27. Mattewos
28. Temesgen
29. Ahmed Sayed
30. Dawit
31. Seyoum Tsheye
32. Ammanuel
33. Medhanie
35. Dawit  (he came later to Era’ero)

I may have forgotten some of the names but I know them.

How were the prisoners kept at Embat’kala prison?
The weather in Embat’kala is good and the rooms they were held in had enough space. They were not designed for prison. It was much better than Era’ero. They could go to the toilet (about 100 meters from their sleeping quarters). They can go out to the toilet (only one by one) twice a day – 5:30 to 6:00 in the morning and evening. They don’t see each other at all. They can hear doors being locked and opened but wouldn’t know who is staying next door.

What happens if they get sick and need to use the toilets?
They were not allowed to get out at all beyond those fixed intervals. They are provided with a bucket and they can take it out when their time comes.

You said that they could hear doors being locked and opened. Did they try to communicate with each other – say by shouting?
They had this impression that they would be released soon and obeyed the rules. They didn’t try to do anything beyond what was required of them. They could probably try to shout but the sound or scream wouldn’t come out of the rooms.

Could you give me an example, if at all?
For some of them, the handcuffs were too tight and they couldn’t stand the pain. They would shout in agony. They would ask if the handcuffs could be relaxed. They were in handcuffs for 24 hours and these were switched from in front to behind their backs. They felt very uncomfortable in them. Later on, however, they got used to it.

When they complained about being held in prison and being handcuffed, were they mistreated in some other way – like being tortured or beaten?
There wasn’t any torture as such. They were just kept in solitary confinement. That in itself is a big punishment. Other than being allowed to come out twice a day and probably get medical attention when needed, there were no other provisions. I have not seen anyone being beaten because there was nothing they could do in that confined space anyway. But they could have felt a lot better if they had received frequent medical attention or were moved to a bigger room. They didn’t have that privilege.

Do you remember the name of the official who took the responsibility to move these prisoners from Embat’kala to Era’ero – and if there are any other officials who took part?
The transport is organized by the security forces. If we talk about the drivers, there was someone called ‘Wedi Yohannes’ [Son of Yohannes] who was also head of a military unit and there was also his driver. The rest of the drivers are part of the security forces.

Before they were transported, were they informed where they were being taken to? [a look of surprise from the interviewee]. Or did they just take them away? Could you tell me how it happened?
They were not told where they were being taken. Not even those who were transporting them knew where they were taking them. The security forces were told to secure the area and all the prisoners were taken to where they were supposed to be taken.

Were there any prisoners who were seriously sick or died in Embat’kala prison?
Yes, three died in Embat’kala. The first who died was Fessehaye (Joshua). He was a journalist, I think. He committed suicide. He hanged himself. General Okbe Abraha tried to commit suicide by trying to cut himself with broken glass. He was given medical attention. He recovered. But he was suffering from asthma and died about six months later. Mohammed Sheriffo fell sick and died. These three died in Embat’kala.

You said that Fessehaye was found hanging in his cell. If they were handcuffed all the time what did he use to hang himself?
Right. He had made several attempts. He was a fit person. He could move his handcuffs from back to front. At night time, their handcuffs are put on the back. Joshua, it was said, could unshackle himself. No one saw him doing that but one day he managed to make a cord out of strings he tore from his blanket. He was also found with a broken pipe (from the toilet) and a T-joint. On a third attempt, he managed to hang himself with a cord made from blanket strings. He was found hanged on the door or window. That is how he died.

It has been reported that Mohammed Sheriffo was suffering from bowel sickness for about a month and that he died due to lack of proper medical attention in time. Is there anything you know about that?
Yes, I have to tell you what I know. Mohammed Sheriffo was under the first security unit and I was part of the second security unit. I knew he was sick but I don’t know what kind of medical attention he was receiving. We only hear what was going on. They used to say he had a growth on his neck but no one went into his cell except those who were assigned to him. His condition deteriorated and he died in the end.

So you think he wasn’t given enough medical attention?
There was a nurse on call for the prisoners. But nothing more was provided other the regular medical attendance. I am sure there wasn’t any higher medical officer but I wouldn’t know the ability of the nurse. So Mohammed Sheriffo didn’t receive any medical attention from a professional medical doctor.

Joshua, General Okbe and Sheriffo died in Embat’kala. Where were they buried? Do you know anyone from among your colleagues who took the duty to bury them?
I don’t know where they are buried but I know that their bodies were taken from Embat’kala during the night and I don’t know who took them. We just assumed that they were buried in the Martyr’s grave in Embat’kala. It’s not for sure.

After they died, did they inform you that the three had died or did you just assume they were dead?
We were not informed by anyone. There is no such thing as formal notification about anything. It is the way things work. It is all informal. That is how information is spread around.

What do you know about Era’ero? Why was that location chosen? How is it set up?
As a member of the prison guard, I am not an advisor but can only speculate why the location was chosen. I would say that because this was a high security issue and because these prisoners are not very well known in far away areas, they would pose less of a security issue problem from those who know. That is the way it seems. The prison is about 60 kms away from the main road towards north. It is in the hot areas in the lowlands and only nomads frequent the area. However, once the nomads are told not to cross the area, they will never dare come back. So, there are no settlements there. Anyone who tries to reach it would find it difficult. They would have to be highly organized. It was all done to hide the prisoners from the general public.

How were prisoners treated in Era’ero prison – in terms of food quality, medical attention, body exercise and exposure to open air? And what do the cells look like?

Era’ero is different from Emba’kala. Embat’kala was not designed for prisoners, and the prisoners could at least go out twice a day. In Era’ero however, they are kept in their cells for 24 hours. They don’t even know whether it is day or night. Their cell doors are opened only for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Maybe they can be allowed to go out for an hour (between 8 and 9 in the morning) or so in a 2 by 2 meter confined space built by concrete walls with wire mesh on top. If the sun is not out, they wouldn’t be allowed.

You said they have breakfast, lunch and dinner. What kind of food is it? Are there any provisions if the prisoners need to have a different kind of food due to illness?
There is no difference in the type of food they are provided with – whether they are normal or sick. As for the food type, it is just basic bread, the traditional lentil or chickpea soup and veggies. The bread used to be proper white flour. Food was in short supply back in 2010. Sorghum was introduced but it demands strong molars. In general, the food quality was not good.

How about their medical attention?
There are two permanent nurses there. If it is beyond the capacity of these two nurses, prisoners do not have access to any higher medical service.

How about personal hygiene – like changing clothes, washing, cleaning and shaving? Do they have access to books or newspapers?
As far as clothes are concerned, they really don’t have lots of needs since they don’t get out at all. They are provided with track suits. They have their water and toilet in their own cells. They have a head shave once every month. But they don’t communicate with each other.

There were women prisoners. Do you remember their names? You did tell me before. Could you tell me more?
There were two of them – Aster and Miriam. One of them died [meaning Aster].

How did they take their imprisonment? Were they treated differently? Do you recall any observations?
They couldn’t take it at first. Like all the new prisoners, they rebelled against it. In their case, they were crying. Later, they calmed down and got used to it.

Were they under your security unit?
They could have been in one or another unit. I worked in the first and second units.

You said that Aster and Miriam expressed their rebellion by crying. Were they crying loud enough to be heard or were they saying something while crying?

I don’t remember what they were saying while they were crying but whenever I delivered their food, I could see that they had been crying. There were tears in their eyes. But I can’t remember what they were saying.

How were they when they arrived and after they spent some time in prison – I mean health-wise?
Aster didn’t look well-built or in good health when she arrived but everyone thought that she would be able to take the ordeal. Whereas Miriam was bigger in stature but soon after she got sick and required support to go to the toilet. I don’t remember what she was suffering from. She was OK before I left but I don’t know how she is. That is a year ago now.

Are the security personnel at Era’ero a selection from a commando unit or were they especially trained for this purpose?
Those who are working under that unit now were taken straight from the military. It was probably decided by numbers. There wasn’t an issue of ability or training involved in giving them the responsibilities. I don’t know if they were trained for this purpose. In our case, we were taken from different units and put together.

How were you trained? How many of you were there?
If I am not mistaken, we were told that there were 150 at first. At the moment it could be estimated at about 80.

Why has the number dropped? Was it part of a programme or was there some other reason?
I can only speculate why since I don’t know what decisions were being taken at that time. But I think when it all started, there was this big issue of security and they were probably thinking in terms of a high number of military personnel. After a while, they [the government] probably succeeded in being more confident and there was no meaningful opposition to all that either. Maybe that was why there are less prison guards. They initially brought two military units from two different locations in Eritrea. The one from Dankalia returned to its base after a short while. There was also another unit that went from the highlands of Eritrea to Dankalia. There was a lot of reshuffling from one unit to another and from one location to another. At Era’ero, the number of security personnel could probably have gone down to 80 or 70 now. One other reason could be because of people like me [those who fled Eritrea].

How was the relationship between the security personnel and prisoners? Did you have the chance to talk to them? Were there a selected few who could enter their cells?

Any security member could enter the cells during his time of duty. The reason he goes in is mainly due to ongoing assessment and a matter of keeping themselves on guard in case there arise responsibility issues. If anything unexpected happens, we all assume something bad might happen to us as well. That which is allowed we provide but the rest is of no concern to us.

Whenever the prisoners get the chance – when you give them their food, for example – do they talk to you or ask you questions?
They don’t ask questions and it is because they know you are a member of the security and they also know that they can put you in jeopardy as well. If there are any questions, they are about the quality of the food or other services – medical, for example. All we have to do is pass the information.

Do they have a bed in their cells? What does it look like? Can you describe it?

It is probably about 3 by 4 meters. It has a separate bathroom. It does not have a bed. All they have is a mat and a blanket. Previously, they were in a kind of container made of plastic but it collapsed due to rain. Now, the walls are made of concrete blocks and wooden slabs. There are 13 rooms of that type and there are 20 prisoners. The other 7 are in another type of room.


PART 2

What do you think was the difference between the time you started working as a prison guard and the time you left? Your overall experience, I mean from Embat’kala to Era’ero and your impression of what was happening to the prisoners?
The prisoners could go out at least twice a day when they were in Embat’kala. Although we were prison guards, as a human being, one would ask oneself about their imprisonment and treatment. One would also ask if Embat’kala is better than Era’ero. When I look back, however, Embat’kala was a better place for them because they had more space and could see the surrounding area – cars and buses driving by along the road from Asmara to Massawa. The quality of the food was not that different from what the Eritrean military had for its daily ration. Those who had medical conditions such as diabetes were given a different kind of meal like teh’ni. At Era’ero however, they didn’t have that kind of privilege.
Furthermore, the climatic conditions at Era’ero were too harsh for the prisoners and prison guards. Let alone inside the prison cells, it would be difficult to withstand the heat outside. The longer you stay there, the less able you are to recover from any illness that might have affected you. This is my observation.

It has been reported that due to the harsh living conditions and ill-treatment, a number of prisoners have died in captivity. Other than the deaths of Joshua, General Okbe and Mahmood Sheriffo, who else do think survived or died at Era’ero prison?
Joshua, General Ogbe and Sheriffo died in Embat’kala. When I was in Era’ero, 12 more died.

Can you recall their names?
Their names are:
Saleh Kekiya
Yusuf
Aster
Mehanie
Tesfameskel or Ghebremeskel (I am not sure – maybe Tesfameskel)
Mohammed Sayed
Hamid Hamed
Jermano Nati
Mattewos
Mehari Kidane
These are the names – if I have not forgotten.

Did they die at different times? What was the time span? What was the cause of their death?

They died on various dates. Those who died in the early days of transfer to Era’ero were the ones who couldn’t cope with the new climatic and living conditions. They were affected by the sudden changes in circumstances. According to my observation, the list would include Saleh Kekia, Aster and Yusuf. I cannot recall the exact date but I remember they died three days after they arrived at Era’ero.

It was sudden then. Were they sick?
When they were in Embat’kala, they had no illness. But soon after they arrived at Era’ero, the extreme heat drove them to their deaths within three or four days.

Do you recall anything they said before they died?

They did not say anything to me. They were attended by different people and I saw when they being given some medical attention.

They died at the same time then?
No. Yusuf died first. He arrived on the 5th of the month and I think he died on the day after. Aster died two days later and probably 3 days later, Saleh Kekia died.

Someone was beside them when they died? Am I right if I say they were not found dead?
Yes.

Where were they buried, I mean the three of them?
Their bodies were wrapped. The lights in their cells were switched off. Some people came to pick up their bodies during the night. But I don’t know where they took them.

Do you know the name or names of any of those who took the dead bodies?
I don’t know their names but it was all done by their ranks.

Who was the head of Era’ero prison?
Lieutenant Colonel Issak Araya’br (Wedi Hakim).

Is he still the head of the prison?

He was there when I left.

The other nine who died later, did they die due to similar conditions or were there a different set of circumstances?
They died under similar conditions but two of them committed suicide.

In Era’ero ?

Yes.

Who were they?
Tesfameskel? No it was Tesfagiorgis and Sayed. These two hanged themselves. These are the ones I know.

Do you remember when?
Tesfagiorgis died in 2004. Sayed died in 2005 or thereabouts.

Who was Tesfagiorgis?
People say that Tesfagiorgis was an administrator of Tsorona. I don’t know for sure. It is just the rumor that was circulating amongst us.

And the other one?
The other one was Ahmed Sayed. He was a journalist. Is it Abdelkadir or Ahmed Sayed?

What did they use to hang themselves?
I wasn’t there when it happened. I was not on duty but I was told that Sayed managed to unshackle himself and used some cloth to hang himself. Tesfagiorgis also used the same method.

You were a prison guard who had government officials, journalists and other prisoners under your watch. How did you feel as an individual?
When I was there, like everyone else, no one knew what the prisoners were charged for and we all thought it was a temporary thing. Everyone had that hope. Since we were part of the establishment, we were expecting that a proper procedure in a court of law would be conducted. We expected this would take place within months but it got worse and worse and went on for years and years. We began to see it as an act of cruelty with absolutely no compassion and some began to find their own way of resolving the situation.

From what was happening in the prison when you were there, in what kind of circumstances do you think the prisoners find themselves at the moment? I mean for those who are there – the remaining 20, like you said?
The way I see it, and from my experience, I don’t expect the prisoners will be allowed to leave the prison. It is how the system was working and I don’t expect it will change how it operates. Unless there is pressure from elsewhere, I don’t think they [implying the government] will take the initiative to release them. If they can keep them without any due process of law for so many years while the prisoners are dying of illness and much worse and instead of providing them with medical service but waiting for them to die, I don’t think anyone will come out alive.

Out of the remaining 20, were there some who were suffering from serious illness – I mean from what you have observed? And who do you think are those in poor health?
I don’t know much about medical conditions but to me, they looked very tired and not in good health. I would say that, at this moment, Haile Woldetensae would not be in good health and was going blind judging from the way he was taking food plates from my hands. I had the impression he was blind.

Did he receive any medical attention?
There wasn’t any medical service other than being provided with pain-killers or pills. Other than that, they have no medical service provided from outside. At one time, there was a medical doctor who came to see them without any medical instruments on him.

Do you know his name?
Dr. Haile Meh’tsun. I don’t know what he did for them.

Did he come to see all of them?

Yes, he came to see all of them and maybe discussed something with those on duty but I don’t know what they talked about. There were no prisoners that were treated and none of them were taken outside of the prison for medical attention.

Other than Haile Woldetensae, do you know of any others who are in poor health?

Alazar has problems with his backbone and his knees as well. He is in poor health. He suffers from diabetes. Dr. Siraj is incapable of standing straight. He has problems with his knees. Overall, however, I can say that they are all skinny and in poor health.

What about Mariam?
When she first arrived, she was very sick and required some assistance when she goes to the toilets. Sometimes, they used to carry her. At this moment however, I don’t know much about her internal health condition, but she looks well on the outside.

Given the general prison conditions at Era’ero – conditions so harsh that they disable able-bodied people – how do individuals like Sayed Aba Arre, a former fighter who uses a wheelchair and was in prison for so long, cope in these kinds of circumstances? Is there anyone who looks after him? Is he provided with some help?
He is not provided with any kind of support. He just moves around in his confined and limited space. Maybe it is God’s will that he is still well. He was disabled when he arrived. He would need someone to help him with his blanket and provide with some help but no one does.

Does he talk about something or he just keeps quiet? Does he ask for help?
I wouldn’t say he talks about this or that but the prison guards complain about him – like he was disturbing them. It is all reduced to complaints and disturbances and we don’t focus or talk about what he exactly said. I can say that he was talking but I don’t know what it was about.

What do you talk about? I mean the supervisors or members of the security guard who were also working in those confined spaces – what do you discuss in your meetings or in those odd moments?
We are not allowed to talk about anything that has something to do with why or what is going on. We don’t have the right. All we discuss about is how to be more efficient at what we do and improve our procedures in our daily activities. We don’t discuss about improving the living conditions of the prisoners or their rights either. It is all focused on security issues. We are told by our supervisors that prisoners’ issues are none of our concern and it is difficult to raise other matters in that kind of atmosphere.

How do you address the prisoners? You don’t call them by their names?

We don’t use their names. When we organize ourselves to deliver their food, we refer to them using numbers like no. 1 or no.2. This was our working procedure because if any of the prisoners leaves or dies, there will be a new one who replaces them but the number stays the same. I think this was done to prevent us or anyone who works there from knowing the names of those who were imprisoned. It became a habitual way of working.

When you refer to the prisoners using numbers, can they hear you?
Yes, they can hear us but what can they do? We all got used to it and sometimes we cannot be too careful. But they wouldn’t know who is imprisoned next to their cell. They have no idea.

How was the overall prison guard system managed? What happens at night? Were they able to hear anything if any of the prisoners say or ask for something?
The prison guards had two shifts a day. The first shift starts at 8:00 AM and ends at 12 noon and the second was from 1:00 PM to 6:00 PM. The night shift begins at 6:00PM and ends at 12 midnight and the next shift takes over until 3:00 in the morning. Then the last shift takes over from 3:00 AM to 8:00 AM.

Did the prison guards hear anything – like talking and shouting from the prisoners – because it is more silent at night and they could possibly hear something?
I don’t remember much happening at night because almost all are asleep. Once in a while, however, those prisoners who cannot sleep make intelligible sounds – like they are talking to themselves. You wouldn’t know what they are saying unless you open the door and listen. It just sounds like someone talking in their sleep.

Have you heard or received any final words or pleas from any of the prisoners?
I didn’t.


What could you observe about the prisoners’ facial expressions and what can you say about their spirit?

I didn’t make much note about their facial expression but I could see a difference in their overall body strength. Even if they look alright, they keep on asking the medical person to provide them with different kinds of medicine every now and then. It has something to do with stress or some kind of mental condition.

Was there a prisoner who tried to escape?
I would say there wasn’t except for one attempt. He tried to escape at night but ended up at a sentry point by mistake. He was put back into his cell.

Could you tell me his name?

Seyoum Tsehaye.

How was that possible? They are handcuffed for 24 hours. Are they in shackles as well?

No, they are not in shackles.

Are the handcuffs removed when they eat their meal?
No, they are removed only when they wash themselves.

Do they go to bed with the handcuffs on as well?

Yes.

How many times do they wash themselves in a week?
Once a week, I think. They have their breakfast between 8 and 9 AM and that is when the water supply is switched on. They cannot wash themselves or do any washing with the handcuffs on. I can’t recall how many times a week they were allowed to wash themselves. I remember there was a timetable.

Did they have any marks on their hands due to being handcuffed for 24 hours?
Yes, they used to have them in the earlier times but not much later.

Are there any members of the security guard, I mean someone like you, who managed to escape? And if there are any, would you tell me their names?

Yes, there are many of them but I find it difficult to remember all their names.

Where did they go?
I wouldn’t be able to say where they had gone. All I know is that they have managed to escape.

What happens, I mean after members of the security guard escape? How does it affect their colleagues and what would the supervisors do? Do they threaten you in some way? How do they react to the event?

In general, we were not that bothered whenever a security guard escapes. However, you are fully aware that if you ever try to do the same and are caught in your attempt, you know that the consequences are heavy. If you are caught, you are put in prison conditions that are much worse. That is what we used to think and that is the way it is. When you decide to escape, you have to imagine that you could end up being caught, imprisoned or even get killed. You escape being fully aware of all these consequences. You are not treated like an ordinary person. The prison guards there are like they are in prison – they feel the pressure whether they are on duty or on leave. You are not allowed to meet people other than their families. If they come in contact with other people or friends, they will naturally ask questions about where you are working and so on. And since you cannot take cover by saying something you don’t know much about, you might put yourself in a compromising situation. You could be telling the truth or a lie but the danger is always there and so you are forced to stay away from people. Such is the magnitude of the pressure members of the security guard go through. In that sense, they are prisoners. They are off-duty for one month per year and during that time they are trying to avoid people and friends without proper and decent social exchanges. They always try to avoid people by giving the excuse that they have some work to do. It is difficult to engage in a normal conversation when people are telling you all about themselves and you cannot relate anything about yourself. It is all about trying to avoid such a situation. For how long can you keep on doing that? This is basically what a member of the security guard suffers from.

Were there any members of the security guard who got caught trying to escape?
Yes, there are. I didn’t see them in person but I have heard about them.

Can you recall any names?
Their names… there was Tecle who worked in finance and there was also Semret Fre. These two were caught trying to escape.

Were they caught inside Eritrea, I mean before they crossed the borders?

Yes.

Do you know anything about what happened to them or what steps were taken afterwards?
I don’t what steps were taken. However, before I left, I know that there was a discussion on what to do about Tecle (the person from finance). His case had something to do with his work and issues of corruption that was linked to his boss. That was about the time I escaped. I don’t how it all ended. If they find anything on them, they will be treated differently [from other prisoners].

As individuals, I mean you and your colleagues, what did you feel morally? You were under orders. But really, what were you feeling when you are the prison guards of your brothers, your people, your brothers-in-arms and former fighters who brought independence; heroes, journalists and educated people? What did you feel when they were perishing one by one right in front of your eyes?
Like I said earlier, it is… has something to do with being naïve at first – say the first 5 or 6 months. We assumed that they would be brought to a court of law, get fair trial and be freed. However, when it was extended to a number of years, it was clear to everyone that it was merciless cruelty but there was nothing anyone could do except ask themselves: when will it end? It is painful.

Why couldn’t they refer sick prisoners to a proper medical doctor? Why were members of the security guard unable to feel free and mingle with friends and other people? All these occupy his mind and affect his conscience.

Did you ever talk or discuss about these issues with your colleagues, I mean when you were at work inside the prisons?

We don’t discuss these issues seriously but we talk about them jokingly. You cannot talk about something that is over and done with. In fact, you cannot talk about it at all because you cannot trust anyone. As long as you are working there, you have no idea what they will be thinking about or what impression they will have of you. There could be consequences on your family or your own life and other consequences. If you come under their suspicion, you could lose your time off work. If you are caught red-handed, it is over. But when you are on the edge however, they are capable of driving you to a point where they exactly want you in ways you cannot think of. You do all you can to protect yourself and avoid all possible consequences.

You have given an interview some time before and, some people questioned your Eritrean origins. They said that it is because Ethiopia has an agenda on Eritrean issues. What would you say to people with that kind of opinion?
I am not Eritrean? [with a surprised smile]

Shall I repeat the question for you?
Yes [with a nod].

[The question is asked again.]

I would say that nothing can be said to those who want to deny that. Those who know me know that I am Eritrean. If they keep on saying “whether it can fly or not, it is still a goat,” what can one say? For how long can they keep on lying? I have said what I saw and where I have been and it serves as evidence that I am Eritrean. There is nothing more I can say to them.

You have been away for one year already. The prisoners who are still at Era’ero prison – with no hope and unable to withstand their ordeal – do you think there is any way they can survive with all their illnesses?
After all these years in prison, I mean after all their suffering and illness, I don’t think they will come out alive. When it comes to their health, I mean those I left in good health, they are still alive.

Who are they? Do you have any names?
When I left, Petros Solomon, Beraki, Temesghen and Seyoum were in good health. As the years stretch however, your spirit, your strength and your consciousness are weakened, they could naturally follow the footsteps of those who passed away.

Were there prisoners suffering due to mental health?
I didn’t observe much about mental health conditions. However, I could say that Dawit – the journalist and not Dawit Issac – was the youngest. He might have gone mentally unstable. You would see him covering himself with a blanket even when it was hot. I would think that is a sign of mental instability.

It is almost impossible to list the suffering of the Eritrean people. I am sure you know more than I do because you’ve seen it with your own eyes. I cannot say more about that. What could you say on what people can do to strengthen their fight against dictatorship?
Like you just said, the suffering is getting worse but the people have to show their opposition otherwise there is no resolution. They are showing their opposition. The fact that half of the population has left the country is the evidence. It is a kind of opposition. It is not because they don’t have anything to eat. They could work but how? Every newborn is becoming a soldier. They are forced to abandon education to become soldiers and not being able to manage for themselves. All the schools built have no students in them. A student needs role models to aspire to and study to emulate them. All that you hear is youngsters saying why should they go to school when most of the older people they know are becoming soldiers. They are not interested. There aren’t many students willing to learn and those who do don’t have the ability to retain what they are taught. They are all trying to flee the country or in exile. And why? Only because they cannot settle in peace in the country. They cannot work and support their families. Every time one tries to do something or work somewhere, they take them away and force them to do national service. For lack of opportunities, the youngsters are finding themselves in a much worse situation. There is land and other means of engaging in work but there is no system that can provide it. If there are people who believe what the Government of Eritrea is doing is right and good for the country, they are mistaken.

Let’s talk about the prisoners who spent at least 10 years in prison and ask what their contribution was for the independence of the country. They were put behind bars, hidden and out of sight. Until when though?
Had the government had any care or been able to show any credibility, they could have put them in a court of law and go through proper legal procedures to set them free or give them the sentence they deserve. But the government couldn’t do that. All they did was put everyone in prison without any due process and care – it didn’t matter whether they were guilty or innocent. If there are people who deny such a situation in which people are being wiped out, they must have lost their mind.

In relation to the questions and answers we had, is there any additional message you want to communicate?

I have said all I could say and I don’t think there is anything left to add.