Seyoum Tsehaye was born in Tukul in 1952 from his father Tsehaye Woldemariam and his mother Roma Solomon. His father was the owner of Bar Da’Osta at Campobollo in Asmara.
After he completed high school in Asmara, Seyoum went to Addis Ababa and continued his studies at Alliance Francaise. Due to the
political turmoil there in the 70s, he returned back to Asmara and worked as a French teacher at Asmara University for just one year. He found it difficult to live and work in Asmara because, besides the fact that he had some of his brothers in the “field” (the armed struggle for independence), he was clandestinely involved with the Eritrean Peoples Liberation Front (EPLF). In the end, he chose to join the front in 1977. Including those who followed him soon thereafter, he was the eighth brother to join the front.
After completing his military training, Seyoum was assigned to work in engineering department. But for much of his years in the field, he was to be known as a fighter and war photographer. Those who knew him well report that, on one occasion, he managed to disarm and capture an enemy combatant armed with his video camera only. To this day, Eritrean Television (ERI TV) still uses archive material taken by Seyoum and his colleagues during those heavy battle scenes of the 70s and 80s. That is why in those days he was known as a ‘fighter photographer’.
Those who know Seyoum well say that he is good and courageous man, always trying to improve his skills while willing to give his support to everyone that needs it and at all times. However, in those days, there was an attitude among the fighters in the field and promoted by the leadership that the ‘educated’ were incapable of withstanding the harsh realities of the battlefield. They were labeled as ‘petty bourgeois’. Seyoum was not spared such labeling; the more so because he had an independent mind. Despite the defamation, he remained a dedicated and selfless fighter who worked hard and participated in all kinds of activities for the independence and development of Eritrea.
He was also noted for his love of children but never had his own while in the field. He was often heard of saying that he was unwilling to leave orphans behind.
One of his achievements was the archive material he produced during the liberation of the Port of Massawa and Dekemhare. The one for Massawa was called “Kibtset” (“Lost Hope”). It was one of the most gruesome battles ever fought in Eritrea and it did require some courage to be able to document it the way he did. It became one of the best documentaries of the war and was viewed by millions, both inside and outside Eritrea.
After independence, Seyoum was assigned to the Port of Assab and worked in the news department. Residents of Assab had never heard news transmissions in Tigrinya (an Eritrean language) before. It all used to be in Amharic (the official language of Ethiopia). Listeners were so impressed with his work that they called him “the lion”.
Later, he was transferred to the capital Asmara and became the Director of ERI-TV. He was one of the pioneers who helped establish the TV service. He is the type of person who believed in participatory and collective work, with less emphasis on bureaucracy, rank and order. He was against dictating and putting staff under pressure. All of this put him in collusion with the Minister of Information Ahmed Tahir Badwi. As a result, he left his post and became the Director for the department for tourism development. He was again met with the bureaucratic inertia he faced before. He did his best to improve the department but was unable to achieve much because of lack of support from the authorities. Exacerbated, he applied for demobilization and was soon granted his wishes.
He then established his own enterprise. He produced and directed a popular movie called “Hidri”. He was also involved in exhibition shows, writing and translation of documents in Italian, English and French. Moreover, in collaboration with his colleagues, he worked as a Photographer and Director in the production of “Confessions” and “Life and Faith”. Both documentaries dealt with issues of HIV/AIDS awareness and were made with the youth as their main targeted audience.
In the midst of all these, the border war between Eritrea and Ethiopia broke out in May 1998. However saddened he was by this new development, Seyoum again went back to the battlefield to cover the event as a writer and photography journalist.
Later, when private newspapers were allowed to operate, he was contributing articles to “Setit” paper. One of the issues he extensively covered was the plight of women fighters and their destitute living conditions. And when students of Asmara University protested about their rights and, as a result, were mass-detained into one of the hottest detention centers in Eritrea (WIa), where two of them died of dehydration, Seyoum protested by writing, “The leaders of the future are being killed by the leaders of today.” He boldly stated that the likes of Dr. Wolde’ab Issac – the then President of Asmara University – are responsible for not preventing such an atrocity.
When the Government of Eritrea was facing a political turmoil in late 2000 and early 2001, Seyoum was writing and asking for an open dialogue and a roundtable discussion among government officials and with the Eritrean public to avoid confrontations that would be detrimental for Eritrea’s future. He did not take sides but just asked for a genuine and open engagement in addressing the issues. He wrote that we should learn from our past experiences of confrontations and do our best to work for peace and justice.
Some people describe Seyoum as an angry and frustrated man. But those who have closely worked with him know him as a genuine person who would be upset only when faced with hypocrisy and conformism. He sincerely believed that everyone has his/her own gift and that we all need to value our own distinct talents and selves and that our differences should not only be tolerated but also celebrated. More can be said about Seyoum. Above all, he was known for his courage, goodness, hardworking, truthfulness and principled stand.
Seyoum was married in 1999 and has 2 children. He was imprisoned in September 2001 when his wife was 7 months pregnant with their second child. As mentioned above, he didn’t want to have children while he was in the field fighting for independence simply because he couldn’t bear the idea of orphaned children fending for themselves. However hard he tried though, he couldn’t escape from what he feared most. The “free Eritrea” he fought for couldn’t save his own children from being orphaned and his wife being widowed at an early age.
Out of her 8 children, that joined the front, his mother, Roma Solomon, got 7 of them back. One of them was martyred. She had to wait in grief and agony for so long to find out the fate of her children. And now, in her old age, she finds herself in the same unenviable position. She is passing her days crying and praying for her son Seyoum. His father, Tsehaye Woldemariam, passed away in 1997 before witnessing any of the horrors his son is going through.
Seyoum has been in prison for almost 7 years now. No one knows why he was imprisoned in the first place. No member of his family has seen him yet. Some say he is in Era’Ero prison. Prison guards who used to work there describe the conditions as horrendous. It is reported that, to date, at least four journalists have died in that notorious prison camp.
As if Seyoum didn’t fight for independence, fairness and social justice, he is now languishing in prison without any due process of law. Besides the suffering he faces as an individual, it is sad to see so much talent being wasted – a talent that could have been constructively used to build the new Eritrea.
Reporters Without Borders – a non-governmental organization – made Seyoum “Journalist of the Year for 2007”. However proud we all were, it is sad that he wasn’t celebrated in his own country for all the good journalistic works he achieved and for all the time and energy he spent in fighting for a free and fair Eritrea.
Despite his detractors, Seyoum’s dedicated work, courage and quest for justice lives with us forever.
18 July 2008