In Eritrea, You Can Actually Adopt a Prisoner!
By Yosief Ghebrehiwet
[This article was posted in asmarino in 2007 under the title, "Go to the Soccer Game and Adopt a Prisoner." Even though the frame of mind of many of the youth that used to frequent PFDJ festivals and Soccer tournaments has changed for the better in the last five years, the article still holds true in regard to many others, be it the young PFDJ or the old ones, or even to the indifferent middle. Hence the motivation to post it again ...]
If you are in the habit of watching TV late into the night, you couldn’t have possibly missed many of the” fund-raising” schemes, where you are bombarded with images of poor children from Africa or South America, often with sad eyes and amputated limbs. The usual pleading goes as follows: “Adopt a child with just a dollar a day!” This is not adoption in its normal sense. All that is required of you to “adopt” a child is to send thirty dollars a month, and all the material needs of the child will be met (you are reassured). In a similar fashion, I am wondering, why the Isaias regime doesn’t run similar advertisements among diaspora Eritreans: “Adopt a prisoner with just a dollar a day!” [as it used to do with “drar teghadalay”] After all, by now, it has tens of thousands of prisoners languishing in the ever-proliferating prisons scattered all over Eritrea . It needs all the help it can get to arrest them, apprehend them, transport them, house them, feed them, interrogate them, watch over them, indoctrinate them, torture them and sometimes even finish them off. All of this will require a lot of money, and many diaspora Eritreans could be made to pitch in; each one of them by adopting one prisoner of their choice. Say, for instance, if the more than 10,000 Eritreans supposed to show up in the annual soccer game to be held in July in Washington DC would just pitch in with only $100 each (each one of them adopting one prisoner), it would go a long way in meeting the GoE’s prison expenses for 2007.
If the PFDJ regime would do that, I am sure its call would be enthusiastically answered by its usual foot soldiers without any qualms. In order to get the maximum amount of money, it may even be wise for the GoE to resort to a well-honed gimmick used by many organizations in the child-adopting schemes: they try to “personalize” the adoption by establishing a virtual relationship between the adopter and the adopted. Again, we are not talking about a normal kind of relationship. All that they do is provide the sponsor with a photograph of the child to be “adopted,” a few details about his background, a sob story to accompany it with and, at most, a letter or two supposedly written by the child. I am sure the GoE would generate much more money taking this proven way. It would make the prisoners write the letters (not a difficult thing to do), with a sad-looking photograph inserted in between, that would establish the emotional link between the adopted prisoner and the adopter.
But, of course, the PFDJ regime is not so foolish. For in all its fund-raising events, the main goal is to reach beyond its robotic group of foot soldiers who would do anything it asks them to do. Its goal is to reach those indifferent, fun-loving ones who often look askance at the authoritarian rule of the Isaias regime but who nevertheless always answer its call when the cause is either rendered harmless (various forms of festivals), given a patriotic twist (independence day, the defense of the nation, etc.), or made to appeal to their “humanity” (martyrs’ day, orphans’ fund, etc.). For this gullible group, the adoption scheme would definitely be a put-off, for it would graphically show them how their money is being used in abusing the Eritrean masses. Hence, the GoE’s strategic detour to bypass the prisons (and their likes) in Eritrea to reach this hapless group’s hearts (and, of course, their pockets).
I am writing this essay with the coming July annual soccer event in mind. As many of you already know, this event doesn’t simply involve soccer matches. It involves much more than that: music shows (involving many bands), food and drinks, a lot of Highdef paraphernalia (videos, T-shirts, books, etc.), exhibitions, etc. As a result, hundreds of thousands of dollars are generated every year through this kind of events. Before, the committees that used to run these events had some kind of autonomy on how to spend this income. Not anymore. The Highdefites have completely taken over, and every cent generated in these “soccer” events is directly sent to PFDJ’s coffers.
Many of those who participate in these events can hardly be categorized as die-hard PFDJ supporters. If you ask them why they participate in these events, the reasons they give are often apolitical and “harmless” ones; primarily with soccer, dance, music, food, drinks, friends, “bahli,” art, the opposite sex in mind. They hardly realize that it is the very money generated in these events that ends up in building, maintaining, upgrading and guarding (and torturing the prisoners) the many proliferating prisons all over Eritrea: Adi-Quala, Ghedem, Hadish-MeAsker, Tsetserat, Adi-Abeyto, Sawa, Mai-Serwa, Dahlak, GhelAlo, WiA, Karsheli, Wenjel-Mermera, Era-Ero, various police stations, etc. – where all kinds of dissenters, religious minorities, religious prisoners, deserters, conscription-evaders and their parents, political prisoners and anyone and everyone suspected of “subversion” or “defeatism” are languishing under the harshest conditions. There is no doubt then what these fun-loving Eritreans who throng to these festivals are actually doing is “adopt a prisoner” – in every sense of it – with the money they spend on these festivals.
Of course – as stated above – the GoE is not stupid enough to render the link between these adopters and their adopted prisoners transparent. So it remains up to us to do just that, if that is the only way to make them see the sinister link. One way of doing that would be to show these fun-loving crowds the kind of letters they would have received from their adopted prisoners had the “adopt a child” organization’s approach been used. So lets look at what such three letters would look like: one from a Warsai in prison to a former Warasi who has made it all the way to America (after having escaped from the clutches of the EDF); another from a mother in prison to an Eritrean parent in America who feels he has no right to criticize the GoE in any way because of a deep sense of guilt (for having failed to join his comrades in the field in the ghedli era); and a third one to an Eritrean husband in America, married to a Jehovah Witness – all of three now planning to join the crowds in the coming soccer event.
A letter from Warsai:
Dear fellow Warsai,
My name is Yassin Abdu. I am prisoner # 38762 of WiA prison. I am one of those who claim to belong to the Warsai generation. At the age of 17, I was taken to Sawa for military training. Ever since then, I have been assigned in the army for a total of eight years. Fed up with the endless and meaningless toiling and the constant abuse from higher officials, I was caught in the attempt to flee to Sudan. I was shot in my leg and beaten until I was unconscious. Since then, I have been tortured regularly in all the ways that you are familiar with. As a result, I have scars all over my body from the regular lashings that I get; I am hard on hearing from the blows that I have received on my head; and my left arm has been stiff ever since they applied the “helicopter” on me.
I hear that you are a former Warsai who has made it successfully all the way to Sudan, and then all the way to America. What an irony! Out of all people, a Warsai like me adopting me! Isn’t that destiny or what! Thanks for covering all the expenses for keeping me in my solitary cell. They say that you have been so generous that now they have hired an additional torturer. Thanks to you, the torturing has intensified ... If I could, I would send you a photograph of the extra scars on my back that you could proudly attribute to your generous contribution. I wouldn’t even mind if you show off by passing that photograph to fellow patriotic Eritreans in that Washington soccer event that you are planning to attend … so far as it generates more money.
In fact, I cannot help but be reminded of your generosity all the time. I wish there was a way to mail you the various mementos that thankfully remind me of your generosity. You know, sometimes when I have had it and don’t care of what happens to me, I keep shouting at the top of my voice. These are the times when the sadistic torturers show up with all their paraphernalia. After beating me senseless, they put a hood on my face, shackle my legs and handcuff my arms for days. It is in those days that I feel grateful to you, for if it was not for your money, I would have never had the chance to use those brand new shackles and handcuffs. I sincerely wish I could send those as mementos to you, so that you can hang them on your wall (perhaps side by side with the map of Eritrea), proudly displaying your patriotism to fellow Eritreans like you (I hear there are many of you in wetsai; is that true?). With patriotic Eritreans like you, how can I not feel proud of being an Eritrean … By the way, they say you are the last one to leave the dancing floor in PFDJ festivals. You know what, sometimes when my torturers show up in the middle of the night, I keep seeing you drenched in sweat dancing the night away on that very same night … Hey, after all, maybe there is meaning to all this synchronicity – both of us Warsai; both of us in the act of escaping; both of us drenched in sweat … I from beating and you from dancing …
A letter from an Eritrean mother:
The whole neighborhood knows me as Amoy Tirhas. Though I am told that you are a parent yourself, you too can call me “Amoy” since I am old enough to be your mother, sixty years old to be exact (Don’t you ever use numbers to identify me! I would rather use the name given to me by my parents, thank you). In this life, I have had my share of happiness and sadness, but mostly the latter. As many mothers in Eritrea, I have lost a son and a daughter in those bitter years of ghedli. I pray nothing of the like happens to your children who, I have heard, are growing up fine in a rich and peaceful country. Now, the only son left to me, after having had many close calls with the authorities – he was a rebellious kid, I admit – has finally managed to flee the country. Even though he escaped from his battalion while it was on patrol at the border with Sudan , I have to take full responsibility for his escape (the authorities tell me). And who am I, an ignorant woman with no education, to contradict them? Is it true, by the way, that recently you helped your brother to flee to Ethiopia, and then to successfully join you in America? I know, I know; I am digressing … I am only dreaming what it would have been like if my son had made it all the way to America . At least, he would have been able to pay the penalty … never mind … never mind …
You see, my husband died twenty five years ago, and I had to toil all my life to bring up my children. I hope nothing like that ever happens to your wife. You don’t know what it means for a woman to raise her children all by herself in this God-forsaken land. Now the authorities tell me since I am the only remaining head of the family, I have either to pay up 50,000 Nakfa or go to prison. I cannot come up with that kind of money even if I were to be given another life. Unfortunately for me, I have no one like you in wetsai who can pay the penalty for me. So here I am languishing in prison. Though I am spared the physical tortures that many of the inmates go through (poor souls, some so young to be my grandchildren), there is no getting rid of the lice; the heat is unbearable; the food is awful; I have cramps all over my legs and my asthma has gotten worse. But most of all, I miss my only grandson, who is now being taken care of by neighbors. They wouldn’t even allow him to see me.
The inmates have always been respectful, but now they have started complaining of me keeping them awake in the middle of the night. You see, recently I have started talking to myself loudly … perhaps I am losing it … I am beginning to fear for my sanity. I know that I am boring you to death with all these details. But I feel this is the only way to thank you for adopting me. After all, it is your money that has built these very walls against which I bang my head; It is your money that pays the salary for the guards watching over me day and night; it is your money … ah, what do you care, you hypocrite … Don’t mind me, don’t mind me … it is me again talking to myself …
A letter from an Evangelical Christian:
My parents never tire of telling me that they named me Rahwa in anticipation of the good times that would roll after the independence of Eritrea. What an irony that I have ended up in prison because of my faith – something that brought no trouble at all from non-independent Eritrea. Well, my name doesn’t matter anymore – I am now known as prisoner # 10982, of Gela’lo prison.
I was told that you are married to a Jehovah Witness, and that you love your wife so dearly that you would do anything to protect her. But you also feel that, as a patriotic Eritrean, it is your duty to at least attend the PFDJ festivals, even as your wife refuses to accompany you. Well, I do understand from where she is coming; had she been on this side of humanity, it is easy to see how she would have ended at the very same place I have ended up. But that is her … I am glad that you haven’t listened to her. Imagine that … who would have paid as handsomely as you do for all the expenses that our dear government is lavishing on me: the metal container that I live in, freezing cold at night and scorching hot in daytime; the medication they put on my skin, when it begins to peel off from the unbearable heat; for the worn-out blades to shave off my hair (there is no other way to get rid of the lice, damn them) …
Now that there are many of the likes of you in wetsai willing to foot the bill, the government has decided not only to apprehend more of us but also to keep those of us already in prison for a lot longer. Bravo, I always thought I could count on you, and you haven’t disappointed me so far. Now, thanks to you, I expect many happy days to come in my metal container … How could I ever repay you back … Well, well … of course there are some sad days in between; days when my torturers beat me until I bleed profusely to force a conversion out of me. They tell me that our Dear and Beloved President, his Excellency Isaias Afwerki, has decreed all “new” religions illegal and that I should go back to my forefather’s religion. I have heard that you have put the picture of the Lion of Nakfa by your bedside. While you are at it, could you do me a favor and kneel down beside your bed and pray to the god you have hanged on your wall while I pray for mercy to be shown to that same god …
The compartmentalized mind
It is amazing to see how many Eritreans in diaspora have developed this compartmentalized mind where they keep two diametrically opposed beliefs apart from one another (so that they could appease their conscience) without seeing any contradiction in what they do. In the first example, the Warsai who has made it all the way to America helps to sustain the very totalitarian regime he has run away from by frequenting the PFDJ festivals, thus supporting the system both financially and morally. And more pointedly, he perpetuates the very abuse that he has run away from, helping the regime in abusing the Warasai he has left behind. All of this simply because of a misguided nostalgia: he just wants to see his favorite band that used to tour the various brigades in the field. The pattern of this Warsai’s behavior is replicated in thousands of others, especially the young, where they only see fun in these festivals. For instance, if you ask them why do they go to the PFDJ-monopolized annual soccer games, their reasons are: pure fun, meet people, socialize with the opposite sex, dance guayla, listen to favorite singer, love of bahli, watch soccer, look at the exhibition, unarticulated patriotism, etc. They fail to see that, in the name of all these “harmless” or “noble” causes, they keep buttressing the totalitarian regime back at home. Their fun here is cashed out – literally – as pure pain back in the homeland.
In the second example, a middle class parent in America falls to the same trap out of an old, festering guilt for failing to join his comrades in the field. But there is something sinister about this misdirected guilt. The remorseful guy wants to redress his guilt not only on the cheap (all that he does is throw one hundred dollars here another hundred dollars there, which makes hardly a dent to his middle class standard of living, and totally refrain from criticizing the regime – of course, which costs him nothing), but at the expense of others – at the expense of the likes of Amoy Tirhas. The fact that his silence and his money is causing a lot of pain to the masses in Eritrea doesn’t bother him at all; all he is focused on is how to attend to an old wound. That his guilt has taken this self-centered focus doesn’t bother him at all. Besides, he fails to see that that wound would never heal by another guilt in the making. It is as if he is waiting for all this to pass, so that he could nurture another guilt after the fact (a guilt of why he let the Eritrean people suffer so much under the cruel hands of a tyrant) – and hopefully, again, on the cheap. And so the vicious circle goes on.
And in the third example, we have a case where the husband fails to make a connection between the identity of his wife here and the sad state of the population group with the same religious identity in Eritrea. He refuses to see that had his beloved been in Eritrea, she would have been met with the same brutality. The stupidity among this kind of people is amazing. Their failure to see “what could have been” – that is, their failure to see a possible scenario – in a similar situation is almost animal-like in its lack of imagination and depravity. And we have them in abundance. There are those who frantically call to Libya or Malta to see if their beloved niece or cousin has been among those saved from a sinking ship. Yet, the next day you see them dancing to the wee hours of the morning in a PFDJ festival, totally failing to see that it is that very money they spend on that festival that is instrumental in pushing the young out of Eritrea in droves to the inhospitable deserts and treacherous seas. A devoted daughter frantically searches for anyone going to Asmara to send the 50,000 Nakfa necessary to spare a beloved aging parent from the horrors of the PFDJ’s dungeons. But the next day you see the same concerned daughter dressed to kill, with all her gold jewels in display, dancing away the night in one of those “wegah tbel leyti” PFDJ festivals, oblivious of the fact that on that very night mothers like hers, but not so fortunate enough to have sent daughters abroad, are languishing in one of those Shaebia’s chambers of horror. And on and on it goes …
To all those fun-loving Eritreans whose hands are itching to spend all they can in the coming annual soccer game, I say go ahead and enjoy yourselves so far as you are fully aware that each of you is adopting a prisoner!