Interviewer: Elsa Chyrum
Translator: Gabriel Guangul
Date of interview: 4 January 2011
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 Okbe and Sheriffo died in Embat’kala. When I was in Era’ero, 12 more died.
Can you recall their names?
Their names are:
Tesfameskel or Ghebremeskel (I am not sure – maybe Tesfameskel)
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 Kekiya, 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?
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 ?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.