[Introduction by the editor:
On March 2009, we received a hefty report (about 34 pages long) on the prison condition in Eritrea as experienced by one man. The report was too detailed that we felt that it would endanger the writer, even though he wanted us to post it as was. We have been posting excellent reports by this writer, especially on the state of famine in Eritrea. But when it comes to prison life, we have been posting only those parts that we felt were safe. One such report was a detailed account on the Wi’a concentration camp. Now that writer has made it safely to the free world, we will start publishing what was left out of that prison report in three instalments.
The editor would like to remind readers that what happened to Mussie Hadgu is a normal occurrence among the youth of Eritrea. Almost every escaped Warsai has a personal story to tell of how he or she went in and out of prison, concentration camp or training camp. Usually, it is after a number of false attempts that the escapees make it to the refugee camps in Ethiopia or Sudan. In between, there are tales of capture, torture and escape, to be repeated again in recapture, torture and escape and so on until one manages to escape for good. And this is the story of the fortunate ones. Others are either shot dead while crossing the border or languishing in some underground prisons. Fortunately, Mussie Hadgu has finally made it to safety. But in between is the story of the horrors that the youth of Eritrea face.]
Due to the wrong and criminal policy of the PFDJ regime, the people of Eritrea particularly the youth are denied the right to learn, innovate, invest and work. They are denied the right to live peacefully and move freely. Their golden age, knowledge, time, energy and resources are wasted. They have become the slaves of the dictatorial regime being recruited in the endless national service or have ended up in the underground prisons of the regime or shot dead on site or tortured to death at the hands of the PFDJ military personnel. The following report is my own experience as a victim of these actions and policy.
Before giving a detailed account of my prison experience, I will first highlight the main events in a summary form. Then I will proceed to provide complete accounts of the events in some details. In the report, military training camp and prison camp are used interchangeably because even though government defines them as training camps or centre, actually they fall within the universal definition of prisons (even under the worst prison conditions).
Summary of events, 2001 -2007
- On the 17th of April 2001, I was arrested by the military in Molober and detained in Aderser underground prison until the 15th of May, 2001.
- On the 15th of May 2001, I was transferred to Sawa military training/ prison camp and held there until the 21st of May 2001
- On the 21st of May 2001 I escaped from Sawa military/prison camp and trekked about 100 km and arrived at the Tesseney town on the 23rd of May 2001.
- On the 10th of July 2002 was I arrested in Asmara and held in Adi –Abeito prison until the 12th of July,
- On the 12th of July I was transferred to Sawa military/prison camp and held there until the 14th of July
- On the 14th of July I escaped from Sawa and trekked to, and arrived at Tesseney town on the 17th of July 2002.
- On the 18th of April 2007, I was arrested in Dibarwa and was held there until the 25th of April.
- On the 25th of April I was transferred to Asmara via Mendefera and I was held in Adi–Abeito prison until the 4th of May 2007.
- On the 4th of May I was transferred to Wi’a military training/prison camp
- On the 5th of August 2007, I escaped from Wi’a and trekked about 40 KM and arrived at the port town of Massawa on the 6th of August 2007.
Detailed accounts of my experiences in the prisons of PFDJ regime
Aderser – Sawa prison 2001
From November 2000 until 2007, I was working for an international NGO operating in humanitarian and developmental activities in Eritrea. Initially, I was employed as a project officer with the responsibility of planning, facilitating, managing and monitoring and reporting the deliveries, handling and distribution of USAID financed food aid program to the displaced Sudanese Beja people within the Sudanese territories or within the Eritrean territories along the Eritrean-Sudanese border areas. My activities were closely coordinated with the Beja Relief Organization (BRO), a humanitarian Branch of the Beja Congress that was carrying out armed struggle against the Sudanese government in the area in alliance with other armed Sudanese factions such the SPLA and SAF (Sudanese Allied Forces). BRO and the government of Eritrea had made repeated urgent appeals for assistance of the displaced Beja people to my NGO and my NGO had responded positively to the repeated requests of the Eritrean Government and the BRO and provided humanitarian assistance.
As a result, food aid grant was obtained from the USAID and other humanitarian supplies such as medical supplies from other donors were distributed jointly through my NGO in cooperation with BRO. Capacity building programs were also designed and executed to strengthen the capacity of BRO including training, materials, equipment and financial support. To improve their logistical capacity 6 Lorries for the purpose of transportation humanitarian supplies to the needy people and one 4 wheel drive vehicle to facilitate the operations of BRO were donated to BRO by my NGO and its partners. For BRO, the USAID food was huge to handle (relative with human and organizational capacity) and at the same time BRO’s activities and its armed wing’s activities were overlapping a lot. The Beja Congress and BRO received direct orders and instructions from the PFDJ and border surveillance unit of the Eritrean Defence Forces which coordinated and supervised the activities and operations of the Sudanese opposition factions.
The BRO manager is Ali Alsafi. He and other officials from the Beja congress had been granted special visiting cards that allow them to visit the PFDJ officials at any time such as Yemane Gebreab, Abdella Jaber and Alamin Mohamed Said and the president himself unrestricted. The Sudanese opposition officials are more listened and respected than Eritreans by the PFDJ officials. At the same time the border surveillance unit officials used to receive a lot of benefits from the Sudanese opposition officials by means of bribery and material gifts and in exchange the Sudanese oppositions get good cooperation and collaborations from the border surveillance officers.
Under these working conditions, I faced enormous challenges and difficulties to carry out my responsibilities and tasks properly and effectively. As corrupt as they are, BRO prepared a fake beneficiary lists of non existent beneficiaries for which I challenged them and recommended a correct beneficiary list. While I was planning and working with all my efforts to ensure a timely and fair distribution of the food aid to the needy, BRO staff were hindering the timely and smooth distributions of the food and were playing lots of tricks in the process. As a result they plotted a conspiracy to eliminate me. The end result was Ali Alsafi (the BRO head) approached Hassen, the intelligence officer of the border surveillance unit who was based in Aderser (“Hadish Maasker”- this name was given because the camp was new at that time) and conspired for my arrest. He also gave them the BRO vehicle he himself was driving to facilitate my arrest. Responding to his request, the security officers drove from Aderser to Molober where I was staying and arrested me on the 17th of April 2001. Aderser is about 320 KM west from Asmara located between Sawa and Girmaika. This is the command base for the border surveillance unit which is under the command of brigadier general Tekle Manjus. This camp was relocated from Tesseney to this location following the invasion of Ethiopian army deep into the Eritrean territories in May 2000. And Molober is about 40 Km north of Aderser. As the camp had moved to Adreser only shortly, construction of some facilities was continuing.
The security forces brought me to Aderser prison. The prison had a large thorny acacia tree fenced compounded with one main gate and another smaller gate which was used only at times when prisoners go out to relieve themselves. The compound is heavily guarded with a watch tower erected overseeing the prison cells. The prison’s commander was a Colonel known by the nick name of Wedi Granite. As Aderser is located on the road to Molobe,r I passed by several times but I had never thought it embodied such as prison in which people get tortured and killed.
The prison was made up of the following facilities at the time of my arrest:
- Two underground cells: one relatively larger and another smaller one. The larger one is estimated to be 15m long x 4m wide x 2.5 m high. I was held in the large underground cell thus it is difficult for me to give an estimation of the height of the smaller under ground cell. However, it was possible to estimate its length and width by observing from the outside. Hence it is estimated to be 12 metres long and 4 metres wide.
- Huts that served as prison cells.
- Two kitchens for the prisoners, which partially shaded.
- Offices, residence and kitchens for the prison officers.
However, according to the eyewitnesses, the prison was expanded and enlarged in subsequent years. By 2004 the number of underground cells had reached 6. All the prison facilities and a great proportion of the whole military camp facilities were built by the labour of the prisoners.
When they brought me to the prison it was about 6:30 PM and they stripped me off of my properties including my money and my ID cards and other documents. Only my shoes were left up stripped off. That was the practice at that time and every prisoner had to pass through that process. After the stripping off, I was driven into the larger underground cell.
What drew my attention and shocked me was, the prisoners that were sealed in that underground cell rejoiced at my arrival (particularly the youngsters – about 18- 20 years of age) in anticipation that there were many more people on line to enter the cell. Usually what happens when new prisoners come from Tesseney after being gathered there (only they are transferred to Aderser when their number is big enough to make a truck’s load for logistical purpose) some of the prisoners in Aderser get transferred to Sawa military training/prison camp. With the arrival of new prisoners full of a truck, there is less space available to accommodate all the prisoners (both old and new arrivals) within the prison centres capacity. The practice was therefore transferring some of the old prisoners to Sawa training camp to provide space to the new arrivals. Otherwise the prisoners may stay in this prison for 5 or more months if there is no problem with space. The practice is the civilian prisoners were brought to Aderser to work in the construction of the camp before they were transferred to Sawa training camp for training. Already by the time I arrived at the prison centre, there were some people who stayed in the prison for almost four months. The motive for rejoicing at seeing new arrivals to the prison therefore emanates from this. Nevertheless, from my side, I could not understand the situation why people who themselves were tortured, brutalized and in their underpants because they could not tolerate the hot temperature jump in joy just at seeing one more person added to the number of persons who were already suffering, i.e. how can my passing through the same experience of suffering and torturing make them happy?. However, gradually I came to grasp their motives as they swarmed around me asking me if there were more people in the line to enter the underground cells. As the living condition in this prison is extremely harsh, the prisoners had a great desire to go to Sawa to escape the harsh prison conditions assuming that they would get better treatment in Sawa training/prison camp. This assumption originated from the lack of sufficient information about the conditions at Sawa. I also met two people in the prison whom I knew before and who consoled me.
Conditions in the prison
The prisoners can be classified into three categories:
The first group consisted of civilians mainly alleged of plotting to cross to Sudan. But there were also others for trivial cases, such as rivalry for women between with agents of the security forces. An example of such a victim is Daniel, who was eleventh grade student in Tesseney, who was arrested because his friend was courting a girl working at a cafeteria and Daniel used to accompany him there. One of the agents of the security forces was also courting this girl and he convinced the security forces to arrest Daniel and his friend. But finally only Daniel was arrested. Another example is a Muslim guy from Tesseney whose name now I have now forgotten. He was arrested just four weeks before his wedding day. This guy was engaged to a lady one of the security agents had fallen in love with and in order to prevent the marriage from happening, the security agent conspired with the security forces and the would be bride groom was arrested before the wedding took place. The category of civilian prisoners included men and women. With the exception of few cases such as mine, majority of the prisoners were arrested at Tesseney roadblock while entering Tesseney. The people were on trip to Tesseney unaware of the new measures introduced by the military – one that requires every traveller to the area around Tesseney to hold a movement permit that is specific to the area. At the time of my detention, this measure was shortly introduced and the public was not informed by any means about the new measure. Before this measure was introduced, if one had a movement permit, he/she can travel unrestricted all over the country. The prisoners in this category were composed of students, workers and traders and the age group ranged from 18- 40 years.
The second group was made of national service recruits. This category was made of soldiers who were members of the armed forces imprisoned either for disciplinary reasons or for being absent from their units.
The third group consisted of prisoners of war. There were 60 Sudanese prisoners of war who were captured in action in 1997 around the Eritrea-Sudan border area in a place called Ma’eloba which is located half way between Goluj and Omhajer.
The civilian men were sealed in the large underground cell. The civilian women and the soldiers were placed in the huts made of acacia wood and palm leaves. And the Sudanese prisoners of war were held in the small underground cell. There were about 60 soldier prisoners, about 10 women, and 90 civilian men.
The area is very hot; temperature reaches up to 45 degree centigrade. The entrance gate of the underground cell in which I was held was very small – not more than 0.75 metres wide. The door remained closed day and night and guards were made to sit on the entrance from the outside of the door. These guards were on top of the other guards that were on duties on the erected tower about 2 metres away from the underground. There were also other guards put on place at the compound entrance.
As there were no windows and ventilation devices except the narrow entrance to the underground cell, the room was day and night dark. The door was only rarely opened during day time and not at all during the night time. The temperature inside the underground is higher than it is outside - particularly during the night it is worse. The temperature only gets cooler slowly towards the dawn. As the extreme temperature was unbearable, the prisoners were most of the time on their underpants- particularly during the night. The prisoners used to collect pieces of cartons (card board pieces) while they were out to relieve themselves which we used them as fans to cool our bodies. Using these fans we used to spend most of our time cooling our bodies. The room was in absolute darkness both during the day and night. During day room used to get deem light only around the entrance.
Another problem was extreme overcrowding which made the living conditions in the prison combined with the high temperature unbearable. The room was so overcrowded because it was accommodating about 90 prisoners at a time. In the first 2 weeks of my stay in the prison, we were about 70 but later about 20 new prisoners were added to us making the number above 90. In the weeks preceding my arrival, there were about 120 prisoners (as narrated to me by the prisoners) in the underground cell where I was held. Because of the extreme overcrowding, one could not sleep dorsally or ventrally (because sleeping in these ways takes more space than sleeping on the sides) thus we were forced to sleep on our sides.
No spread sheets or cover sheets or mattresses or beds were provided. Prisoners slept either on the bare ground or improvised by collecting some waste materials such as thrown pieces of palm mats, cartons when we went out to work or relieve ourselves. We were allowed to relieve ourselves only twice a day: at 6: 00 AM and 6:00 Pm. We were made to line up and taken routinely to the waste place during these hours for relieving wastes under heavy guarding. The time allowed for relieving wastes was not more than 7 minutes; and they used to make the prisoners sit in a very small space, in an extremely overcrowded conditions and humiliating way. For urine, plastic containers were placed inside the underground cell and people used to urinate in these containers. People who become sick with stomach problems were allowed to relieve their wastes in containers that were placed near the underground entrance gate. The urine and excreta that had been accumulated during the day or night then gets disposed off during the time schedules for relieving wastes.
Water: Drinking water was provided in plastic containers inside the cell. We were allowed to wash our bodies and clothes once per week (every Sunday) but the time allowed per individual was too short – in many cases we missed the chance to wash our bodies or clothes (thus we had to wait until the next Sunday) because there were no adequate materials to draw water from the water filled drums. And no soaps were supplied. As the result of the poor hygiene and sanitation and extreme overcrowding we were infested with lice.
Food: The food supply was very limited and quantitatively and qualitatively poor. The ingredients were wheat flour, sugar, tea leaves, salt, anions and lentils but they were extremely in limited supply, particularly lentils. We, the prisoners, prepare our own meals organized in groups on daily basis. The activities included baking of “kicha” (unleavened traditional bread), tea and sauce using firewood which makes extremely difficult to bake in the very hot climatic conditions of the area and almost with no shade from the sun while preparing the meals.
Feeding schedules are: breakfast at 9:00 AM, one cup of tea per individual with a small piece of kicha; Lunch at 12:00 noon that is made up of kicha and lentils soup which is extremely diluted that we used to drink it; dinner at 6:30 one cup of tea, small kicha and lentil soup. It was a normal phenomenon to see people disputing, quarrelling, stampedind and fighting for food as a result of the acute shortage. Also there was no way people can access food from the market or from relatives because it was banned. This had resulted in the deterioration of the nutritional situation of the prisoners which led in its turn to the deterioration of health conditions of many.
To be continued ….