Interviewer: Elsa Chyrum
Translator: Gabriel Guangul
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 Ogbe Abraha
2. Ahmed Sherifo
3. Brigadier General Estifanos
4. Major General Berhane Ghebre Ezgi’abher
5. Hamad Hamid
7. Haile Woldetensae
8. Petros Solomon
9. Saleh Kekiya
10. Aster Fessehasion
More Government Officials:
12. Feron Woldu
16. Mehari Yacob
19. Said Aree
20. Dr. Siraj
26. Fessahaye (Joshua)
29. Ahmed Said
31. Seyoum Tsheye
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.
(To be continued in PART 2)