Testimony of Gelalo Prisoners Print E-mail
By Anonymous (Presented by Elsa Chyrum) - Aug 26, 2005   

At this time, the name of Eritrea is associated with prisons, pain, hurt, and violation of human rights.  It is no exaggeration to state that Eritrea is hell-on-earth to its citizens. That Eritrea?s development is limited to proliferation of prisons is a fact known not just by Eritreans but the international community as a whole.  It is not possible to count the detention centres that have sprung up all over Eritrea?those of the Front, those of divisions, brigades, national salvation, police.  They exceed the number of schools.   


And so, the prison which is located in Gel?alo is one of the many prisons. This prison, where many youth are languishing in agony, is found in the eastern lowlands, near the shores of the Red Sea, between Massawa and Aseb.  Because the area is an inhabitable desert, it is practically deserted, with virtually nobody living in the environs.  One can conclude that to build a prison in this environment is to bury people alive.


I am one of the Eritreans who was deported from Malta in September 2002.  After I, and those who were deported with me, endured unbearable pain and agony in the prisons of Adi Abeito and Dahlak, we were transferred to Gelalo in April 14, 2004.  We numbered 75; our transfer was escorted by heavy guard.  It was raining and, since the transport vehicle was a flat bed truck, the downpour fell on our backs. There was no one to take pity on us. When we neared Foro, someone by the name of ?Wedi Lemlem? escaped.  They fired many shots; and we don?t know whether he lived or died.  I hope he is with the living.    


In this prison [Gelalo], the number of prisoners was around 450, composed of those who were deported from Libya, those  [in the military] who were absent without leave, those who were caught while attempting to cross the border and others.  Some were in prison for four years. The oldest was a 70-year old [man] named ?Am [Uncle] Abdu? and the youngest, 15, Mohammed from Keren.  As for those who had been there for more than one year, [they include] Dawit Berhane, Wikianos, Petros Kahsai, Fitsum Haile, Kahsai Negusse, Mussie Abeselom, Gebre Teklom, Walta Haile, Girmai Gebrezgabheir, Mehari Gile, Michael, Merhawi Hadish, Mohammed wedi Keren, etc.  


Gelalo doesn?t have adequate shaded area, and the prisoners are exposed to the elements-- the sun, the wind and Kamsien [a local tornado.]  It is surrounded by dense thorny trees and it is impossible to see what is behind them.  Escape is unthinkable.  As for the treatment of the prisoners, let alone in your own country and by your own government, even if you were told that there is such a practice in another country, you would be hard pressed to believe it.  When you witness that people are capable of enduring such pain and suffering, you become a believer in the resilience of man.


The life of the prisoners of Gelalo is sad?they have no rights and they quietly endure like slaves.  They have no rights to demand; dusk to dawn, they are beaten to their workplace, like donkeys.  Even basic things like bread and water are not available.  For example, the modern hotel that is in Gelalo was built by the labor of the prisoners.  There was not a single machinery?it was built by the sweat, blood and tears of the prisoners.  Although there were cars, people were forced to walk for two hours a day, in the sweltering heat, commuting [to and from their workplace.]  Beginning at 5:00 AM, without a taste of food, we laboured until noon.  After lunch, we resumed work at 2:00 PM and concluded at 6:00.  Then we return, escorted by people with rifles.  And, after all that hard work, your noon meal is two breads, and at night, two breads with lentil.  Alternative food is unthinkable.


The combination of hunger, thirst and hard labour has wasted the bodies of the prisoners. Consequently, many get sick.  But sickness does not excuse you from work.  It is possible to state that there is no prisoner who hasn?t succumbed to illness caused by the combination of hard labour, hunger and thirst.  You can pray all you want, but you will have no medicine, nor doctors.  For example, everybody knows that Alazar Gebrenegus, a brother who was deported from Malta in 2002, died due to lack of medical care, as he pleaded for an orange and a banana.


Instead of saying the prisoners of Gelalo are being punished, a more correct assertion would be to state that they have been sentenced to death. Mankind is cheap in Gelalo.  There is no healthcare for the sick, no comfort for the mind, and no sympathy for those in tears.  Why cry for those who have died and found relief from the suffering of the world? Save your tears for the living dead of Gelalo, the prisoners enduring pain and suffering.


I remember a time when many were suffering, after they succumbed to an illness.  I remember Israel Michael, Kibrom Tekle, Abraham Goitom, Alazar Gebrenegus, Kahsai Neguse, Tsehai Aregay, Gaber Tekle, Samuel?...Mahmoud?  Etc??   And this is how Alazar died due to medical neglect.


The prisoners of Gelalo are not permitted to be visited by family members. Say what you will, do what you will, you won?t hear of your family and your family will not hear of you.  Legally, the prisoners of Gelalo are dead but unburied.  As if hunger, thirst, and the extremities of the weather are not enough, prisoners who are subjected to beatings, under various pretexts, are not few.  And many are those who are suffering in chains.


Something sad and amazing happened in 2004.  Many Eritrean youth came to visit their country from America, Europe and every continent. They brought them to see a modern miracle built by the Warsay-Yeka?alo Campaign?the miracle was the same modern hotel that was built by the blood and sweat of the prisoners of Gelalo.  They didn?t want anybody to know of our whereabouts, so they gave us a day off. We didn?t know why we were told to take a break.   Nor did we know, then, why one of the prisoners, an electrician, was abruptly called to see them. Of course, we were concerned for him, but we assumed it was because they needed his services.


When the electrician brother came back and recounted the behaviour of the people in charge of us, we were very saddened.  As he recounted, he saw the [Diaspora] youth enjoying a feast, which was accompanied by musical entertainment.  But, fearing exposure, the supervisors wanted him nowhere near the youth.  Tearfully, he told us that, appearance-wise, and in comparison to the [Diasora] youth he saw, we had deteriorated badly.


The [visiting] youth are blameless because they know nothing. But forgiveness is not due to the brutal and cruel prison wardens.  They are shameless?as if we did not exist, they are telling the youth that the hotel that was constructed by our efforts and hard work is the labour of Warsay-Yekaalo Campaign.   The youth knew nothing?they were happy, they were eating and drinking.  They didn?t know that just downhill from them, there were another group of youth, 450 of their brothers, enduring extreme pain.    


The totality of the mistreatment at Gelalo cannot be chronicled.  But when the pitch dark turns to dawn and the entirety of the story is told, the Eritrean people will shudder.  When President Isaias came to inaugurate the hotel that was build by us, there was a huge feast and festivity.  But nobody paid mind to those who put in the hard work and labour to make it happen.   When will Eritrea become a nation governed by law?


In our next correspondence, we will write in greater detail about Alazar Gebrenegus.

Elsa Chyrum is an Eritrean Human Rights Activist.  The original article which was written by the prisoners (who wish to remain anonymous), and presented by Elsa, is in Tigrigna. Translations by Awate staff.  All errors in translation are the responsibility of Awate.com 

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