This testimony is provided to me by a courageous former prisoner and a conscript who wants to be identified by the name of Mussie Hadgu from Eritrea. He wants his testimony to be published in order to inform the Eritreans in diasporas and the International community on how Eritrean citizens inside the country are treated by the current regime in Eritrea.
Testimonies of untold atrocities and suffering
This is an eye witness account of the terrorism, intimidation, detention, torture, corrupt dealings, killings and various other atrocities committed by the government of the PFDJ against the poor, innocent people of Eritrea. The government of Eritrea is behaving in a way that even a bandit group wouldn’t dare, let alone a legitimate government. In my experience as a prisoner and military trainee in the illegal prisons and concentration camps of Eritrea, I have experienced and witnessed many inhumane and barbaric acts of the government. Today, I have decided to share my experiences with the general public of Eritrea and the wider international community, human rights groups and human rights activists. The people of Eritrea are really facing a savage and merciless enemy that has remained relatively invisible in the eyes of the wider international community and the Eritrean Diaspora. As an eye witness, I will limit my report to what I and others in similar situation have observed and experienced. This means I will be excluding arrests and detentions related to political reasons and families of those in national service (‘national slavery’). By the latter, I mean those families that are forced to pay 50,000 Nakfa (USD 3,333)/individual for those who left the country and 10,000 Nakfa (USD 667)/individual for those who failed to report to their units, both of which are anyways common knowledge to the general public to some extent. Thus, I will shed light only on the following topics:
National service or ‘national slavery”: a hiding place for PFDJ and the dictator
Since 1994, it has been 13 years. Initially, the proclamation on national service was meant to last for a period of one year and half and to apply to adults (both men and women) between the ages of 18 and 40. However, the national service has now become endless and people who were recruited in 1994 have already served 14 years and it is not yet known when they will be released. After serving all these years, if one becomes absent from his/her units for any reason, he or she is imprisoned and tortured for a period equal to the period of absenteeism. And even if one gets old (i.e., older than 50 years) in the service, he/she is not released. Likewise, people whose health deteriorates while in national service are provided with no attention and little medical care. That is the case even when they develop visible disabilities. Their pleading for release falls on deaf ears and are forced to stay on duty until their eventual death.
What is alarming is that now the national service has gotten increasingly indiscriminate; a big chunk of its population is made up of children, under age, old and disabled people. Some as old as the age of sixty have been informally rounded up. Another barbaric thing is that any disabled person has to go to training centers before he/she is declared disabled and exempted. Many of them – and this group includes those who have mental disabilities – are denied and forced to go to military training centers where they suffer horrendously at the hands of the savage, inhumane hands of the PFDJ servants. And in the case of the underage, the PFDJ specially targets those who are between the age of 15 to 17 for commando training. It has found this demographic group’s impressionable age amenable to its evil design. The only excuse they need for recruiting them is that they have to be school dropouts, allegedly related to disciplinary problems or accused of planning to leave the country illegally. There are also many cases where children between the ages of 11 and 14 were taken to training camps for similar reasons.
As the result of this illegal and unjust policy that mainly targets the adult population except the very old, all the people of Eritrea are victimized directly or indirectly. Whole masses have been turned into idle unproductive people with no one left behind to look after those in need of food, medical care and other basic necessities. Those in national service get 30 days leave per year if they are lucky; but if they are unfortunate (if they are in Denkelia, for instance), they are given 45 leave days in two to three years time period. As the result of this, the fertility rate has been dropping at an alarming rate – a looming demographic catastrophe. And those serving the national service are treated as slaves with no rights whatsoever, made to work by beating and other forms of punishment, even to the extent of killing them, if they display the slightest sign of opposing the injustice and atrocities committed against them or others.
All those who have been rounded up and made to serve arbitrary prison sentences have to go through another tragic and challenging phase, military training at what I call ‘prison or concentration center’, for, in general, the appalling condition with which the trainees are handled is in no way different form the case of the prisoners. The various stages of physical torture and other forms of atrocities these poor innocent people go through are presented below:
Imprisonment in various prisons
There are various prisons in the country run by the police, national security, operations/military command zones, military intelligence at division level, national intelligence prisons and the military training centers and others which I have not identified to which establishment they belong. All these departments are mandated to terrorize, humiliate, torture and kill.
The police establishment:
The police has either abandoned or is working at a minimum scale on its objectives: protecting citizens from crimes and ensuring security and order of the public; instead it has turned itself into a body that imprisons people arbitrarily, without presenting them to the court of law. Innocent people are held in prisons in poor conditions, sometimes for years on end with little food. Even if the case is a simple dispute with a neighbor or other similar cases, the method of investigation by the police is contrary to the known professional method. Whatever information or confession they want to get is done by intimidation, beating or other forms of torture. To give a few examples from one of the prisons I was detained (for my safety I refrain to mention the name of the prison station):
1) One investor was given a land concession in a certain village. Some of the villagers disputed his claim and made him stop working for one day by invoking the traditional legal system, “zeban menghisti serah dew ketebl”, which means, “in the name of the government, stop work”, as it is a generations-old custom in the Tigrigna tradition. He went to the police for help, who promptly came with a pickup vehicle and took the villagers away. For almost two weeks, they were tied up and beaten frequently and severely until they made them sign not to further pursue the case; i.e., to drop their demand, and to let the investor work in their land.
2) An 18 year old boy was accused by some for alleged involvement in a fighting. He was in prison for almost three weeks, and I left him there. Even though he was severely beaten already, they continued beating him many times for not admitting his involvement. That is how they get “admission”. It was very upsetting to see him in such a humiliating situation.
3) A man was arrested for alleged involvement in his village’s land dispute – a land around a church which used to be a cemetery, but following the villagers’ decision, where no new graves were allowed. A rich woman from Asmara (her origin is in the village), a relative of one of the Government officials/ generals, started constructing a family grave in violation of the villagers’ decision, allegedly by bribing some of the villagers. He was in prison for more than one month, and I left him there. He was beaten many times, and one day I saw him crying bitterly after a routine beating.
4) One man working for one of the PFDJ’s construction companies (a driver of a bulldozer) sold illegally diesel to a Gardner (rationed oil), When he was found, he was made to pay back every cent of it, but was made to stay in prison at the request of the company for an extended time, and while there, he was being beaten many times for no reason at all. The beating made sense since he had already admitted his guilt.
In relation to the rounding up, the police arrest any youth and keep them in detention for a period ranging from days to months and treat them as criminals. From the first moment a person is being arrested, he is put on handcuffs – each police station has been provided with hundreds of handcuffs for this reason. In the police station where I was detained, I stayed for 8 days with others who were detained a week before me, to a total of two weeks. On my eighth day, together with the rest, I was taken to Mendefera police station, and thrown in a crowded room of 4x5 meters in size, with more than 100 persons in it. We were spared because we stayed there for only 3 hours before we were taken to Adi Abeito, Asmara; otherwise, it would have been life-threatening situation. There were 4 rooms in that station and each room was filled with more than 100 people. All the rooms had no ventilation because they do not have windows; there was only a 5 by 10 cm hole on the door. Day and night, it was hot like a furnace, suffocating, and with no space to rest.
Most of the detainees were arrested in different areas from the former region of Seraye and served several weeks in detention before they were brought to Menderfera police station. In that police station, under the horrible condition specified above, some were made to stay for more than 3 weeks. There were also those who were imprisoned for more than one year because they are followers of other branches of the Christian faith apart from Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant and Islam (4 recognized religions by the government), and they were kept in isolation from the others in one separate room. As it was the case with those of us who were taken together to Mendefera police station, those who were brought from various other places too were brought on handcuffs.
From the moment we were arrested, our shoes, belts, ID cards, other documents, money and other valuable property were taken away from us. When they transferred us to Mendefera police station, we were bare footed and in extremely bad condition because of extremely crowded space in the vehicle we had come. Throughout the drive, we were under the watchful eyes of the guards who kept harassing, intimidating and beating us all along the way in order to prevent any of us from escaping. Our properties – money, shoes, belts, etc – too were transferred to Mendefera police station.
From Mendefera, about 70 persons were transferred to Adi Abeito prison, with hands on cuffs and bare footed, on a dumper truck having sharp floor which caused bruises on our feet on contact. There were ten armed men guarding us and there was no space to sit. And if, despite the difficulties, someone attempted to sit from sheer exhaustion, he was harassed and beaten. Within that short span of time, we suffered a lot. What was worse was that the driver was deliberately driving too fast and, as a result, we were colliding with the walls of the truck and with one another. We were terrified that an accident would happen. Before leaving to Adi Abeito, our ID Cards, money and other properties were given back to us but the shoes and belts were directly transferred to the officers of the Adi Abeito military prison. On arrival, the cuffs were removed from our hands.
The prison officers at Adi Abeito checked our pockets and bags and allowed us to keep the money and ID cards and other documents but made our shoes and belts lay on the ground of the compound in a hip in a disorderly manner, with no shelter from sunlight, rain and wind.
Adi Abeito /5th zone operation prison
Though this prison was run by the 5th zone operation/command, it also served as a transit center for prisoners who came from Debub, Anseba and Gash Barka zones before they were made to depart to Wi'A or Me’eter – two notorious prisons with huge concentration camps that accommodate thousands. In this transit prison, there were people who stayed more than eight months, including a man 60 years old, together with his daughter and son. They were all jailed in relation to an attempt to cross the border and to the hard currency found in the hands of the son and daughter. The old man was imprisoned for his alleged cooperation with his daughter and son in their attempt to escape. As I mentioned above, the majority of the prisoners were male youth, with some young women, men around the age of fifty, under age and children as young as 11 years old. As the prisoners come from different zones, some had already served months in jail and passed through various prisons in their respective zones which had, incrementally, extremely harmful effects on their health because of the extremely poor conditions of these prisons as well as the extremely harmful and damaging treatment they were subjected in the hands of the prison officers.
Among the children who were in the prison were two 11 years old Ethiopian children from the village of Adi Hibtai who were captured along the Mereb River (in the area between Tsorona and Kisad-Ika). The Ethiopian children were in a very distressing condition. Before reaching Adi Abeito prison, they had passed through four prisons and subjected to a lot of questioning, harassing and intimidation.
As little of the essentials was provided by the prison authorities, people had to sleep on bare floor with no bed sheet or blanket to protect them from the freezing cold of the night. Many of the prisoners had to ensure their own supply. As a result, those who came from distant places or who have no relatives in Asmara are the ones who suffered the most. There are many buildings in Adi Abeito prison compound, all of which were initially built for warehousing. Currently, they have been turned into warehouses for people. The building structure we were assigned to was divided into three, excluding the office and guards’ rooms. One hall was assigned to soldiers (people who did their national service), another hall to civilians (those planned to go for national service) and another small hall to women (indiscriminately civilians and soldiers).
During my stay in this prison, I came to know many of the prisoners had suffered physical disabilities, and others had developed mental problems resulting from the beating, tying up for long hours at a time and other various forms of torturing. Some were shuffled between Mai Serwa and Adi Abeito prisons because the prison officers were unable to decide in which prison they should be kept; there was confusion as to what their cases fall into. Among those who were disabled by beating and other forms of torture, there was one who was caught by the national security officers around Tsorona when he was attempting to cross the border to Ethiopia. He was called Gerry, a graduate from the University of Asmara. At the beginning, his whole body was almost paralyzed, but at the time I met him (after 7 weeks) he was slowly recovering. What was upsetting was that his pleading for medical access had been dismissively denied.
On my tenth day (in Adi Abeito prison), on May 4, 2007, together with others who stayed longer than me in the prison, I was taken to Wi'A. We were 175 persons (171 male and 4 females) in one truck (“bettah”), made to sit on the floor of the truck in an extremely harmful way, where columns of people were made to sit in a painful arrangement in which one is made to sit between the legs of other person who, in his turn, is made to sit between legs of yet another person – this human chain continues like this with no break in between. Our luggage, including our shoes and belts, had occupied quite a significant space of the truck, as it was thrown in disorderly pile by the prison guards. There were 12 armed guards guarding us during the trip; and all of them, to a man, were savage and merciless. It was obvious that they were instructed to torture us. The driver was also instructed to drive fast for a similar reason. And in all of this, no prisoner was allowed to stand up or move in any way as a result of discomfort, pain or any other reason. As the result of the fast driving on the winding road to Massawa, almost every one was throwing up. I myself did not throw up, but my head, shoulders and back were covered by the vomit of the person sitting right behind me. As I was sitting between his legs and his hands were cuffed, this was totally unavoidable. As any movement resulted in serious beating, I could not clean it, and it eventually dried up on my body. But the worst thing is that we had little access to water, and we were not allowed to wash ourselves or our clothes even when we reached our destination. I was able to take bath only after a week, and wash my clothes after two months.
We arrived in Wi’A, where the temperature used to reach 48 degree centigrade (in some instances, it even reaches 50 degree centigrade), at 1:00 PM and were made to sit on the burning hot ground for more than two hours during the handing-over processes. During this time, two people collapsed to the ground as a result of sunstroke.
Wi’A training center is divided into three camps administratively; namely, Arag, Fenkel and Halhal. Arag and Fenkel accommodate only males, while Halhal is partitioned into two to accommodate both male and female prisoners. Apart from these camps, there are two other prisons. One is under the direct administration of the commander of the whole training center and is made of zinc walls and roofs (hence, scalding hot during the day and freezing cold at night), with almost no ventilation. The rooms are of 2.5 meter in height and narrow in size. The other is an underground prison. I do not know under which administration it falls. The underground prison is reserved for cases considered serious. There are people who served four years in that prison, and most of the cases are related to political and religious issues. There are many from the Pentecost and other minority religions jailed there, most of them women. There are also some women from the Halhal camp that have been transferred to this prison for reportedly “lesbian behavior”.
Though the government technically classifies the larger part of Wi’A as a training center (where the trainee/prisoners are kept), and not as a prison, I classify the whole as a prison because it completely falls under the definition of a prison except that most of the prisoners are held in open air and are in direct encounter with the elements. A prison is a fenced place where prisoners are confined with no right to go out or leave the place at their own discretion for certain amount of time and are under continuous heavy guard by armed guards, and can meet relatives, friends and others only when the prison authorities allow them to do so. This definition fits Wi’A well to a detail.
In Wi’A, the three camps are fenced by stone walls; and in every gate and outside around the compound, at intervals of about 100 meters distance, as well as inside the camp, there are guard posts erected and armed soldiers put on these posts with the sole task of guarding those inside. It is prohibited to go out of the camp; even within the same camp, it is not allowed to visit friends in other tents. These compounds are only meant for daytime use.
There is also one heavily fenced compound in each camp made of stones and thorny acacia trees as high as 3 meters to prevent the prisoners from escaping; these compounds are meant for the night time and have one or two gates depending on their size. As the daytime purpose compound includes living tents for staff, it occupies a large area; hence it has proven difficult to guard it effectively during the night. Therefore the nighttime purpose compound, which is outside the daytime compound, is designed to remedy this problem by concentrating all the prisoners that stay in relatively large area during the day in a narrow area during the night. As a result, it is very crowded, with one person allocated 2 by 0.5 meters area for sleeping. Every evening the prisoners are made to move from the daytime compound, carrying their luggage and drinking water, to the nighttime compound and vice versa. As in the daytime compound, in every gate of the nighttime compound there are guard posts and armed men positioned throughout the night. Yet, the prison authorities are not satisfied by the presence of all these guards and have placed an additional layer of guards to surround the nighttime compound. This task is done by the soldiers of 38 division which are stationed there solely for that purpose. This division is also involved in daytime guarding, but the number of soldiers involved is smaller.
There are different types of activities in Wi’A military training, (including propaganda courses), firewood collecting, stone hauling, etc. Once a week all the prisoners have to trek about 15 -20 kilometers to collect and bring firewood under heavy guard, with two lines of troops from the 38 division on both sides, with the prisoners squeezed in the middle. In addition to the troops from the 38 division, there are the guards from the Wi’A prison itself that walk in front and behind every sizable group of prisoners (usually a group makes 180 prisoners). The scene is like an army going to war, with all its equipment, weapons, ammunition and water supply. But more importantly, all of them are invariably equipped with clubs to beat the prisoners. This is a normal practice that takes place whenever the prisoners are taken out of the camp for any kind of activity.
The prisoners’ task is not limited to firewood collecting. They are also made to trek about seven kilometer of distance to haul stones on their shoulders. In fact, it is this task that takes about 30-40% of the overall activities’ time. Once a week, in thousands, the prisoners are also made to walk under a heavy guard about 4 kilometers distance to a flowing stream to wash their bodies and clothes in a very crowded and rush manner. The time limit allowed for washing ranges from 10 to15 minutes.
In doing all these activities, those sick, weak and disabled are the ones most affected. If one reports that he is tired, sick or disabled, they never believe him and keep beating him mercilessly. Beating and torturing is an everyday practice. Even during military training, if there are few slow learners, there were times when the whole company or battalion is collectively punished either by beating the trainees or making them lie on the ground during the hottest time of the day, which is between noon 12:00 PM and 3:00 PM.
As a result of the stress caused by the extreme climate conditions, harsh living conditions, torture of every kind, poor hygiene, no medical care, insufficient food and slave labor, a considerable number of people, particularly women, have been affected by a disease that afflicts the nervous system known in Tigrigna as ‘lewet’.
The following are the types of punishment that are common in Wi’A:
§ Beating using club, whip, plastic tube, fist and foot at any part of the body are everyday happenings.
§ Tying up the prisoners in various creative ways, such as “otto” (number eight) and “helicopter”, and making them lie on the burning ground for many hours are the most favored forms of torture. If the case is considered to be very serious, the victim is only released to eat and relieve himself (twice per day). Thus, the length of the time varies; in some cases, it can go up to 48 hours at a time. They also beat the victim with different tools and various methods while still tied up.
What are the causes for torturing or beating?
§ Often, there is beating and torturing without any discernable, specific reason. This is mainly done to humiliate the prisoners.
§ The trainers have been trained in Para-commando military skills. While providing training, or for that matter at any other time, as live experimental targets upon which to practice their talent, they jump and beat the prisoners on their head or any other part of their body using karate, boxing, foot-kick or any combination of those.
§ If the person makes mistakes while in training or attending military classes or for alleged lack of discipline, that is considered enough of a reason to beat him/her mercilessly.
§ If one fails to carry a load of firewood or stone that is considered by the guards to be less than the appropriate load – which is as arbitrary as the individual guard on watch – then the normal beating follows.
§ If a family member, relative, friend, neighbor or even one who is from ones’ area escapes or attempts to escape, a person is punished for not informing the military officers as the alleged person is presumed to know the plan of the escapee.
§ If one attempts to escape from the camp while still in training, that person is punished using the severest tools and methods and is sent to the zinc prison for two months. When released, he/she is sent back for retraining.
§ If one had been a soldier and deserted the army, he/she is first sent to the zinc prison for few months. Then, he/she is sent back to his/her former unit where he/she will be jailed to a period equal of his/her absenteeism.
§ If one gets ill, has a chronic disease, gets exhausted by the tasks or is disabled (physically or mentally), he is automatically considered a suspect. The guards consider any of these as ploys meant to avoid training and other activities and, in fact, force the person to work beyond his/her capacity. And if the prisoner is unable to carry out their orders, he/she is beaten and tortured using the severest methods; some to the extent of losing their lives.
As reporting every incident and in detail would take me a long time, I will limit myself to few sample cases to show the extent of punishment used in Wi’A. As the system allows the military personnel unlimited freedom to do whatever they want to do with the prisoners and lets them go unaccountable even if they kill, the handling of the prisoners is dependent on the nature of the individual officer in charge. In Wi’A, there were many cases of killing by beating and other forms of torture, as well by shooting, well known to trainees and prisoners all over the camp. For instance, cases of killing by shooting were said to have taken place in the preceding round of training. However, as all those who went through that training round had by then been assigned to other areas, I have not met a direct eyewitness to those events (as opposed to the Tesseney killings by shooting, where I did meet many eyewitnesses). During my stay in Wi’A, I witnessed the following:
§ When some prisoners, out of desperation, try to escape by running while fully in sight, a bullet is first fired into the air to call for help. Immediately, soldiers from the 38 division and from the camp itself chase the escapees, accompanied by a pick-up land cruiser called “hadanit” (which means “hunter”). If things seem to get out of control, they shoot a lot of bullets around the escapees – on their sides, front and rear to the extent that it severely limits the movement of the escapees. Fortunately, I have not witnessed any killing by shooting. Because of the hostile environment around the camp and the big number of soldiers deployed to chase the escapees, most escape attempts were futile, almost invariably resulting in capture, followed by beating, torturing and jailing for two months in the zinc prison; and in some instances, resulting in permanent disabilities and deaths.
§ There are two officers in Fenkel camp notorious for their cruelty. One is nicknamed ‘Sheebi’ (he is Muslim whose real name I do not know) who killed three people by torturing [They were beaten and tied them for long hours in the burning sun. In the torturing and killing of the third victim, I was an eye witness]. Another one is called Samuel, who has killed two persons using the same method as Sheebi. This is common knowledge in the camp; everyone knows about these cases. In Arag camp, Tedros and Tewolde are known for their savage and merciless behavior. However, by only mentioning these persons, it does not mean others do not torture. Torture is a common practice; it is only that the extent to which they use it differs from individual to individual. I do not have information regarding the camp of Halhal regarding this because I had never been there.
§ In the case of Sheebi, after arriving in Wi’A on the 4th of May, 2007, the next day, Saturday, 5th of May, we were made to trek about 15 kilometers to collect and carry firewood. A young man who was named Siem, from Asmara, and with whom I had been acquainted in Adi Abeito prison on our way back to the camp, was tired and sick and he could not carry his load. Nevertheless, he was forced to continue trekking by continuous beating until he finally collapsed on the ground. Sheebi threatened him that he would really suffer when he reached the camp for his tricks. Four people carried him to the camp. On arrival in the camp, Sheebi tied him up in ‘helicopter’ technique and beat him severely saying that he was feigning it all, and left him tied on the burning ground until he was profusely bleeding through his mouth and nostrils and died on the spot.
§ I witnessed mentally disabled people being beaten and tortured for “feigning their disability”. One of them is called Kider who was actually residing in Sudan and was only on a visit in Eritrea accompanied by his father for traditional medication when he was rounded up in Barentu. He was tortured for more than two weeks until his health deteriorated and was referred to Asmara psychiatric hospital. After three months, his health improved significantly that they returned him to Wi’A at the time of my departure. There are many like him. Some were examined in the preceding rounds by the Ministry of Defense medical team and found to be totally unfit for national service but were rounded up again and again. Because of their mental problem, they were unable to keep the necessary documents that certify their exemption with them all the time. One such person was Hailemariam from Debarwa.
§ I witnessed many futile escape attempts where the victims were tortured to the extent that some developed chronic health problems and in some others, permanent physical disability.
Seizing of money and ID Cards
On arrival at the camp, money, ID cards and other documents are seized with the justification to minimize escaping. Withdrawal of money is allowed only at the discretion of the military officers in one to two months time interval, 100 to 200 Nakfa maximum per one withdrawal. The rest of the money and other documents are returned to the prisoners after training completion and at the dispatching time from the camp. Shopping is allowed once in a week or two weeks time through one person, representing 180 people from a village four kilometer away from the camp. This person registers all the items to be bought and collects the money from each individual and makes the shopping guarded by military personnel.
Some women have been jailed with their children because they could not get people who can take responsibility for, and look after, their children. I have seen children as young as 3 to 5 years old, but there could be others younger than this age range for I did not have access to their camp. I had the chance to see the children between the ages of 3 to 5 while they were out of the camp for some activities. In principle, the government excludes married, pregnant, lactating or child rearing women from national service; however, in violation of their own policy, the military authorities have been routinely rounding up women who were found working in bars, night clubs, late at night in the streets and women attempting to cross the border. There are also girls below the age of 18.
Those women who came first to the camp have stayed there for more than one and half year without being assigned to any unit/department or ministry, and it is not known how long they will stay in the camp in such a frustrating, depressing and humiliating condition.
Children and under age
From those who completed training and graduated on the 8th of July 2007, in my own battalion there were 17 children (17 of out 500 participants). If for example we take 17 as average number per battalion, this means in 10 battalions (each battalion on average of 500 people), there will be about 170 children in total between the age of 11 and 14 out of 5000 trainees, and so on. What is more frustrating for the children is that because of their age (even a rifle is too heavy for them to carry), they are not being assigned to the military units but are made servants of the military officers and have remained in the camp behind us. From the preceding rounds, we encountered children who remained behind their batch and were serving the military officers in tasks such as: selling cigarettes in the camp for the officers’ benefit, washing their clothes, fetching them water and making other things ready.
To mention one of these outside from my battalion: Ermias. To mention some from those who were in my battalion: Meron (11 years), Semere (11), Huruy (14), Osman (14), Dejen (14) – all from Tesseney; Abdurehim (12) from Aligeder; Mahmud (14) from Akurdet; Hassen (12) from Keren; John (11) from Asmara.
For Semere, it is his second time – he was in the camp before two years with his care taker. He also once escaped together with Meron, this time using the advice of Huruy (14 years) on how to escape. After hours of hiding and trekking, they reached the road between Foro and Massawa and a truck driver offered them a lift to Massawa and took them to a military camp presumably for two reasons: to avoid being responsible for helping children escape and, as they were tired and hungry, to get them food in the military camp. The soldiers fed them and allowed them go to the town for picnic; however, after staying in the town for long hours, they were hungry and returned to the camp hoping to get some more food. This time, the military personnel handed them over to the police which, in turn, returned them to Wi’A after one week. On arrival, they (including Huruy, the one who advised them) were not spared the routine torture that adult escapees face.
John was captured with his 8 years old brother attempting to cross to Sudan when the guide his mother had arranged was captured. Together with his brother and his mother, he was jailed for about 3 months, after which his mother and his younger brother were released while he was taken to Wi’A.
Concerning the under age (those between 14 and 17 years of age), since their number is big, I do not have an estimate figure to present.
People getting trained several times
Because people who did their national service are punished proportionately to the number of years of their absenteeism from their units, and two more years if they attempt to cross the border to other country, many youths deny that they have ever been soldiers and claim that they are civilians. As result, many of them are first taken to Wi’A as conscription evaders in need of military training. This was admitted by the commander of Wi’A concentration center, Colonel Jamal, on our graduation day speech, “Some of you have come to the training center many times. What is upsetting is that some of you, in hiding your identity, you are not only disadvantaging your families, you are also leaving a black stain in history.”
Many foreigners have also become victims of the indiscriminate round ups and military training. In the 7th division that graduated in May- June, 2007, there were Somalis, Sudanese and Nigerians. In one meeting, particularly, the Nigerians angrily complained for being illegally detained and trained but the answer from the military officers was cynical, “Do not hate training, it will benefit you”. However, I do not have further information regarding the Sudanese and Nigerians, but the Somalis were handed over to the police, who came over to the camp and took them in a police truck after they completed their training.
Wi’A as a transit to Me’eter prison
Wi’A also serves as a transit to Me’eter, a place along the Red Sea coast between Karura and Massawa, which serves the dual purpose of concentration camp and military training. Those transferred to Me’eter are those prisoners whose severe sentencing for attempting to cross to neighboring countries has already been decided. They are first transported to Wi’A and later separated from others and transported to Me’eter. According to eyewitnesses I talked to, Me’eter is worse than Wi’A. First, people who go there are those who are sentenced to more than two years. And, second, conditions are far worse in Meeter than in Wi’A. Despite the fact that the temperature is as high as Wi’A, even during the daytime, prisoners have no shelter from the burning sun; i.e. they stay in the thorny acacia tree fenced compound under extremely heavy guard (with no shade day and night), and are forcibly made to work and get training bare footed on the scorching hot ground.
Some prisoners taken to Dahlak Islands
Some of the prisoners/recruits were taken to Dahlak Islands and stayed there for 3 months before they returned to Wi’A by the end of July 2007. In the Dahlak Islands, they were offloading and loading weapons from boats which they did not know where they came from and where they were heading to.
Restriction of prayer in Wi’A
In Arag camp, both preaching and praying are prohibited and criminalized while in Fenkel camp, preaching and praying in groups are prohibited and criminalized but praying in singles is permitted. Generally speaking, both preaching and praying in the whole Wi’A concentration camp are prohibited and criminalized. Nevertheless, there are variations in the implementation, and enforcement of these rules and it varies from camp to camp. In Arag camp, the military personnel strictly adhere to these rules and violating these rules results in serious punishments. But in Fenkel camp, though the prohibition of preaching is strictly enforced, in practice Muslims are allowed to pray in groups; Christians are, however, not allowed to pray in groups. This is because the commander of Fenkel camp, himself a Muslim (Captain Salem Omer), is making the Muslims a favor. But I do not have any information how these rules are implemented and enforced in Halhal camp.
Food, water and medical service
Under this topic, I will discuss further the supplies and health situation.
In police stations, the police in guard provide us with bread and tea in the mornings and lentil soup during lunch and dinner time. The whole day’s bread ration is supplied at one time, in the morning during breakfast time (this is my experience in Debub). I am not sure of the situation in other areas but it does not vary much. I could not determine whether the bread and soup provided would be sufficient or not because as most people are detained in the area of their residence, there are many visitors who make generous food contribution; in some instances, there would even be left over. In the police station where I was detained, the food that was provided by the police was hardly touched. In other prisons such as Barentu, only three pieces of bread per day per individual are provided, with no soup at all; thus causing those who stayed longer in those prisons to get weaker as a result of extended starvation.
In Adi Abeito only 4 pieces of poor quality bread per day per person are provided with no soup or tea.
In Wi’A, 4 pieces of bread per day, two cups of tea per day (during breakfast and dinner) and almost no soup – it is water what they call lentil soup or expired cowpeas soup (WFP Food Aid – this food aid is likely to be the one that was confiscated by the government in 2005). Since food was scarce, disorder and fighting were routine events during meal time. Sometimes, for two weeks, no tea was served. The food that was provided was not only poor in quality but was far below the required calories intake, let alone to provide the required proteins, vitamins and minerals. As a result of this, many starved and got weak and thin to the extent their health rapidly deteriorated. As a solution to this problem, in each camp, a fattening program was introduced, where good lentil soup was served and more pieces of bread supplied. Thus, those that got visibly most malnourished were referred to the fattening program till their body normalized before they were made to return to the general feeding system. The fattening program was introduced from past experiences when the supplies were by far shorter, resulting in many of the prisoners being anemic. Most people survive by using their own supply such as ‘tihni’ (fried barley flour), sugar, and some times dates, sardine and milk (‘nido’). Hence, those who were not able to secure their own supply due to financial or other reasons and children were the most affected. During meal times, the prisoners were fed under the burning sun because there was no shelter built for that purpose.
I have no information about the underground prison and the prison in Me’eter, though I had met some people from both prisons; I did not discuss the food provisions, health service and water supplies with them.
In most cases drinking water was not that much of a problem, but there was extremely limited access to water for bathing and washing clothing. And in police stations, they allow you to bath in one or two weeks time. As a result, we were all dirty and infested with lice. In places like Adi Abeito and Barentu, people have never washed their clothes and bodies even for two months. One batch that came to Wi’A from Barentu three weeks after us really smelled very bad. It was so tragic to see them in such a condition to the extent that the camp made a favor to them by allowing them the next day to wash their clothes and bodies.
In Wi’A, for drinking purposes, I would say the supply to a certain degree was OK, with occasional shortages, but was not clean because it was infested with cockroaches and other insects. The main problem we had was the shortage of water containers because the camp does not provide containers. Thus, stealing water containers was common. Washing clothes and taking a bath was allowed once a week on a nearby stream, within a limited time of 10 to 15 minutes.
Bed sheets, shoes, clothing
In the prisons no bed sheets or blankets were provided (in police stations, only in few instances were bed sheets provided). Even in Wi’A, no shoes, blankets, bed sheets or clothes were supplied; each individual had to provide himself. In cold places (in the highlands), people suffer a lot because of cold. Many people were without shoes but still they were forced to work and get trained on the scorching hot ground and on the sharp stones scattered all over the ground.
Except in Wi’A, urination is in containers put at the corner of the cell. For solid wastes, it is twice per day, once in the morning and another in the afternoon. Apart from this, it is not allowed even if a person has diarrhea or stomach problem. People therefore use the urine containers in such instances. Moreover, what is distressing and humiliating is that in the places where prisoners relieve their wastes in the open, they do that under heavy guard, in a very confined, narrow place and in few minutes (maximum of 5 minutes). To give an example, let’s take a look at how they do it in Adi Abeito prison. Because the guards are afraid of prisoners escaping, they first divide them in groups ranging from 50 to 80, and then around 60 soldiers take positions surrounding an area half the size of a football field. Then the prisoners are made to run on their bare feet on sharp stoned ground to that field by beating and intimidating. Every time it is to this same place the prisoners are taken for relieving of their wastes and the time allowed is few minutes; any delay results in beating. Thus, the soil is covered by the waste and the prisoners add to it continuously, making new layers of wastes.
In Wi’A, relieving solid waste is allowed twice per day, during morning and evening. The prisoners go to the same place frequently; however, since it is also allowed while performing some activities far in the wilderness, it is relatively better. There is still time limit but it is relatively longer. The problem is during the night where it is not allowed to get out of the fenced compound for any reason. In each fenced nighttime compound there is one toilet, but this is only for urination (and only for some hours of the night), for people who are diabetic and for those who have written paper from the first aid (health worker) permitting them to use the toilet because of diarrhea. The permission can be obtained only the next day, meaning those who get sick during the night have no right to use the toilet.
Health services are almost nonexistent. In the other type of prisons, there is no access to health services. During the night, even if a person is dying, they refuse to open the prison gate; thus if a person is in a serious health problem loss of life is often the inevitable result. In Wi’A training camp and prisons too, with a capacity to house over 15,000 trainee-prisoners and other-prisoners, [at the time I was there, besides the trainee-prisoners, there about 3,000 officially recognized prisoners] the health service is almost nonexistent. There is one health station that serves the three prison camps which is poorly equipped, with no laboratory, with extreme shortage of medicine and poorly staffed. It is run by health assistants on their national service duties. In each camp, there are people from the prisoners who have health background who do first aid work; but since they are constrained by lack of medicine, they are of no use except in giving advice and issuing reference in serious cases to the health station. For example, there is no anti pain, ORS. And what is worse is since people who claim to be sick are often suspected of faking it to avoid hard labor or arduous military training, instead of medical treatment, they usually receive punishment that exacerbates their condition. As a result, many have died because of the combined effect of lack of medical treatment and the harsh treatment they get.
As the result of the extremely hot climate, meager food, crowded living, hard labor and exhausting activities, many people are easily susceptible to sunstroke. Another devastating result of these poor living conditions was a meningitis breakout in the center that killed many people in its first incidence due to the delay caused by denial of the government and, consequently, to the total lack of medical treatment. But after the disease claimed so many lives, the approach somehow improved a little bit. But even after the meningitis case drew the attention of the Ministry of Health, despite the provision of preventive drugs, it persisted in the center for quite some time; and this may be attributed to the ever-prevalent poor living conditions. Scabies and other skin diseases are also common, and lice infestation is everywhere.