An Eritrean ex-prison guard remembers
What you are about to read is a transcript of an interview given to Human Rights Concern - Eritrea by Mr Eyob Bahta who was a prison guard from September 2001 until his escape from Eritrea in 2010.
The story begins on the 17th of September 2001 in Embat’kala prison, and moves on to Era’Ero prison where the horror still continues to this day.
Who are the prisoners and what is their crime?
They are normal people who are guilty of being journalists, doctors, ministers, generals, heroes of the revolution and people who advocated for reform and the implementation of the ratified constitution of Eritrea. Since there is no independent judicial system in Eritrea, no charge was brought against them and they have not been on trial yet.
At first, the prisoners were kept in a former training centre in Embat’kala – a small town along the road to Massawa. Eventually however, all prisoners ended up in the purpose-built Era’ero prison. The 35 prisoners were initially guarded by 150 prison guards to discourage a rescue attempt that never transpired. Over the years, the guards were reduced down to 80 because of transfers and escapes.
How bad can a prison be when even the guards are trying to escape? It implies that even the guards themselves were prisoners. The guards are still being guarded from a distance.
In fact, the whole of Eritrea is a kind of prison for most of its people. There are few places, however as inhospitable as Era’ero - a purpose-built prison and hard to reach as the location of Era’Ero is far from the capital, towns, villages and the main road. The temperature is so high and it is hard to imagine how prisoners can survive under that extreme heat without any kind of ventilation. It is a prison without adequate health support. The probability a prisoner will receive any kind of proper medical attention is remote. At least 15 prisoners of the original 35 have died. Nobody knows for sure where they are buried.
Conditions are inhumane. All prisoners have numbers instead of names*. They are only allowed to wash once a week. They are handcuffed and kept in their cells for at least 23 hours a day. Food is limited to an unchanging diet of bread and lentil or chickpea soup with vegetables regardless of medical conditions. Some prisoners have been driven to suicide and there are some who succeeded on third attempt.
This terrifying account on prisoners in Eritrea must be extrapolated to account for the hundreds of thousands of Eritreans to imagine or show a true picture of what is happening all over Eritrea today. There are prisons everywhere holding ordinary citizens whose basic human rights are non-existent. In fact, some of the prisons are even in a much worse condition where rape and torture are routine. These are typical prisons and that give a glimpse of a systematic process to break the will of the Eritrean people.
To this day, there are still many Eritreans in diaspora who deny this reality. It is dismissed as propaganda. Many of them continue to contribute a percentage of their earnings to the dictatorial regime that oppresses their own people. Some of them or their families are threatened even from long distance.
And to those who say these events are not happening, we can only reply with the testimony Eyob Bahta – one among the many who witnessed the merciless cruelty of the regime. He says, “If there are people who deny such a situation in which people are being wiped out, they must have lost their mind.”
For Human Rights Concern – Eritrea
* Here are most of the names and the faces of those ‘Numbers’:
Former Vice-President, Minister of Local Government, and Minister of Foreign Affairs
Former Minister of Trade and Industry ; previously Minister of Foreign Affairs
Former Minister of Maritime Resources; previously Minister of Foreign Affairs
Army General; formerly Chief of Staff of the Defence Force, Minister of Trade and Industry, and Minister of Labour and Social Welfare;
Former Minister of Transport and Communication, Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs and Head of the Office of the President.
Hamad Hamid Hamad
Head of the Arabic (Middle East) Department in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; former Ambassador to Sudan
Former Ambassador to Germany (to May 2001); previously Minister of Education and Minister of Information and Culture
Mishasho Germano Nati
Former Governor of Southern Red Sea Zone
Director in the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs; executive member of the official National Union of Eritrean Women;
Army Major-General; head of the National Reserve Force
Director of Cinemas
Former Governor of Keren
Writer and department head in the Ministry of Labour
Tesfaye Gebreab ("Gomorra")
Director in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; previously a director in the Ministry of Labour,
Director in the Ministry of Trade and Industry
Eritrean embassy official in Saudi Arabia, arrested after being recalled in early 2002, former head of Haz-Haz maternity clinic in Asmara
Employee in the Political Section of the US Embassy
Employee in the Economic Section of the US Embassy,
Journalists -Independent Press
Deputy Editor, Keste Debena (Rainbow) Newspaper
Sports Journalists, member of the board of directors, Keste Debena
Editor, co-founder, Meqaleh Newspaper
Yusuf Mohamed Ali
Editor, Tsigenay Newspaper
Editor, Zemen (The Time) Newspaper
Owner and co-founder, Setit Newspaper
Cofounder, Setit Newspaper,
Poet and playwright, Director of the children's group "Circus Eritrea"
Freelance photographer and journalist, former director of Eri-TV
Deputy editor and cofounder, Meqaleh Newspaper
Founder and editor, Admas Newspaper