Issayas Afeworki Has the Worst, and One-of-its-kind Prison System.
Here are some of the rules that govern PFDJ's prison system and the way the
PFDJ/EPLF deals with its many political prisoners, prison guards, families of
political prisoners, and Amnesty International:
- Prisoners must lie
down on the ground day and night, and only on their backs.
- Prisoners must stare
at the sky, or at the ceiling, for as long as they have been in prison.
Some have been doing this for several years.
- Prisoners cannot
jerk, or make any slight movements while lying down, no matter how much
uncomfortable or fatigued they are.
- Prisoners are
prohibited from scratching any part of their bodies.
- Prisoners are not
allowed to glance left or right; they are not allowed to make any eye
contacts with prison guards. They are not allowed to make any eye
contacts with inmates, even when they are at a lunch or dinner table (ma'adi).
They are not allowed to tell apart who they are with.
- Prisoners are
assigned unique numbers by which to be identified, thereby prevented
from identifying the names of their inmates in the event, and if they
- Prisoners are
prohibited from making any contact with their loved ones.
- Families are
explicitly prohibited or systematically prevented from visiting their
imprisoned loved ones.
- Prison guards are
prevented from talking about any prisoners.
- . Amnesty
International is explicitly or systematically prevented from contacting
prisoners; it is explicitly or systematically prevented from discovering
on what charges the prisoners are in prison; it is explicitly or
systematically prevented from discovering the whereabouts of prisoners;
it is explicitly prevented from locating the locations of prisons and
from knowing the number of political prisoners.
If anyone is wondering now who these prisoners are (even now as I write
this article), some of you might've guessed it right, yes, they are Eritrean tegadelti,
patriotic Eritreans who voluntarily left their comfortable homes and families
to liberate Eritrea.
But the mistreatment of prisoners is only one part of the story, because
worse than the mistreatment, though some of the prisoners might not consider
it worse is that, it is told that execution of prisoners was common in EPLF's
According to Teklay Aden, the former chief of EPLF's prison system, by 1978,
Issayas had executed close to 3000 tegadelti. One might downplay, and
for a good reason, saying, what do you expect from Teklay Aden. But his
claims were supported by many individuals thus the claims and rumors cannot
simply be dismissed as speculations and allegations, although one can admit
that there obviously is so much exaggeration in the reports.
Some of the victims were accused of plotting to overthrow the system
(Issayas), others were accused on the bases of someday in the future they
might become a threat to the system (Issayas), and others were accused on the
bases of someday they could be persuaded by someone else to rise against the
system (Issayas). The majority of the victims are Christians.
Moreover, many also believe, in order to whitewash the traces of his
crimes, Issayas Afeworki had been executing the personnel that he made
instrumental in carrying out the execution of the prisoners. Again it is hard
to prove or disprove such allegations but it would be a mistake to
categorically dismiss them as fabrications. Something really unusual must
have happened and must be happening.
According to the internal rules of the EPLF of the mid-1970s and thereafter,
anyone sentenced by court marshal for execution could not be executed without
the formal signature of the head of the Front. But at some point, according
to Teclay Aden and other individuals, Issayas himself did not want to take
the responsibility and was ignoring the court's papers put on his desk by the
court for his signature. He would either let the papers collect dusts
forever, or if the court inquired about the papers, he would, acting angrily,
throw the papers at it. Therefore the court was being puzzled not knowing
whether it should release the prisoners and bear the wrath of Issayas
afterwards, or execute the inmates without requiring his signature.
Eventually, according to Teklay Aden and many other individuals, the court
devised a plan that would spare it from the scolding of Issayas; it started
sending the "convicts" into combat raids as cannon fodders against
Ethiopian garrisons, of course without hinting the inmates that they had been
sentenced to death. It would send them into combat over and over until they
were killed in combat, then it would list them as martyrs. Again these are
allegations that could not be proved or disproved.
According to the reports from many individuals, although many ordinary
"convicted" tegadelti were executed in this method, members
of the politburo, or senior military or political commissars were usually
executed by a fire squad but the cause of each victim's death was explained
to tegadelti as the victim having committed suicide, except when Issayas saw
a reason to capitalize on the victim's good name, that is, if the victim's
name could be used as a bait to lure more recruits, then in such cases, the
public and tegadelti were informed as the victim had been martyred heroically
in combat. The latter method allowed Issayas to kill two birds with one
stone: to eliminate his real or imaginary enemy, and to entice the victim's
fans to cement their commitment to Issayas by following in the footstep of
their martyred hero.
I ask the readers now to stop and think this: Has someone who portrayed
himself as a high priest, the defender of Christians, someone who created a
splinter group because he could not stand the "persecution of Christians
at the hands of Moslems", been given a carte blanche to kill as many
Christians as he wanted?
The Formation of a Splinter Group by Issayas Afeworki.
Was there a valid reason for Issayas to form a splinter group?
Could, the problem that Issayas had with Kiada al Ama, have been resolved
through peaceful means?
Have Eritrean Christians benefitted from the front that Issayas had claimed
to have formed on their behalf?
How and why did he become so popular among the Christians?
Did Issayas form a splinter group to benefit the Christians or to quench his
thirst for power?
When in February of 1970, Issayas asked the leaders of ELF for a permission
to go to Ala,
Akeleguzai, he did not disclose to them what his real intention was. He
actually expressed to them that he would come back to participate in the
First National Congress for which a preparation was underway. The Congress
was to discuss all the shortcomings of the Front, and possibly to devise a
resolution to the concerns of many, including those of Issayas.
Then again, it soon became clear to everyone that Issayas was up to no good
when, half way into his journey, he ordered two tegadelti, who
happened to be Moslems, from the group of tegadelti who were assigned to
accompany him to return to Barka, but continued his journey to Ala along with
only the Christians whom he had chosen to accompany him.
Later on he issued an official declaration under the title of "niHnan
Alaman" and made it known to the public of his intention to form his own
splinter group and gave the following reasons why it was important for him to
form his own front:
1. Two Christian tegadelti, Wolday Gidey and Kidane Kiflu, who were
assigned to work in Kassala, Sudan, were executed by Kiada al Ama.
2. More than 50 of Christian peasants were murdered by ELF in Shimbare.
3. In the mid-1960s, more than one hundred Christian tegadelti were
ordered to be killed by ELF.
Again later he broadened his reasons for forming his own front by adding a
fourth reason: 4. More than 150 Christian students known by Seria Addis were
executed by Kiada al Ama.
Were Christian Eritreans Persecuted Inside ELF?
In the Sixties, many Christians who joined the ELF felt mistreated by the
Lowlanders though many also admitted the feeling of mistreatment felt by the
Christians might have emanated from a cultural clash between the Lowlanders
and the Highlanders in that many Moslems who were raised in the Highlands
were also feeling the cultural clash that their Christian colleagues were
experiencing, to some degree.
Still there might have been a mistreatment of the Christians by some Moslems
because the Adobha conference by which Issayas was elected to be a member of
the leadership (just a member, which could hardly quench his thirst for
power), had also recognized the problems and thus had set out to investigate
and find a rectification. Of course no one should assume all the problems and
concerns of the Moslems and Christians would be resolved by one conference
alone, but given enough time, through many conferences and congresses, the
leaders of that time might have outgrown their mistakes. Again if the
Lowlanders were really as bad to all Highlanders as Issayas was describing
them, then given enough time, I say no later than by the mid-1970s, they
would've changed their positions toward the Christians because they,
including the misguided members of ELF, would have realized that they could
not liberate all of Eritrea without the participation of the Christian
Highlanders, but also, if only Issayas had sought other methods to run away
from the problem, and if only Issayas had not been so obsessed with becoming
Nevertheless, Issayas's action could have been justified but only if he
formed a pristine organization. But that has not been the case, in fact, it
did not take him too long not only to repeat the mistakes of Jabha, but by
his deeds to surpass, except in a more sophisticated way, the crimes which he
had been claiming to be committed by Kiada al Ama.
Again there might have been some mistreatment of Christians by some Moslem tegadelti.
For example, Memhir Wolday Kahsay, the leader of Zone Five, defected to Ethiopia when
he believed that there was a mistreatment of Christians, but also when he
believed he could not rectify it in his power. In my hindsight, Memhir Wolday
did the right thing and furthermore in my hindsight, the Christians, the
Revolution, and the nation as whole would've been better off had Issayas
followed in the footsteps of Memhir Woldai Kahsay and deserted to Ethiopia.
After all, Ethiopia
was treating the Christians better than it was treating the Moslems, so it
was not a matter of life and death that the Christians form a liberation
front of their own at that time. They could have stayed with Ethiopia
until the problems that Issayas was perceiving were cleared. The mistreatment
the Christians experienced by the few inexperienced and misguided Moslem tegadelti
could never have surpassed the sufferings that Issayas has inflicted upon the
Christians in particular and the nation as a whole over the years.
Because, by forming his own splinter group, Issayas destroyed the unity of
Eritreans, caused civil war to prevail, sent the Revolution into a tailspin,
and also sent Ethiopia
a message of hope that said Eritreans would someday self-destruct. And as far
as the other two splinter groups founded by Osman Salih Sabe and the Oboleen,
those factions could not succeed politically and militarily on their own
unless they could dramatically change their programs, and even then, they
could hardly contribute to Christian/Moslem religious polarization.
But let's assume the Lowlander tegadelti were persecuting the
Christian tegadelti, or that they were showing hostility against the
Christians for whatever reason. If so, forming a splinter group was hardly a
way to combat such prejudice, because by running away from those Issayas had
believed prejudiced against him, he also ran away from the problem.
But still the prejudice from the few misguided individuals might be justified
to some degree. Firstly, every revolution movement makes mistakes in its
early age. Secondly, the 1960s were the years when horrific atrocities were
being committed by Ethiopia
exclusively against Moslem Eritreans. Thirdly, the 1960s were also the year
when Ethiopia had
succeeded in its divide and rule plot in Eritrea thus recruited Christian
Eritreans into its regular and militia armies to help it fight against the
liberation fronts and Eritrean Moslem civilians. Fourthly, in the 1960s, the
ELF was comprised of a very few educated individuals; the majority of its
members had no education, no political, and cultural consciousness.
If the crimes committed by the very few uneducated and politically
inexperienced individuals, whose parents were massacred and whose villages
leveled to the ground with the help of some Highlanders cannot be justified,
then, how could the blind followers of Issayas now justify the massacre of
the heroic, disabled Liberation War veterans by Issayas in 1994.
Ok, it could be true that there might have been some prejudice from some
individual Moslem tegadelti against the Christians, but still many of
those who later studied the history of the 1960s could not find a trace of
any organized conspiracy by Eritrean Moslems against the then minority in
number Christians in ELF.
Of the reasons that Issayas pointed out for his political elopement, it was
true innocent peasants were murdered in Shimbare; Kidane and Wolday were
murdered, students known as Seria Addis were executed by the ELF. The exact
number of the Shimbare's victims always varied, but it was believed that they
were between 15 and 25, and it was told by the ELF that they were killed by
vigilante off duty tegadelti of ELF, who were thought to be avenging
after their village was burned by Ethiopian soldiers with the help of
bherawi, a local Ethiopian militia comprised of Eritrean Christians. But the
other allegations by Issayas could never be validated.
Now if Issayas wanted to use the victims of Shimbare and of Kidane and Wolday
it is OK, but Issayas could not use the Christian students known by Seria
Addis who were murdered by ELF as the reasons for his political elopement, as
he was sometimes trying to do, because those poor souls were executed by the
ELF long after Issayas had publicly declared to split. In fact, his basis of
discord with Solomon Woldemariam was that Solomon who was responsible for
organizing the clandestine groups and for recruiting, contrary to Issayas's
long-term dreams, allowed Kiada al Ama to have access to those recruits and
to transfer them from Ala
to Senhit. He deprived Issayas the opportunity of using the recruits for the
new front he was about to form. Issayas had long decided to split and to form
his own front, long before the students were executed and had already gone by
the time the students were executed. In fact as far as Issayas was concerned,
he had split up from Kiada al Ama in 1969, only Kiada al Ama did not take him
The exact number of the victims known by Seria Addis, is not known, but it
was believed that at sometime up to 40 students were seen in prison at Debra
Sala, thus the total number of the victims, in the worst case scenario could
be 40, and most likely a lot less than 40, and not 200 or 250 as was
sometimes being claimed to be by Issayas. But still some who studied the case
believe that Issayas himself was partially to blame for their death. The
reason is that after Issayas ran away and accused all Moslems as anti
Christians, he caused an atmosphere of polarization to prevail behind him in
ELF, hence by the time the poor students completed their military training,
tensions and misgivings had heightened between Christians and Moslems and the
poor students became subjected to being in the wrong place and at the wrong
Having said that, since the students were murdered after the Adobha
Conference, the ELF's leadership of that time failed to do a thorough
investigation and get to the bottom of the case of the students and thus
could not evade responsibility.
In any case, the death of these victims needs further investigation in
along with all the crimes that are believed to have been committed by Issayas
after he formed his own front.
In conclusion, even though both Moslems and Christians have been losers as a
result of all the turns and twists the revolution had to go because of the
political and military fragmentation caused by Issayas, the Christians have
by far lost the most, only they do not know it yet. Enchanted by his
"passion for Christians", the Christians overlooked his flaws and
joined his front in disproportionate a number, as a result, after Issayas
eliminated the other fronts, his front took all of the burdens of military
fighting against Ethiopia, because of the 65,000 that have paid with their
lives for independence during the armed struggle, about 58,000 - 59,000 could
be from the EPLF alone.
Also, by October 1977, in 1977, one thousand tegadelti who were
involved in a political uprising in ELF fled the ELF and took refuge in EPLF.
The overwhelmingly majority of them were Christians. It was told that within
12 months, by October 1978, Issayas systematically eliminated 80% of them
after involving them in combats, as cannon fodders, against Ethiopian armies.
Will continue in part 15 of 24
Next, in part 15, the systematic obliteration of all Eritrean religions,
family values and culture, and the installation of a regimented culture will
Yonas Araya, contributed and has
sole responsibility for the content on this page. Comments about this article
you can contact the writer by e-mail: Yonas