LET THE PEOPLE SPEAK pp. 7-11 [Excrept from Eritrea INFORMATION 1986 alem bekagn.doc - Eritrios Net
Here again we are featuring a personal account of prison experience of one Eritrean who prefers to call himself "Awet Nihizbina" (Victory to our people) )for fear of reprisals by the Ethiopian Government. Awet had the privilege of being a «guest» in an officially called the Central Revolutionary Ethiopian Prison, Investigation Department commonly known as «Sostegna», or Number Three Prison. Situated to the north of Addis Abeba, on the Gojjam Road, this prison could well claim to be one of the worst prisons in the world. Although its name suggests that it is concerned with political prisoners, it is a prison where
you can find people accused of anything, from forging a driving license to embezzling Government money.
«The prison is comprised of two blocks, facing each other, separated by an alley of about 1.5 metres wide. They each house some 20 rooms of an average size of just under 4 x 4 metres. It is difficult to believe, but in 1978/79, at the height of the «Red Terror» campaign, when the government gave a free hand to its lackeys to kill, detain, loot and do what they please, each prison cell contained about 85 prisoners, who were locked inside it, day and night. They had to take it in turns to stand and to sit; they also had to make extra space for those who had been tortured by having been beaten on the soles of their feet, or burnt by cigarette butts, plastic fire hot iron, etc.
There was in fact a dramatic improvement in the early eighties, as the Government felt it had beaten its enemies' so the inmates of a cell were reduced to 36 only. What a luxury it was to be able to sleep with your head resting on other people's feet, with a good part of your back straight as a rod!
The only problem was when you tried to roll over the other shoulder: in those fractions of a second the narrow strip (about 30 cms in width) the vacated space is immediately filled by other people's feet.«lf prisoners are sentenced they go to the main prison. Alem Bekagn (End of the World). There you may be only 3 or 4 inmates to a room. This makes a big difference in the night because you can roll over 90 degrees without any problem and sleep on your back. This is called «Jerba tegna» i.e. back sleep, while the shoulder sleep is called «Begon tegna». When people were sentenced and taken away - seldom to serve less than 5 years and often to be executed - prisoners had mixed feelings. Grief was mingled with at least temporary relief – when they thought of all that extra floor space!
«The ventilation of the cells was practically inexistent. A narrow window with thick bars was the only way that fresh air entered and the stench was dreadful. During the night one
just lived for the dawn to break. If someone falls sick, his fellow prisoners knock on the door to call the guard. After he is told what the problem is he goes to get the prison dresser. Then
they enter the cell with a machine gun planted on the ground, pointing at the only entrance to the block. If, by chance, people from various cells knock on their doors at the same time, or if there should be continual knocking, this is interpreted as an effort to overpower the guard - even though no-one can get out unless he opens the door from outside. So the «privilege»
is withdrawn and sick people have to continue to suffer until morning, i.e. until 6 a.m. People with diarrhea have to manage with tin cans.
«Oddly enough the two cells allocated for women are in a block which has no barriers with the men's block. They share the same toilet but different shifts are arranged for them. As for the number of women prisoners per cell, they fare no better than the men. It is particularly tough for pregnant women.
«A majority of the inmates were members of the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Party (EPRP) followed by Eritreans allegedly supporting the Eritrean liberation movements, Oromos and Tigreans. In short, all the various movements fighting the Derg in Eritrea and Ethiopia have representatives detained on their behalf, proof or no proof.
«The only means of extracting information from the accused is through beating or torture. There are various nasty ways of doing this, some of them unheard of elsewhere. The commonest is putting the victim in an upside-down position and beating on the soles of his feet, with leather whips while the mouth is gagged and hands and feet tied. Two fingers, one on each side, are to be tapped by the victim to indicate that he/she wants to talk.
«lf he/she does this, the interrogator, who is nearby, questions the prisoner. If he is not satisfied with the replies that he gets, the torture continues. Often the victim admits to actions never committed, just to get relief from the torture. But he/she will regret it later, when sentenced to long prison confinement or to execution. Many people do, however, manage to withstand the torture.
«Another form of torture is to tie a plastic sheet onto the leg and light it so that it burns the skin. They also use cigarettes to burn different parts of the body, including women's genitalia, administer electric shocks, pull out nails and lay hot irons on people's backs.
«Torture on the soles of the feet is by far the most common and it is done repeatedly to the same victim. He/she returns to the cell with bleeding soles - but is not allowed to have medical attention without permission from the interrogator, who usually does not agree. But the other inmates of the cell have their methods of helping the injured person. They force him/her to walk about on the floor, pressing it as hard as possible with their feet. Then they get a cold towel and spread it for him/her to stamp on again and again. Believe it or not, in two or three days time not only does the wound heal but the prisoner is ready to bear the next round of torture, but with more resistance this time, as the soles have hardened.
«The prison authorities do not provide any food, clothing or bedding material at all. The prisoners are left to the mercy of their family, relatives and friends. As prisoners' income stops -as soon as they are detained, the family finds it difficult to support them. Often the food supply is exhausted after about two weeks.
«To deal with the shortage of food, the prisoners consider it all common property, so that whatever food is brought in each day has to be shared among all the inmates. The prisoners even form an «economic committee» to distribute food equally throughout the prison. The committee takes the surplus food and give it to those who do not have enough. In this way surpluses were eliminated and there were fair shares for all. However the food was enough for lunch only. In the morning and in the evening there was only a piece of bread and a cup of water each. Those who could afford it bought tea to drink. Fruit was not allowed, neither were soft drinks, honey, butter or jam.
«The «economic committee» also assigns a new prisoner to a cell, according to his/her income. If the person is rich he is likely to attract visitors, hence there will be more food and money coming to his cell from which the less fortunate can also benefit. Money used to be owned collectively, but later a tax system was introduced ranging from 40% to 50% of the income. The cell provides bread day in and day out to its occupants, through its executives who are elected each month. If there were sufficient funds it might occasionally provide tea as well. The individual could buy tea, cake or a sandwich which belonged to the room as food items are resold to any buyer. It was not uncommon for an inmate to buy, say, a cake brought by his family or friend, using the taxed money that the same family had brought him.
«This was an improvement from the old days when money was not allowed into the prison, but cigarettes were, which would then be resold at less than cost price to the prison officials, taxed and given to the inmate.
«The prisoners who run out of clothing have to depend on somebody's charity. Occasionally those that have them share with those who don't. The clothes are allowed to be taken away and washed by relatives once a week. For those whose whereabouts are unknown to their relatives, the cell provides washing soap.
«It is difficult to believe but the prison authorities provide a medical dresser - but no medicines! Again, the «health committee», set up by the prisoners, has to try and look after the health of the inmates. Each room elects a health representative and the representatives elect an executive committee, whose job is to select trained medical personnel to treat the prisoners, to collect money from the cells to buy medicine and to liaise with the prison dresser.
«Medicines are bought by the dresser. He deducts money for his taxi and makes a lot of fuss
about the time he spends travelling, his concern for the inmates, etc. In other words he asks for an allowance which is not, however, granted. Worse still, he keeps some of the medicines and uses them to treat the interrogators and their families!
«In extremely rare cases, an inmate is sent to hospital. This is if he is practically dying and the prisoner dresser decides to send him there. I knew of a prisoner who died in prison, denied any hospital attention. But the dresser invariably sends rich people to hospital because he knows they would give him money.
«The health worker of the prisoners, often a full-fledged medical doctor, makes two rounds a
day, and uses the medicine brought by the inmates. But he cannot treat wounds caused by torture, or he will be in very great trouble.
«It is also up to the health committee to buy scissors and cut very short the hair of new prisoners. This is imposed by the authorities and failure to carry it out has serious consequences. «The sanitation of the toilets and alleys is another job for the health committee. They buy disinfectants and assign personnel to keep the facilities clean.
«Books, magazines and radios are not allowed. Only government newspapers are available and have to be bought by the inmates who want to read them. The only time that we listened to a radio was when Colonel Mengistu, the junta leader, made an announcement on the formation of the Commission for the Organization of the Workers' Party of Ethiopia (COPWE).
«Though books are not allowed because they serve the EPRP in their communication with the
prisoners, the inmates ask the authorities to use their money to buy socialist books. But even this is refused. However, few books like the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich Funchen, Class Conflict in Egypt, with the Wind etc., in Egypt, find their way through, somehow, and are read round the clock. Most of the prisoners at that time had secondary school or University background. There were hardly any illiterates.
«Sports of any kind are unthinkable and music is unheard of. Prisoners use their own ingenuity to make life a little more bearable. In the early eighties each cell had its own band, using forks, cups, plates and spoons as instruments. The results were reasonably good. Bread was compounded with tissue paper to make checkers, chess pierces and scrabble. But bingo was by far the most entertaining and besides it provided income for the cell.
«The authorities appoint their lackeys among the prisoners to rule over the inmates. They have one «capo» for each bloc and a general capo to control everybody. The capos in turn elect «representatives» from each cell. The authorities do not interfere because things are run the way they want. If they want the record of a certain prisoner's history, the capos can arrange it. Allegations about subversive activities by members of anti-Derg organisations are constantly reported to the officials and those accused are harassed. This means torture, confinement to the cell and being forbidden to talk to other inmates.
«It would be pleasant to think that the above account is past history - the bad old days. But things have not improved since the late 70s and early 80s. On the contrary, according to news I received from inside as recently as June 1986, conditions seem to have worsened. Now there are three blocks instead of two. In the upper block are those who are treated relatively leniently by the Derg's standards of course. They include prisoners with long terms, sometimes as much as 9 years. Some of the newer ones are alleged to belong to liberation fronts or the EPRP. The authorities provide no food, clothing or medicines. At most they receive 9 dishes of food - from their relatives - for as many as 36 people in a cell. Sometimes they get nothing at all. An average of 36 people are assigned to a cell - the same as in the early 80s.
«ln the middle block are found mainly Eritreans. They are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. Here no visitors are allowed and certainly no food from outside. Most of the prisoners in this block have become blind as a result of the perpetual darkness. They have to hold hands when they visit the toilets.
«The lower block houses party «renegades». They are people who have been serving the Derg faithfully, until they fell out of favour. They suffer the worst of all. Their eyes are covered by bands, day and night.
«This, then, is a very brief picture of how the Ethiopian military junta runs its notorious Central Investigation Department! Time and space do not permit me to describe some of the incidents that I witnessed. Some cases I shall never forget; they would probably not be believed if I were to describe them».