The killing machine: from round-ups to death camps

Excerpted from the Conveyor Belt of Death in Eritrea
Thursday, 30 July 2009 17:59 Yosief Ghebrehiwet

These stories start in villages, towns and cities across Eritrea, where the modern-day Gestapo unexpectedly show up at a house, mostly at an ungodly hour, to fetch a dissenter (real or perceived), a young man or woman (an army deserter or conscription evader), a parent (whose son or daughter has escaped from the clutches of Shaebia), an Evangelical Christian (whose religion has been outlawed), or a minority (whose ethnic group has come under special scrutiny). The prisoners are then unceremoniously carted off to the nearest prison (often, a provincial one) for “questioning” or to be kept in h’idri (atsnh’aley), where they are literally forgotten for months or years on end. Then they are moved to ominously larger and specialized prisons such as that of Adi-Abeyto, where they get categorized, serialized and their fates sealed without seeing a day in court. And last, they are moved to the most notorious concentration camps located in the middle of the desert, such as Wia’, Met’er or E’rae’ro, where tens of thousands are made to languish under medieval-like conditions of torture, disease, starvation, toil and death.

As in the Nazi case, the first step that the Isaias regime does to feed its conveyor belt of death is create an environment where its victims have no place to hide – this is where the smoking out process is done. Since most of its victims are army deserters and draft evaders, it has created an elaborate mlti-layered system that is designed to capture them in the next layer if they escape from one layer below it. Various methods are used to this effect: giffa, sudden round-ups that are meant to trap victims unaware; an elaborate spying network where neighbors are made to spy on neighbors; severe penalties against families with one or more escapees; countless roadblocks where adults are repeatedly asked for their pass permits; shoot-at-sight policies at border crossings; etc. One of the main reasons for the mass exodus, even as it has become lethal at border crossings, is that there is nowhere to hide inside Eritrea.

One story, meticulously documented by Mussie Hadgu in “Testimonies of Untold Atrocities and Suffering in Eritrea” (, gives us a glimpse of what the conveyor belt of death in Eritrea looks like. The picture that the writer draws for us includes: that of children as young as 11 years old trapped in the concentration camp for “crimes” conducted by older family members who managed to escape; of mothers confined in prison cells with their toddlers; of the underage making up a huge portion of the prison population; of desperate prisoners killed in attempt to escape, with some ending up committing suicide; of the weak and sick worked to death, some through medieval-type torture systems; of the mentally unstable brought to the camp multiple times because they cannot carry their identification papers with them; of parents serving sentences for the “sins” of their adult sons and daughters who had successfully escaped from the clutches of Shaebia.

One particular scene remains etched in my mind for its graphic depiction of a medieval-like scene of hard labor, torture and death. Thousands of prisoners were made to march many miles in the outskirts of the concentration camp to fetch stones and wood, with armed soldiers on both sides of the lines, in front and behind every group (one group consisted of about 180 prisoners). Beatings were frequent as a means of making them work harder. The weak ones, who often collapsed under this harsh condition and an unforgiving desert sun, were suspected of deliberate sabotage and subjected to further penalties. There were those who died after days of agony when subjected to the cruelest form of torture such as the “helicopter”. And all of this was taking place on the nicer part of the concentration camp where most were undergoing “reeducation” before they got rehabilitated into the army; the witness was unable to see what was going on the cordoned off part of the concentration camp, where the most condemned prisoners were kept in underground dungeons under the worst possible conditions.

The all-out assault on the Kunama people follows this course of the well-oiled conveyor belt of death. It starts in the most fertile corridor of Gash, where the most populated Kunama villages are to be found. According to Shaebia, this corridor has to be “pacified” by any means necessary, not only because its rear end touches Tigray but also because its opposite end touches the land of the Baria ethnic group, where the Bisha mining area is found. We know that thousands of Kunamas have crossed to Tigray since the war to escape Shaebia’s wrath. Ever since, there has been a festering armed resistance in that area. Shaebia’s fear is that this corridor will serve as a conduit of armed sabotage that could potentially derail the mining prospects at Bisha. For Shaebia, an organization that cannot live with any uncertainty, it is essential that it drains the sea to catch the fish; hence its collective punishment that doesn’t discriminate between men, women and children or between the guilty and innocent. In this particular round-up (one of many), many families that had a member that had joined the Kunama movement was targeted indiscriminately. Hundreds of them were rounded up and detained.

Menghisteab Girmay’ account provides us with a synopsis of the all out assault against the Kunamas: Children as young as 9 to 13 years were separated from their families and sentenced to six-months in a rehabilitation camp far away from their villages where it is impossible for family members to visit them. And those “adult” enough to deserve Adi-Quala prison included: 13 to 18 years olds sentenced 1 to 4 years of life in prison; mothers with children as young as one year olds and hundreds of adults sentenced 1 to 20 years of life in prison. And among the adult men that were imprisoned in Adi-Quala, 28 were killed, 26 of whom were mass-buried in one hole that they were made to dig in the Mai Dima prison compound after being poisoned to death. And all this is just one incident as told by one man. We also happen to know many more have been taken away from their villages before and since the massacre, and their whereabouts is unknown; no one knows whether they are alive or dead. It is with justification then that the Kunamas feel their very survival as a people is at stake.

Death in concentration camps

The only time we come to know how Shaebia’s machine of death works is when it momentarily breaks down and its inner workings are revealed to the public. This could take place anywhere in the three parts mentioned above. For instance, the recent massacres around Adi-Quala were done away from this conveyor belt of death because they were intended to terrorize the public: Shaebia wanted to make an example of the massacred so that others won’t venture towards the border. Similarly, we have come to know about the massacres of Adi-Abeyto because it took place at a time and place that Shaebia could not control. And then there are cases where the secrecy essential for the conveyor belt of death to work efficiently gets momentarily broken because someone from the inside breaks the silence. The case of the Kunama massacre would be a good example of the latter. Had it not been for Menghisteab Girmay, the man who had witnessed the whole process as a trusted member of the security apparatus, we would probably have never come to know about it this soon. All of which leads us to this question: if we have come to know about these massacres when the conveyor belt of death momentarily malfunctions, how many more deaths take place when it works well under the cover of darkness? We could only guess.


Due to the formidable inaccessibility of the hundreds of prisons and concentration camps scattered all over Eritrea and the extreme secrecy with which this paranoid organization of former guerrilla fighters works, it has been difficult to come up with an estimate of how many of those tens of thousands imprisoned are already dead. The government never announces – even to family members – the death of prisoners; it buries them in unmarked graves that are kept in utmost secrecy. Yet, we could get a rough idea of what has been going on behind that veil of secrecy if we examine the few cases we have been able to keep track of.

If we take a look at the case of imprisoned journalists, we now know that, at minimum, a fourth of them have already been presumed dead in captivity, and these were fairly young men compared to other prisoners. Besides, since these were relatively known figures, it was less likely that the regime had used extreme forms of torture or hard labor to punish them or break them down. If so, one can imagine the death toll among those frequently beaten and tortured (“helicopter”, “otto”, “Jesus Christ” “Almaz”, etc.), made to toil under hard labor from sunrise to sunset, given little or no medical attention for endemic diseases (malaria, HIV, tuberculosis, bodily harm, etc), mass-starved to a point of severe malnutrition and outright executed. There are also the weak, the underage, mothers with their children and the old who are least able to resist the harsh conditions of the prison camps. Then there are those routine executions conducted at crossings, be it of concentration camps, military camps, training camps (such as Sawa) or national borders as the victims attempt to escape.

Given all of the above, even if we take a conservative estimate, it would still amount to a sizable number. So, the well-oiled conveyor belt of death of Shaebia is currently doing its work all over Eritrea; it is only that the clinical “neatness” and “orderliness” with which it is run is providing enough cover for all those who want to stick their heads in sand and feign ignorance of all the atrocities that are going on around them. And, yet, this is just the beginning.

Currently, the famishing of a whole nation, in a scale and scope never seen before since independence, is underway. It has to be noted that most of the large scale killings in totalitarian regimes took place in self-induced famines, invariably caused by misguided agrarian revolutions, often under that deceptive cover of “self-reliance”. Similarly, Shaebia’s “self-reliance” policy has come to a spectacular failure: its land policy, where it has been depriving peasants and pastoralists of their prime farm and grazing lands; its market policy, where it has systematically killed the private sector; and its food policy, where it is now forcing the peasants to “sell” their food supply directly to the government; its national service policy, where all the productive force of the nation is tied up; its aid policy, where it has categorically refused to receive food aid from international donors. As result, the food condition in Eritrea has now deteriorated to such an extent that if food aid doesn’t flow into the country soon enough, there is no doubt that the conveyor belt of death will be put on a fast track.


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