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Stories from Underground Prison in Eritrea: Torture, Madness, Slave Labour, Death and a Father Searching for his Son(Life under PFDJ)

published by Mussie Hadgu added on 3rd, March 2010




Mussie Hadgu has been relating to us his horrifying experience of Life under the PFDJ. In the first instalment of this series, he described the inhumane condition of Adersesr prison (otherwise known as Hadish Measker) near the border to Sudan , under the title of Torture, Suffering and Imprisonment. This time he relates to us the fate of five prisoners in the same prison, gives us a glimpse of the kind of life that the youth of Eritrea are living under the PFDJ rule, under the title of Suffering, Madness, Death and a Father Searching for his Son.

Torturing prisoners

 Beating and tying up the prisoners was a normal daily phenomenon. While making us work hard labour or while herding us outside to relieve our wastes, they used to beat us stating the prisoners did not behave according to the orders and instructions of the officers. But the most serious torturing happens to those who attempt to escape, which at times led to loss of life.

 The case of escapees: Issa, Saleh and others

 Two months before my arrival to the prison, about 30 of the prisoners got organized and attempted to escape collectively when they were out to relieve their wastes. The guards called for reinforcement and the prison guards together with the reinforcement units which came with land cruiser pick ups mounted with machine guns chased the escaping prisoners and shot them on sight. About 15 of them managed to escape; three were killed on the spot; and many others were wounded.

The condition of one of the wounded was extremely critical to the extent the prisoners counted him with the dead. His name is Issa. However, despite the several bullets he sustained, this guy survived. He was referred to Keren central hospital of the Ministry defence in which he underwent surgical operations and received treatment under the intensive care unit. Nevertheless he lost his kidney, his one foot was permanently disabled and his other foot was damaged to certain extent. Because many of the bullets he sustained were in his abdomen, he underwent abdomen surgical operation. It was a surprising moment to the prisoners when he was returned to the prison after recovery because the prisoners had assumed him dead. One day after he was returned to the prison he was transferred (on the 15th of May 2001) together with about 50 prisoners to Sawa military training camp (including myself). No one can really imagine how this guy was supposed to survive the gruelling military training in Sawa.

 In another incident, shortly before my arrival at the prison, a man named Saleh from the village of Setimo , a village west of Tesseney, had attempted to escape but he was caught by the prison guards. They beat him severely for almost a week and tied him up regularly for days – this include tying him up his four limbs together and hanging on the tree for hours on a daily basis until his arms had become almost paralysed. But gradually he improved with time. He was also made to remain behind from his batch when they were transferred to Sawa just to be transferred with us.

 Another incident as it was narrated to me by the prisoners is one group of six men who were on duty preparing meal because it was their turn that day. Five of them designed a plan how to escape but one person from the group refused to join them and the five escaped. The prison guards tortured him by beating and tying him up for long hours for not reporting to the prison guards about the plan of the escapees. According to the narration of the prisoners, he was in extremely bad condition physically and psychologically as the result of the torturing.

 We were also collectively punished and tortured when the prisoners, out of anger and frustration, threw shoes at the entrance door of the underground cell. When the prisoners beat the door, it made noise. Though the prison guards knew well because of the darkness we can not see who did it, the guards used to ask us to indicate those who did the throwing. In such cases, the guards (particularly one named Idris) entered the cell holding torches (to light the underground) and clubs/rods and made us lie on our abdomen on the floor and beat us on our buttocks. As we used to wear only underpants, the beating was extremely painful and left wounds/scars. Whenever we anticipated that the prison guards were preparing to enter the cell to beat us, we adopted a coping strategy to deal with the beating and reduce its effect. The strategy is to quickly add dress; those who had Jeans would wear them fast. But one had to be very quick and need to do it with one or two minutes otherwise the prison guards would arrive before your dressing is complete and would beat you more if they saw you doing that. Some times after beating us they would take us outside and make us roll on the ground. Rolling while you are naked and covered with sweat is painful and makes the body dirty and muddy for there was no water to wash until the next Sunday, the only day allowed for bathing.

 The Death of kibrom: the result of inhumane treatment and denial of access to medical care

 Kibrom was from Mendefera town; he was about 20 years old and was a student. Unaware of the new movement restrictions that the government had introduced shortly, he travelled to Tesseney. His movement card was his student ID card. While there was no problem all over his way until Tesseney, he was arrested at the military check point that is erected at the entrance of Tesseney. After being held for some time in Tesseney military prison, he was transferred to Aderser prison. By the time I arrived at the Aderser prison, he had been in that prison for more than one month. Kibrom was one of the few prisoners who were relatively not depressed as the others by the conditions in the prison. He was energetic, active and funny. He used to entertain us by making jokes. But two weeks after my arrival, his health started to deteriorate as a result of the extremely harsh prison living conditions.

 In Aderser military camp there was a clinic that used to provide medical services to the border surveillance unit. At the prison camp there were only two national service recruits (a lady and man) with a very basic medical knowledge who had been assigned to provide first aid health services both to the prison personnel and the prisoners. The health personnel had no appropriate medical equipment and materials as well as no authority to admit prisoner patients to the clinic on the basis of their professional judgment of the patients’ conditions. Admitting of prisoner patients to the clinic is subject to the approval of the prison officers who often reject admission recommendations by the health personnel to the clinic. Only extremely critical cases had been admitted to the clinic.

 As the result of these incompetent practices, Kibrom lost his life. Initially Kibrom had extreme fever; he was sleeping next to me. The prison health personnel were supplying him some tablets such as paracetamol. But this did not help him. In 3-4 days time his health dramatically deteriorated; later he was also infected with diarrhoea; he started to lose his consciousness particularly when he was asleep. During the night when he touches me I could feel it was hot like furnace and because I could not tolerate the touching of his hot body I was not able to sleep (while still alive but ill). After 5-6 days he started relieving his wastes on his clothes. He was not also taking food. We reported about his deteriorating conditions to the health personnel.

 Noting his conditions, the health personnel collaborated and extended their support to him by providing him accommodation to sleep with them (as the temperature is relatively better outside than in the underground cell and there is fresh air outside) and supplied him food from their own rations which were relatively better than the food provided to the prisoners. Later in that night, the prison officer (now I forgot his name) who was next in rank to “Wedi Granite” in authority learned that the health personnel had collaborated with the patient and he was very much angry that Kibrom had been staying outside the underground cell. He threatened the health personnel with punishment for their actions and ordered Kibrom to be returned to the underground cell. When they told him that he was under extremely critical condition and he was very likely to die if he would not be admitted immediately to the clinic and that retuning him to the underground cell would put his life in danger, the officer’s reply was “Let him die; return him to the underground cell”. They returned him to the underground cell immediately. The next day, in afternoon, when he was virtually dead, they admitted him to the clinic. He died immediately after he arrived at the clinic.

 The story of Misgina Tesfaldet Mengistab

 Misgina Tesfaldet Mengistab is from the village of Hazega, Maekel zone (former Hamasien awraja). He is the nephew of Bereket Mengistab, the famous Eritrean singer. He was mentally disabled. Once he was rounded up and taken to Sawa military training camp to be recruited in the national service. But he was exempted as mentally disabled person by the ministry of defence medical board at Sawa. However, after coming by bus until Akurdat (about 172 km of Asmara) he continued his trip westwards on foot until he reached the Eritrean-Sudanese border area north of Girmaika, where he was arrested by the Sudanese armed forces and handed over to the border surveillance unit. The border surveillance unit put him in the prison of Aderser ,which is under their administration, accusing him of leaving the country illegally.

 He was about 30 years old at that time. He had no proper clothing. When I arrived in the prison, he had been held in that prison for more than 2 months and was transferred to Sawa together with me after additional one more month in the prison. In the sleeping arrangements inside the underground cell, he was placed near the gate (note that this was only part of the underground that got sufficient light when the door was open during the day time and deem light when the door was closed while the other parts of the underground cell are dark even when the door was open. During the day time, the prisoners rushed to sit near the entrance gate so as to get light where Misgana was placed. There were some youngsters (18 -20 years old) who liked to play and make funs. These people used to make fun of Misgina until they irritated him; to a point where he reacted violently. Among the things they used to do were physical abuse him and sing the song of Bereket Megistab (“ab kramat ab hagai zegesha temelesen do kulen behafesha”) – this song was deliberately selected because Bereket Mengistab is his uncle.

 However, Mesghina used to react only to physical abuses and the resulting humiliations. I remember one day he threw a shoe to those who mocked him but missed the target and hit an innocent person. As the person who was injured reported to the prison guards, the prison guards beat Misgina severely. As it is the practice in that underground cell to put off clothes and wear underpants only, Misgina used to spend his time naked because he had no underpants. We used to spend the time on the prison on our underpants in order to reduce the effect of the extremely hot temperature. As a result, the beatings had harsher effects on him.

 The story of Shewit Gebrehiwet

 Shewit Gebrehiwet was from the Debub region from the Meraguz area (From Seraye awraja). He was a student. During the school break in January, 2001, Shewit was arrested at the check point of Tesseney on his way to Aligeder to see his father, who was working with one of the government construction companies as a mason. After being held in Tesseney military prison for a certain time, he was transferred to Aderser prison. The most disappointing thing about Shewit is that there was no communication, and hence no exchange of information, between the father and the family until the end of April 2001 when the father visited his family during the Easter holiday. During Shewit’s absence, the family assumed Shewit was with is father and his father was not aware that Shewit had ever planned to visit him and thus assumed that his son was with the family.

 During the Easter festivities, Shewit’s family was mourning for their beloved son and brother. As the prison of Aderser was new and located in an isolated area, the general public did not have any knowledge of its existence. After a long search and lot of efforts his father got a hint of the existence of Aderser prison. Now the main challenge was how to come to the prison camp to ask for his son’s whereabouts, since visiting prisoners was itself considered a crime. The border surveillance unit officers usually ask the following questions to visitors:” Who told you that there is a prison in this camp? Are you sure the person you are looking for is here? Who told you of his presence in this prison?” Answering these questions openly and honestly puts at risk both the information providers and the visitor himself. Gebrehiwet (Shewits father) had a relative from the reservist army in the camp working as a mason, who probably tipped him about his son’s whereabouts. Gebrehiwet then approached the commanders of the border surveillance unit in their Aderser office to check for him if his son was actually present in their prison. Realizing the risk of his search, he made it clear to them that his main concern is the lack of information of the whereabouts of his son and not his detention.

 The military officers put forward to him the above mentioned questions and threatened him that unless he provided them the information on how he came to know about the existence of the prison, he would face its consequences. Finally, they told him that there was no prison in that camp and ordered him to go back, and that otherwise they would take severe actions against him. Nevertheless, after his relative confirmed to him about the existence of the prison, he decided to stay with his relative and look for his son clandestinely when the prisoners get out for work. One day, one group of us was out and was offloading cement and Gebrehiwet, accompanied by his relative, came to the store where the cement was offloaded and closer to the truck from which the cement was being offloaded. As the father has a great similarity with his son, the prisoners themselves asked him if he was Shewits’s father and gave him the necessary information about Shewit; however their discussions were cut short by the prison guards. The prison guards realised only at later stage that Gebrehiwet was not a member of the camp and had come to seek information about his detained son. thus dismissed him from the place.

 The next day one group of the prisoners which included me and Shewit was taken to the clinic by truck to offload medical materials. Gebrehiwet and his relative saw the truck while going to the clinic and realized that it was carrying prisoners hence waited the truck on the road when it was returning and coincidentally the truck driver was stopped by some body near the place where Shewit’s father was waiting. Gebrehiwet instantly recognized his son and Shewit recognized his father. His father run towards the truck calling his son by his name and reached the truck. When Shewit moved to get down of the truck to greet his father, the prison guard (named Idris) prevented him and ordered the driver to move. However, we, all the prisoners shouted at him and the driver replied to him “This is his father; why do you deny him the right to greet his father?” Then he allowed them to shake hands from where they were, i.e. the son from the truck bending down and extending his hand and the father from the ground. They also exchanged information for about five minutes. However, the relative was able to meet Shewit in other days while Shewit was out to work and explained to him all the difficulties which his father had experienced in the search of his son.

 Prisoners and forced labour

 The camp was constructed using the labour force of the prisoners and the reservist army (as they are called “Ukur Serawit in Tigringa”). Reservist army equally provided both the skilled and unskilled labour force whilst the prisoners provided mainly unskilled labour. The skilled labour included masonry works.

 The types of work that we were undertaking were:

           This story of Aderser prison reflects the facts on the ground only until the time I was there – I only stayed for about one month in that prison from the 17th of April to the 15th of May 2001. According to the information I got from eye witnesses that were held in that same prison in the subsequent years, the prison had been enlarged and expanded; 5 of the Sudanese prisoners of war managed to escape and one recaptured while attempting to escape. By 2004 there were 6 underground cells and hundreds of prisoners. Also the scope and mandate of the prison was expanded. In 2001, the prison administered military prisoners from the border surveillance unit and civilian prisoners that were alleged of plotting to cross to Sudan or being caught while crossing to Sudan. Also there were no questioning and torturing of the prisoners for the purpose of extracting information- that was the practice in 2001. Contrary to 2001, in the subsequent years, most prisoners that have been arrested in Gash Barka, whether they are civilians or military personnel, either suspected of plotting to go to the Sudan or for other reasons were held in this prison, they were tortured and questioned. Finally those who were civilians were transferred to Sawa training camp and the national service recruits and other military people to other prisons such Truck B prison in Asmara and Meeter in Northern Red Sea Zone.


The killing machine: from round-ups to death camps