Testimony of Eritreans Deported From Malta Jailed In Dahlak Print E-mail
By Provided by Elsa Chyrum (Translation by Awate.com) - Jul 22, 2005   

In 2002-2003, Elsa Chyrum, an Eritrean human rights activist, was actively involved in assisting Eritreans who were held in captivity in Malta.  Due to her efforts (and other human rights activists), many Eritreans were spared deportation to Eritrea.  The following testimony was provided to her by those who, despite the appeals of many human rights organizations and contrary to the UNHCR charter, were deported to Eritrea in 2002.  The testimony, provided by Elsa, is published in Tigrigna.  Here below is Awate's translation into English, as literal as possible.  For ease of reading we have inserted sub-headings. We ask everyone to ensure that every human rights organization in the world receives a copy.   

On the 29th of September 2002, at 9:00 AM, a plane carrying nearly 55 individuals who were deported from Malta landed at Asmara airport.  Handcuffed and each one of us watched over by two guards (Special Force), we started untying ourselves when we landed.  Save for plainclothes security and immigration officers, there were no travelers at the airport.  It is our observation that there wasn?t even airport staff or crew there.   


A dramatic development we observed while the plane was landing was that the airport was surrounded by armed soldiers.  Once the plane landed and took off, the plainclothes security officers ordered us to ?move!? In the lobby area, we registered our names and addresses and then stepped outside and walked to the military bus that was waiting for us.  The armed soldiers escorting us ordered: ?keep your heads down! Do not talk to one another! Anyone who is caught moving one?s head?.you will see!?  We passed though the heart of Asmara, this same city that we shed blood and sweat for, now with our head bent, like prisoners of war, as we headed to our destination.


Adi Abeyto (Adi Abeito)   


Once in Adi Abeyto, we disembarked.  We were thoroughly searched and ordered to empty out our belongings and take off our shoes.  Everything except for what we were wearing was confiscated.  We entered the grain storage area.  Looking up, all you see is corrugated tin roof; and looking down, the ground.  Nearby the exit (but inside the storage area) is a thawed off metal drum.  To be used for urination.


After a while, soldiers came in and gave us each two pieces of bread and canned food (military rations) as well as a 25 litre water container, and left.  When we asked for a sharp object to open the cans, we were told ?improvise!?  This may have been a strange response to those among us who were raised in Sudan or Libya or were exiled for long; but for us rejectionists, it wasn?t confusing: it was the devil we know.  Canned food can be opened if you grind it on the ground, as we demonstrated to the others.


For the first few days, most of us ate hardly anything.  Eventually, though, we helped ourselves to the unsightly food--if nothing else, to avoid starvation.  What followed is what we dreaded most: ?investigation.?  Each one is called out by name and, individually, led to another room, handcuffed.  Some of the questions we were asked:


1.      How did you get out of Eritrea?

2.      Who helped you?

3.      Who gave you moving permit?

4.      Did your family know?  Did they help you?

5.      While in Malta, which opposition groups did you meet with?

6.      Who was organizing you?  And other questions.


If you are unable to give them the answers they like to hear, you are beaten.


Meanwhile, the deportations from Malta continued and we were joined by the elderly, children, and women?including pregnant women and those who had delivered babies recently.  We numbered over 230.  For nearly 13 days, neither one of us had bed sheets or blankets and the weather was extremely cold.  We slept with our heads virtually tucked in one another?s arm pits.  After nearly 13 days, we were each given a bed sheet.   


We didn?t bathe for nearly a month.  We were so filthy that our bodies and clothing were covered by lice.  The first order of duty in the morning was to take one?s clothes off and to kill the lice.  To those who considered this lacking in decorum some would tease them: ?so-and-so?s lice will only die of old age.?  While going through this dispiriting situation, some of the prisoners hatched an escape and 27 of them prepared a plan. 


We used to be escorted, barefoot, to a field 100 meters outside to relieve ourselves.  The plan was to overpower the guards?using stones and the element of surprise?and to escape.  However, the deal you make at the marketplace is not what your mother ordered you to make but what the free market orders [an Eritrean expression] and, at the zero hour, they [the soldiers] opened fire and one of our brothers, Robel, was shot at his calf and the other 26 were arrested by a brigade that was in the area.  They were escorted back, with rocks and sticks landing on their back.  Poor Robel!  He kept yelling, ?How about me? Help me, am I not your brother?? and the only answer he got was, ?Die!? 


He bled to death.


As for the rest, they were isolated for three days and when they could no longer endure the beating, they disclosed that the person who hatched the plan was Ermias Tsegai and they were removed from their isolation and returned to us.  As for Ermias, until the night we were moved to Dahlak, he was in solitary confinement with his hands and legs cuffed in heavy chains.


The Road To Massawa


Nearly a month later, those who were of advanced age and the women were separated from us.  Later, we learned that they were discharged.  In December 15, 2002, at 4:00 AM, after 2 months and 15 days in Adi Abeyto, we were loaded on big cargo vehicles and driven to destination unknown.  As usual, we were ordered to keep our heads down as we drove through the city.  The truck that we were loaded on resembles ?N-3? [Ene-Tre, Italian trucks common in Eritrea].  On this truck, and a cargo car it pulls, accompanied by nearly 40 armed soldiers, we sat on top of one another, crammed, with our chin on our knees, and with no breathing room.  And the journey resumed. Once we got to the Arbo Rebue [Asmara outskirt, East], we had an inkling of where we were headed: and we murmured to one another that we must be headed to Asab, Tio or Gelalo.


Due to overcrowding, hunger, suffocation, many of us felt nauseated;  since leaning over the truck was not permitted, the only alternative was to vomit over whoever is in front of you or on any container.  At that time, there was nobody who did not wish that the vehicle would just skid over the cliffs.  It was a truly horrifying 3-hour journey and once in Massawa, we, supporting our compatriots who had lost consciousness, headed to the "PC"-like war ships that were awaiting us.  And without taking a break, we resumed our journey.


The Journey To Dahlak


After a little while, Ermias Wedi German attempted to escape by jumping over to the sea. But the guards were watching and he did not succeed: they caught him and he was brought back to the ship.  Somewhere in the middle of the sea, another brother, Walta Haile, tied his hands and legs with a rope and, in a suicide attempt, jumped overboard.  However, he too was detected and the guards were able to retrieve him.  But he must have hit something because his face was drenched in blood. 


After about two hours, the ship came to harbor.   We were told ?disembark? and it was then that we knew that our final destination was Dahlak Island.  The supervisors came after we were ordered to sit down in a procession.  ?Traitors!? they bellowed, ?Eritrea has given birth to garbage!? Some of our guards approached the supervisor and leaning over close to his ears, disclosed that somebody had attempted suicide and that they had saved him. We heard him say, ?Why didn?t you let him! Why didn?t you let him die!?


Once we were at our shelters, Ermias Wedi German was held in ?helicopter? [abdomen on the ground, legs and hands tied behind the back] for 24 hours. [See artist illustration of ?helicopter?]  We could not endure the intense heat of Dahlak [33 Celsius, 95 Fahrenheit in December] given that we had just arrived from Adi Abeito [0 Celsius, 34 Fahrenheit in December.] Our shelter was grain storage warehouses constructed during the Derg era: corrugated tin roofs and dirt floor.  In the front and the back, there are windows, but they remained closed, and no air could breeze in.  There were nearly 110 of us in this warehouse; each one had space of 60 centimeters.  Our forefathers say, ?may your burial ground not be undersized.?


?Bitterer Than The Bile Of An Elephant?


What we endured there is bitterer than the bile of an elephant [an Eritrean expression to describe something intolerably bitter] and even if one were to use the sky as a writing board, it would not suffice.  But for illustration purposes: food and water was inadequate.  There was insufficient medical treatment.   One is allowed to go to the bathroom no more than twice a day.  But who can count the mistreatment?  


But the most bitter of all is not knowing your verdict.  Your life is monotonous and repetitious.   At 6:00 AM, you wake up to go to relieve yourself.  Around noon, you have a meal, who knows whether it is breakfast or lunch.   Around three or four you have dinner.  Then you go out to relieve yourself.  End. 


You eat the same food, without change, for months.  Two of you share a 25-liter water can to wash your body your clothes every month, at best.   The drinking water was either rusty or infested with insects and we have developed all kinds of health problems.  If you so much as look out the window, you will receive military discipline and beatings.


Nobody is allowed to pray, to supplicate or to read the Bible or the Koran.  If you disobey, you will receive the helicopter treatment.  Every day, it was customary to see someone who was being given the helicopter punishment. 


Some sympathetic guards told us that they had been forewarned, ?Members of the G-15 and those who want to sell out the country are coming. Do not communicate with them in any manner but by the stick.?


The prisoners that were already in Dahlak when we arrived number around 130.  And after we arrived, others were brought in: they include those caught trying to cross the border, ?Adi S-Heil? residents who were protesting the distribution of their land to others; the elderly and those of advancing age; and 12 women who were there for a variety of reasons.  In total, there were around 900 prisoners there.


As we all know, Dahlak is an island, surrounded by the sea, impossible to escape from.  Still, those who have given up [the will to live], try to escape.  For example: Ermias (Wedi Germen) and Goitom escaped but were captured after a week.  They were then beaten severely, and given the helicopter treatment for 23 days.  Once again, Ermias and Goitom attempted another escape, were captured after two days, and this time given the helicopter treatment for 55 days.


Among us, there were those who, due to serious illnesses, were in agonizing pain, but nobody paid any attention to them.  There were two individuals who were suffering from trauma and had lost their mind: Fouad and Merhawi.   After eight months and two weeks of this treatment, they separated those of us civilians to dry-land prisons; those who stayed there were in a bad situation.  From the confinement, their bodies are almost numb and they suffer from illnesses.  A certain Mussie (Amche), having endured a long period of pain and medical negligence, died in the Dahlak prison in August 2003.  We hear that others were and are suffering from serious illnesses. 


And what for is all this punishment?   Solely because we demanded justice.    


Related Stories


Report on AI protest of 2002 deportations


Report on Eritreans, Deported From Libya, Who Hijacked Plane and diverted it to Sudan


The Infamous Adi Abeito Prison: A Testimonial




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