Peter Goodspeed: Left to die in Africa’s North Korea

In the agony and anguish that followed the 9/11 terror attacks, the world lost sight of the horror and fear that have seized tiny Eritrea, Africa’s version of North Korea. For more than 50 years, the

In the agony and anguish that followed the 9/11 terror attacks, the world lost sight of the horror and fear that have seized tiny Eritrea, Africa’s version of North Korea.

For more than 50 years, the strip of rock and sand wedged between Ethiopia and Sudan along the south coast of the Red Sea has known nothing but insecurity and war, despotism and despair.

It was 10 years ago on Friday the country was finally stripped of hope.
Then, President Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea’s first and only leader since it won independence from Ethiopia in 1991, arrested his leading critics and destroyed the country’s independent press.

On Sept. 23, 2001, he ordered the detention of 11 top government officials who had written open letters criticizing his rule.

He also arrested 10 leading journalists who published the letters and banned all eight of Eritrea’s independent newspapers.

Those arrested were accused of “defeatism” and “divisiveness,” and denounced for trying to bring Mr. Afewerki down during a border war with Ethiopia.

The 20 men and one woman have never been seen or heard from since.

They were never charged with a crime, never appeared in court and have had no contact with their family, friends or lawyers.

“It’s very hard. They are just being kept there to die and they are dying day after day,” said Aaron Berhane, an Eritrean newspaper publisher and editor, who was on Mr. Afewerki’s original hit list, but escaped and now lives as a refugee in Toronto.

“It has been going on for 10 years and no one seems to take notice. The situation is very, very discouraging. They don’t get adequate medical attention; they are not fed well and they are being held in horrible circumstances.”

Reports from former prison guards, who fled Eritrea, say the imprisoned journalists and opposition figures have been held in a secret prison, Eiraeiro, 15 kilometres north of the capital Asmara.

They say 10 of the 21 detainees have died. The remaining 11 are regularly tortured and held in solitary confinement, sometimes in steel shipping containers that are exposed to broiling temperatures during the day and freeze at night.

The surviving prisoners are said to be emaciated and physically and mentally incapacitated.

Two of the journalists arrested were Mr. Berhane’s business partners, co-founders and contributors to their twice-weekly newspaper, Setit, then Eritrea’s largest newspaper with a circulation of about 14,000.

Fessehaye “Joshua” Yohannes, a poet and playwright who also worked as a director of a children’s group, Circus Eritrea, is believed to be dead, though there are conflicting, unconfirmed, reports he committed suicide or died from neglect after being manacled and tortured.

Dawit Isaak, another co-owner of Setit, is the best known of the detained journalists, because in addition to being an accomplished novelist and playwright, he has Eritrean and Swedish citizenship. His family fled Eritrea during the war of independence and settled in Gothenberg, Sweden, in the late 1980s.

After Eritrea won its independence, Mr. Isaak returned home, looking for a way to contribute to his homeland.

“He is a humble man with a good heart,” said Mr. Berhane, who is now publisher and editor of the monthly newspaper Meftih for Eritreans in Canada.

“When my partners and I were looking to expand our business and looking for talented writers to join us, Dawit’s name came up immediately. We had asked others, but they were afraid. Dawit never hesitated. He really wanted to do something for his country.”

Since his arrest, Mr. Isaak has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and been nominated for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

Along with the other eight remaining Eritrean journalists, Mr. Isaak has been “adopted” by PEN Canada and will be honoured Friday in a special remembrance ceremony at Ryerson University in Toronto.

“Everyone has tried to get them out,” said Brendan de Caires, PEN Canada’s program co-ordinator.

“The African Union has tried. The European Union has tried. Swedish diplomats have been trying for the best part of a decade. And they just run up against a president who will say ‘No.’ He just isn’t interested.”

National Post
pgoodspeed@nationalpost.com

aseye.asena@gmail.com

Review overview
5 COMMENTS
  • Temesgen Medhanie September 23, 2011

    Amanuel Eyasu,

    I say, it is an awesome face-lift. Your website looks more tidy than it was before. It wouldn’t be too surprising if the PFDJ thugs and zombies are breathing on your neck as they hurl, “In his recent visit to Addis, Amanuel must have received loads of money from the Weyanes to ‘renovate’ his website.” I am sure, you’ve heard it all before where there is nothing new to it and of course, zombies are meant to be zombies nothing else.

  • tegadalay September 23, 2011

    brhane have to say what evre because he is geting payed by the west brhane & his family all are liers when his wife & kids fled his wife tells that they have to cross 10 securty gard points makeing it look like bad so he is talking abaout apast nonsens topic no body is goin g to give ashit for some sell out tireitors people like BRHANE jast keep craying to AMNESTY international HUMAN RIGHTS day & night when did this opposition going to learn that no body is giving atention to them the lion of NAKFA is roring inthe street of NEWYORK

  • Concerned Eritrawi September 23, 2011

    What is new, it is really unfortunate!

  • danny September 23, 2011

    A person is once a criminal and gets away with his crimes with impunity continues to boldly commit more heinous crimes. Isaias is not a different criminal in that regard. He keeps piling his crimes against humanity in so many flying color ways. What makes it even sadder is to in fact learn there are other human beings who condone his crimes.

  • Dawit September 24, 2011

    Thank you Mr. Goodspeed for highlighting the Eritrean plight. We are unlucky people. The President of Eritrea as you have already learned about him, he is a mad man. If he doesn’t kill or arrest people, he doesn’t feel good. We all know this. Don’t listen the people who speak supporting him. They have identity crisis. They are not real Eritreans. The origin of their father or mother is from Ethiopia, and they are trying to be more Catholic than a Pope. They don’t care even if this country is destroyed. that’s why they are clapping their hand despite the fact this crazy president leading us to a cliff.

    I also want to thank you Aaron for not forgetting your friends. I admire your courage. The same like Mr. Goodspeed, don’t listen the supporters of the crazy president Isaisa.

    Dawit

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