The prisoner of Asmara
Imagine a cell that is windowless, and may be a metal container buried underground. Temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius aren’t uncommon in this 12-square-metre space; medical care is virtually non-existent. The prisoner is manacled most
Imagine a cell that is windowless, and may be a metal container buried underground. Temperatures of 50 degrees Celsius aren’t uncommon in this 12-square-metre space; medical care is virtually non-existent. The prisoner is manacled most waking hours, and is allowed to see no one, including fellow inmates.
Of the colleagues and friends arrested at the same time, he has likely guessed, only a few are still alive, or have kept their minds intact. About this, he is sadly correct.
Dawit Isaac is that prisoner in that cell in a maximum-security prison outside the Eritrean capital of Asmara. The Eritrean-Swedish journalist has been there for 10 years, without having been charged with any crime. No one outside of his captors has laid eyes on the now 46-year-old since 2005. It is only hoped that he is still living, if in dire health.
On Friday, a decade after Dawit vanished inside a nightmare, PEN Canada will be joining human rights groups and concerned citizens around the world in marking this anniversary. Five Canadian writers will read out letters they have composed to their Eritrean colleagues in a room at Ryerson University. The gesture is simple: to reach across the forbidding silence and let them know we are thinking of them, that we haven’t forgotten.
Silence is all that has come from that prison since Sept. 23, 2001, the date Dawit and some 20 other journalists and opposition politicians were arrested. Ten years of intransigence by authorities has been effective in coercing the world to forget these men. Truth be told, Sept. 23, 2011, will likely pass with only a few scattered public expressions of dismay, and boundless private grief amongst family and friends.
Dawit Isaac was 36 in fall 2001, recently returned to Africa for the second time from Sweden, where he first landed in 1987, seeking refuge from the 30-year Eritrean war of independence from Ethiopia. Obtaining Swedish citizenship meant he could move his family, including his three children, to Gothenburg, where they still live.
Eager to support the democratic movement in his home country, Dawit reappeared in Asmara in April 2001 to work for Setit, a twice weekly publication that he co-owned. Five months later, he was arrested.
A guard at the prison where he and the others have been held told a human rights group that Dawit was in solitary confinement, his physical and mental health poor. The same guard unfolded horror stories concerning the incarcerated journalists and politicians: subjected to torture and subhuman conditions, driven to madness or suicide.
Since 2007, Reporters Without Borders has ranked Eritrea below North Korea as the worst place on Earth to be a journalist. Though a 2009 UN resolution imposed an arms embargo, as well as travel restrictions on its leaders and a freeze on their assets, the plight of journalists is hardly an issue in the country’s relations with the global community. Of greater interest is their allegedly supplying arms and financial aid to Al Shabaab, the insurgent group in neighbouring Somalia many believe is tied to Al Qaeda.
Esayas Isaac, Dawit’s brother, gave an interview about how his family has managed this past decade. “It was just after the 9/11 attacks,” he said of the original arrest. “Everyone was caught up in that.” Esayas Isaac wanted it made clear that he understood the importance of the twin towers. “The attacks really shocked me too,” he said.
But then he added a remark that speaks emphatically to how size sometimes simply does not matter in the weight of human affairs, and how injustice should never be judged by scale. “For me,” Esayas Isaac said, “Dawit’s arrest was my 9/11.”
Charles Foran is the author of 10 books. He is president of PEN Canada.