The Forgotten Prisoners
During the commemorative event marking the 20th anniversary since the disappearance of 11 Eritrean parliamentarians, an online event that took place on Monday, 20 September 2021, organised by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in Geneva, Hanna Petros Solomon made the following speech.
How can we discover the state of freedom in Eritrea today? Someone once said, “If you want to establish some conception of a society, go find out who is in jail.”
Sadly, this advice does not apply to Eritrea, because it never welcomed any enquiries about the Prisoners of Conscience or any other prisoners it holds behind bars.
Sep 18 2001 was the day when President Isaias Afwerki turned on his closest friends and allies who fought alongside him for three decades. The same group formed the ruling party. They were all members of the Central Council of PFDJ and members of the National Council. All had sacrificed their lives and given their youths to fight for the freedom of Eritrea.
Sep 18 2001 was the day when the unelected President Isaias Afwerki choked the voice of Eritreans and condemned the country and its people to ruins.
Yes, this Sep 18 of 2021 marked 20 years since Eritrea started going down a slippery slope which changed the trajectory of the country completely. Dreams were foiled, expectations were blighted, and democracy was ripped to shreds.
The tragic consequences of that day did not stop there; it upended many lives, it affected the next generation. My family is one of many that were devastated by that incident on that fateful day.
During the liberation struggle both of my grandmothers witnessed their children join the front at a young age. Years later, when the fighters returned home after liberating the country from Ethiopia, my grandparents thought the situation was going to get better. Unfortunately, the country went to war once again against Ethiopia – a war that consumed tens of thousands of young lives and much of the country’s resources.
Just when they sighed with relief, one’s son, my father, and the other’s daughter, my mother, were imprisoned. The elderly women watched with anguish as their children and grandchildren struggled with the harsh reality that the people of Eritrea have to live with. They prayed every day that the youth would survive the ordeal of leaving the country. My grandmothers have yearned to embrace their exiled children and regret never having met their new grandchildren and great grandchildren. So many lives ruined, so many dreams foiled.
Twenty long years have passed since the disappearance of Eritrea’s Prisoners of Conscience. Since then Eritrea began, rather openly, to move towards totalitarianism.
This is what happened …
Back in 2001, having observed the wrong path that President Isaias Afwerki was pursuing, a group of 15 parliamentarians, known as the G15, wrote an open letter to the president which admonished his ways.
The open letter was a result of long process that the G15 pursued in setting things right within the government which went unheeded. When the president blocked efforts to reconvene the PFDJ leadership and the National Assembly, the G15 went public in May 2001 with an “open letter.”
The open letter criticised the president for his undemocratic behaviour and called for structural reforms of the party and the state, as well as a full and open assessment of the Border War with Ethiopia.
The letter was met with cruelty. Soon after, government security agents imprisoned 11 out of the 15 members; and the president started to adhere to rigid and inhumane measures to keep Eritrea under his control.
Luckily, three of the signatories were inadvertently spared because they happened to be abroad at the time; and one recanted under pressure.
What happened afterwards …
As the level of government propaganda and brutality spiked in 2001, people became very anxious and alarmed; the ex-freedom fighters themselves became fearful of the government; the general public lost faith and became wary of one another; the diaspora became so distant they all stayed in their host countries.
Eritrea became hostile and its future went bleak. A country is truly ruined when its youth, the future of the country, is spent. Seeing no alternative to the hapless life that awaited them in Eritrea, the youth began to flee to neighbouring countries (and beyond) in masses. The number of Eritrean asylum seekers tripled and quadrupled in the last 20 years.
It causes me great distress to state that my beloved country is now one of the top refugee producing countries on earth. I was once one of those wanderers who managed to escape from that stifling condition in Eritrea. Eritrea has a full-fledged totalitarian government now. It is isolated from the international community, and it continues to feign as if it offers a rewarding life for its citizens.
The 11 war heroes
The president knows the sudden disappearance of the 11 war heroes, former high government officials, has left a scar on the national psyche which he cannot erase. His aim is to say nothing, ignore the scandal hoping the next generation would simply forget them altogether.
However, remaining tight-lipped and ignoring the cruelty will not erase the memory of the unjustly incarcerated former government officials who are thrown into unknown dungeons.
The prisoners’ family members are desperately hanging on to hope. For instance, mamma Mezgeb, my grandmother (from my mother’s side) whose eldest daughter is languishing in jail, laments the life her daughter missed out and the opportunity she was denied to raise her own children. She still hopes, even if she is losing heart, to reunite with her daughter.
My other grandmother, mamma Mihret, prayed every day that her son would come back to her until her passing in 2016.
Mamma Demekesh is another mother who is hanging on for her dear life at the age of 88. She too is waiting for the return of her beloved daughter.
Humanitarian organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others have fought hard on behalf of the prisoners for decades. Institutions such as IPU have also done their bit in keeping the story of the prisoners alight.
The Open Letter the prisoners wrote was just an expression of their wishes for reforms. According to Article 10 of the Human Rights Act, “everyone has the right to freedom of expression.”
Even though their ideals didn’t do well within the halls of government offices, the prisoners can stand tall in the knowledge that they drafted one of the best manifestos of our generation.
As for me, not a day goes by that I do not think of my mother and father. It is heart-breaking to contemplate the lives that my parents were robbed of. And the void that their absence has left in me as well as in my brothers and my sister is enormous.
It is this unresolved bereavement which I would like to share with you today. With your help I am telling the world the unjust incarceration of my parents has to come to an end. I will continue to keep their memory alive. As Pope Francis said, a little bit of mercy would have made the world less cold and more just.
The IPU is the global organization of national parliaments. It was founded more than 130 years ago as the first multilateral political organization in the world, encouraging cooperation and dialogue between all nations. Today, the IPU comprises 179 national Member Parliaments and 13 regional parliamentary bodies. It promotes democracy and helps parliaments become stronger, younger, gender-balanced and more diverse. It also defends the human rights of parliamentarians through a dedicated committee made up of MPs from around the world. Twice a year, the IPU convenes over 1,500 parliamentary delegates and partners in a world assembly, bringing a parliamentary dimension to global governance, including the work of the United Nations and the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.