Journalist and writer Abraham T. Zere has been a key figure in raising awareness of human rights violations in Eritrea. Under President Isaias Afwerki, who has been in power since Eritrea declared independence from Ethiopia in 1993, the country has earned the nickname “The North Korea of Africa.” The Asian country is the only one to rank below Eritrea in the World Press Freedom Index. In June, a coalition of human rights lawyers, activists, and institutions submitted a joint letter to the UN, urging them to reinstate an investigator to track torture, enforced disappearances, and other violations in the country. Among the signees was the Eritrean office of the literary and free speech advocacy institution PEN, of which Zere is executive director. For the past three years, he has represented a membership that comprises exiled writers and journalists scattered throughout the world. Three of its active members, including Zere, are based in Ohio, where Zere went after escaping the country, and where he is able to safely document the regime’s ongoing crimes. Other Eritrean journalists, who make up a sizeable number of the country’s many political prisoners, are not so lucky.
As a fiction writer, Zere’s expatriation has also allowed him to fine-tune a particularly poignant style of satire. His story “The Flagellates,” is exemplary. Set in one of Eritrea’s infamous underground prisons where torture and cruelty are commonplace, “The Flagellates” concerns a new “benevolent” prison commander who attempts to have a civil discussion with the inmates on how they prefer to receive their requisite lashes. The ensuing Life of Brian-like hysterics offer an unnerving consideration of Eritrea’s present-day prison conditions.
The rumor that Haile Woldu was to become the commander of our military detention center had been floating around for nearly three months. In his previous posts as commander of other detention centers, Haile was known for privileges he accorded to detainees and the relationship he cultivated with them. Which is why, when he finally arrived, and we were all called in as a group to be formally introduced to our new commander, we celebrated it as if he was our liberator.
—The dream has come true, and here he sits in front of us convening a meeting . . .
—I have never seen him in person. I used to hear about his light complexion and his slender but fit physical appearance, and as such I already had my own image of Haile, so much so that I had the feeling of having previously laid eyes on him. With the exception of his visage, in all other aspects, my imagination was almost always verbatim.
—We were about eighty in number, gathered from four underground halls, sitting close to each other while in front of him. It was around 4:00 p.m., a time when the weather begins to cool down. It was a time when we were supposed to be in our cells, so to be in the open air at that hour of the day, regardless of the reason, was refreshing for us all. In my two years of detention, I had only been let out four times for such meetings; at a personal level, I felt as if I had been released. One such meeting occurred just last week: a farewell gathering for Tesfay, the former commander of the detention center. Although we were long embittered by his brutality and his mercilessness, we held a celebration for his departure. “When I was with you here,” Tesfay said, in his farewell address to us, “if I have shown bad character and if there is something you think I should improve in the future, please feel free to ask.” Some of us actually gathered enough courage to speak. A few others, the beneficiaries of some sort of privileges, lamented that Tesfay’s departure would be a huge loss to the detention center, that he would be dearly missed. The other meetings I attended were on HIV/AIDS awareness and a discussion on the celebratory preparations for our national Independence Day. They were tolerable enough.
—Had we been in our detention halls at this hour of the day, we would have been struggling with sleep, depending on the ventilation from a piece of cardboard fanned by the other inmates. The smallness of the room, our famishment, and the stinky smell of sweat that sticks to our bodies and mixes into our urine all combined to make the afternoon hours unbearable, which was why taking turns to provide ventilation for each other was not only practiced among fellow detainees, but an unavoidable routine as well. Today, it was Idris’s turn to fan me, which he should have been doing by now. Fortunately for him, due to today’s meeting, he was spared this obligation. Tomorrow, I will have to fan him while he sleeps.
—Like many detainees here, I was never informed of the charges laid against me. As is the case with the majority of us, I used a process of elimination to conclude the reason for my indictment. I suspect that I had been charged with illegally crossing the border into neighboring countries. Other inmates may be arrested on charges of human smuggling, drug rustling, and religious fundamentalism, but I have come to believe that my case pertains mostly to leaving the country without permission to do so. Six months before my detention, my best friend was arrested on these grounds. He was taken from his home and brought to a detention center, where he still remains incarcerated. It’s because of our friendship that I believe I am here for a similar reason. Not that I have ever committed such a crime . . .
Haile rose from his seat and began to survey us with his eyes. Someone, I do not know who, started an applause and we all joined in. For a moment, he smiled and bowed his head as a sign of respect. He then immediately changed his facial expression, as if he wanted to remind us that he was the commander of the detention center and not a fellow detainee. We were so used to reprimands and reading unscripted signals that a silent formal consensus developed among us. In a matter of seconds, we ceased our applause, sealed our lips, and waited for Haile to begin his speech:
“Okay, then, good afternoon! Most of you already know my name, but for the sake of a formal introduction, I am Haile Woldu; effective as of today, I will be the commander of this detention center. Good to see you all!”
After offering this initial goodwill, he paused for a moment, prompting us to respond with a loud applause and clamor that went on until we were silenced by yet another notable change in his expression. “There are a lot of bad practices that former commanders have introduced to this detention center,” he said. “My main objective is addressing these issues and introducing some solutions to bring about a favorable working relationship.” Upon hearing this, my fellow detainee, Idris, was so emotionally moved that he rose from his seat and shouted, “Well done, Haile the Great!” Following in his footsteps, we all stood up to express our appreciation.
Haile signaled us to be seated and we followed his order. He continued: “Youngsters like yourselves are not meant to despair, for your future is in your hands and your honesty will be what sets you free.” In this regard, he was no different than our previous commanders who uttered this kind of moralizing. We’d come to expect it. “Probably you might have heard this before,” he said, as if he could sense our misgivings, “but I believe that like a soldier, a detainee should be properly fed. Therefore, I plan to double the meals you will receive each day. Though your portions will be the same, starting the day after tomorrow, you will have one meal at 10:00 a.m. and another at 4:00 p.m.” We couldn’t believe what we were hearing, so much so that we couldn’t even cheer for this good news. We were only able to look at each other in astonishment.
“As to the various reasons for your incarcerations,” he said as we listened on in bewilderment, “however substantive and diverse they might be, these are best answered by a higher authority than myself. I would appreciate you refraining from asking me questions on this matter.” This again sounded like the familiar speeches of previous commanders, and perhaps for the sake of formality, he quickly addressed other topics on his agenda.
“Regarding water, which is in short supply at the moment, please be mindful of your rations, which may have to be cut.” I may have been overwhelmed by the other good news he told us earlier, so I did not really care much about losing my one-gallon ration, brought to prisoners every other day.
Then Haile raised the issue of flagellation, a common punishment given to nearly every detainee. “There will be some changes to the existing protocol for flogging,” he began. “While it is not within my power to outright abolish the standard sentence of fifteen corrective lashes, I can adjust how they are distributed. Instead of administering the lashes all at once, although this may be your preference, I think we can issue the floggings throughout the day: five in the morning, five in the afternoon and five in the evening. How do you see this? Any comments?”
Osman, who never shied from speaking, even when he was not permitted to do so, quickly stood up. After praising Haile at length, he detailed the pains we endured to this day. Osman was not shy about running his mouth—even the prison guards knew this—nonetheless, it was very obvious that we were all happy for him to convey the same sense of gratefulness we all felt in our hearts. “I agree on the proposed judicious distribution of our daily lashes to three shifts,” said Osman. “Our single-session floggings cause detainees a great deal of physical disability and nightlong suffering. And since some floggers are more brutal than others, I hope you can give judicious consideration as to who is assigned to flog whom. The current system just isn’t fair.”
Although he did not mention any of the guardsmen by name, I do not think there was anyone, neither the detainees nor the guards, who could have missed his point. Osman gave Haile another round of praise, though it was obvious to all that he had already said what he needed to. Without raising his hand or being called upon, Ghirmay then rose up and began to deliver his own impassioned opinions. “In my view,” he said, “it is better if the floggings continue as they do now. Instead of receiving three doses of pain, it is much better to endure the pain but once and then forget it. However, the issue raised by Osman regarding the fairness of our floggings is something that requires serious attention.” He finished and quickly sat down with others taking his place.
—The detention center’s practice of flogging, what used to be called “corrective measures,” has been in use since before my incarceration and persistently applied by previous commanders. Flogging takes place everyday at 4:30 p.m. and can continue for an hour or more, depending on the speed and number of whippings assigned that day. There is apparent discrepancy in how the whip is to be applied: though it is mostly aimed at the buttocks, sometimes one will be whipped on his back, and it is common knowledge among detainees, apparently also known among the guards, that five lashes by Dawit are the equivalent of fifteen lashes by Said. To give this some perspective, detainees who are flogged by Said suffer from loss of consciousness after thirteen lashes, while I have not heard of anyone who held out beyond a sixth lash from Dewit. If a prisoner loses consciousness before all his lashes have been delivered, as we have often seen from afar, he will be brought back to the whipping post the next day to be given his remaining lashes. There is no way of getting out of one’s assigned lashings. Of course, everyone agrees that the follow-up lashes are not as strong as the initial ones, no matter who is cracking the whip.
—While the guardsmen assigned to flog us are supposedly assigned at random and visit detention rooms interchangeably, some detainees are almost always whipped by an unsympathetic flogger like Dewit, while others are frequently flagellated by the most sympathetic people like Said. This could be attributed to luck of the draw or corruption in the system. But if the distribution of our floggings were made more equal, with no one given privilege or put at a disadvantage, possibly some people might say that life in the detention center would be somewhat tolerable. Not that I am complaining; I consider myself among the luckiest prisoners—I’m almost never assigned an unsympathetic flogger, nor do I find it difficult to observe the pain of others who are.
It was the first time that we had been given the opportunity to share our comments, so almost everyone wanted to speak and exercise their right to freely express themselves. I was not sure, however, that there was much of a difference of opinion among us. Yet God, in his unknowing ways, empowered me to speak. “I would like to thank the proposed improvements,” I said, “but I suggest that being flogged twice a day would be better. In fact, if it does not cause to you any inconvenience, you could even drop the proposed morning session, and schedule only the afternoon and evening lashings. Were this to cause a logistical problem, you could report that our morning floggings were being carried out as planned—”
“We are taking this too far!” I had been interrupted by Andom, who now stared at me with penetrating eyes. “Haile has proposed spreading out our lashings, which as he said, is the best he can do. It is not up to him to dictate the number of lashings we receive. You already know this, so I can’t help but wonder what purpose you have for repeating it as if you were ignorant of this fact. What’s gotten into your head, Abraham? Don’t overstep your bounds!” Andom’s boisterous voice and muscular physique—something which does not normally come to a person who has spent the last three years in a prison—made me hold my tongue. Were he to get permission from the guards to do so, he could easily knock me out with a single blow.
—Andom had been interred at the detention center longer than any other detainee. As the main representative for the prisoners, he was the primary contact person between us and the guards. There were many rumors about him floating around, including one in which he was offered the opportunity to leave six months ago, but preferred instead to stay because he supposedly wanted to be in solidarity with the detainees, something I find hard to believe. Instead it’s widely assumed that Andom received benefits and privileges from the guards as a reward for dealing with his fellow prisoners in an overly intimidating and violent manner. He frequently visits the guards’ living quarters be it for an official meeting he claims to be attending, or for other, more suspect reasons. He certainly showers more than anyone else, almost weekly. Some prisoners even claimed to have smelled alcohol on him. One particularly infamous story about Andom is that he returned to his cell one evening picking morsels of beef out of his teeth with a toothpick. Because I have not seen this kind of activity myself, I cannot confirm any truths to these rumors, except one. Once, when we were taken out to the waste area to defecate, one of the guards, wanting to relieve himself, gave his gun to Andom, entrusting him with the responsibility of guarding us. By performing the role of a guard, if even temporarily, we were all able to see where his loyalties lie.
Haile tried to calm everyone, including Andom, whom he addressed by his first name even though he was supposedly meeting us all now for the first time. He said that he would be open to hearing more comments in an orderly manner, but instead they poured out of us chaotically: Keep the floggings as they are; three is better; it would be nice to have it in four shifts. What had started off as a conversation ended up becoming a group-wide argument; instead of expressing their ideas on the issue at hand, many of the prisoners instead resorted to ridiculing and insulting each other, forcing Haile to intervene with anger: “That’s enough! Where are the guards? Company, come to attention! Remain in high alert! The rest of you sit down and keep your mouths shut!” We immediately did as we were told.
“I could have made your lives here more tolerable,” he said, angrily. “I tried to give you some say in how you were lashed, but clearly none of you deserve this opportunity or to be treated with any sort of respect. Report back to your cells at once. Maybe you can earn another chance at a civil discussion later, but for now I am ordering two lashes for each prisoner. You are dismissed!”
Who knew that such a generous man could also be so ill-tempered . . .
Translated from the Tigrinya by Daniel R. Mekonnen, and published with the author’s permission.
Abraham T. Zere is the executive director of PEN Eritrea in exile.
Michael Barron is a writer and editor living in New York City. He recently launched The Global Anthology, an initiative that gathers a short work of prose from every country in the world. He would like to thank Ismail Einashe for bringing this writer to his attention.