Monday, August 5, 2013

Two Nights in Adi Abeito
(an eye witness report)

Originally published Jun 9, 2003 on
On the evening of July 19, 2002, at about 8:30 pm, I was stopped on the way home and asked to show my menqesaqesi, or movement permit[1]. I showed a card that had been issued to me earlier, commonly known as shidda [so named for the watermark on the ID, a plastic sandal, shidda]. “Shidda is no longer valid; come with me, shouted the officer who stopped me, grabbing the card and pushing me to the sidewall. He then took me to another soldier - apparently lower in rank - and ordered him to escort me to the nearest local administration office (memHdar, aka kebele) used as one of dozens of primary gathering points all around Asmara at the peak of last summer's notorious round-ups.

The soldier, who was at least 15 years my junior, was evidently uneasy about the task he had just been given. This was clear from his unusual politeness and the fact that he avoided eye contact with me in the few minutes of our company en route to the kebele office. I casually asked him why they were stopping people holding valid IDs - to which he answered in a Saho-flavoured Tigrigna: “entai feliTna ilkanna, kullu me’alti Haddish memrHi yom zewtsuu. [How should we know? Every day, they come up with a new directive.]

This was followed by a brief silence that seemed like eternity. A moment so brief, yet so powerful in its expression of the tragedy of the Eritrean youth in these sad times; the tragedy of the youth trapped in a cruel system that forces them to humiliate their elder brothers, sisters and mothers – an abusive military regime in which their own survival depends on acting tough.

At the kebele (which was a few blocks from the Kagnew intersection where I was stopped), we were lined up, our papers taken and, when the officers deemed a truckload was ready, we were immediately whisked off to Adi Abeito, in the outskirts of Asmara.

Upon arrival at our destination, the giant gates of a gloomy, high-walled building opened and our truck jerked its way into the dark compound much like a hapless marine creature swallowed by a whale. As the doors slammed with a big bang behind us, I had a chilling sense of helplessness (a feeling akin to that recurring dream many of us have in which one tries to run from some kind of an approaching menace but our legs fail us).

As soon as we got off the truck, soldiers started herding us into one of several chambers, apparently built as warehouses, shouting at us and beating us indiscriminately with sticks. In a few moments we were all crammed into the big room and the heavy doors again were securely locked, leaving us in complete darkness.

The first distinct sensation that welcomed me into the room was the smell of urine. As my eyes gradually adapted to the darkness, I started discerning some of the features of the place. I soon realized that a pond had formed in an area of the floor close to the door, and it was nothing else but urine! Since, as a detainee, one is not allowed to go out to cater for the most basic of human needs (save for one brief outing at dawn), the only choice one is left with is simply releasing the contents of ones bladder on the floor! (There was no use attempting the sliced metal barrel a common feature in Eritrean jails - for it was already overflowing).

That night, truckload upon truckload kept coming and unloading their human cargo every half an hour or so. At about 1 a.m., the room was so packed with people those arriving in the latter batches had no place to stretch their legs let alone lie down. They had to spend the night and part of the next day standing.

How that night was survived is a chronicle of the human suffering that this wretched country is going through. Among the 700 or so souls packed in that room, there were those who kept coughing all the time (spending a few nights in that place, lying on a bare floor without proper clothing or blankets, is a sure way of catching the most horrible of ailments); those who were asthmatic and seemed on the verge of collapse; a man who was in great agony suffering under the pain of his kidney condition; one epileptic who had a sudden attack, and yes, a mentally ill young man who spent the whole night talking to himself. A whole panorama of human anguish!

When some inmates tried to plead with the guards outside to allow the person with the kidney problem to see a doctor, they received only threats that they would be severely punished if they didnt stop those pleas (“helicopter[2] ktessera ikhin!”). Several others never stopped cursing the perpetrators of this misery. Most of all, I cant put out of my mind the pale, exhausted face of a frail young man, clearly asthmatic, who kept murmuring between bouts of violent coughing aaH tetsawitomlna! [they pulled a fast one on us!] I couldnt help but think all night about what makes a government do all this to its own people; to lash out with such vengeful aggression, with such brutality, against the very ordinary citizens whose only crime was to submit to every demand it had been making! It was beyond any comprehension!

There were also those who took the lighter side of things and tried to entertain themselves and others by telling jokes about their own misery: Sima ske, overtime kihasbulna dyom? Waa’ keidekkesnako ina hadirna! [hey, will they pay us overtime for this? We didn't sleep all night!]

When dawn approached, writings etched or charcoal-scribbled on the walls, probably by former inmates, begun revealing themselves. kullu neger mejemmerta allewo, kullu kha meweddata allewo [everything has a beginning; everything has an end] read one graffiti. Esr bet yejegnoch sefer new [jail is the dwelling of the brave] read another apparently by an Eritrean amiche whose dreams of homecoming had turned sour.

The next day, I came to realize that there were people who had spent four or five nights in that place and many of them had started developing all kinds of conditions severe cold, back pain, joint and muscle aches, stomach problems.  Some had simply collapsed under the impact of the harsh conditions, starvation and stress, hopelessly lying on the bare floor as if waiting for the inevitable. (The only daily ration was one piece of bread, a cup of water, and sometimes a cup of tea at around five in the afternoon). That day I could also see the broad spectrum of age groups that my fellow inmates represented ranging from mere teenagers to middle aged men.

At dawn, we were escorted, one large group at a time, to the nearby field that served as an open air toilet. This business, which had to be attended to under the watchful eyes of the armed guards forming a tight cordon around us, and which began and ended on a signal from one of the guards, is one of the most demeaning experiences a detainee has to go through.

Around 9:00 a.m. that morning the big compound started humming with activity as relatives and employers poured into Adi Abeito. There was a great hustle and bustle as mothers, carrying their childrens school or medical certificates, pleaded with the commanding officers, and factory owners and managers, directors of ministries and other employers rushed in to secure the release of their employees. (Those days, all services in the city, as everywhere in the country, came almost to a standstill, as tens of thousands were rounded up or simply stayed home to avoid the round-ups. The campaign was so sweeping and indiscriminate not even off-duty policemen or government employees with so-called proper documents were spared).

Soon after, the door of our detention chamber was slightly opened and an officer began roll-calling some names. The same routine would be repeated from time to time during the day and each time a dozen or so detainees would be released.  In this way, the day slowly went on as thousands, in our own and the other chambers, desperately tried to draw the attention of an officer that they were either over the age limit (indeed there were hundreds of detainees who looked in their forties), or that they had medical conditions and had been declared unfit for military service, etc. Occasionally, an officer would lose his temper and start lashing out at the crowds. You would see young soldiers beating up men the age of their fathers, vulgar words hurled, and decent human beings exposed to extreme forms of humiliation. This was a spectacle that had been going on for days and was repeated the next day.

I spent another night in the same conditions. I was released on the third day after my employer intervened. Those who were not lucky enough were later sent to Metkel Abeit, in the northern reaches of Gahtelai plains, where they were kept for several weeks in harsh conditions before being transferred again to various incarceration and/or forced labor camps. Several deaths were reported in the first few days of detention in Gahtelai, mainly due to the extreme heat, exhaustion and lack of food and water.

[1] I have always been troubled, indeed tormented, by this strange notion that has become a rule in our country: in order to travel from one place to another within your own country, or even to move within the limits of the town in which you live, you need to have a PERMIT! The natural thing one would expect is for a citizen to have unrestricted freedom of movement unless one has committed an offence punishable by law that requires restricting ones mobility. In other words, freedom is the rule and restriction the exception. Whats most disturbing is that a whole new generation is being indoctrinated to the opposite, and the entire society coerced into accepting this inverted logic: Human beings are wicked, unreliable creatures who need to be constantly kept in check. They should be allowed the right of movement only by special permits! What a sickening idea!
[2] The so-called helicopter is a torture method used by PFDJs prison thugs that has left many Eritreans with paralyzed limbs.



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