Eritrean Journalist – “Prepare yourselves for the long march to exile” by Semret Seyoum, Cofounder of Setit Independent Newspaper
Eritrean Journalist "Prepare yourselves for the long march to exile” synonymous. The power of the pen is always powerful. That’s one reason why the dictators and others who want to dictate us declares war against innocent journalists.
“Prepare yourselves for the long march to exile” synonymous.
The power of the pen is always powerful. That’s one reason why the dictators and others who want to dictate us declares war against innocent journalists. However, at the end of the day the pen is the winner. The pen is the pusher for positive change and change will come using the pen what ever weapons they have. The power of the gun should be replaced by the power of the pen.
It has been exactly 18+1 years since we launch the first private newspaper, Setit back-home in the Red Sea country. It has been 15 years since September 18, the shutting down of the private media, the detention of our journalists, the G-15 and others.
After 9+2 years outside Eritrea I am still living under the shadow of the dictator. He knows how to silence critics using the wings of others. Based on my observation there is a reasonable ground to believe that the presence of very strong network between the dictator and the democratic countries. It is actually genuine. However, I still believe that there is a better freedom outside than under the predator. Dictators must go and governments should do the right thing.
While I was in Stockholm, I was living in a semi-basement bachelor. There was an unusual big sound of drilling over my head that was going on for years while I was watching CNN in my room. Drilling was connected with the program I used to watch. The drillers always drilled while I was watching crime related stories or news in CNN. Using their surveillance camera 24 hours a day and 7 days a week, they were able to know what I was watching. This helped them to drill over with a big noise at a desired moment.
I tried to neutralize the unusual big noise by raising the volume of my flat screen TV to 100 which is the maximum. Sometimes I succeed they stop. Other times they do not care. Drilling was in one spot for years in several intervals. It was a systematic psychological torture. However, they do not want to be convinced that I am tolerant, patient and mentally strong person.
In addition to that, online bullying was my everyday life. Telephone bullying, mobile bullying, face-book bullying, pal-talk bullying, email bullying, media bullying, street bullying, coffeehouse bullying, traffic lights bullying. It is like online detention center. All my communications were hacked and I was tracked for years. Every communication I made with any one is partially or fully designed. I am simply tiered of with the designed conversation. I was denied the very ordinary and natural way of living. I was living a designed life. Marginalization and isolation is their biggest weapon. They are simply the right arm of the dictator. Governments should do the right thing.
I am one of the victims of 9/18. And I am still re-victimized again and again and controlled by the devil smart dictator from very remote from the horn. He plays a political game using the legal systems and their minds as a play ground. We, the defenders for human rights, believe that no one is illegal. Governments believe that I am illegal. So I am still living without any legal status, with a legal limbo, according to their judgment. What I am experienced for the last 9+2 years was incredibly complicated and very difficult to put it on words. Governments should do the right thing.
I left my beloved mother land, probably the most beautiful country in this world, due to political reasons. I have a different opinion regarding freedom of expression from the current government. I believe that respecting for the dignity of humanity and freedom of individuals are the most vital part of our life at any given condition. Naturally, we are born to express our ideas and our opinions by any means of communication to be able to discuss and communicate to each other. This is probably the greatest gift from the creator. The importance of free flow of information is very essential for the positive development of any society in this world.
It was the human rights and press organizations and other individuals who strongly advocated most to my case years ago. I became a conventional refugee in a relatively short period of time before I left Sudan. I will never forget for the rest of my life for their support to my case. I am always proud for that. However, I am still looking for supporting hand from anyone who has commitment and a burning heart for the principles of human rights and international standards. I would like to take legal action against governments. Governments should do the right thing, think positive and speak the truth. If not the public is not going to be safe. They should have respect for the general public. If we do not have respect for individuals, we are hurting the society indirectly.
My name is Semret Seyoum. While still in my youth, I was separated from my family, at least partly – in 1978. But because I was still under-age, I was sent to the E.P.L.F School. After thirteen years of separating and serving as a teacher, I was among those who happened to see the full independence of my country Eritrea in May 1991. Nevertheless, up until this day, I am yet to see the freedom I was told to believe I would have in a free and sovereign Eritrea.
The time was after the New Year celebration of the year 1994, when Asmera University students were coming back from an unusually prolonged school vacation. An official circular came from the Office of the President decreeing that all the ex-members of the E.P.L.F to leave the university and go back to our respective ministries.
It was at this juncture in my life that I started to contemplate the idea and to harbour the ambition of founding a private and independent newspaper, and I yearned one day to be able to live my dream – defending the rights, the dignity and the humanity of the people on the one hand, and exposing weakness and failures of the Government and helping them to take corrective measures.
This was also the moment that I started to think for myself and look at issues from my own perspective as opposed to following the crowd, blinded by dogmatic ideology as I have done most of my life. This particular event gave me a terrifying glimpse into what the future held for me, my family and my country. I was greatly surprised, to say the least, to be denied this opportunity by a movement that prided itself for championing and providing education to its members and the public.
With this in mind, I approached my colleague Aaron Berhane – a former teacher – with the idea of establishing a private newspaper. He liked the idea and we went straight to work. On the basis of Press Law declared on 10th June 1996, we founded the private newspaper and named it ‘Setit’. The newspaper went on to the market for the first time on 21st August 1997, as the first and only private newspaper in the country at the time.
There were many hostile roadblocks that tested its resolve. On 14th October 2000, Saturday morning three Government security members came to our office. The two stood on either side of the entrance, but the third barged in straight into the centre of the office without knocking or waiting for our acknowledgement. To my amazement, he asked me for my name. “Semret Seyoum” I said. Then he flashed his red security card and said, “Let’s go,” pushing me out of my office. I tried to plead with them telling them that I was a university student and that I had an Identity Card to prove myself. However, they were not interested in what I said; they knew what they were there for. They bundled me into a Land Cruiser and took me to Cinema Hamasien – a building recently converted into a detention centre. That morning, seven other journalists were arrested and joined me. After one week’s detention, thanks to the pressure mounted by the media and international community, six of us including myself were set free.
In May 2001 – Eritrea’s 10th Independence Day – members of the National Assembly started to discourse constitutional ideas through the private media. It was the time when, for the first time, high ranking Government officials and ministers – the petitioners known as the Group-15 – were prepared to air their views and pose questions to the President. It was imperative for us, as the private media, to present to the public this side of the story. This continued for almost four months. Finally, the blackest day in the history of the young country arrived, the day when its democratic and constitutional future was prevented from its natural course.
On Tuesday 18th September 2001, members of the G-15 were rounded up and arrested and all private newspapers were closed down. The telephone in my office rang and I immediately picked it up. It was a male voice I could not put my finger on saying, “Well, prepare for the long march to exile, fellows!” and slammed the phone in my ears. I was, to say the least, shocked.
A week after the incident on Sunday 23rd September 2001, the Government security forces started to clamp down on the journalists of all the private newspapers. Aaron Berhane and I started living in different locations to avoid being rounded up, and this continued for almost three months. Then on Sunday 06 January 2002 at four in the morning, as the anonymous gleefully predicted, the two of us set on the course to exile.
We departed from Asmera that morning, and after travelling all day we reached the town of Agordet. We stopped there and at dusk we continued our journey and safely reached Girmayka, a small town located very close to the Eritrea-Sudan border. There we rested for a few hours and then continued our escape on foot in the dark. We were almost crossing the border when suddenly we realised that we had blundered into Eritrean patrol agents. The border guards shouted, “Who’s there?”, and did not even wait for our response to start shooting in our direction. The space between the zealous guards and us was so small that we had only a split second to react. We did the best we could to escape the sure-death and torture capture by those guards whom we knew to follow any order from the top to the letter, and even beyond.
We run in different directions. Aaron Berhane successfully escaped the ordeal, and after a long and dangerous journey he safely entered Sudan. Unfortunately for me, I had no chance as it was me they had chosen to follow. Four of them shouted at me, pointing their guns. It was hopeless and so I gave myself up. They asked me whether I had a weapon of any kind. I said no. Then they grabbed me and ordered me to take off my shoes. They then frisked me and took all the money and other things I had on me.
Then they started beating me. Everything rained on me; kicks, punches, and head butting. Bare foot me and both my hands tied behind my back, they walked me back to Girmayka. There, they tied my hands and my legs until they touched my back behind me and threw me on the ground under the night stars with nothing under my body or on me that could have protected me from the desert chill. I spent all night like this. The next day, at around sun set, they took me to a camp called ‘Haddish Me-asker’. Once there, the rope that was used to tie my hands was replaced by a proper shackle.
When I first came to the Hadish-Me-asker camp, there was not much of a prison facility as such. But then, they hurriedly set up several underground ‘Shellas’ the size of a single-bed complete with re-enforced lock. I was put in one of them and started the painful punishment of psychological pressure of solitary confinement for months to come. The room was always dark, my hands always shackled and always bare-foot. I was not allowed to get close to any of the other prisoners whenever I was let out of my room to use the toilet or to eat.
The food was always watery lentils and nothing else. If you refused to eat, they would take you out into the sun scorched sand and they would subject you to a whole host of physical punishment to the edge despair. Given the presence of many contagious diseases like diarrhoea among the prisoners, the medical facility was negligible.
Moreover, the verbal abuse and continuous threats on my life became an endless daily ration. One of the frequent insults that terrorised and upset me was the word “zumbul”. That was the favourite insult of one of the authorities of that zone. Day in day out, he would call me ‘zumbul!’.
The word “zumbul” came into existence in EPLF during the 1970s and 1980s and was used with disrespectful attitude against those who are believed to have democratic and liberal tendencies. In those days, once you were labelled by that word, you were no longer taken seriously or were excommunicated by your fellow fighters. And you became more likely to end up in one of the Front’s secret prisons, probably never to come back again. It was this deep understanding of the connotation of the word that made my blood run cold whenever it was used at me. Like many others before and after independence of Eritrea, I was afraid for my life. I was beginning to wonder whether this was the last chapter of my chequered life, to die without a witness and without someone to tell my end of the story.
At one point during my solitary confinement, they put interrogative questions in writing and I was ordered to answer them in writing. That day, they untied my hands and provided me with a pen and paper. While answering the questions, I was closely watched by a fully armed guard. Some of the questions were:
How did you start private journalism?
Where did you get the money?
Who supported you in terms of ideas and other things?
What were the weaknesses and mistakes of all the private newspapers?
Do you have any advice to the Government about the handling of the private newspapers?…etc.
My answers to those questions were as follows: First, as to how we started and where we got the money from, I wrote, when we started our private paper, there was no one person or organisation who offered support of any kind. I explained, very clearly, that we used the money we were given by the government when we were de-mobilised to establish ourselves into society, for setting up the paper.
As to the weaknesses and mistakes made by all private papers, I only mentioned one about missing letters in print. And I wrote over the course of time, that this was beginning to improve. In the last question concerning my views of the government in relation to the private press, I re-iterated that the existence of free press was crucial to the development and progress of a nation. And I expressed that the absence of free press would impact on Eritrea negatively, particularly in its diplomatic efforts with the world community.
In the camp of Haddish Me-asker, the prisoner did not have any access to legal representation and there was no one who was brought to the court of justice. As a result, it was not in my expectation that my case would be handled differently. However, the worst thing of all was that I was not allowed to write or receive a letter to and from my loved ones or friends. Paper and pen is strictly prohibited in the camp and there were some dire consequences for any prisoner if found with those items. I was not allowed to read either. In short, I was left only with my thoughts in the dark with nothing to distract me from my ordeal.
It was an unimaginable thing to be visited by my family, relatives and loved one’s. After eight months in Haddish-Me-asker, I was bundled with around one hundred others on an N3 truck to be transferred to a prison known as Track-B, found on the western outskirts of the capital city Asmera. In the track we were set in pairs so that one’s left hand was chained to the right hand of the other. In case of accident, it is not difficult to visualize the consequences of such arrangement. But safety was not the priority.
On the morning of 9th January 2003 I was released. That morning, I was taken to the so-called ‘Discipline Control Office’ in Beleza, not far away from Asmera. There, they told me that I had completed my punishment and sent me home. For the first time in a year, I walked along the Beleza ridge enjoying the fresh air coming from eastern lowlands, before I went home. Soon after my release, I was forcibly conscripted in under the Ministry of Defence Force without any salary and without any specific task to do.
I repeatedly asked the authorities for my salary and to be transferred to the Ministry of Justice, which was compatible to my qualification, but all was to no avail, and in fact it was unrealistic given the fact I was still closely watched and followed by the security members. Knowing this, I tried my best not to give them an excuse, limiting my movements and my interactions with others. Despite this, I had never stopped thinking of sneaking out of the country for the second time round whatever the consequences. I was bidding my time. Then on September 2004 I crossed the border successfully and entered the Sudan.
In Khartoum I breathed air of freedom and safety. From then on, I was never alone. In the one year of my stay in the Sudan before I left for Sweden at the end of 2005 through the UNHCR, I received lots of support from Elsa Chyrum, Aaron Berhane and others. I have never met Elsa in person, but despite this, I have been lucky enough to be a recipient of her continuous moral support either through the telephone or e-mail from the day I reached the Sudan to date. I am also aware that had it not been for her sustained advocacy on my behalf, with the UNHCR, my case wouldn’t have been a success in such a relatively short span of time. I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all.
When I came to Sweden, a website posted an interview entitled, “Experience of private newspapers in Eritrea from Setit journalist Semret Seyoum” and I was shocked. This was their second attempt in their effort to discredit me in the eyes of Eritreans in general and my fellow journalists in particular when I started to talk about my experience in relation to the Eritrean press freedom and democracy in Swedish media.
Hence, I would like to make it very clear to anyone who wants to know the truth, except what I gave to the media in Sweden – TV, radio and newspaper – I never gave any interview to anyone when I was in Asmera. My exasperation about this whole matter is that, after having escaped the trap of the “man-eating” despotic regime, I am still closely followed by this desperate and pathetic effort of character assassination by the PFDJ media apparatus, namely by alenalki.com.
Ever since I left prison and several months of solitary confinement, I have been suffering psychological trauma. Images of torture and abuse of Haddish Me-asker are still with me. Some nights I feel like I am still in that god-forsaken prison and when I wake up I realise that I am no longer there and breathe an air of relief and gratitude.
Given my experiences in prison, it is not difficult to surmise what all the imprisoned journalists, members of the G-15 as well as the prisoners of conscience are going through. And let’s hope one day to see them safe and alive. I would like to see them again, my colleagues, our journalists, and my hero’s the G-15. The story is sadly different in that we have not heard anything in years of their imprisonment, as they are kept incommunicado.
There is no any credible proof that they are still alive. Hence, in my view, it is unproductive to demand that those prisoners should have access to the court of justice, while we don’t even have the faintest idea that they are still alive. I then ask all concerned, human rights and press organizations and others interested that we work together towards making pressure on the government to prove that whether they are still alive. Then, we can proceed to the next step.
Tel: 647-785 3506
August 18, 2016