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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.

Review overview
  • Temesgen Medhanie September 25, 2011

    What could possibly be going through Dawit’s otherwise tortured mind at this very moment? As we wake up to a beautiful morning where the birds sing and the aroma of coffee fills our living rooms and the kids roam around the house with a happy face as they see the smile of their parents, a soul in a barren part of the world is hopelessly confined in a solitary where its will to break through or free is dimmed as the years wore on. Dawit who remains to be a prototype or should I say an epitome of Isaias’ brutality walked into the prison cell with a radiant hope believing that, Eritrea wouldn’t let him down; the Eritrean people would stand up for him; but instead at this very moment, the Eritrean people particularly the Diaspora is flocking to New York to cheer Isaias as the latter finishes building more prisons and hauls souls in a pit hole of darkness.

    Sure enough, Isaias will blabber about building bridges, mirage bumper harvests and of course, he will rumble at length about the West’s conspiracy in a bid to ‘weaken’ Eritrea by leaving aside what is ailing Eritrea. That is, he will not mention about Dawit and other bona fide Eritreans whose hearts are desperately beating to see the gates wide open so that they could smell the aroma of freedom; Isaias will not talk about the stalled Constitution; Isaias will not talk about the miserable standard of living where Eritreans find themselves in a long cue as they line up for a rationed foods; Isaias will not talk about religious prosecution; Isaias will not talk about the indefinite national service as the youth flees the country in search of freedom and a better life; and of course, Isaias will not recant or show some sort of remorse as he incarcerated, killed and maimed his former friends and comrades. As he rants and spews his diarrhea, the fully packed hall will be in a complete silence where they are skimmed over as Sofia and other PFDJ handlers gaze on to warn if anybody makes any unwanted noises. The day will end as Eri-TV reports back to Eritrea with a headliner: “Eritrawian kab mululE American Canadan n’k’bur President Isaias k’semUn b’za’Eba hagerom k’zit’U ab New York ketema teAkibom w’Eilom.” And “T’mali n’g’ho President Isaias nab hageru temelisu”. In the mean time, Dawit goes on counting his remaining days on this Earth as his people put him in the back burner and their fading memory hardly remembers his name.

  • ghirmay fistum September 25, 2011

    esayas is dikitator world pilsi kili esayas

  • Haben Zerai September 26, 2011

    “It was better during the Derg, at that time the Ethiopians tortured us, but that made us only more determined in our struggle to become independent . Today, it is our own people who torture us, something which breaks down our spirit as there is no hope for the future. “ Eritrean refugee in Sudan (2008).

    The prisoner

    One bullet you are dead in a hurry
    Would be a gift in the land of the furry.
    You rise at 5:00 am for interrogation
    Tied on a tree, beaten to bleed with no justification.

    Thrown back into the cell for the tears to dry
    Though there is no energy left to vent and cry.

    At 8:00 am we are herded to the field
    Unable to walk for my feet are full of wound.
    Gets pushed and shoved by the frustrated guard
    Hurry! He shouts and beats me hard.
    All this to answer the call of nature
    The gun on my head and continuous torture.
    I go back to my cell and find it ten degrees hotter,
    The weather cooperates with the frustrated soldier.
    Water please! I cry with a dry throat,
    A cup of tea with a crumb of bread is what he brought.
    Sweat all over with pain and agony,
    Flat on my face I wished for slavery.
    Broken spirit with a lost dignity
    I am confused completely with their cruelty.

    What did I do? What is my fault?
    Could it be what I said or wrote?
    But what if I say anything or I write?
    Isn’t It too much already when I lost my sight?
    This goes beyond the physical torture
    All the struggle since 1974
    Sad incomprehensible closure.
    Prohibited to talk,
    No media to ask.
    Mental anguish inside

    NO way, not today.
    It is now 8 pm I can feel the chill in my bones
    Sleeping on the floor with pillow stones.
    Ten years of interrogation
    Ten years of submission
    Slow torturous murder
    Let it be! I shall not surrender.
    I wish:
    One bullet you are dead in a hurry
    Would be a gift in the land of the furry.

  • amalia October 3, 2011

    Esta frase brillante tiene que justamente a propГіsito