Aaron Berhane, who escaped arrest and imprisonment in Eritrea in 2001, now edits and publishes an Eritrean newspaper in Toronto.
Peter Goodspeed Sep 22, 2011 – 6:15 AM ET | Last Updated: Sep 21, 2011 10:55 PM ET
In the agony and anguish that followed the 9/11 terror attacks, the world lost sight of the horror and fear that have seized tiny Eritrea, Africa’s version of North Korea.
For more than 50 years, the strip of rock and sand wedged between Ethiopia and Sudan along the south coast of the Red Sea has known nothing but insecurity and war, despotism and despair.
It was 10 years ago on Friday the country was finally stripped of hope.
Then, President Isaias Afewerki, Eritrea’s first and only leader since it won independence from Ethiopia in 1991, arrested his leading critics and destroyed the country’s independent press.
On Sept. 23, 2001, he ordered the detention of 11 top government officials who had written open letters criticizing his rule.
He also arrested 10 leading journalists who published the letters and banned all eight of Eritrea’s independent newspapers.
Those arrested were accused of “defeatism” and “divisiveness,” and denounced for trying to bring Mr. Afewerki down during a border war with Ethiopia.
The 20 men and one woman have never been seen or heard from since.
They were never charged with a crime, never appeared in court and have had no contact with their family, friends or lawyers.
“It’s very hard. They are just being kept there to die and they are dying day after day,” said Aaron Berhane, an Eritrean newspaper publisher and editor, who was on Mr. Afewerki’s original hit list, but escaped and now lives as a refugee in Toronto.
“It has been going on for 10 years and no one seems to take notice. The situation is very, very discouraging. They don’t get adequate medical attention; they are not fed well and they are being held in horrible circumstances.”
Reports from former prison guards, who fled Eritrea, say the imprisoned journalists and opposition figures have been held in a secret prison, Eiraeiro, 15 kilometres north of the capital Asmara.
They say 10 of the 21 detainees have died. The remaining 11 are regularly tortured and held in solitary confinement, sometimes in steel shipping containers that are exposed to broiling temperatures during the day and freeze at night.
The surviving prisoners are said to be emaciated and physically and mentally incapacitated.
Two of the journalists arrested were Mr. Berhane’s business partners, co-founders and contributors to their twice-weekly newspaper, Setit, then Eritrea’s largest newspaper with a circulation of about 14,000.
Fessehaye “Joshua” Yohannes, a poet and playwright who also worked as a director of a children’s group, Circus Eritrea, is believed to be dead, though there are conflicting, unconfirmed, reports he committed suicide or died from neglect after being manacled and tortured.
Dawit Isaak, another co-owner of Setit, is the best known of the detained journalists, because in addition to being an accomplished novelist and playwright, he has Eritrean and Swedish citizenship. His family fled Eritrea during the war of independence and settled in Gothenberg, Sweden, in the late 1980s.
After Eritrea won its independence, Mr. Isaak returned home, looking for a way to contribute to his homeland.
“He is a humble man with a good heart,” said Mr. Berhane, who is now publisher and editor of the monthly newspaper Meftih for Eritreans in Canada.
“When my partners and I were looking to expand our business and looking for talented writers to join us, Dawit’s name came up immediately. We had asked others, but they were afraid. Dawit never hesitated. He really wanted to do something for his country.”
Since his arrest, Mr. Isaak has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International and been nominated for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.
Along with the other eight remaining Eritrean journalists, Mr. Isaak has been “adopted” by PEN Canada and will be honoured Friday in a special remembrance ceremony at Ryerson University in Toronto.
“Everyone has tried to get them out,” said Brendan de Caires, PEN Canada’s program co-ordinator.
“The African Union has tried. The European Union has tried. Swedish diplomats have been trying for the best part of a decade. And they just run up against a president who will say ‘No.’ He just isn’t interested.”