Forty-two former prisoners in Eritrea’s sprawling detention system described horrific conditions and frequent torture.
NAIROBI — The tiny African nation of Eritrea is a sliver of fear wedged between Ethiopia and the Red Sea, a land that has known only a single strongman leader and the shadow of repression since independence three decades ago. Nothing exemplifies the reach and cruelty of the state today as much as its prison system.
Eritrea is riddled with an appalling variety of prisons: Underground cells of crumbling concrete, and sweltering jails fashioned from converted metal cargo containers. Cages crammed with hundreds of men who must sleep on their sides like sardines, as their cellmates wearily stand to make room, and shallow holes scraped from the earth with log and dirt ceilings so low that inmates cannot stand up.
The conditions, former prisoners recounted, are often so ghastly and the prison terms so open-ended that desperate inmates frequently attempt to escape, but those who try are often gunned down.
Unlike in many other authoritarian countries, where people can frequently avoid prison by keeping their heads down and steering clear of politics, most Eritreans face the inevitability of detention if they refuse mandatory national service that can stretch for decades, mostly in a military infamous for leaving conscripts impoverished and brutalized.
Prison time is so ubiquitous that one former detainee, Mulue Zerezgi, who was held for five years without ever learning the reason, said in an interview: “You know how you all talk about where you went to college in America? In Eritrea, we do that with prisons.”
In interviews, 42 Eritreans who have been in prison, in some cases only weeks ago, described the conditions in the country’s sprawling detention network. These Eritreans, who were contacted in six different countries — some mired in refugee camps outside Eritrea or hiding in secret safe houses in African cities, and a few now living as fugitives in the West — told of beatings, stress positions and other torture, and of hunger and deaths from suffocation and gunshots, providing a rare look inside the prisons of the secretive country that has been described as “the North Korea of Africa.”
Although Eritrea has long been highly repressive, the prison population has swollen within the past three years. After Eritrea sent troops to help the Ethiopian government battle rebels in the Tigray region, Eritrea intensified its aggressive conscription campaign — sweeping up men and women, young and old. Evasion meant jail.
The extent of Eritrea’s prison system is well known. But the testimony of former detainees provides new details, never before reported, about prison conditions and the desperation of life on the inside.
Eritrea, a country of 3.7 million people by the World Bank’s count, has never had a national election, a constitution or a transfer of power. President Isaias Afwerki has ruled the country for three decades, and his party, backed by Russia and enriched by Chinese mining revenue, has been tightening its stranglehold.
Under such circumstances, it can be daunting to even glimpse the conditions of daily life, especially for those locked behind prison doors. Foreign journalists are rarely allowed to enter Eritrea, and the domestic press is completely controlled. Cellphones are monitored, and internet access is rare, making it difficult to contact Eritreans, who are typically too terrified to talk.
Most of the former prisoners interviewed for this article were initially reluctant to speak, and nearly all did so on the condition of anonymity. Their testimony was cross-checked, including by comparing multiple accounts about specific prisons and comparing accounts about different prisons to identify common practices.
Eritrea’s Minister of Information Yemane Ghebremeskel did not respond to detailed requests for comment. The Eritrean mission to the United Nations also did not respond to a similar request. The Eritrean government has previously dismissed criticism of its human rights records.
The first time that Giorgio was imprisoned, he said he was held in a stifling hole in the ground topped with wood and mud. Prisoners were unable to stand, and there was no light. There were about 30 people in the hole. Some had been there two years, he recalled.
He was caught after he fled into neighboring Sudan in 2014, when he was inhis early 20s. Sudanese soldiers captured him and handed him back to the Eritreans, who put him in a prison in the town of Tessenei commonly called “Under Tessenei.”
“Sometimes people would faint from the heat. People got sick a lot. The chief prisoner, the capo, would inform the guards, and people would pick the guy up by the hands and legs and carry them out,” said Giorgio, a tall, mustachioed man. “If you tried to come up without permission, they would shoot you.”
Giorgio spoke on the condition that he be identified only by his middle name out of fear he could be captured by Eritrean authorities again. He recently escaped Eritrea after deserting from the military, which he was forced to join after his release from detention.
A week after he was put in Under Tessenei, he was moved to Hashferay, an underground prison in the western Gash-Barka region. Giorgio described it as a concrete ditch, with about 100 prisoners crowded into a roughly 16-by-13-foot room.
When Giorgio arrived, he said he recognized a childhood friend in the dim light. The friend was about 16 years old when he was arrested. He had been in the prison for seven years.
Forced to sleep in shifts
Giorgio spent three weeks underground in Hashferay before being incarcerated for a year at Adi Abeto, a major prison complex outside the capital, Asmara. The main holding facility, he said, consisted of two large cells crammed with hundreds of prisoners and a row of much smaller cells, too small to stand up or lie down in, where men could languish for months until they “confessed.”
After he was released, Giorgio fled again, this time to Ethiopia, where he lived for six years until Eritrean troops arrived during the Ethiopian civil war and forced him and thousands of others to return home. Within a month, he said, police came for him, accusing him of anti-government activities. He was among dozens of Eritreans repatriated from Ethiopia who were imprisoned.
The two main rooms in Adi Abeto were so crowded that the only way men could sleep was packed together on their sides, while others stood waiting their turn, according to Giorgio and two others held there. The numbers fluctuated, but he estimated that as many as 1,500 men were held in two rooms, each about 20 feet by 40 feet.
Some prisoners had tuberculosis or bronchitis. Others had been paralyzed by beatings with sticks, electric wires or bicycle chains, he said. Several other former detainees described similar beatings.
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“When they beat you, the whole day you can hear screaming. If they transfer you, they do it at night. When people went for interrogation and came back bleeding, we would comfort them,” he said.
The inmates are so desperate that some prisoners attempt mass breakouts, Giorgio said. To make it harder to run, the prison authorities have banned closed-toe shoes and ordered that heel straps be cut off sandals. If about 15 people try to escape, he said, only a couple of them might make it to freedom.
“Some were shot trying to escape. Some died while being interrogated by beating. Some died by execution. Most were captured and beaten and returned to prison,” he said.
Many Eritrean prisoners are sentenced to darkness.
Two former prisoners held underground in a prison called Tract B, a converted storage facility near the Asmara airport, described seeing several cellmates die of suffocation before a grate was put in.
Four other former detainees described another prison with underground cells, so small that inmates could not lie down flat or stand up straight. One of those men said he was held there for four months. Prisoners were permitted to go to the bathroom twice a day, he said, but otherwise they were in darkness. Biting insects skittered across their limbs. His chest still bears a deep indentation from something that bit him in his first week.
This former prisoner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to prevent reprisals against his siblings, said he had been first conscripted when he was 16. After two years, he fled to Ethiopia and was a refugee there when the war broke out. Eritrean soldiers blindfolded him and drove him back with several others to a prison in the western Eritrean town of Barentu, he recounted.
When the beatings began, the guards accused him of being a traitor by exposing conditions in Eritrea to the world. Talking to foreigners — he had applied to the United Nations for resettlement — was considered evidence of treachery.
Nightly sounds of torture
This former prisoner’s cell was near the interrogation rooms. Every evening was punctuated by screaming, he said. Sometimes people would be tied up and left overnight in the “helicopter position” with arms pinioned painfully behind them and lashed to their ankles. Sometimes people were pistol whipped, he said. Their arms at times were broken.
“Sometimes people would cry out for their mothers or say they are going to die. You could hear each and every sound, the sound of stick on flesh. We used to knock on the walls, just to say: ‘Are you okay? Are you hearing this?’” recalled this former prisoner, now in his mid-30s. When he was finally moved out of his tiny cell, he said, he was put in a larger one with a man who had spent seven years in different prisons. The man was almost blind from being underground for so long and limped from being shot in the leg during an escape attempt.
The cellmates swapped information about the Eritrean gulag, including about a secret prison hidden in a residential neighborhood near the heart of town, a military barracks and prisons dug into a cliff near the Inda Gimbar detention center in Barentu, where scorpions scuttled across the floor. While they were detained, they identified at least five prisons around the small town of Barentu. Since he’s been released, he’s heard of another four.
Jailed without reason
Mulue Zerezgi, a nurse practitioner, remembers when the men came to Keren Hospital in plainclothes looking for him. They pulled him out of a meeting, handcuffed him and drove him away, he recalled. More than a decade later, he still doesn’t know why.
“When I was 6 or 7, I realized — some people just disappear forever,” he said. “If you live in Eritrea, this is always in your mind. Then one day I was the one who disappeared.”
Zerezgi, now 38, said he was arrested in 2011. At first, he was taken to the main security office in the city of Keren, where he spent two months in a tiny cell before being transferred to Karsheli prison in Asmara.
That facility was home to many former politicians, priests, doctors and military officials. Many prisoners had been there for decades, Zerezgi said. No one had been charged. No lawyers or family members were permitted to visit.
“No one questioned me or interrogated me. They would sometimes just say: ‘Tell us what you did wrong. Tell us the truth, and you will leave. If you don’t, you will stay,’” he said.
Dreaming of freedom
Another prisoner was the wife of former minister Petros Solomon, who had been arrested in 2001 for demanding government reforms. She had been arrested after returning to Eritrea from the United States, where she had been studying. “She was alone in her cell,” Zerezgi said, adding, “I would hear her cry.”
Fitsum Berhane, a rare psychiatrist in the country, was in the next cell over. He heard of his wife’s death from cancer on a radio in the prison, Zerezgi said, and began to pray for her and their son.
“I was dreaming every day that someone was coming to rescue us. I dreamed of it every night and every day for five years,” he said.
In May 2016, he was abruptly released with no explanation. “One of the security guys came and asked me, ‘When did you come to the prison.’ I told him March 30, 2011. He asked, ‘You are held until today? Okay, you are free right now.’”
Zerezgi left Eritrea during a brief political thaw in 2018, when border restrictions were eased. He made his way to Los Angeles, where he now works as a nurse and says he attends protests against the Eritrean government for the sake of those left behind.