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The English PEN Modern Literature Festival 2017

Eritrea and the Imprisonment of Dawit Isaak

Eritrea — a Colonial Creation Eritrea's Long Struggle for Independence from Ethiopia Freedom at Last? Free Dawit Isaak! The Poem, How Dawit Isaak Lives Sources of Further Information on Eritrea and Dawit Isaak

The Eritrean journalist and writer Dawit Isaak was my allocated PEN Prisoner of Conscience, to write a text on for The English PEN Modern Literature Festival 2017, held on April 1, 2017, at Rich Mix, 35–47 Bethnal Green Road, London E1 6LA. The poem I wrote, "How Dawit Isaak Lives" is online at Dawit Isaak's story is horrifying, his situation immediately obvious as a great wrong. But to understand more, and the deep shades of a national tragedy involved in his imprisonment, you need to have a little more information about Eritrea and what has happened there.

Eritrea — a Colonial Creation

Eritrea was given its name by the Italian colonists in 1890, using the classical name for the Red or Erythraean Sea. It is the state which occupies the Red Sea coast between Sudan and Djibouti, and lies to the immediate North of Ethiopia. In its past history, it had been a component of Aksum (c100–940 CE), the state, Christianised in the Fourth Century, whose cultural traditions, religion and language have led to modern Ethiopia and Eritrea. With the rise of Islam, its coastal regions came under hostile control. The Ottomans ruled until the early Nineteenth century, and the coastal regions are mainly Muslim, including Arabic-speaking peoples — Ottoman administration had linked their Eritrean possessions with Hejaz. The land rises up from the coast into mountain and plateau — but these areas had become quite peripheral to the Ethiopian polity. This had passed into a political anarchy in the Eighteenth century, only ended by the rise of Menelik II (1889 1913).

Italy seized and manipulated its way to power over the coast, and a chunk of mountain and plateau inland in the North of the region. Eritrea was their first colony — they liked the location: on the approach to the Mediterranean. As a colonial power, well, as always, a lot of blood, humiliation and exploitation, and a distinct imprint made: a surprising amount of investment and infrastructure (the colony was the manufacturing base for the surrounding area of Africa), elements of a European way of life passed on, especially in Asmara, the capital, and a role for the Eritreans as askaris, "native troops", in their subsequent colonial wars. Particular and unambiguous vilenesses were the murderous elimination of local elites, and a complete subjection of the local population, who had deliberately limited educational opportunities, and increasingly harsh laws enforcing lower status in daily life. In 1935, Eritrea was the base for the Italian conquest of Ethiopia, and it became the centre of a geographically united East African Empire.

That was brief. World War II ended this. A British army rapidly defeated the Italians, and British rule continued while the United Nations debated the future of the colony. Ethiopia, of course, regained its independence, with its feudal King-of-Kings, Haile Selassie, returned to power. His abandonment by the League of Nations gave him great (and unwarranted) moral authority. British rule was brief, and yes, very flawed. On one hand, Eritrea developed a civil society, with local administration, education and a free press; but much of the factories and railways etc built by the Italians were dismantled and sold off cheap to other bits of the British Empire as "war reparations" from Italy. Selassie claimed Eritrea as an historic part of Ethiopia, meanwhile. Once part of an empire, always part of an empire, if you happen to be stuck next to it — think Tibet, Xinjiang, the Caucasus.

Eritrea's Long Struggle for Independence from Ethiopia

A Solomonic judgement was made. Eritrea was made a component of a federal union with feudal Ethiopia in 1952. This didn't last an eyeblink. The Eritrean assembly was manoeuvred into surrendering its sovereignty, and the country became an integral part of Ethiopia's corrupt feudal regime, with Amharic imposed as the only official and educational language. (Tigrinya, the largest single language bloc, and the main language of the Christian groups, and Arabic, an acceptable common language to the Muslims, were languages previously in official use). There was further pillaging of the resources given it by the Italians, and the important port revenues were of course remitted to the Ethiopian government (ie the Emperor), rather than spent locally.

"Under the Italians you could eat but not speak. Under the British you could speak but not eat. Under the Ethiopians, you can neither eat nor speak."

Armed resistance began in 1961 with the formation of the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF). No political position could be taken in a brutal, feudal autocracy. It was to be a long struggle. Ethiopia had great moral authority — the OAU headquarters had been built in Addis Ababa, and the principle of the territorial integrity of its members had been written into its charter. Britain had, of course, washed its hands of any responsibility as soon as the place could be got rid of quietly. Selassie was a Third World hero, and a cunning maneuverer between the USA and the USSR. Cosying up to the latter by Ethiopia was more a threat in bargaining than utilised for actual support. There was a clear American interest in Eritrea, and thus in the regime controlling it. Its highest area made a superb listening-post (before the use of satellites) to eavesdrop on comms across Europe, the Middle East, Russia, and beyond. A large facility was built outside Asmara — essentially radio telescopes tuned to Earth. Whatever equipment Ethiopia needed was given it to suppress rebels who might disturb American possession of this strategic resource. The ELF (and its successor, the Eritrean Popular Liberation Front [EPLF]) never gained any outside aid. No help but the Eritrean people themselves. Standard "anti-insurgent" tactics were employed ruthlessly and ineptly (as always!) by the imperial army. Massacring people does not win their friends and neighbours to your side. Ingenuity and common purpose are however powerful and inspiring weapons. The ever-increasing drain on resources and calamitous mismanagement of the war (and of everything!) led to an army coup in Ethiopia in 19745. The new regime, soon dominated by Mengistu Haile Mariam, carried on the war. In 1977 Mengistu took personal control away from the Derg, the revolutionary army council, and his regime proclaimed itself Marxist, and embarked on bloody purges. The USSR became its main supplier and support. Russian (and Cuban — shame!) forces aided Ethiopian armies, which rapidly reconquered most of Eritrea, apart from a mountainous desert enclave in the North. Still no support from anyone else, and the ELF had already fragmented.

The resistance held out. The most ruthless of the resistance groups, the EPLF became the leading movement (after murderous warfare with the ELF). The self organised commitment of the EPLF was exemplary. There were many female fighters in the army, treated equally to men (contrary to the generally patriarchal Eritrean social norms for gender roles). Underground hospitals, workshops and living accommodation were constructed — with Soviet aid, Ethiopia had total air dominance. The enemy's plentifully supplied war materiel was mended and used again against them wherever possible. The EPLF, with a collective leadership, dominated by Isaias Afwerki, held out. Their skill, daring ands commitment began to turn the tide.

Mengistu's brutal tactics were as counter-productive as Selassie's, and as disastrous for his army, treated equally brutally as mere cannon fodder. The crucial battle was in 1988, when an armoured assault on the EPLF redoubt was defeated, and the withdrawing armoured brigades caught in a trap. The Ethiopians bombed and napalmed their own men to prevent the EPLF acquiring the equipment. The rest of the army immediately pressing in on the EPLF, based at Afabet, collapsed. Meanwhile, Gorbachev's rule in Russia meant increasing withdrawal of support from Mengistu's costly, brutal and incompetent dictatorship. The EPLF cunningly engaged with rebels against the regime in Northern Ethiopia, especially among the Tigray (yes — similar language and culture to the Tigrinya), and actively aided them. It was combined EPLF and TIgrayan People's Liberation Front (TPLF) tanks (all ex-Ethiopian army!) which rolled into Addis Ababa in 1991. This established the current Ethiopian regime, still under the TPLF leader, Meles Zenawi. He kept his agreement with the EPLF — an independence referendum was held in Eritrea, which gained vast popular support, and its independence recognised in 1993. An astonishing achievement of a classic people's war, which had lasted since 1961, and which, to their shame, the rest of the world, including most people and countries on the left had ignored.

Freedom at Last?

The new regime in Eritrea was led by its experience to be suspicious of outside aid, after its enforced self reliance. But the mood in the country was positive. Many of those who had fled the war, like Dawit Isaak, returned. This country could do anything! It seemed to have a bright future. But conflict with Ethiopia remained. The border, across dusty desert mainly, was ill-defined. Ethiopia was hurt economically by its loss of what had been its major port, Massawa, and its own sense of itself reckoned on Eritrea as a colonial theft from the Empire, rather than as a country which had acquired a separate identity (in part through the colonial experience, in part through the experience of resistance). But it is a small country compared to its giant neighbour. A small country with a strong sense of itself.

There was, inevitably, a conflict over a wretched border settlement, not worth a human life, in which it is impossible to determine who did what first. This started in 1998. Eritrea refused mediation initially. Unfortunately, the new Ethiopian army was far more effective than its predecessors, and overran the Eritrean armies. Eritrea had to agree to a UN-backed arbitration. This has been rejected by Ethiopia, because it gave the wretched little place to Eritrea, though open war has not recommenced. But the country remains on a war footing.

It is easier to fight a war than to organise a democracy. The EPLF metamorphosed in 1993 into the People's Front for Democracy and Justice (PFLJ), soon rapidly completely dominated by Afwerki ("The PFDJ is Eritrea and I am the PFDJ.") A very fine constitution was indeed drawn up, to be implemented when conditions were suitable. Not yet. Power is monopolised by the party, which is imbricated with the military.

In 2001, after the shock of what was really defeat by the Ethiopians, fifteen members of the PFDJ's central committee (ie senior government figures) wrote a letter suggesting a more collective response to the crisis in terms of more collective decision-making, and calling for democracy, elections, abolition of the military-style "Special Courts" that the President had set up, and government "by the constitution and the law." The non-state run magazines and newspaper that had sprung up since independence reported the "G-15" letter. The politicians who were in the country were arrested; the journalists involved were arrested. One of these was Dawit Isaak, who had returned from Sweden (where he had acquire citizenship and a family) to start a newspaper, Setit. He is believed to have spent long periods of isolation in darkness, with periods of torture earlier on — he was released in 2005, but seized again the next day when he sought medical assistance for the effects of torture. The President is well aware of his situation: "We will not have any trial and we will not free him. We know how to handle his kind." None of those arrested over the G-15 letter have been released. Several are known to be dead.

To live in Eritrea is to live through the Orwellian nightmare. A state of permanent war is ideal for power, always. The goal of total popular commitment to achieve a common aim has transmuted into simple leaden totalitarian tyranny. There is a legal national service of 18 months — in actuality it is potentially endless. Rigid military discipline is enforced, and you can be allocated to any duty the state requires, giving it a slave labour force. It is, of course, all cynical and corrupt, for the benefit of those with power. The gender equality of the original struggle is replaced by structurally institutionalised sexual exploitation. Any one would want to escape — which is why so many have become migrants looking for a better life: any life outside their own country!

The United Kingdom Home Office, despite a tribunal ruling against them, employs not the UNHCR Report of 2015, a detailed and horrifying assemblage of testimonies, but a report compiled for the Danish government, which the Danish government itself has rejected, is linked with allegations of pressure and distortion, and two of the civil servants involved with which have resigned. Our hypocrisy is endless!

Free Dawit Isaak!

For me, Dawit Isaak's seizure and imprisonment represents that point when the promise of a genuinely popular revolution might have been realised, but wasn't. Maybe revolutions made with guns and violence are always doomed to be turned into casual extermination camps; but there was no other way open to the Eritreans if they wished to remain Eritreans. We've got to hope that the best of what people are achieving, acting together, can be maintained and built upon, if we are to have any future than division into rulers and slaves. Any future for Eritrea must reset its history to that point when there was the possibility of another way than unthinking and self-sustaining militarised tyranny. At that point is the figure of Dawit Isaak in prison.

The cause of all the journalists imprisoned as a result of the G-15 Letter aroused protests worldwide from organisations defending journalistic freedom — there was no longer an independent free press in the country, and all they had done as to report and comment on a letter by people who had been leading political figures. As he was a Swedish citizen, there have been a lot of protests from Swedish media and human rights organisations, though the Swedish government, like our FO, claims to work by quiet diplomacy. It has achieved nothing. The organisation Free Dawit Isaak works with these Swedish organisations, and PEN, to publicise his cause, and let him know too he is supported, is not alone. One of their campaigns is "Sit with Dawit". Participants are asked to sit for 15 minutes locked in a mock-up of the sort of cell he is imprisoned in, an act of solidarity with his experience.

The Poem, How Dawit Isaak Lives

This situation of a writer and journalist isolated alone in darkness is haunting and cruel. It is what I have based my poem on, and I've tried to grasp its significance. He is a man who has been persecuted for exercising his profession, publishing information for the people, to help them better build their country. When in the West we wank about with "fake news", a new word for old lies, it is vital to remember the basic civilisation-sustaining action which is journalism, reporting on what is happening so that the people can know. I can only see what he did as a journalist will be returned to again when the regime crumbles. I see the very attempt to silence and hide Dawit Isaak as a luminous signifier for the importance of press freedom and for the importance specifically of Dawit Isaak.

It is this hauntingness of his situation which I hope powers the poem. I haven't encountered any translation of his writing (which includes novels and plays), but have projected his journalistic activity out as a part of the positive, hopeful language it was possible to use about Eritrea still in 2001, invoking the names of all the newspapers and magazines which were suppressed and had journalists imprisoned then. I have contrasted this with language encountered in the UNHRC Report. This quoted only a few words that were actually Eritrean, rather than translated into English. There were some specific foods, and some plants. There were also many specific practices of the regime, which had their own vocabulary, even down to torture methods. I have used all of these, in the order they came in the Report. I haven't used language translated into English, eg the "helicopter" for the torture position where people have their hands and feet tied together, bowing their body, and they are left on their stomachs (it has other names in other places). Just the (mainly) Tigrinya words, with a dictionary-type explanation, and a literal translation where the Report gave that. I read when I was a child someone pointing out that the words which the Imperial Russian regime had given to the world, to international use, were to do with power, subjection and pain. Similarly the Eritrean regime.

Dawit Isaak's language helped and built, it will, it must return. The language of the regime (and I have deliberately not used its leader's name: he is the one who has turned into nothing) is the language of a cancerous self-destructive state of affairs. It is worthless, poisoned words. There's a basic ode structure: the different voices of strophe and antistrophe, using these two languages, resolved in the epode — and it is conceived as a public poem to be uttered and heard.

Sources of Further Information on Eritrea and Dawit Isaak