Families in Limbo: Being deprived of closure and unable to move on

Eritreans for more than half a century have lost their beloved ones without even knowing an iota of information how, why, when and where they died. This piece discusses the topic in three sections based on chronological events: deaths during the struggle period and today; people killed by the rebels and the government; and death in migration.

Part Two: National Service “absconders” and their fate.

The other group of families who are the victims of silent suffering and non-moving on are those families of enforced disappearance and rounding ups, and families of those killed in torture camps and detention facilities. These are families who witness the kidnapping of their family members or knew that their family members have been held by the Eritrean regime illegally but never have the chance of knowing their whereabouts. Some have got the information that their family member had been killed or died in detention as the result of ill-treatment or tortures. In such cases the families are left in dark. What is sad is the people who can witness to the death of killings withhold the information fearing reprisal from the regime. I am an eye witness to some of killings/deaths.

When I was in detention in the remote underground detention facility in Aderser, Western Eritrea, in 2001, I witnessed the death of a young man named Kibrom. Kibrom was 20 years old student from the town of Mendefera . Unaware of the new movement restrictions that the government had introduced at that time, he travelled to Tesseney. His movement paper was his student ID card. While there was no any problem all over his way until Tesseney, he was arrested at the military check point at the entrance of Tesseney. After being held for some time in Tesseney military prison, he was transferred to Aderser prison. By the time I arrived at Aderser he had been in that prison for more than one month. Kibrom was one of the few prisoners who were relatively tolerant to the miserable prison conditions. He was energetic, active and funny. He used to entertain us by making jokes. But two weeks after my arrival, his health started to deteriorate as the result of the extremely harsh prison conditions. Around Aderser there was a military camp clinic that used to provide medical services to the border surveillance unit. At the prison there were only two national service recruits (a lady and man) with a very basic medical knowledge who had been assigned to provide first aid health services both to the prison personnel  and the prisoners. The health personnel had neither appropriate medical equipment and materials nor authority to admit prisoner patients to the clinic on the basis of their professional judgment of the patients’ conditions. Admitting of prisoner patients to the clinic is subject to the approval of the prison officers who often reject admission recommendations by the health personnel to the clinic. Only extremely critical cases had been admitted to the clinic.

As the result of these practices, Kibrom had lost his life. Initially Kibrom had extreme fever; he was sleeping next to me. The prison health personnel were supplying him some tablets such as paracetamol. But this did not help him. In 3-4 days’ time his health dramatically deteriorated; later he was also infected with diarrhoea; he started to lose his conscience particularly when he was asleep. During the night when he touches me I could feel it was hot like furnace and because I could not tolerate the touching of his hot body I was not able to sleep ( while still alive but ill). After 5-6 days he started relieving his wastes on his clothes. He was not also taking food. We reported about his deteriorating conditions to the health personnel.

Noting his conditions, the health personnel collaborated and extended their support to him  by providing him accommodation to sleep with them (as the temperature is relatively better outside than in the underground cell and there is moving air outside)  and supplied him food from their own rations which are also relatively better than the food provided to the prisoners. Later in that night, the prison officer (now I forgot his name) who was next to Wedi Granite in authority learned that the health personnel had collaborated with the patient and he was very much angry that kibrom had been staying outside the underground cell. He threatened the health personnel with punishment for their actions and ordered kibrom to go back into the underground cell. When they told him that he was under extremely critical condition and he was very likely to die if he would not be admitted immediately to the clinic and that returning him to the underground cell would put his life in danger, the officer’s reply was “let him die, return him to the underground cell”.  They returned him to the underground cell immediately. The next day, in the afternoon, when he was virtually dead, they admitted him to the clinic. He died immediately after he arrived at the clinic. As he was arrested while traveling and held in a remote secret prison, Kibrom did not get the chance to inform his family about his whereabouts and his conditions. The question that always comes to my mind is has Kibrom’s family get the chance to know about the death of Kibrom and move on.

The death of Siem in Wia

On the 4th of May, 2007, 175 detainees including me were transported to Wia concentration camp From Adi-Abeito prison in Asmara. Prison Conditions in Wia are extremely bad and the climate is harsh, reaching about 50 Celcius. The next day, 5th of May, we were made to trek about 15 kilometers to collect and bring firewood. In our way back to the camp, a young man who was named Siem, from Asmara, got tired and ill and could not carry his load. Despite his illness he was forced to continue trekking by beating until finally fell on the ground. One of the soldiers by the name Sheebi threatened him that he would suffer when he reaches the camp for his tricks (claiming that he was pretending to be ill). Four people carried him to the camp; on arrival to the camp, sheebi tied him up in ‘helicopter’ style and beat him severely and he left him tied on the burning ground until he vomited blood through his mouth and nostrils. Then untied him and selected some people from among us to carry him to the clinic. As they departed to the clinic, he died. Ten people were select secretly from among us to dig the grave and bury. They were told to keep the secret. After two weeks, his mother came to the camp asking about her son. The military officers in charge told her that there is no such a person in that name.

The Death of Merhawi (pseudonym)

Merhawi was from Keren town. He was detained in 2006 in the Gash Barka region. While he was in route to another prison, he attempted to escape in Keren. He jumped from the truck which was transporting him and other detainees. One of the guards guarding the detainees died when he jumped from the same truck to chase him. Unfortunately Merhawi was caught again and tortured in front of the people of Keren. The tortures were so severe which left the people of Keren in shock and panic. After the torture Merhawi was loaded on the truck and transported to unknown destination. Though his injuries were critical, the guards at the time did not allow him to have access to medical treatment. Rather they transported him to unknown destination. After that incident, Merhawi was never seen again and his family was kept in limbo for several years. This situation had caused his mother so much sorrow and anguished resulting in to her death. The family kept searching for information for years. After relentless efforts by his siblings recently they got the confirmation that he died. Grieving his death, now they put a closure into the matter and moved on.

The above examples are the tip of the iceberg that give illustrations of the situation in Eritrea. It is difficult to give statistical figures of how many families are victims of such violations. But this phenomenon is affecting a big number of families. The list includes families of political figures and religious clerics. For example hundreds of Muslim clerics were rounded up by the Eritrean security forces in 1994 and they have never been seen again. There are wide spread rumors that they have been killed but their families are in limbo because they could not mourn, put closure to the matter and move on. Similarly over the years many people from the Orthodox and Pentecostal churches have been kidnapped by the Eritrean regime not to be seen again. Among the political figures are members of the group known as G-15 who were arrested in 2001 together with the journalists who were never seen again. There are rumors that many of them have died. In 2010, one of their guards escaped and reported https://africamonitors.org/2018/09/22/the-eritrean-exodus-to-ethiopia/the death of several of them. But their families could not mourn and grieve their death and move on as they have not gotten official information from the authorities.

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