An African gulag so ghastly that inmates risk death to escape

A former Eritrean prisoner, Giorgio, poses for a portrait in a compound housing Eritrean refugees in the town of Mekele in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. (Arlette Bashizi)

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.

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.”

Mulue Zerezgi has been living in Los Angeles County for the past four years after leaving Eritrea, where he was imprisoned for more than five years. (Jane Hahn for The Washington Post)

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.

Desalegn Eshetu, 32, assists Eritrean refugees in Mekele, Ethiopia. (Arlette Bashizi for The Washington Post)

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.

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.

A former prisoner in Eritrea said he was detained in two underground prisons, including one that was essentially a hole in the ground with a wood and mud roof so low that prisoners couldn’t stand upright. (Arlette Bashizi for The Washington Post)
Underground cells

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 in his 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.”

Newly arrived Eritrean refugees gather at a center in Mekele, Ethiopia, before traveling to the country’s capital, Addis Ababa. (Arlette Bashizi for The Washington Post)

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 being 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 recognized a childhood friend in the dim light. The friend was about 16 years old when he was arrested. He had been in prison for seven years.

A former Eritrean prisoner poses for a portrait in an abandoned bus in Mekele. When he tried to escape the Eritrean army, he said, he was arrested and placed in a prison commonly called “Happy Country.” (Arlette Bashizi for The Washington Post)
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 1,500 men were held in two rooms, each about 20 feet by 40 feet.

Eritrean refugees walk through the courtyard of a refugee center in the town of Adigrat, in Ethiopia’s Tigray region. (Arlette Bashizi for The Washington Post)

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.

“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 running harder, the prison authorities have banned closed-toe shoes and ordered heel straps be cut off sandals. If about 15 people try to escape, he said, only a few 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.

An Eritrean refugee, 18, poses for a portrait in the room where she spends the night with other Eritreans in Adigrat, Ethiopia. She said she had fled conscription into the Eritrean army. (Arlette Bashizi for The Washington Post)
Unending darkness

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.

Eritrean refugees watch television at a refugee center in Adigrat. (Arlette Bashizi for The Washington Post)

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 evidence of treachery.

A former prisoner, 23, said that he had been detained in Eritrea in a cell with 700 other people and that it was so crowded that the prisoners had to take turns sleeping. (Arlette Bashizi for The Washington Post)
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 every sound, the sound of stick on flesh. We knocked on the walls 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.

An Eritrean refugee said that after he tried escaping Eritrean military training, his home was sealed by the authorities, his wife was arrested, and his carpentry equipment was confiscated (Arlette Bashizi for The Washington Post)
Jailed without reason

Mulue Zerezgi, a nurse practitioner, remembers when the men came to Keren Hospital in plain clothes 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.”

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.

Mulue Zerezgi, a registered nurse and former Eritrean prisoner, poses for a portrait in Gardena, Calif. (Jane Hahn for The Washington Post)
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. 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 security guy 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.

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