The Eritrean regime follows the script of George Orwell’s 1984 to erase prisoners of conscience from the country’s collective memory, writes Zere [Ronen Zvulun/Reuters]
Since February 19, Eritrean social media have been flooded with tributes to Haile “Durue” Woldensae, the country’s former foreign minister who had been in incommunicado detention since September 18, 2001.
The social media reaction was ignited by a post by Sacttism, a Facebook page run by an anonymous regime whistle-blower, which announced the death of Durue.
The Facebook post stated that the veteran freedom fighter died in the infamous Eirairo prison on January 25. According to the report, he was allegedly buried in the bushes near the grounds of Eirairo by guards, like many others who died in the prison camp before him.
The post received nearly 2,000 shares on Facebook and garnered a thread of comments that went beyond 4,500 in just a couple of days.
The comments reflected a wide range of feelings, including vulnerability, sorrow, anger but also a sense of guilt.
“This surely must be a cause for all of us to do something,” one commentator said.
“I urge all justice-loving Eritreans to reserve a wall in their home. This wall must be filled with pictures of all prisoners of conscience,” added another.
Most commentators called for action: “We need a global demonstration to show our frustration to the world.”
There was no official response from the state; nor did the Facebook post mention any sources or show any sort of proof that supports the statement.
But, of course, one can neither verify nor dismiss reports like this coming from Eritrea at this point in time.
Lack of an independent media coupled with attempts by the state media to distort facts have left the huge Eritrean diaspora, desperate to follow the developments in their homeland, dependent on unverified social media reports like this one.
Now the important question is not whether the reports on the death of Durue are accurate or not – there had been several unverified reports on how his health has been deteriorating for quite a long time – but it is why so much outrage now?
After all these years, and after many similar deaths, why did the Eritrean diaspora choose this moment to call for collective action?
Who is Durue?
Regarded by many as one of the main ideologues of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) that led the war of independence, Durue dropped out of Addis Ababa University to join the armed struggle in December 1966.
After Eritrea’s independence, he served in several different governmental roles. Most significantly, he was the minister of foreign affairs during the Ethio-Eritrean border conflict of 1998-2000 and he signed the Cessation of Hostilities deal between the two countries on June 10, 2000, in Algiers.
But, after the border war, Durue’s relationship with Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki – a longtime ally – grew adrift.
In his last interview with Dan Connell, about a month before he was taken into custody, Durue stated that, throughout the war, most of the leading officials in the government had asked the president to convene regular meetings of the National Assembly and the Central Council, to assess the war and inform his ministers about his plans, but the repeatedly refused.
According to Durue’s account, published in Connell’s 2005 book, Conversations with Eritrean Political Prisoners, the president continued to make decisions single-handedly, to the extent that “ministers did not have any information on what things were going on. So, they were going to anybody that could tell them what is happening, how are things going on.”
Only weeks after voicing his concerns in this interview about the president’s conduct, while the world’s attention was focused on the terror attacks on the United States, 35 senior political figures and journalists, including Durue, were arrested.
Eiraero prison: Even the dead cannot leave
The political prisoners were initially taken to the Embatkala Prison, but they were transferred to an unknown location in 2003. For nearly seven years, Eritreans and the international community had no clue about the prisoners’ whereabouts. Only in 2010, when former prison guard Eyob Bahta Habtemariam fled to Ethiopia and conducted a series of interviews with the media, it became known that Durue and all the other political prisoners were being held in a secret prison named Eiraero.
According to the limited reports that are publicly available, Eiraero seems to be one of the most brutal detention centres in the world today. With lack of any medical assistance, acute shortage of food supplies, and temperatures that reach 50 degrees Celsius, many prisoners there were left to die.
According to Habtemariam, out of the 35 political prisoners and journalists, 15 had already died by 2010 and the rest were in a dire state. During this period, it has been revealed, Durue, who has long been suffering from diabetes and other ailments, had lost his eyesight.
“In good hands – in prison”
Human rights organisations and the international media tried to hold the Eritrean state to account, but officials continuously refused to address the issue, classifying the situation as “an internal matter”.
The Eritrean foreign minister only acknowledged the existence of these political prisoners in June 2016, when journalists from Radio France International questioned him about the wellbeing of political prisoners and journalists. Foreign Minister Osman Saleh simply said, “All of them are alive”, and “They are in good hands, in prison.”
A year later, in November 2017, when questioned about the fate of the Eritrean-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak, who was arrested at the same time as Durue, Eritrean Minister of Justice Fouzia Hashim stated that “everything will be resolved in a trial.”
Whatever ministers may say, the majority of Eritreans, including the family members of the prisoners, know that they are not fine, and they will probably never see a day in an independent court.
Durue’s younger brother, Sengal Woldensae, now exiled to the US, was recently interviewed by Voice of America about the rumours on his brother’s death.
“The family have not heard anything apart from what has been widely shared on social media,” he said. He explained that the last time he heard from his brother was the very morning Durue was taken into custody in 2001. He told the interviewer that his brother called him as the security forces were entering his home and asked him to take care of his family as he knew that he will be jailed.
“He joined the struggle of independence at the age of 16 and sacrificed his entire life for the national cause; he is a man of the people,” Sengal Woldensae said, adding that Durue does not only belong to his immediate family, “but the whole nation can equally claim and commemorate him”.
Collective memory versus forgetting
Sengal Woldensae seems to be convinced that he is not going to learn much about his brother’s fate anytime soon, and with good reason.
With Eritrean media under the regime’s control, and independent, civic organisations nonexistent inside the country, the Eritrean regime is easily shaping the narrative about political prisoners and keeping their suffering hidden from the world.
Former government officials who are in custody are never mentioned in the state media. Anyone who appears on state media is aware of this unwritten directive. Even when somebody slips up, editors censor their message immediately. Video footage and photographs showing imprisoned officials are similarly banned. Even ordinary Eritrean citizens are afraid to utter the names of imprisoned former officials and journalists in public places in Eritrea.
The Eritrean regime follows the script of George Orwell’s 1984 to erase prisoners of conscience from the country’s collective memory.
But the news of Durue’s death seems to be the last straw that broke the camel’s back for many in the Eritrean diaspora. They are increasingly exasperated by the state’s repression and they are starting to make moves to take the matter into their own hands.
They are getting together on social media to remember the regime’s victims and using the tragedy of Durue as a way to bring the country’s disjointed opposition together.
Most social media tributes to Durue by members of the Eritrean diaspora carry a sense of guilt; Eritreans abroad are feeling guilty for not doing more to help their fellow countrymen who are rotting in secret prisons, miles away. And it looks like the news of the demise of a national hero like Durue – whether this news can be independently verified or not – is serving as a wake-up call for them to reignite the struggle for justice.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.