(Conversation with Michael Barron published in Culture Trip; June 7, 2017)

“The Flagellates” is a satire set in a detention center where its prisoners debate with the commander about the distribution of their requisite lashings. Could you talk about the basis and realities that this satire is commenting upon?


Fiction pales in comparison to the reality of present day Eritrea. There are over 360 prison facilities (majority underground detention centers run/owned by military commanders who extort money for plea bargains) in this small nation of less than five-million people. One way or another an average Eritrean has served time in these detention centers (myself in a labor camp). The degree of dehumanization and brutality many prisoners of conscience experience is difficult to fathom. George Orwell’s 1984 and Franz Kafka’s The Trial read not as allegorical stories of a dystopian world, but as slightly embellished accounts of life in Eritrea itself. Personal stories of the prison facilities vary—I’ve heard of people who were forced to eat with defecation-tainted utensils; to others who served for years in the solitary confinement because of mistaken identity, with even the guards freely admitting that they were detained the wrong person. I’ve also heard of some workers who were imprisoned under harsh conditions because the jailers want to extract information regarding their bosses, men who would themselves never be indicted. I wrote “The Flagellates” having all such stories as a backdrop. A straight, realist narrative story couldn’t grasp the scale of such bizarre reality so I had to be just as bizarre with my imagination; I remember even bursting into a loud laughter while writing it in a coffee shop.

This story has as its subtitle “A true fictional account” and I’m wondering if you could discuss the nuance of this phrase as it pertains to the story.
I put that in to create ambiguity; the narrator is also named Abraham for the same reason. Overall, I weave between fiction and reality, as it is difficult in an Eritrean context to discern between the two, particularly in the detention centers. For example, when this story (in its original Tigrinya) was published in a blog, one Eritrean wrote me expressing the “fury he felt reading about this experience as if it were my own,” and even suggested that I report it to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in Eritrea. On a different reading, this example also shows such practices are normally expected in Eritrean prison centers. Read the full interview from Culture Trip here

(Published in Amnesty International Magazine No. 88; March 2017)

Via Google translate

Perpetual escaped

Eritrea practices the most fierce media censorship in the world. For eight years, the country has occupied the queue of Reporters Without Borders rankings after North Korea. The repression is such that even journalists working for the state media live in constant fear of being arrested. Many journalists have preferred exile to prison. Abraham is one of them.

During his studies at the University of Asmara, he worked as an independent journalist for various private newspapers, until they were banned by order of the president. “At the time, although the media was limited, we could freely express our ideas, we were not governed by terror. In 2001, everything changed. “On 18 September this year, 15 senior government officials were arrested for denouncing the dictatorial drift of the president. The newspapers that have published their opinions are closed. “My country suddenly plunged into darkness, the army was everywhere. Arbitrary detention became the norm, prisoners were held in detention without trial or indictment for years. “According to Amnesty International’s investigations, At least 10,000 people are currently detained on political grounds in 360 detention centers. According to the United Nations, 5,000 individuals leave the country each month.>Click here to read the article via translation>

(Published in Global Journalist: Project Exile; February 2nd, 2017)

In Eritrea, even being part of the East African nation’s tame state media is no protection. That was the conclusion Abraham Zere reached after years of working as a columnist for the government newspaper Hadas Erta and later for the ruling party’s magazine.

All independent media outlets in the country of 6 million were closed in 2001 amid a massive crackdown on internal dissent following the country’s disastrous two-year border-war with Ethiopia. More than a dozen prominent journalists were jailed – and to this day it’s not known how many are still alive.

But as Abraham has written, for state media workers Eritrea became a Kafka-esque world of uncertainty and seemingly random detentions by security forces.

In 2006, security forces detained 10 state media journalists who worked at the Ministry of Information without any apparent rhyme or reason–keeping some in custody for weeks. In 2009, the military raided a state educational station called Radio Bana, arresting at least 40 reporters and media workers for reasons that are still unclear. Some were held in prison until 2015.

Abraham had his own difficulties in 2009 after publishing a column in the ruling party’s Hidri magazine highlighting the disaffection of Eritrean youth. That led to an immediate rebuke from Eritrea’s powerful Minister of Information Ali Abdu (himself now an asylum seeker in Australia after fleeing in 2013) – who published his own column in the state newspaper labeling Abraham’s work “irresponsible and dangerous.” Click here to read more.

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Abraham Zere was in 2001 a young freelance journalist for the newspaper Zemen, run by editor and poet Amanuel Asrat. “He suspected he would be arrested, but thought it could never last long”, Zere tells about Asrat, who he calls “my role model”. Most detainees disappeared in the infamous Eiraeiro prison. Zere, who works for Pen Eritrea (an international group which agitates for the interests of writers), obtained  over the years a little bit of information about them, first by a camp guard and  then an anonymus whistleblower: of the 35 taken in detention 15 years ago 15 are still alive. Click here to read the article.

(From PEN America Jan. 2016)

The PEN World series showcases the important work of the more than 140 centers that form PEN International. Each PEN center sets its own priorities, but they are united by their commitment to advocate for imperiled writers, promote literature from all cultures and in all languages, and advance the right of every individual to speak freely. In this series, PEN America interviews the leaders of different PEN centers from the global network to offer a window into the literary accomplishments and free expression challenges of their respective countries.

This month we feature PEN Eritrea. We spoke to Abraham Tesfalul Zere, executive director of PEN Eritrea in exile.Continue reading

Three men who play key role in crusade against repression in Eritrea, Africa, work from Athens

abraham

Freedom of expression is a concept that is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and is embedded in American culture and history. Many countries throughout the world have similar protections but a lot don’t. Quite the contrary.

In an effort to bring light to the extreme censorship and persecution that journalists face in their home country, exiled Eritrean writers founded the organization, or center, PEN Eritrea. Three of its members – Abraham Zere, Ghirmai Negash and Yonatan Tewelde – manage the center’s website and content from Athens, Ohio.

Continue reading

(Taken from Voice of America by Salem Solomon; June 12, 2016)

Although they are gone from view, their colleagues, friends and family want to make sure they are not forgotten. At a recent event in Alexandria, Virginia titled “Memory for Forgetfulness,” Eritreans shared stories about the journalists and advocated for their release.Continue reading

(From Télam, Argentine National News Agency)

NO PROVIENEN DE UN PAÍS EN GUERRA, PERO REPRESENTAN LA SEGUNDA NACIONALIDAD DE LOS CIENTOS DE MILES DE REFUGIADOS QUE LLEGARON ESTE AÑO A LAS COSTAS EUROPEAS. SÓLO EN LA ÚLTIMA DÉCADA, MÁS DE UN 5% DE LA POBLACIÓN DE ERITREA ESCAPÓ DE UNA DE LAS DICTADURAS MÁS OPRESIVAS DEL MUNDO.Continue reading