(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 Carniege Council for Ethics in International Affairs; December 30, 206)


In addition to groups that primarily serve as platforms for political debates, there are also other important social media groups for the thousands of young migrants. Most Eritreans take the dangerous Mediterranean Sea route to get to Europe. They use social media, particularly Facebook, Whatsapp, and Viber, to navigate the routes, exchange information, and support each other. As the journey entails terrible risks, starting with leaving the country and then dealing with multiple smugglers and human traffickers along the way, shared information is crucial and Eritrean social media platforms frequently contain posts about safe routes from the Sudan to Libya and from Libya to Europe. If certain routes are particularly risky, those who have survived and are safely in Europe will quickly share their experiences and advise others to avoid them. Posting photos, names, and contact details of malicious smugglers, accompanied with detailed descriptions of their misdoings is also very common, so that others can stay away from them. Although the possibilities of false allegations are inevitable, this kind of information-sharing is literally life-saving.

Hundreds of Eritreans have been dying each year along the Mediterranean and Sahara routes and social media platforms are often used to make public appeals to save endangered or trapped groups or to get support for families of the deceased. Since Eritrea is a highly communal and interdependent society, responses to such appeals have been very encouraging and crowd-funding targets are quickly not only met, but surpassed.

After reaching their destinations, mainly in Europe, many Eritreans also share information about the policies of the host countries on social media. Either in closed groups or publicly, it is very common to read messages of communal support and tips on how incoming brothers and sisters can use available resources or reach the relatively better countries in Europe. Information may include the conditions of political asylum each country accepts or the offers/challenges available in the most common destinations Click here to read the article from Carniege Council

(First Published in Global Voices August 4, 2016)

Eritrean diaspora on social media. Photo by Yonatan Tewelde, used with permission.

Eritrean diaspora on social media. Photo by Yonatan Tewelde, used with permission.

A few months ago an Eritrean acquaintance called me to discuss an article he wanted to write for PEN Eritrea’s website. He had worked as a journalist in Eritrea, where we’re both from, before fleeing the country nearly ten years ago.

He had recently spoken out (under a pen name) about his former colleagues who were languishing incommunicado in detention centers in Eritrea, a story that was then covered by various media including The Guardian, in partnership with our organization.Click here to read the whole article from Global Voices.

 

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(First published in The Guardian; April 27, 2016)

An anonymous whistleblower claims to have new proof of human rights abuses, galvanising opposition online

Eritrea has become nicknamed ‘Africa’s North Korea’ in recent years.
Eritrea has become nicknamed ‘Africa’s North Korea’ in recent years. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

In a bid to upend years of secrecy in the country dubbed “Africa’s North Korea”, a new Facebook page is publishing documents claiming to show how the Eritrean government abuses its citizens.

In just two months, SACTISM – Classified Documents of the Dwindling PFDJ has garnered more than 16,000 followers on the social media site by alleging to have new information about human rights violations committed at the hands of president Isaias Afewerki’s ruling party, the People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. Click here to read the article from The Guardian.

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(First published in Arteidolia; March 2016)

Why jail a poet?” asks Randee Silv as she discusses the case of Qatari poet Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, who had been targeted by the tyrannical rule of his country. [Fortunately the poet was later released.]

Why do tyrants jail poets? The answer is simple: they can’t stand any deviation from their prescribed world outlook. Characteristically, all dictatorial regimes become increasingly intolerant of any sound, image or phrase that reveals even the slightest hint of defiance.

Let me elaborate on this in the context of Eritrea, my homeland.

To set the scene: Eritrea is listed as the last country (No. 180) on Reporters Without Borders’ 2015 World Press Freedom Index and the most censored country on the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)’s 2015 list. It “is the least connected country on earth”; only 1 percent of Eritreans have access to the Internet (and even then, with a very slow dial-up connection). In addition, Eritrea is the “worst jailer of journalists in sub-Saharan Africa,” and the world’s worst abuser of due process” according to CPJ. Many journalists have been incarcerated incommunicado for more than 14 years.Continue reading

 

(First published in Arteidolia; June 2016)

yonaton1

Predictably, Eritrea has hit the bottom list (#180), two years in row, in World Press Freedom Index in a report compiled by Reporters Without Borders. Compounding to the absolute information control and monotonous recycling of propaganda are centralization of the arts or abating independent artists through ubiquitous censorship. Enough has been written about the media and centralization of information; therefore, I will share my firsthand account of how the body of arts and censorship operate.Continue reading