Statement of Record

Never Too Late

By Matthew Norman

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Never Too Late

By Matthew Norman
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I do not know where this letter will go, and I am not optimistic that it will change anything. But I miss writing, and there’s no sense in not writing now. I do not know if I can trust the guard who gave me these three crumpled sheets of A4. His name is Said Salah. I have seen it on his Milano uniform, the same uniform the independence fighters used to wear. He slid these blank sheets through the spy-hole of my cell about an hour ago and said, “you must tell your story and the story of our nation.” I can’t be certain of his plan, but he told me to write quickly because the smugglers had arranged a boat to Europe in the coming days, and he was scheduled to be on it. He said he knew that I could write and that I understood why our country had been in decline since the war of independence. He urged me to be detailed about the latter, so that he can share the timeline of significant events with his contact in Europe. Who, according to him, may be able to influence the release of myself and other detainees. I do not know if this is a trick that I may be punished for later, but I have nothing to lose, and no fear left to stop me. 

First and most importantly, if it is ever possible for the recipient of this letter to do so, please, please tell my family that I love them and hope to see them again one day. My wife’s name is Ruth Habtemichael; she was seven months pregnant with our daughter when I was taken. My wife and I had decided to call our daughter “Ariam.” I wish I could see them both. Please do everything you can to make sure they are safe.      

Now, I will try to be as objective as I can about the events leading up to my kidnapping:

I am uncertain about the length of time I have been captive, though I know that I was taken on September 20, 2001. I expect I have been in detention for about nine months. The days and nights are not so easily distinguished. My cell is constantly lit by a bulb behind an opaque plastic globe, which makes it difficult to sleep. My cell is windowless and the door gives onto a concrete wall, so I cannot see any of the other prisoners or their cells. This is not the first place I was taken after my kidnapping, though it seems more and more that it may be the last. When I first arrived here, I was made to empty my pockets, which only contained a pen. I was then taken to a badly lit room with two surveillance cameras on the walls and told to sit down at a desk. The prison administrator sat down on the opposite side and pushed a document over the desk towards me. I looked him in the eyes and asked him what crime I had committed. He said, “your crime is already written down; you just need to sign this paper.” I knew by signing I was admitting guilt, although I was not guilty. I asked once more what I had done wrong. He ignored my question and handed me a package containing a blue uniform, military blankets, and a sleeping mat. He reiterated his demand, this time with more force in his voice: “sign it.” I refused.

After declining to sign away my innocence, I suffered for hours at the hands of three sadistic guards. They removed my shoes and my shirt, then tied me to the chair. They cut my arms with blunt knives and threw bricks at my bare feet. I cannot share more with you, not because I do not wish to, but simply because I have in this present moment realized that I have repressed the details of the event ever since, and cannot therefore access the full memory. I remember the way I felt when they finally released me, after I had agreed to sign the document; I felt numb, as though my brain had pulled my body into an armored stupor, where pain had outworked itself and no longer held power. Still I think the feeling that came over me when I signed the document may have been worse. At that point, I knew they had me. Just before the beating, they asked what I knew about rebel militia movements operating in the country. I knew nothing, and still know nothing. I could give them no information. I knew a long time ago, after the liberation war, that certain groups of independence fighters felt mistreated by the new ruling party, and that they had protested for their right to post-war compensation. But that was swiftly dealt with by the party, and no violence ever came of it. 

When I was kidnapped outside the school I used to teach at, Asmara Comprehensive Secondary, I was forced into the boot of a truck after having my arms tied behind my back and a sack pulled over my head. The journey seemed to last several hours, but I cannot be sure. When they finally opened the boot and lifted me out, I could hear the ocean. They marched me over sand and gravel, and I could hear large boats in the distance. I heard a loud metal clunking noise followed by the creaking of a heavy door. They removed my blindfold. In front of me was a shipping container, the first of my two prisons.

I think I suffered around four days in the container. It was hard to tell, exactly. My only cues were the temperature change and a subtle slip of light that would appear at the bottom of the door when the sun rose. I wasn’t given any food, but my captors left me with a big bottle of water, which I had only half-finished when they came to get me again. I wasn’t sure when I would be released, so I made sure to drink sparingly. Aside from the almost imperceptible beam of light under the door, the container was pitch-black. I spent most of my time in there sitting up against the corrugated metal walls, trying not to move too much in an effort to save my energy and avoid overheating. 

I will continue to write about my experience, and why I was likely detained. But I will try to leverage my story to highlight the wider historical and political events that led to this latest crackdown. I hope I can use my own ray of light to illuminate the rest of the kaleidoscope. I do not know if the recipient of this letter will be able to effect change in my country. Or whether they have the power to demand my release and the release of others. The only hope I cling to comes from the eagerness of my Milano-uniformed guard in getting me to write this. He clearly wants somebody to read it.       

It all started on the September 18, 2001. I sat at the table in my kitchen eating injera before heading off to teach my classes at the school. It must have been about 07:30/7:45 am, and I was listening to Dimtsi Hafash, the national party-run radio channel. My friend Solomon was reading the morning news as usual, except that on this morning there was a hesitance in his voice that seeped into the broadcast. He announced that the party was ordering the shutdown of all independent media outlets, and that from then on, only party-run outlets would be allowed to operate. He went on to say that this was a safety measure and would ensure the security of our country against its neighbors. I knew my day job as a physics teacher was safe, but my evening job as a journalist was over.

I and my close friend Matios Habteab founded a newspaper in 1998. We called it Meqalh, which means “Echo.” I used to write a column called “Never too late,” where I examined and analyzed the shortcomings of the party and their policies, the idea being that it was never too late for them to improve. We rented a tiny office in the capital, equipped it with one desktop computer, an old printer, and a telephone. That was our office until the day the announcement was made. I loved teaching physics, I loved coaching the school volleyball team, and I loved more than anything working on our newspaper. We started off small, as a bi-monthly publication, and our circulation was around 4,000. But by 2001 we had become a weekly publication with a circulation of 30,000. I was very proud of our growth, even if it led to my eventual imprisonment. My country was freer at that time; people were free to read what they wanted.   

In 2001, I had been covering the G15 movement, a group of 15 prominent intellectuals from inside the party who were dissatisfied with the authoritarian direction the party leader was taking. In May, they had written an open letter to other members of the party in which they accused the leader of the party of damaging the country. The letter called for free and open elections, human rights, and an independent judiciary. I interviewed three members of the G15 between May and September, and often covered their progress in my column. They were revered by the people of my country for taking on the plight of the masses. But the party leader is ruthless. They were all rounded up in dawn raids on the 18th and 19th of September by his security forces. Some of them may be in this facility with me, but I have no way of knowing. 

Around the same time, rumors began to spread about the whereabouts of the editors and journalists of some of the major newspapers in the capital. Some said they had been kidnapped along with the G15 and were being held in secret detention centers all across the country. I knew this was probably true, especially after the morning announcement. I knew I would be a target too, given my column’s critical stance against the party’s activities, but I thought I would be detained for a few days and then released, as was quite common. When Matios didn’t show up at our office on the evening of the 19th, I knew in my gut that he had been taken. He hadn’t missed a day of work for three years. I knew I was likely to be the party leader’s next target.  

Still, I went to school as usual the next day to teach my classes. I thought I might be safer there than at home. The day was normal. I arrived at the school at 8:00 am to finish some prep for my first class. I taught Einstein’s theory of relativity to my ninth-graders that day. I remember thinking that they had grasped the concepts quite well. I held my literary club meeting at lunch with the small group of students interested in writing and journalism. We had all been reading George Orwell’s Animal Farm over the last few weeks and I was impressed by the students’ ability to recognize the analogical nature of the novel. After I discussed the rise and fall of the Soviet state with them, they were able to link key characters in the book to the key actors of the Russian Revolution they represented. At the end of the day, as I walked towards my car, I was approached by my captors and forcibly taken.     

The party was not stupid. All these disappearances and kidnappings began one week after the 9/11 attacks. The party leader knew that nobody would be focusing on our small country. The eyes of the world were on America. But the truth is, my country had started to rot long before September 18, 2001. We had all taken a deep breath during the long liberation war, until eventually the martyrs won our independence in 1991 and we all finally exhaled. I was only twenty then. I had spent my childhood years listening to the radio secretly with my family in the evenings, listening as the freedom fighters broadcast their messages of hope. When the freedom fighters marched into the capital on May 24, 1991, we all danced and sang and rejoiced. The war had been won. Now we were free to make our own choices in what should have been the world’s newest democracy. But it became clear in the years following this victory that the party was not going to keep its promises to the people. Instead, the party held off from implementing the constitution, from allowing foreign aid, from giving us the freedom to practice certain religions, and we could not leave the country without a permit.

Then the border war broke out in 1998. Although a peace agreement was signed in 2000, the party used the threat of further conflict to justify their increasingly restrictive policies. The noose tightened, and once again we all began to hold our breath. 

My captors came to move me from the container on the fourth day, I think. They picked me up and placed the sack over my head once more, then tied my hands behind my back with rope. We made the march back to the vehicle, only this time I could barely hold myself up. They dragged my worn-out legs along the sand and cursed at me. I was thrown into the back seat of the jeep, a minor victory compared to the tiny trunk that had encapsulated me on the way to the container. Towards the end of that drive, the car stopped for a while. I remember hearing a conversation between one of my captors and what sounded like a prison guard. It went something like this: 

Prison Guard: I need to see the paperwork and the presidential stamp.

Captor: Here, it was stamped yesterday. 

Prison Guard: Okay. I need to call the administrator. Then we will search your vehicle.  

I heard the guard make a brief phone call. He gave the administrator my name, my job title, my date of birth, and repeated the name of a block and cell number in acknowledgment: Block A, Cell 101. We didn’t move for a while after that. It was quiet until the door next to me opened abruptly, and I felt hands sifting around near my feet. I heard the trunk open, followed by rustling and murmuring. Then all the doors were shut and I heard the prison guard say, “go, hill 346.”

After a few minutes driving, my captors removed the sack from over my head. Barbed-wire fences towered around the car, interrupted only by a military-style building, which I guessed was guard accommodation. We drove through a checkpoint manned by guards and into the camp itself. My captors stopped the car in a small car park in front of an L-shaped building. They pulled me out of the car and onto my feet. We entered the building. Inside, there was a bakery, a medical post, a pharmacy, and a few rooms with closed doors. One of my captors grabbed my arm and pulled me towards the glass-screened office in front of us. The man behind the screen, Lt. Col. Isaac Araia, administrator (his name tag on the desk), asked my captor for the laissez-passer. Then I was told to empty my pockets, and so I handed over my pen.   

I don’t know who will read this letter, or if this whole exercise is a trick. I don’t have any hope that it will reach the right people. I don’t even know if the guard will come back to collect it. But this is my story and the story of my country. Please save us if you can. 

Dawit Habtemichael, 
Founder and Sub-Editor, Meqalh

It was May 24, 2002, and the Mediterranean had been restless for the last few days. The Italian captain steered towards the half-deflated boat, about a mile from the coast of Lampedusa. There were still several bodies floating in the water around the boat. He called on his staff to deploy the RIB and begin collecting the bodies from the sea. The workers got all the bodies back onto the main rescue boat, and first aid teams began attempting resuscitation on each person, one by one. One first-aider began to resuscitate a man dressed in a Milano uniform, pressing on his chest and blowing into his mouth. It was no use. The first-aider felt a soft lump in the front pocket of the man’s uniform and pulled it out. It was a folded clump of paper, soaked in sea water. She opened it carefully to find three sheets of A4, with black smudges all over them. The words were completely illegible. 

About the author

Matthew is a freelance journalist and essayist principally concerned with the ongoing human rights abuses in Eritrea. He works with members of the Eritrean diaspora, resistance movements inside and outside the country, and Eritrean media outlets such as Radio Erena with the aim to amplify Eritrean voices, and bring attention to their cause. He is interested in the broader topic of global affairs, enjoys social realism, particularly the novels of George Orwell, and tries to travel as often as possible. He blogs for Cultural Scribbles .

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