Eritrea: Remembering the Imprisoned and the Silenced

Tomorrow (18 September) will mark the 20th anniversary of the dawn raids that saw Eritrean security forces rounding up of those members of the Group of 15 (G15) who were in the country.

The G15 had emerged after a year long debate within the senior leadership of the Eritrean government and the sole legal party – the PFDJ. It was a struggle to confront President Isaias with the failures of his leadership, both during the disastrous border war with Ethiopia of 1998 -2000, and his refusal to implement the democracy promised to the Eritrean people during the 30 year long war of liberation.

Isaias rejected every reform. Instead, he sent in his security forces. The arrests were followed by sweeping arrests of journalists in the independent press, who had tried valiantly to report accurately to the Eritrean people, and hold President Isaias to account.

This is a Google Earth image of Era Ero, the high security prison in Eritrea where journalists and the officials who criticized the president are kept.

Thousands of political prisoners now rot in Eritrea’s jails. Some were arrested in 2001. Some – like Ermias Debessai – were arrested much earlier.

Others – including Abune Antonios – have been arrested, but has been placed under house arrest and deprived of their authorities. Their stories are published below.

The events of 18 and 19 September 2001 were tragic and will be commemorated by the Eritrean people quietly in their homes. It will be also commemorated by the diaspora around the world. In London there will be an exhibition recalling those who were imprisoned during these fateful days.

There are others who must be remembered: those who died while imprisoned.

These include the highly respected Muslim leader, Haji Musa Mohammed Noor. Haji Musa Mohammed Noor - Muslim leader led 2007 school closure protest

Haji Musa was jailed, along with his colleagues, for protesting against the closure of the Al Diaa Islamic School which led to public protests in Asmara in 2017.

It is also important to remember all those who gave their lives for Eritrea’s independence – both in the Eritrean Liberation Front and Eritrean People’s Liberation Front.

Nor can we ignore the terrible losses suffered by both ELF and EPLF fighters during the tragic civil wars that the movements fought in the 1970’s and 1980’s.

We have not forgotten those rounded up before 2001, or those who have been jailed since.

This includes the men and women forcibly returned from the refugee camps in Tigray, where they had sought sanctuary, during the current war.

Abune AntoniosHis Holiness Abuna Antonios was the third patriarch of the Eritrean Orthodox (Tewahdo) Church. He was elected by the Synods council -the public and the members-, and finally anointed by His Holiness Abuna Shinoda -The Patriarch of Egyptian – Alexandria.

But in 2006, Abuna Antonios was removed, illegally, from his church post by the Eritrean government by orders of the president. He has been under house arrest for over 15 years. GG

His Holiness was born in 1927, in the village of Hemberti, (Hamassien, now Zoba Maekel). His father was Keshi –priest- Ghemremedhin Debretsion and his mother was called Woizero Ellen Keleta.

The name originally given him by his parents was Yemane-Berhan. When he was 5 years old, he was given to the church a place called Sefia, Debub (formerly Seraye) -monastery of Debre-Tsige, by his paternal aunt and dedicated his life to serve God there. He took all the basic religious and spiritual courses, from learning letters to the level of Deacon. At age 12, he was anointed and Deacon by His Holiness Abuna Marikos. He served there until 1950 when he was further elevated, after receiving the proper education, in the position of priest and monk, as Keshi and anointed. At the time he was called Aba Yemaenberhan.

Later, in 1955, he was elected and administrator and the highest authority in the monastery by the members.

After the independence of Eritrea, the Eritrean Orthodox Church was separated from the Ethiopian church and assumed its autonomy as separate church, in October 1991and formed its own Synod.

In June 1994, Aba Yemaneberhan was elected by the church’s full members as one of the five chosen for papal level. He was anointed by His Holiness, the Egyptian Abuna Shinoda, with the title of His Holiness Abuna Antonios. Afterwards he serves and the head of the Yoba Maekel. Later, in July 1998, he was promoted to chief papal post “Liqe Papasat”.

After the passing away of the second patriarch of Eritrea, His Holiness Abna Yakob, he was nominated, in February 2004, as one of the six chief popes, (Liqe Papasat) from whom the patriarch successor was to be selected. Finally, he was elected by the public (members).

On the 25th of April 2004, Abuan Antonios was anointed patriarch by His Holiness the Egyptian Patriarch Abuna Shinoda and his companions. The official ceremony was attended by many high Eritrean government officials, representatives from the other religious institutions in Eritrea, and other dignitaries as well as members of the public. GGG

When Abuna Antonios was the head (pope) of the Zoba Maekel Orthodox Church, his service was characterized by his excellent treatment of the people and his staff. He served his duty above and beyond the expectations of the public and remembered well. But problems arose with the dictatorial regime of President Isaias, for His Holiness insisted and tried to practice the autonomy and independence of the church from government control and interference (which is the usual style of the PFDJ regime led by President Isaias). He used to say that the church must be free and administer its own affairs without interference from government. Aa a result, he was imprisoned after serving for just one year.

On the 18th of July, there was a meeting in the Office (headquarters) of the Tewahdo Church, which was not chaired or attended by Abuna Antonios, and without his knowledge. Here a historic and damaging decision was reached and signed by the 6 out of the 8 popes serving in the Eritrean Tewahdo Church. Some of the decisions (directives) include, “Abuna Antonios will not take part in any church administration acts except in mass and church blessings.” And the reasons given for this decision was given in a 6-point charges (allegations).

On the 23rd of July, Abuna Antonios replied to this decision in a two-page letter, which was sent to the meetings participants. But no one ever took notice or attention to the reply written by Abuna Antonios.

In the following events, the administrator of the Eritrean Tewahdo Church, Ato Yiftahe Dimetros, travelled to Egypt as leader of a delegation, in July 2015. There he met with authorities of the Egyptian Orthodox Churha and asked them to help the Eritrean Orthodox Church to get rid of Abuna Antonios from his post. Nevertheless, the Egyptian Church authorities and other churches did not accept or support this idea.

Meanwhile, on the 13th of January 2006, the members of the Eritrean orthodox Church leadership -the Synod- held a secret meeting and removed Abuna Antonios from his official position. This decision was broadcast over the government owned and run radio in Asmara, the Voice of the Masses (Dimtsi Hafash) and later TV, newspapers, etc.

Later Abuna Antonios was arrested by the Eritrean security forces and placed under a strict house arrest.

The question that arises is, why Abuna Antonios – the 3rd patriarch of Eritrea –  was removed from his position and arrested? What if any, crimes, or mistakes did he commit?

The reason given by the church authorities was this: He had opposed a decision, by the council of Elders (spiritual leaders) of the church, in 2001, concerning the youth wing of the Mekane Hiwet Medhane-Alem church association -in Asmara- that judged them as “heretics” (menafiqan) and ordered them to disperse discontinue.

Nevertheless, this church association had over 3000 youth members and included over 60 deacons -instructed by Merigeta Tewodlmedhin Mengistu -a spiritual teacher- and other important members of the church in its Sunday School.

And if this group was designated as heretics, why were  they assigned to teach and mingle in the many Tewahdo churches all over Asmara? Why not isolate and repel them? Also why was the money and other materials collected and donated by this group’s Sunday School members taken by the Church? Etc.

His Holiness, Abuna Antonios did not support this decision to expel all members of the Tewahdo Church Sunday School, including Mekane Hiwot. His reason was based on recent events. There was some damage and destruction done in the Saint Mary and other Tewahdo churches in Asmara, resulting from this conflict. He opposed the widening of the conflict, expulsion division and name calling. He was worried about the number of young church members and spiritual teachers and leaders leaving the church, weakening it and making it unable to train replacement for priests and spiritual instructors. But the Eritrean government -contrary to its official policy and claim of non-interference in religious affairs of the people, did not like the decisions and  policies made by Abuna Antonios, for these decisions did not serve its purpose.

When President Isaias visited the church offices in March 2005, the SS requested him to release some educated members of the church staff, (who had been arrested for some case) in the name of the church. as a church leader,  Abuna Antonios saw this request as his religious duty.   But he was rejected. In addition he had planned and worked hard to open a theology collage for the Tewahdo church in Eritrea, which was also rejected by the government.

There also stories that this pious and brave spiritual leader boldly and openly requested President Isaias to stop interfering in church affairs, citing the as example the previous colonial governments (Italian, British, Ethiopian, Haile Selasse and the Military Junta – Derg – eras, etc. never interfered on religious affairs of the people and never dictated instruction to the religious institution, etc.) This angered the Eritrean president and led among many factors to his unjust removal from his post, house arrest and inhumane treatment at his old age.

His Holiness used to correct those who were mistaken -in error- advising them to follow the true path and reconcile themselves with God, etc. He boldly refused to accept the so-called mistakes and repent or confess unjustly and has since been suffering for his integrity honest and dedication, by the dictatorial regime of the PFDJ led by President Isaias Afwerki.

He will be remembered heroically by all Eritreans with love, respect and admiration.

Ermias Debesai - Eritrean Political PrisonerErmias Debessai was, according to the authoritative Historical Dictionary of Eritrea, by Dan Connell and Tom Killion, a popular EPLF military commander and a leader of the elite EPLF commandos in the 1970’s.

“Ermias attended the Prince Makonnen Secondary School in Asmara until 1969, when he joined the ELF. Together with Mesfin Hagos, he was part of the Kebessa contingent transported by Osman Saleh Sabbe to Denekel in 1970, and was a founding member of both the EPLF, elected to its Central Committee from the First Congress onwards, and the clandestine Eritrean People’s Revolutionary Party.

He represented the EPLF in Rome and London in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and was appointed representative to China after liberation. In 1994 he became ambassador to South Korea, but he was soon afterwards arrested on unspecified corruption charges related to transactions involving the PFDJ’s Red Sea Trading Corporation.

He was tried secretly in one of the country’s new special courts and given a seven year sentence. Ermias was conditionally released in April 2003, re-arrested in November that year on unspecified charges, along with his sister, Senhait Debessai, and kept in detention without access to visitors ever since.”

Ermias was also the person who got me involved in the Horn of Africa. This is from a BBC story of November 2012. Martin

Johannesburg, June 1976. I was a student at university when the first reports came through of black school children clashing with police in Soweto. As the number of dead mounted we marched into town – only 50 or 60 of us at first, but joined by men and women, who poured out of offices and building sites. Within an hour we had thousands behind us.

Martin Plaut, 1976

The real clashes were in Soweto itself – miles from the calm streets of downtown Johannesburg. Back at the university residence, friends were being issued with army rifles. “Would you shoot me?” I asked. They didn’t answer.

It is easy – looking back – to forget just how much has changed. Apartheid was still strong – very strong – back in the late 1970’s. The Portuguese empire had only just collapsed.

Zimbabwe was still Rhodesia. South Africans were fighting in bush wars all across the region. Friends were “up on the border” as they used to say, doing military service. It seemed that the killing would never end.

I left for London, working on Africa, first for the Labour Party and then the BBC. Decolonisation was still very much a live issue.

Most of independent Africa was little more than a decade old. But already optimism was ebbing away.

In the early 1980s a tall young man walked into the Labour Party office where I worked.

As Africa secretary, I got a lot of visitors. But somehow Ermias Debessai was different. He looked me in the eye and said: “You must come to Eritrea.” I understood little enough about the Horn of Africa at the time, but I knew they had been at war with Ethiopia for 20 years.

“How can I?” I asked. “Just get to Port Sudan and we will take care of the rest,” Ermias assured me.

And so I did. But Port Sudan is a good 250km from the Eritrean border. After a grinding 36-hour journey over a trackless semi-desert I reached the rebels’ information centre. Over tea we discussed world affairs. The Eritreans were knowledgeable and spoke good English.

The BBC was required listening. When Focus on Africa came on, the aerials went up and there was a lull in the war.

The EPLF was an extraordinary movement. From building hospitals, cut into the mountains, to using captured Ethiopian tanks, nothing daunted them. I crouched in a trench above the town of Keren, watching Ethiopian soldiers on parade, as the shells exploded around us.

In 1991 the EPLF finally took the capital, Asmara. It’s a beautiful art-deco city, with a charming people, happy to sit and sip coffee as the hours go by. My friend, Ermias, became ambassador to China. It seemed Eritrea would be a beacon of hope and progress across the region.

But an idiotic quarrel in 1998 over a tiny village on the Eritrean-Ethiopian border changed all that. It led to yet another war that cost least 100,000 lives. In the recriminations that followed, the constitution was scrapped. Democracy was put on hold. Journalists and politicians arrested. All freedoms eliminated.

And what of Ermias, my friend? He disappeared into the maze secret jails. I have no idea if he’s alive – he probably isn’t. Just one more life extinguished by a country that once held so much hope, by a regime that has stolen it.






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