The story of the fate of Teklebrhan Ghebresadick was read out at the Eritrean Political Prisoners exhibition in London on Saturday 18th December.
My name is Freweini Ghebresadick, an Eritrean by birth and American by nationality. I came to the U.S. during my teens at the beginning of the 80s. I am a sister of a political prisoner in Eritrea, who has been incarcerated since 26 April 1992, within less than a year of the Eritrean independence. His name is Teklebrhan Ghebresadick (alias Wedi Bashai).
Teklebrhan, together with his colleague and childhood friend Woldemariam Bahlibi were kidnapped by clandestine government security of Eritrea from Kassala, Sudan, on 26 April 1992, and taken to Eritrea. On that fateful day of 1992, they were invited for Easter lunch by a close relative of both (Mr. Tesfatsion Ghebreyesus). Eritrean government security squads came into the house of Mr. Tesfatsion and abducted them. This coming April, it will be 27 years since their detention. After all these years, no one officially knows their whereabouts, not even so much as an acknowledgment from the government of Eritrea of having abducted them. At that time, both men were Executive Committee members of the Eritrean Liberation Front-Revolutionary Council (ELF- RC). The fate of both prisoners was ever since tied together as far as my search goes. However, for the sake of brevity, I will mostly talk about Teklebrhan.
Five of my siblings were freedom fighters during the Eritrean War of Independence from Ethiopia. My brother, Teklebrhan, was one of the five fighters. Teklebrhan joined the Eritrean Liberation Front (E.L.F.). The other four were with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF), the only party that has been in power for over 27 years. Out of the four fighters with EPLF, three of them were taken to the fields while they were underage. One of them was barely nine years old and was taken from the playground. As a result, my mom and dad were alone throughout the years. When the war of independence ended, the authorities informed my parents about the martyrdom of their son and daughter. It was around the same time, in 1992, when my parents were unofficially informed about the kidnapping of Teklebrhan. No one had expected kidnappings by a government would take place in an independent Eritrea. The martyrdom of my younger brother, Assefaw, and my younger sister, Zaid, for the liberation of Eritrea, and the kidnapping of their son who fought for the same cause was perplexing for my parents. It was very difficult for them to deal with these two contradictory plights all at once. In fact, the conflicting news of the heroic martyrdom of their son and daughter and the detention of their other son, who was also a freedom fighter treated as a traitor, tormented my parents to no end. All five siblings fought for the same cause, only in two different liberation fronts.
To add insult to injury, in the 1990s, disclosing incidents of kidnappings and raising concerns about the lack of the rule of law, and the like carried severe consequences. As a result, families of victims of the regime cried alone and behind closed doors. There is no way to explain the thoughts and feelings that one goes through during this never -ending ordeal. I, too, suffered because of that silence and isolation. When I came out in the open, I suffered due to harassments and intimidations coming my way by government supporters in the diaspora, in the U.S.A. I will never comprehend how my mom and dad must have felt living under the nose of the oppressive Eritrean government in Eritrea. They died agonizing over not seeing their son and not knowing about his condition. In the days preceding her passing away, the last thing my mom said to me over the phone while she was severely ill, was that she will not see her son. She followed this by saying, even if he is released, it will be too late for him to lead a normal life; the best years of his life have been taken away from him. It tore my heart out to hear her say that in her last days on this earth, and her words will forever live with me.
My parents passed away with each passing day wishing and hoping to see their son. My dad passed away 13 years after my brothers’ detention and my mom after 22 years. All these years were agonizing for them. The lack of support from and the silence in their communities also added to their sufferings. Not being able to talk about what ailed them, talk about how they miss their disappeared son, and simply mentioning his name and memories they have of him with neighbors and family members was very painful for my parents. Added to that is too not being able to see me as I do not enter the country. That is how it all ended for my parents.
I have lived in the United States since my teens, and until that dreadful day of 26 April 1992, I was all focused on my studies and work. This day had changed my life forever. I turned into an activist and as a result, could not enter Eritrea to see any of my family members, which also added to my parent’s pain.
The kidnapping of Teklebrhan and Woldemariam, in April 1992, was published in the “African Confidential” and the editorial section of “Arab News”. The publications came out right after the incident took place, and that is how I found out.
My first action upon hearing the news was to go to Eritrea to inquire about Teklebrhan and Woldemariam. Since the time I left the country in my teens, this was also the first and last time I had set foot on Eritrean soil. I did not even spend any time with those who survived the 30-year war. I spent all my stay in search of the kidnapped. I frequented prisons around Asmara almost daily and specially Sembel prison. My parents had heard that Teklebrhan and Woldemariam were held in Sembel prison. The guards at Sembel prison kept on asking me to provide the prison cell number, which they referred to as “camera number” of Teklebrhan. Obviously, I could not provide them with a camera number as the Eritrean authorities do not acknowledge imprisonments, let alone share such information with victims’ families.
Nonetheless, day in and day out, the prison guards kept asking me for the cell number, and I kept telling them I did not know. This vicious cycle went on until one day, I observed a group of men leaving the prison, and I followed them, keeping a certain distance. After I had made sure they were out of sight of the prison guards, I ran and caught up with them and asked them if it would be okay to ask them a question. I asked them if they knew someone by the name of Teklebrhan Ghebresadick in the Sembel prison, to which a couple of them responded with “Wedi Bashai!”. I said yes, and they confirmed he was there and provided me with the prison cell number. Camera number 48, they said.
On the next day, the guards, as usual, asked me for the prison cell number. After I provided the number 48, the guards told me that prisoners in this cell were visited on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The coming Tuesday, I gathered my family, went to Sembel prison, and waited to be called. At last, we were called and accompanied by guards, passed through two gates, and lead to a room where prisoners were brought, allegedly including prisoners from cell number 48. My family and I, along with others, entered the room, and several visitors were hugging their loved ones; Teklebrhan and Woldemariam were missing.
Our hearts broke, and we just stood there, perplexed. I felt extremely sorry for my parents, and I was visibly furious. As a spontaneous reaction, I held one of the security guards on both shoulders and shook him asking him to bring my brother. He said he did not know where my brother was, but he would ask a senior E.L.F. prisoner in one of the prison cells and get back to us. I knew this was just a game, but waited for his answer nonetheless, which was not affirmative. This rang a bell as they played this same game in another prison, Hazhaz, where officers there took me to a small office and pretended to call different prisons stating, we have here such a person asking about the whereabouts of Wedi Bashai, and we were wondering if he is in your prison. I even doubted they were talking to anyone at all. Indeed, in Eritrea, things are bizarre. Little did I also know that the prison officer that I shook in despair was from my village, not only that, but he was also a brother of my cousin’s wife. I saw him again in another place with his whole body covered, wearing Muslim men’s attire. I uttered that he looked somehow familiar to me, after which a woman next to me told me to say nothing, as he is a secret service, and he does not wish to be recognized. Then I knew he knew who I was in the first place, as he knows my family. Having left Eritrea, this person is now in Switzerland. In fact, I got in touch with him over the phone, but he was not helpful. At first, he said Teklebrhan and Woldemariam were moved to another place soon after I was there. The second time I called him, he said he was moved from Sembel prison to another location soon after that.
That day while I was still in the prison compound of Sembel, somebody from the security took me aside and warned me that I will end up in prison if I ever pursue further inquiry about my brother. As is my stay was only a month as I had left work on emergency bases. I was working for General Electric at the time. I returned to the U.S.A. and never went back to Eritrea after that. Unfortunately, that was also the end of my innocent life. I became preoccupied with fighting the government and its crimes against humanity.
As far as I know, Amnesty International (A.I.) and the International Red Cross were the first humanitarian organizations that gave due attention to the case, and in fact, A.I. had been following the case for many years.
I was already involved with Amnesty International and especially in Indiana. So many petitions and appeals from the State of Indiana alone were sent to the government of Eritrea. The government gave deaf ears to all of them.
In less than a year of the kidnap, Ohio senators, including Senator John Glenn and state representatives inquired about the whereabouts and condition of Teklebrhan and Woldemariam. I was residing in Ohio at the time. The Eritrean government’s replies ranged from denying having kidnapped them to “Do not meddle in Eritrea’s internal affairs.”. Nonetheless, the officials repeatedly pleaded with the government for acknowledgment and due process of law to no avail.
President Bill Clinton also repeatedly pleaded with the Eritrean government. I also appealed through the then National Security Advisor, Anthony Lake, and the then Secretary of State Warren Christopher as well as the succeeding Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright. The government of Eritrea played ignorant to its own deeds, although I did gather limited pieces of information from hanging around the prisons in my short stay in Eritrea and unofficial news from individuals from time to time.
All along, I was also appealing through the United States Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs and especially the Eritrean Country Officer. Diplomats have come and gone, and I ended up retelling my story with each change. A couple of the diplomats were kind enough to pass on my documents to the next person. One of these individuals was Mr. Thomas Gallagher, whom I had the pleasure of meeting in person in Indianapolis, Indiana. He had traveled from Washington DC to Indianapolis to meet with the then Sudanese opposition, led by Dr. John Garang. I will forever be indebted to him for encouraging me to keep strong and keep fighting to ensure that my brother’s case is never forgotten.
I kept my efforts with Washington, the office of the president as well as the United States Department of State’s Bureau of African Affairs. The U.S. ambassadors to Eritrea Mr. Robert Gordon Houdek and John F. Hicks had also appealed on my behalf. It was very difficult to galvanize support to the extent, as thousands of Eritreans were also telling these offices the opposite of what I was disclosing. I know, as I was being made aware of the fact that I was telling a different story. I am convinced all successive officials did the best they could; after all, the incident took place right after independence, and criticizing the Eritrean government was like walking on eggshells. The Eritrean government was playing, as it does to this day, the card of “We did everything alone; the whole world was against us, etc.”. I was grateful for the U.S. Department of State for deciding to publish the incident in the annual report “Eritrea Human Rights Practices”, starting from 1993. I was and still am grateful to my government and to U.S. government officials as a whole. Sadly, I cannot say anything remotely related to that towards the Eritrean government. My experience is that the Eritrean government would acknowledge a dead fly more than it would acknowledge any human being.
Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana was especially helpful as he persistently inquired about the whereabouts of Teklebrhan and Woldemariam. Year after year, he appealed to the Eritrean government. The government officials never admitted to the kidnapping, but they finally, in one of their replies through the former presidential advisor, Naizghi Kiflu, admitted to Senator Lugar that they know these individuals. Prior to that, they always said they did not know who these people were, although Naizghi is said to have blurted out when he was drunk, that Teklebrhan and Woldemariam were their detainees. However, the official letter only acknowledged knowledge of them while denying the detention.
Just to mention, I also have a few times written to the then Secretary-General of the United Nations, Mr. Kofi Annan in the 90s. I never received any acknowledgments of my appeal letters from his office. I also wrote and sent copies of the “African Confidential,” and “Arab News” reports to Mr. Thomas Keneally, the author of, among other books, “Schindler’s List” and “Towards Asmara”. Mr. Keneally was a friend of Isaias Afewerki since his 1987 work with the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front (EPLF) during the struggle for independence. This experience led to his writing “Towards Asmara”. After independence, he continued his friendship with the Eritrean government for years. Given his connection with the government, I thought he would be in a position and willing to ask about human rights abuses in Eritrea.
Former President Jimmy Carter also made efforts to appeal to the Eritrean government. He was not in speaking terms with President Isaias Afewerki at some point; however, he said he would try to inquire through an envoy who was involved in mediating between Ethiopia and Eritrea regarding the war that broke out in the late 90s. Nothing came out of this effort.
I also appealed to President Nelson Mandela and French officials through my French cousin in law, Andre Rieussec, and many others. After all these efforts, the government never accepted any responsibility.
It was after the government of Eritrea played ignorant for four or so years that I decided to go to the Eritrean public and suffer the consequences. I determined that the Eritrean government did not deserve the respect I afforded it by directly dealing with it through officials of the U.S. government, humanitarian organizations, and individuals, all the while sending copies of appeals and petitions to its office. From time to time, I used to call its embassy in Washington, D.C., for follow-ups, which was futile. With all its serious shortcomings, I thought it was somehow a government and deserving of some sort of formality, but I was wrong. Accordingly, I decided, after those few years, to go public with the news to the Eritrean Diaspora. In addition to the enormous love and respect I have for Teklebrhan, I was convinced that to act and let my voice be heard was a responsible thing to do. I owed it to my brother and others like him to tell their stories.
Furthermore, I wanted to encourage others who were suffering in isolation and silence to come out and share their stories as well. What ensued after my going public, I would not wish on my worst enemy. My life turned upside down, receiving threats and just plain crazy stuff through phone messages at both home and my place of employment. Sometimes it sounded like gunshots, sometimes like heavy breezing, just all kinds of weird stuff. I would get emails in my email box, not with all accurate information, but enough to make me believe that they knew about some of my daily activities. For example, a restaurant I went to that day and the names of my colleagues who lunched with me. They would misspell or not accurately spell the names but enough for me to know they were referring to the colleagues, who that day spent time with me. There are too many intrigues to list here. I told my boss about the harassments on my office phone. She asked to hear the messages for herself in order to report the case to the police. She reported to the police. However, they found out that the calls were being made from public phones. I also found which I thought was a listening device on the bottom of a vase with synthetic flowers. It was one of my decors in the family room. I found it by coincidence while I was dusting. I placed the device in a small Tupperware and immediately turned it in to the senator’s office. F.B.I. agents in Indiana were also protecting me and following my situation using their discretion. One time a letter with a death threat was sent to me via Dehai.org, an online discussion board of the Eritrean government supporters. F.B.I. investigation revealed that the threat originated from a certain address in Cairo, Egypt; but Egypt was outside of their jurisdiction. They advised I stay low for a while, give it a rest for a while. In this discussion board, I faced great adversities, which I expected going in.
In the year 2000, something more drastic happened. I sometimes stay at work until late at night, mainly to finish my work and occasionally to write and send appeals. There was always a security guard inside the building sitting at the desk in the lobby. On one of those nights, I left work at about 10 P.M. and as usual, went to the parking lot to my car. I did not see anyone. I started my car, and someone who was parked directly behind me started his car. I drove off to the highway, and this car followed me, really pursuing me. I exited where I knew there was a place with business buildings. I drove around the parking lot of these buildings while the car was still tailgating me, but I did not see anyone. I exited the parking lot and returned to my workplace, where I knew for sure the guard would still be there. The car still followed me. I entered the parking lot of my workplace and literally parked in front of the lobby door disregarding the upsurge. At that point, he drove away. I told the guard what had happened and he admitted to seeing the car leave behind me, but he did not think anything of it.
My heart was pounding and the headlights of the car behind me were too bright, and so I could not get any specific information. I was able to tell that the driver was male when I looked in the rearview mirror at the initial start of the car, but no details. The guard had reported the incident. I did not hear anything about it after that, except that the driver was a young adult. I am not sure as to whether this particular incident has any connection to my activism and is part of the usual threat. Nonetheless, I started to leave work early as much as I could and sometimes leaving my car in a church parking lot near my house so that they would think I am not at home. Of course, I could not completely avoid leaving work late, but I would ask the guard to look after me as I drive off.
In a year or so, in the last quarter of 2001, I resigned from my job of many years and moved to Germany. By that time, I met someone who is now my husband. The Eritrean opposition was stronger in Germany, especially around Bonn than other places. So apart from the disruption of my life plans, including my career, and making some lifestyle adjustments, as far as my security goes, I was fine after my move to Germany, except for one incident.
This incident took place following the banning of the 13th Euro Conference of the Young People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (YPFDJ), the diaspora youth wing of the government in Eritrea. Mayor of Veldhoven, Jack Mikkers banned the said YPFDJ conference. Veldhoven is a town in the Netherlands, where the conference was to be held on 13 April 2017. The ban measure was taken to prevent public disorder ensuing from the conflict between YPFDJ and Eritrean refugees, who take YPFDJ meetings as affronts to justice and provocative.
The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PFDJ), the party of the Eritrean government, planned to sue the Dutch authorities, namely the mayor of Veldhoven, Jack Mikkers, for banning the above YPFDJ conference. To that effect, PFDJ called for meetings in different cities in Europe, one of which was in Cologne, Germany, held on 05 May 2017. According to the publicly distributed invitation pamphlet, the agenda of the meeting was “…to discuss a legal action to be taken against the unfair and unjust decision by the Dutch Authorities on 13 April 2017 to halt and evacuate the YPFDJ conference.”
It is my participation in the demonstration held against the PFDJ meeting in Cologne on 05 May 2017 that led to PFDJ suing me in the name of one of their members, Freweni Debesay. She resides in Frankfurt and not in Cologne; I never met her in my life, including on the day of the demonstration. A defamation case was fabricated and filed against me in the name of a woman whom I never met and have supposedly defamed.
At the conclusion of the demonstration and as I proceeded to leave, I was approached by a policeman informing me that someone from inside the building, where the PFDJ meeting was still going on, has pointed me out as having defamed a woman and he demanded personal details, such as my passport and home address. I expressed to the policeman that I was not, at all, the type of person who would defame anyone and that such words would not come out of my mouth, to which he said not to worry too much about it. He then told me to expect a letter of disclosure of the preliminary investigation from the state prosecutor’s office, at the address I provided. Upon receipt of the legal notice from the state prosecutor’s office, I went to the police presidium as instructed. After explaining my rights and the nature of the accusation, I was asked what I plan to do about the charges made against me. I expressed my decision to remain silent and to hire a lawyer. The case went on until November 2017 but ended positively. The judge dismissed the case. The case was closed only with what I had to pay my lawyer and the time it cost me away from work. As is the customary practice of PFDJ, I know the groundless lawsuit was mainly to make me go through hardships, render me helpless, and force me into silence.
The experience did not and will not silence me, but it hurt me deeply because my brother has been incarcerated for nearly three decades without any charges, without having his day in court, without family visitations, without disclosure of his whereabouts and his condition. The very Eritrean government, which committed all these crimes against my brother and thousands of others like him with the impunity to continuously make my life extremely difficult by exploiting the freedoms in the countries where I found refuge, is utterly offensive.
Back in Eritrea, my family found out about what befell Teklebrhan through a prominent veteran freedom fighter right after the incident took place. There was a gathering of an occasion in our house; he came there unannounced and told my parents that Teklebrhan was in Asmara. They did not take it to mean kidnaped, so my mom joyously ululated and asked him when he will be coming home. He said that Teklebrhan would not be coming home right away, but in time, they will be able to see him. I think they were able to perceive the situation then, as my dad also just returned from visiting Teklebrhan in Sudan. Actually, Teklebrhan was kidnaped as my dad was on his way back home. For the following couple of years, this man was able to follow the movements, but then he announced that he was afraid to continue any longer.
My dad was visiting prisons around Asmara and making efforts to plead with the Eritrean officials, who are inaccessible, or with great difficulty if ever accessed. One of the officials my dad visited was Minister of Interior, Mahmoud Ahmed Sherifo. On his first visit, my dad was told to present his case in writing. After preparing a written case of the kidnap of my brother, my dad returned to Minister Sherifo’s office. A woman at the front office, who my dad guessed was a veteran freedom fighter, asked what brought him there. He told her and she asked for the paper. My dad handed her the paper, thinking she was going to hand it over to the minister. Instead, she tore the paper and threw the pieces on the face of the old man, my dad. As she was doing that, a gentleman, apparently who works there, came out of the office and saw what she did. He showed his displeasure over what the woman did and let my dad enter the office of Minister Sherifo. As the written information was destroyed, my dad explained the predicament of his son, pleading with the minister to tell him the whereabouts of his son and to allow him to visit his son. Minister Sherifo said, abo, meaning father, “You said Teklebrhan was kidnapped from Sudan by the Eritrean government; then the proper thing to do would be to go to Sudan and ask the Sudanese government since he was kidnapped within their jurisdiction.”. My dad literary kneeled, as if to pray, and begged Minster Sherifo to have mercy and allow him to see his son, adding that he is an old man and just wanted to see his son before he dies.
My mom visited many prisons in Eritrea. Some of the locations of the prisons were new to her and she did not know the people in the vicinities. She would simply pack some food and coffee and leave the house in search of her son. During her travels to prisons, she would ask the residents in the area if she could rest, borrow some fire to prepare and drink her coffee in or near their house. When I brought my parents for a visit to the U.S. in 1998, she personally went to Senator Lugar’s office and asked them to appeal for her son. In 2001 before my parents returned to Eritrea, representatives of the government of Eritrea were making their rounds for public discussions regarding the national election that was supposed to have been held that year. I took my parents to this large meeting to show Eritreans that indeed Teklebrhan was a real person and that he has parents, not only that, but also that he was one of them. At that meeting, my mom surprised me by presenting her case to the delegation of the Washington D.C. Eritrean Embassy during its public discussions in Indianapolis, Indiana.
She went out in front of the audience, asked for the microphone and said, “My name is Rigbe Araya, a mother of Teklebrhan Wedi Bashai, who has been kidnapped and detained by the Eritrean government since April 1992. It is not new for governments to imprison individuals; imprisonments existed since time immemorial. Therefore, this is not unique to the Eritrean government. What is unique is the Eritrean government not admitting imprisonments that it has committed, not disclosing places of detentions, not allowing families to visit, and not bringing the accused to a court of law. I know what I am talking about; I had family members in prison during the Haile Selassie regime. We were allowed to visit them, to take food to them, and they were brought to a court of law. I am not in a position to judge my son; I cannot speak of his guilt or innocence; he is an adult; he is a man. But, I ask you to bring him to trial in a court of law to either set him free, sentence him 10-20 years, or life, or even death. But bring him to trial, you must”. My dad, who is much older than she is, also took the microphone and in the same way, pleaded with the delegation to bring his son to justice. He also expressed his fear of dying before he saw his son. He said he is an old man and that he is ready to go to his Maker, but he would die a happier man if the government of Eritrea would allow him to see his son, even for a day.
My parents never had it easy, to begin with. During the war for independence, my mom frequented the battlefields to see all her kids. She went to places where the E.L.F. controlled to see Teklebrhan, and likewise to places where EPLF controlled to see Assefaw, Zaid, and the other two. Two of the four with EPLF were taken away from my parents by EPLF when they were very young. One was conscripted form home at night time and the other under 10 years old was kidnaped from the playground. This youngest one was born after Teklebrhan joined the liberation struggle.
To reiterate, my parents passed away with each passing day wishing and hoping to see their son. My dad passed away 13 years after my brothers’ detention and my mom after 22 years. All these years were agonizing for them. The lack of support from and the silence in their communities also added to their sufferings. Not being able to talk about what ailed them, talk about how they miss their disappeared son and simply mentioning his name and memories they have of him with neighbors and family members was very painful for my parents. Added to that is too not being able to see me as I do not enter the country. That is how it all ended for my parents.
Unfortunately, too, with my move to Germany, my parents went back to Eritrea, the environment, where they were constantly reminded of being the parents of Teklebrhan, after having stayed a few years in the U.S. with me away from the daily provocations.
As far as the fate of the rest of my siblings goes, I can imagine that everything they do and say is closely scrutinized.
What is most unfortunate is, over the years, my family’s story has become the story of the majority of Eritreans, including relatives of mine who were on the government’s side. These stories are not limited to incommunicado imprisonments, but also include alleged suicide in one’s office; alleged suicide in one’s prison cell; a death allegedly inflicted by cows, while one was in active military duty; death caused by an alleged car accident that never occurred; sudden deaths, and the like. These are all stories of close relatives of mine, which are no different from the stories of other Eritreans. And of course, almost no one escapes the notorious indefinite military service. The only way to escape the indefinite national service is to defect and be trafficked to other countries paying huge sums of money.
During that one time I visited Eritrea in 1992, I have seen families at the Sembel prison in search of their loved ones, whose whereabouts the families did not know. One woman, in particular, caught my attention as I continually saw her there. One day I struck up a conversation with her, and she told me that her missing son was a freedom fighter with the EPLF and in fact, she went to Sahel and saw him there in the 1980s during the struggle for Eritrea’s independence. She was not among those who were informed about the martyrdom of their loved ones, but no one would tell her what had happened to her son either. Not having any information about what had happened to her son, she thought prison was one possibility. She looked overwhelmed and exhausted. I was deeply saddened and disgusted by the fact that EPLF politicians would not want to provide closures to parents of their own fighters. I found this an affront to humanity.
Freweini Ghebresadick, Bonn