Twenty years on – imprisoned without trial, but never forgotten: Fesseha Yoahnnes

In the wake of the tragic failure of Eritrea’s 1998-2000 border war with Ethiopia, senior members of the Eritrean government began a campaign to bring about the democracy that the 30 year war of liberation had been fought for.

They formed the G-15: men and women who challenged President Isaias to give the Eritrean people the freedoms they had been promised. In dawn raids on 18 and 19 September 2001 the president’s notorious security forces rounded them up and jailed them. None have ever been taken before a court or convicted of any crime. They have rotted in prison ever since.

At the same time independent newspapers were closed and journalists arrested. The nightmare of repression which has hung over Eritrea ever since had begun.

Now, on the 20th anniversary of these terrible events, we recall those who have been in Eritrea’s jails ever since. Their families have been deprived of them; their friends have lost them. But they have never been forgotten. Nor has the flame of hope that they ignited – of a proud, free and democratic country.

We have profiles of these brave men and women – and will share them daily.

Fesseha Yoahnnes joined a clandestine cell of the EPLF in his youth carrying out special tasks in cities and towns around Eritrea. The cell was uncovered by Ethiopian security services and Fesseha was forced to flee and joined the EPLF formally in 1978. After receiving military and political training, Fesseha was assigned to various units, including Brigade number 31 and took part in the infamous 6th offensive battle against the Ethiopian troops  that lasted 4 months.

In mid 1980’s, the EPLF decided to form Cultural Groups to perform songs, drama and poetry to boost the fighter’s morale and popular support. Fesseha was attached to the 16th Brigade Cultural Group and later to the 61st Division where his artistic work was invaluable. He wrote poems and lyrics for stage dramas, serving as director.

In 1994, Fesseha formed a musical and drama group called, ”Shewit ” in collaboration with the popular and talented Eritrean artist, Isaias Tsegay. The main focus of the group was to train gifted youth in culture, music, drama and dance. They produced some of the best young artists, singers and actors such as Simret Aynom and Jemal Romodan.

In 1997, Fesseha joined Dawit Isaak and Aron Berhane and others to work for the then newly established Setit Newspaper. This was the first independent Tigrinya newspaper in Eritrea. It was initially published weekly and later twice-a week. It became a very popular newspaper and continued to publish until it was banned by the Eritrean government in September 2001.

When the group of G-15 ( Ministers, army generals, ambassadors, and other veteran ex fighters) started their campaign of reforms and opposition against the Eritrean President, they sent an open letter to the President. The G-15, were not allowed to use the government owned media and so they used the independent newspapers, like Setit to explain their views to the public.

Since September 2001, Fesseha has been detained in various prisons; first, in Asmara (Police Station Number 6) and later, after he and his fellow inmates conducted a hunger stike demanding their cases to be heard in court, he was transferred to Embatkla and finally to the infamous Ira-Iro prison.

So far, no official information has been provided by the Eritrean government about Feeseha’s whereabout, not even if he is alive or dead. There are rumours (some from ex-prison guards) that some of the prisoners have died due to maltreatement.

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