Read the Moving Testimony of an Eritrean Refugee

Last month, Jubilee Campaign accredited a team of individuals to participate at a side-event at the 32nd UN Human Rights Council Session, organized by Human Rights Concern-Eritrea and Christian Solidarity Worldwide. The event was co-sponsored by Article 19, DefendDefenders, and International Fellowship for Reconciliation. Those who have escaped Eritrea shared their experiences and stories. The following testimony was given by Hanna Petros Solomon:

“Dear Ladies and Gentlemen……..

My name is Hanna Petros Solomon and I came here today to share my experiences with you all. An experience that many Eritreans can relate to.

Very recently I had a trying time in my life. No, I didn’t have to dodge bullets to cross another border, I had to write my transfer essay to university. In order to understand who you are as a person, universities ask you to describe the journey that brought you to them. I wrote what I thought was an excellent essay about why I came to America, and handed it to my professor who was helping me with the process. He told me that the essay spoke more about my country and the state of dictatorship than it did my own experiences, it had to be personal. In an effort to apply his advice, I changed every “we” pronoun to “I”, and suddenly the words on paper became too personal, painful even. As I share some of it with you today, without any of my usual comic relief, I hope, at the very least, that you will recognize my life’s story for what it is; not “a laughable claim” but a tragic injustice.

At a very young age my siblings and I were stripped of our parents. My father, Petros Solomon, was Chief Strategist and Head of Military Intelligence before Eritrean independence in 1991. After the independence, he served as Minister of Defense, Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Minister of Maritime Resources. A man revered, adored and respected by all. Petros Solomon was a charismatic, playful person with extraordinary skills of making friends and principle not afraid to take on the responsibility of being a leader in achieving the vision we all had of Eritrea. When he noticed that Eritrea’s president, Isaias Afeworki, was slowly turning the government into an autocracy, he voiced his concern with many others who fought to see freedom in Eritrea.

On September 18, 2001 my father along with other ministers, government officials, journalists and other concerned Eritreans who had shared his objections were apprehended in their own homes by government officers. These men who, like my father, ha fought for their country and strived to bring a better and prosperous future were sent to unknown prisons and held incommunicado for over 15 years, and counting.

My mother, Aster Yohannes, also a freedom fighter, was a devoted wife and loving mother. She was pursuing her education in the United States at the time, dropped everything to be with her family. She was promised safe entry by the former Eritrean Ambassador to the United States, Girma Asmerom. But, she was betrayed. On the day of her arrival, on December 11, 2003, as we were waiting to welcome out mother with flowers, she was kidnapped by government officials. It has not been 13 years now and I have not seen or heard from my mother, nor do I know about her well being.

My siblings and I have worn the orphan badge ever since that fateful day. Although that is not a completely holistic picture of what we go through. Orphans know where their parents stand, it’s in the system, in traceable paper. Our entire lives we have had to grow up with the crippling reality that IF our parent were alive they were most likely chained up in some hole, being tortured, starved, or even driven to madness.

The thing about being the child of a patriot, is that the question “What for?” is embedded in you at the depth that is unfathomable for a child of 2, 10, or 11 to deal with (respectively my youngest sister’s age when she last saw our mother and myself and my brother’s age when we last saw our father). “What for?” “What did my parents fight for?” “What did thousands of Eritreans fight and die for, for over 30 years?”…”What for?”

In June of 2009, my siblings and I, decided to flee Eritrea. Well aware of the dangers that were awaiting us, we agreed that this mad leap of faith was our only chance to escape the make shift enslavement that would await us if we stayed. Unfortunately for us, we were caught, and as popular practice dictated, we were sent to prison. The two years that I would spend in the depths of the countryside, moving from prison to prison, and farm to farm doing hard labour, have proven to my the hardest of my life.

From June till September of 2009, I was help prisoner in Naval Base. A prison ground in Massawa known for its steel shipping container prison cells. My first hand insight to the atrocities of my country began here, when I heard the dying screams of a man who was suffocating inside one of the containers, on a day above 40 degrees Celsius. It was there that I also spent time with people who had lost a lot more that I had on their way to freedom. In jail with me, was a one-year-old little girl named Nadia. Nadia had lost a sister. The desert and the miserable conditions of prison proved to be too harsh of an environment for Nadia’s pregnant mother who lost the life of her unborn child.

From September 2009 until December of 2009, I was detained at Ghedem, a desert camp prison with more inmates then there was food. From December 2009 until March 2010 I was moved to bigger prison: Miitir. In addition to almost a thousand inmates, this was where I met people who had actually been incarcerated because of their faith.

In every prison we were physically pushed to our limits. The men were subject to hours of hard labor under the sun that included tasks such digging holes, 2m wide, 2m long and 2m deep. Holes that I later learned would be used as underground cells.

In every prison, I was shocked by the rate that diseases spread. The lack of medical treatment meant that diarrhea could be and was a cause of death.

The Eritrean regime mandates that all of its citizens go through military training. Instead of heading directly to Sawa, we were sent to farms like Af Himbol, Molober, and Mogoraib, along with whichever farm owned by Military Generals we happened upon, to work the fields. There, we planted, weeded and collected tomatoes, onions and jalapenos. Our guards made sure to maximize on our free labor, they would provide the labor, and in exchange the generals would reward them for their efforts. We were being constantly beaten for not working hard or fast enough. In many of the prisons and farms, I was detained, we never had shelter. We slept on the ground out in the open being subject to rain, sand storms, sweltering temperatures, and fending off hyenas in the night. The next morning, we were back in the fields with wet clothes, empty stomachs, and no sleep.

Furthermore, the guards used food or breaks from work as bait for sexual favours. I was disgusted by the crass nature of their approach, especially their willingness to take advantage of these women at their vulnerable time. Some of my fellow detainees fell victims to despair. While others, like myself, who refused, were targeted and physically punished.

When I had served my unjust time, and finished my “training” I was finally assigned to a post in Tesenei, only to be reassigned to another training. When I got there, it became clear to me that the equality women earned beside their brothers out in the field, during the thirty-year war, was long gone. Every woman in the training was assigned to cleaning and cooking for the entire division or higher rank persons. I begged and pleaded for my division leader to let me go back to Asmara, informing him that it had been two years since I had seen my family. Miraculously he agreed, sending me off with a belligerent threat, convinced that my spirit had been broken, when in reality everything that I had been through only sealed my conviction to leave the country and find my freedom. On the morrow of my father’s 60th birthday, May 6, 2011, I left Eritrea for good.

Isaias Afeworki’s regime has been using media as a way to control its people since the day of its implementation. In Eritrea I was exposed to very little of the outside world, but was constantly bombarded by pro-government propaganda. Because I feared for my life, I did not speak out against them. Today I am appreciative of the fact that I get to address this, feeble attempt at saving face, in a manner that it deserves. Recently, on June 8th, 2016 in Geneva, the President Advisor, Mr. Yemane Gebreab, stated that Eritrea is a country that provides government housing and employment to the spouses of imprisoned officials. I stand here today as an example of this untruth. My family has never received help from the government. The only government my mother, who is undoubtedly the spouse of an imprisoned official, has been utilizing is the prison cell she has lived in for the past 13 years . And the only employment the government has provided her is staying sane, and alive while she stares at her cell walls.

For a man who yesterday, here at the Human Rights Council, in Geneva, claimed to know me and my parents, to be my neighbor and my father’s close friend has sure done nothing but bring sorrow and turmoil to my family. What does that say of him as a person? What does that say of the people in power who, like Mr. Yemane Ghebreab, claim to have shared bread with my father, and yet throw him and his wife to rot in jail?

So I ask again- “what for?” For me, it seems that more so than anything my parents fought for their legacy. My mother’s devotion to her family, my father’s unbending loyalty to his country and their resilience to see things through, is what my siblings and I see when we think of Petros Solomon, Aster Yohannes and all Eritreans who languished in prison before and after them. But it doesn’t have to end there.

Every Eritrean has been scarred by the self-proclaimed president Isaias Afewerki, and all I am asking of you today is to bear witness to these scars, and do what is just, look through the facade and grant freedom, justice to the Eritrean people. Give the people a chance to have a say in the process of how our Nation is built. A chance to show their heroes the Eritrea they gave their lives for.

Thank you all, for your courage, your endeavors and for all that you do. Stand strong.”