Haile Bizen was a poet, a writer, a government employee in Eritrea. Then, from one day to the next, he was a political refugee.
With an incredible pace, my country ran towards apocalypse.
Struggling for lack of medical care for my eyesight and sailing along in an unknowable environment, I managed to stay in a state of limbo for several years until I was transferred from the ruling party’s office, where I worked at the time, to the Ministry of Information. Since I did not receive any clear instructions regarding my new role in the Ministry – and since I did not make enquiries either – , I did not report regularly to my new work place.
A few months later, the Ministry of Information gave me a final warning: I had to come to work or face the consequences. I knew that the poetry book I had published around that time (Behind the Doors) did not please some of the top propaganda chiefs. I had to act quickly to avoid the inevitable catastrophe of being abducted from home or the streets.
I had only one chance – fleeing.
In just a few weeks, I had to finalize my safe exit in utmost secrecy. I would be leaving my family, my friends, my beloved country and hometown for an unknown period of time. I wasn’t sure whether I would ever return. I was anxious if I would be able to leave the country safely without falling into the hands of national security agents. I did not have the time to request a visa for another country; and anyway, it was hardly possible to be granted an entry visa for European countries or other safe destinations.
On September 11, 2009, without bidding farewell to my friends, without notifying my confidante who was preparing for his wedding, without having had enough of the city I had spent my whole life in, and without explaining myself to my wife who was six months pregnant with our third child and a mother to our two small children, I left. It was New Year’s Day of our traditional Geez Calendar.
Now I had to confront a new reality, a new life and new challenges in Uganda, for which I was ill prepared. Over a period of three years, I was able to compose only four poems. One of these poems was written when I was queuing in an open field, along with hundreds of refugees, to be registered as an asylum seeker.
It was both a shocking and an eye-opening experience. Within a few days, I became a nobody, invisible.
Of course a bad environment could in theory provide decent material for writing. I, however, felt restless and unsettled; I was blocked, I lacked the concentration to write and read. At the same time, my new voice made me desperate – the voice of nothingness, the voice of agony, the voice of despondency.
I spent long and unproductive years between Uganda, South Sudan and Kenya, until an opportunity was presented to me by ICORN, the International Cities of Refugee Network. I arrived in Norway as a writer in residence in 2011.
I now had ample time and resources to continue my work in the arts. However, adjusting to a new environment was not easy. Every time I tried to write about my feelings, whether in prose or poetry, I was faced with crippling writer’s block. Partly this was because of the anguish I felt at the prolonged separation from my family. For obvious reasons, they were not able to leave the country officially. In fact, my wife was under surveillance, and therefore I had to find a way for her and my children to leave without risking imprisonment or falling into the hands of human traffickers. Having paid huge sums of money for their safe exit from Eritrea, my family did in fact fall victim to human traffickers. Their freedom required payment of another huge sum of money. Finally, they joined me in Norway. As a family we are still struggling to cope with the psychological and physical trauma sustained from torture and other forms of harassment by the human traffickers.
I now felt relatively settled. One big chapter in the ordeal of my family is closed. The next issue was the ongoing struggle against writer’s block. After several unproductive years, I started to open up sometime in 2014. Making use of my Norwegian language classes – a difficult experience at my age – I started to translate some Norwegian children stories into Tigrinya.
The first poems I wrote after my arrival in Norway are coloured by a deep sense of anger and nostalgia for my home country. Inevitably, my writing revolves around themes of home and displacement.
In some ways my life in exile has presented me with better material resources and a sense of security. I was able to make connections and create links with many writers from other countries. Some of them have had experiences worse than mine. I have been invited to different literary festivals and readings, which continue to inspire me to produce new work. My fellowship also enabled me to explore the experience of many talented writers from other countries. Yet I still remain tied to my home country. I can’t move on psychologically, no matter how hard I try.
I continue to be haunted by a persistent feeling of being neither here nor there: a sense of emptiness people can only experience when they feel they are uprooted from their natural environment. In one of my unpublished poems, I tried to describe the feelings:
Our Recent Family Photo
If you look straight at my family photo,
You would count five: Me at the centre
With a paused gaze, Wife beside with
A trembling smile, and three kids sat on grass<
Drawing some nonsense figures.
If you look tilting it to the right angle,
You would see: Wife with unwary gestures,
And the Kids’ faces scripted with confusion,
Behind a towering Me, drifting like smoke.
If you look at it from the left angle,
You would see: Wife knitting, maybe some daydreams,
And Kids digging, maybe melding a new home, at distant
Me, gawking at the sky, maybe expecting re-birth.
If you look at the other side of the photo,
You would see: on that blank page, the five
Souls searching, maybe for a piazza or a tunnel,
Maybe to scream or maybe to laugh loudly.
A poet, journalist, art critic and translator, Haile Bizen has published two books (collection of his poems and short stories); translated two children’s books and co-authored three. Before fleeing Eritrea in 2009, Haile served in different capacities and positions, including as editorial board member of Hiwyet magazine from 1995 to 2001; editor in Hidri Publishers from 1996 to 2007; jury member of Eritrea’s highest literary award, Raimock, and various national literary contests. Haile came to Norway in 2011 as ICORN guest writer. He is president of PEN Eritrea.