Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu writes to Amanuel Asrat on his 50th birthday. Translated by Issayas Beyene.
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I’m stuck where to start. I’m also anxious that I’m knowingly writing you a letter you cannot receive or respond to. I hope that, one day, though you may be the last person to do so, you will read it.
It’s been twenty years since you and the Zemen newspaper disappeared. From when we introduced ourselves to each other – you as Editor-in-Chief and I as a casual contributor – it didn’t take you long to become my mentor. The subsequent days we spent together are whirling through my mind. The arts event, every Saturday, that you and your friends initiated; the various cafés and restaurants in which we used to hang out with our acquaintances. I remember some of them vividly, some of them faintly.
I remember one Thursday at the Palm restaurant. Awet Fissehaye was with us, and you advised me to publish a poem under a pseudonym. I insisted I would use my name. And when I decided to move from Adi-Keyih to Asmara, you asked your friends to help me find a place to rent, and accompanied me to viewings. It’s unbearable to think of your personality – outgoing, cordial social – locked up in a very small cell for twenty years.
The tall lady you introduced to me as your fiancée is still in my memory. Two years after your arrest, in 2003, I met her. ‘There is no information about your “brother”’, she said. I nodded. She added nothing. We separated.
The last time I saw you was at the police station a few days after your arrest. You were at the door, alone, holding a cigarette. Again, I was with Awet. We waved at you from afar. We thought you were allowed to smoke.
What were your thoughts then? And how about now? Do you regret that you didn’t suspect the threats against you to turn into decades-long imprisonment – to turn into disappearance?
Naïvely, we thought you would be released in a few days. Or maybe you would go to court. Or maybe the government would keep editors in jail just long enough for the newspapers to fold. The picture I captured of you holding a cigarette has not been updated in the last twenty years.
I think I’m in a better position than most to try and imagine how you’re doing. I can’t ask you, but I can try to construct your answers from my own experiences. I was detained in Mai Srwa Prison for six years. Whenever the guards wanted to terrorise us, they would say ‘You will be taken to Eiraeiro!’ I always thought of you and your comrades, always tried to imagine how hard your life would be.
I imagine you crouched at one corner of your cell, stretching your feet, numbed by long hours of sitting. I imagine you being still, not knowing what to say or do. I imagine you banging the door when you get sick or lose your patience. I imagine you lying on the floor, lost in thought, eyes lingering on the ceiling, so low that you touch your head to it as you stand. How many times have you done all this in the last twenty years?
Does your cell have a hole to let in air and sunlight? In Mai Srwa, the hole was on either side of the door. What have you heard about Eritrea and the world over the last twenty years? Have you overheard the guards talking about news, events? Do you know who your neighbours are? Because every prisoner is a number, I understand how difficult it can be to know who’s who.
I know prisoners in Mai Srwa who lost their voices. Do you talk aloud to yourself? Can you speak without difficulty? I heard you’re handcuffed. In 2010, when I was in cell number 22, it was painful seeing handcuffed prisoners going to defecate. I decided to try it. I made a rope from a sack thread and tied my hands together. It was difficult to do anything. How is it possible to live for two decades in such a condition? I can only imagine the agony: trapped in a box while still alive.
When these thoughts are too painful, I try to imagine what would have happened if you weren’t arrested. You would have been a university lecturer. You would have organised myriad literary events. You would have become known and applauded for your work, and for the writers you had influenced. You would have received awards for your writings in person, rather than for your sufferings in absence.
I ruminate about the life you wanted to have. I think of you becoming a father, of your children going to college. How many children did you want? Girls, or boys, or both? The family that produced you is thrown into grief and worry; the family you were to have is absent. What destruction.
I imagine that your thoughts might be about family, human cruelty, your foiled plans and thwarted aspirations and dreams. I heard, some years after 2001, that at the time of your arrest you had the opportunity to go abroad and continue your education. At the beginning of your imprisonment, you might have been worried about the scholarship. When I was arrested, I sent a message to a few relatives, saying that it would be better if the rest of my family weren’t told, because I would be released soon as I was proved innocent. Over the years, my hopes faded away. I almost succumbed to despair – almost.
I have undying hope to hear you talk about the cost of your honesty, trustworthiness, wisdom and courage. May God give you power and strength to bear the suffering that has come upon you.
Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu is an Eritrean writer and award-winning poet. has published her works extensively in Eritrea’s mass media starting from the heyday of the private newspaper era. From September 2003 until the government raid and subsequent ban in February 2009, she worked as a journalist and host at the educational Radio Bana. She was released from the military prison on 21st of January 2015 after six years. She left the country in March 2018 and published her poetry Book in 2019. Currently she is in Germany as a writer in Exile scholar for Pen Germany.
Eritrean poet and editor Amanuel Asrat, one of PEN’s longest-standing cases of concern, remains imprisoned and incommunicado in Eritrea 20 years after he was first arrested. Amanuel Asrat has been a key case of concern for English PEN for many years, and in 2020 was announced as the winner of the PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage by fellow winner and poet Linton Kwesi Johnson. He is also the first featured writer in the PENWrites campaign, English PEN’s international letter-writing campaign in solidarity with writers in prison and at risk around the world. Send a message of solidarity through our PENWrites campaign.