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Families of Imprisoned Journalists in Eritrea Hold Out Hope for Return

Journalist Amanuel Asrat, seen in this undated graduation photo, has been detained in Eritrea since September 2001. (Photo courtesy of family)
Journalist Amanuel Asrat, seen in this undated graduation photo, has been detained in Eritrea since September 2001. (Photo courtesy of family)

They haven't heard from their loved ones in nearly two decades, but the families of imprisoned journalists in Eritrea still hold out hope after authorities freed several prisoners after 26 years.

One of the journalists held incommunicado for nearly 20 years is Amanuel Asrat. The editor of Zemen, a newspaper that covered the arts and literature, has been detained since September 2001, without any contact with the outside world. No charges have been made public against him or other journalists jailed at the same time.

His brother, Robel Asrat, said the family has demanded answers from Eritrean officials about Amanuel's whereabouts but have heard nothing concrete.

“The government just wants those people to be erased from the memory of everyone just to keep silent,” Robel told VOA. “Like they never existed. We don't have any other information about them besides the rumors. But his work and legacy live on.”

Amanuel is one of several journalists arrested in a widespread crackdown on independent media in 2001. The group were detained after publishing a letter to President Isaias Afwerki that called for government reform.

Remembering Eritrea's Disappeared Journalists
In September 2001, Eritrean authorities launched an unprecedented crackdown on the free press. Seven of the country’s independent newspapers were shut down. At least 11 journalists were arrested in the roundup, and several more were jailed the following month. None of them have been heard from since that time, and their whereabouts are unknown to this day.

Eritrea's Minister of Information Yemane Gebremeskel did not respond to VOA's emails asking about Amanuel and the other jailed journalists. The Eritrean Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not respond to VOA's call seeking information.

Prior to the crackdown, Eritrea had a relatively vibrant news scene, with seven independent newspapers. Now it ranks 178 out of 180, where 1 is the most free, on Reporters Without Borders' press freedom index.

After the arrests, independent news outlets closed and today the only media allowed are government-controlled, with the main access to media being the state-run radio stations and outlets EriTV, the Tigrigna-language Hadas Eritrea and English-language Eritrea Profile.

Writer of courage

As well as being a journalist, Amanuel is a celebrated Eritrean poet whose poem “The Scourge of War” was translated into 15 languages.

The poem is an unflinching look at the war between Eritrea and Ethiopia that lasted from 1998 to 2000 and that, reports from the time say, left tens of thousands dead.

“The ugliness of this thing, war,/ When its spring arrives unwished-for,/ When its ravaging echoes knock at your door,/ It is then that war's curse brews doom, But … You serve it willy-nilly,” he wrote in 1999, capturing the devastation in Tigrigna.

Amanuel last year was awarded the “Writer of Courage” by PEN International, which promotes freedom of expression and literature around the world. The award is given to writers persecuted for their beliefs.

“The situation of forced disappearance aims to silence. It aims to create silence and to create fear, not just for the individual who has disappeared, but for their families, for their entire community around them,” Daniel Gorman, director of English PEN, told VOA.

“The family of Amanuel Asrat and the family of many others who've been disappeared have been incredibly brave in speaking out,” Gorman said. “And I think what we need to do at PEN, as individuals and as people who care about this situation, is to try and amplify the voices as much as we can.”

Advocates who follow Eritrea have seen some glimmers of hope related to political prisoners and those imprisoned for religious reasons. In December, the country released 28 Jehovah's Witnesses after they completed lengthy prison sentences of up to 26 years.

But there has not yet been a similar opening for imprisoned journalists. Data from the Committee to Protect Journalists show that 16 Eritrean journalists remain behind bars, one of the highest numbers on the African continent.

Although there is little reliable news about the health or whereabouts of these journalists, Robel and other family members refuse to give up hope. In 2010, a prison guard who escaped to Ethiopia said that some of the journalists died in custody, but others were still alive.

Rights Groups Urge Release of Journalists in Eritrea, Years After Disappearances
Aaron Berhane, a former editor-in-chief and cofounder of Setit, once Eritrea's largest independent newspaper, highlights the plight of colleagues who disappeared after being detained

Amanuel is among those believed to have been alive.

“We cannot forget him and his colleagues easily. These people are treasures, the treasures of this era and the generation,” said Robel, who studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. “He'll be free to see how the world loves him.”