This conversation took place in Karsheli* prison in Asmara during the weekly interlude in which inmates are briefly allowed out of their cells. The time was around late 2002 or early 2003. The person who related this story reckoned that the man from Barka and his son were brought to the prison approximately in 1993 or 1994. But, what was the crime for which these two had already, thus far, each paid 9 years of their lives? Nobody could tell. All our man knew was that one morning, as he tended with his 9-year-old son a small herd of camels and goats outside his village, he was apprehended by a group of armed soldiers, put on a car and brought to this place (Karsheli). He didn’t even know where he was being held until several months later when other inmates started talking to him. Since the day he was brought to Karshelli nobody explained to him why he was there. So, 9 years on, he was still as ignorant about the reason for his incarceration or the possibility of his release as he was the day of his arrest.
The first time I heard about the ‘child prisoner’ in Karsheli and his father was back in 1999. Since then, more than one person, including one former prisoner that I personally met, had either seen or heard from other former inmates about their story. Some had seen or heard about the father-and-son inmates in the mid 1990s, others in late that decade, and still others as late as 2003. The last time I had knowledge of their presence in Karsheli was 2003. I have no further information if they are still languishing there or what, otherwise, has become of them.
Even though I could not establish the names of either the father or the son, I was told that they come from Barka La'al (upper Barka), not far from Mansura. The exact reason for their arrest and continued imprisonment is not known. However, it is believed that it came as part of a campaign of ‘pacification’ that the PFDJ government had been conducting particularly in Barka in the 1990s. In response to armed opposition activities in the area, the government was pursuing a policy of collective punishment, subjecting the region’s civilian population to harsh punitive measures. For example, villages and communities who happened to be in the vicinity of a landmine explosion were forced to pay the cost of damaged vehicles, and arrests were made among young men. The forced villagization policy, which the government continues to pursue with the pretext of facilitating service provision, is also part of this larger strategy of intimidation. It was not uncommon in those years for the government’s security agents to grab any person from the remote villages of Barka and throw them in prison. As we all know, in later years, this practice only intensified and expanded to all parts of the country. This sad episode, therefore, is not unique. It is one of thousands of tragedies that have befallen innocent Eritreans. What makes it so curious, however, is the story of the little boy who found himself become a man in the dungeons of PFDJ.
What is it like to grow up in prison? when spending the days and nights within four cold, hard walls becomes the only life a child knows? What is it like for a little boy to be suddenly uprooted from his normal surroundings and be thrust into an unfamiliar, merciless life of physical confinement? For someone’s innocent childhood to come to such an abrupt and cruel end? Such captivity seems all the more brutal for a boy who had spent his early childhood in the vast prairies of upper Barka. A kid who was used to roaming those seemingly endless grasslands; meandering in the serene arkokebay-lined riverbanks; watching the night stars in the clear Barkan sky; … a boy whose imagination must have known no limits. What a cynical leap, from the boundless horizons of the Mansura Plain to a nameless cell in Karsheli!
So, here he was, in a situation he hardly understood, reduced to a mere ‘number’, counting the days, … weeks, months, years …
When his childhood buddies were playfully wrestling in the sands of the dry riverbed, here he was in Karsheli, standing in front of a stone-faced jailer; when those old playmates were enjoying their tantalizing porridge, he was being handed a dry piece of bread and some watery lentil dish; as some of those friends attended school, he had to be contented with whatever wisdom his fellow-prisoner father might share with him. Years later, when those old playmates were discovering their budding manhood, the ‘child-prisoner’ was lying in his disintegrating blanket, staring at a blank stone wall; and when they were busy competing for the attentions of their first sweethearts around the village well, he had only his imagination to rely on. … … If only he could briefly escape his confinement and be with those old pals as they gathered around the bonfire and shared stories and quizzes!
The more I think about it, the more unfathomable the life of the child-prisoner seems to me? I can’t help but think about what thoughts might have gone through his mind over the years. How did his thinking develop? How did his personality evolve? And what about changes to his body? How did he handle adolescence? How did he react, as a child prisoner, to the inevitable transformation in his physiology? Was his father giving him the necessary advice as the little boy of yesterday entered manhood in that most unforgiving environment? And what did he and his father talk about all those years?
Today, wherever he might be, that boy would be 24 years old.
[And today, he would be 32. April 2017]
*Karsheli (a corruption of the Italian 'carcere') is a notorious prison in Asmara, Eritrea
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