Join the party or else

Fessahaye spent 18 years in National Service, but declined to join the ruling party and paid the price.


WASHINGTON—“Fessahaye,” 36, had only been in the United States for a month when I met him in Washington, D.C. A soft-spoken but resolute young man, he was called up for national service in 1996 at the age of 18 and remained in it for most of the next 18 years.

       When he was done with his initial term of service in 1997, he went to the University of Asmara to study animal husbandry. He was there when the Border War broke out.

       He was recalled to the army twice to fight over the next two years, the second time in Assab during the last round of the conflict (June 2000). He stayed a year, doing a mix of military duty and animal science at a base near the Djibouti border.

       Fessahaye returned to Asmara to graduate from the university in 2001 and was assigned to the Ministry of Agriculture, which initially posted him to their field office in the southern Debub region and then called him back in 2005 to the central office in Asmara.

       For most of this time, his pay averaged N145/month ($10 at official rates, under $3/month at street rates). But by 2004, his pay had risen to N500/month, and the PFDJ began recruiting him for their cadre school. However, he declined, which set in motion his plunge into the political abyss.

       Fessahaye said he asked them was the PFDJ a “front” or a political party, and why weren’t there other parties? This debate continued until 2007 when he was detained at a jail near Barentu and interrogated for 28 days on his resistance to their overtures.

       He said he kept asking “why?”

       For their part, the questioners focused on student activist Semere Kesete, who was jailed in the summer of 2001 when he criticized the national service program during his graduation address—the one attended by Fessahaye. Student protests over his arrest led to a sweeping round up of the protestors, who were dispateched to a work program in the desert lowlands, and later to the reorganization of the university itself.

       Throughout this period, Fessayahe was kept in a 2x2.5-meter room with a bare concrete floor, no window and no blanket, just a bucket to relieve himself. He said he was fed a cup of tea and one piece of bread each day.

       For the first two days, he went through the same round of questions; then the interrogators moved on to ask him about his own life. But on the fourth day, they returned to Semere: “Did you know him? Was he your friend? Did you ever have coffee together?”

       After five or six days, they shifted to his refusal to join the PFDJ.

       Fessayahe said he cited clauses in the the party’s constitution saying that no member would be coerced to join and that members of the military were prohibited from joining, infuriating his interrogators.

       After that, he was handcuffed and stretched across a table while they beat him and accused him of being in “the opposition” and organizing young people not to join the PFDJ. Then suddenly, he said, they became “normal and friendly,” and he was put in a new cell with two prisoners.

       For the next six days, he was taken out each morning for “interrogation,” which he described as demands that he “repent” his opposition. The third week, he was put in a room with eleven prisoners and left alone. He said it was so crowded they had to sleep in shifts.

       Finally, he was transferred to a separate prison outside Barentu where he remained for four months and eleven days—as with many prisoners, he was quite specific about days and dates. He said the move came on either 9 or 10 July 2007.

       He was put in a room with sixteen others, sleeping on straw mats on the dirt floor. They ate only twice daily, watery lentils, no vegetables and no medicines for anyone needing them. In the third month, his older brother, a liberation war veteran, came to visit. After that his treatment improved. He said he was only beaten twice, the others daily.

       Next, he was sent to the Track B prison in Asmara. He described descending into a subterranean hall with 4x4-meter cells on each side, nicknamed for Eritrean towns like Hagaz and Agordat, But he was led past them to a large underground chamber with as many as 650-700 people crammed into it. He said he was afraid to sleep for fear he would suffocate.

       If anyone got sick or had to urinate or move his bowels, there was half an oil drum in a corner. He spent three months in this room.

       From May to December 2008, he was in a prison at Sarajaka on the Asmara-Keren road, after which he was released and told to go back to the Ministry of Agriculture—and back into national service.

       Again the PFDJ sought to recruit him. Again he declined. But he also worked as hard as he could at the ministry in the hope that he could win favor and surreptitiously identify an outside scholarship and escape to take advantage of it.

       By 2010, he said he had designed a new data base to serve the entire ministry and all its projects. As one result, he was encouraged to further his education, but only through online course work.

       Two years later, he created another data base whose design was entered in an international competition in Italy on behalf of Eritrea. The design association sponsoring it asked them to send the designer, but the minister chose a loyal liberation-era fighter and told Fessahaye to train him instead, which he said he tried to do, though it did not work.

       At this point, despairing of ever being released from service, he complained of health problems and got a doctor’s letter saying he needed treatment not available in Eritrea. He also quietly stepped up efforts to secure entry to an outside university.

       Government officials gave him permission to go to Dubai in early 2014, but they threatened to arrest his father if he did not come back and made his father sign a paper agreeing to that. Fessahaye left in March and returned in June to find out that he had been offered a scholarship to Virginia International University and that his visa to the United States was approved. All he lacked was an exit visa.

       Over the next two months, he secured his father’s release from what he called “the hostage agreement” and tried to identify a mid-level official he could bribe for the papers to leave. He knew he would not get permission to go to the United States, so he asked to go back to Dubai for which he still had a valid visa. He said he covered the U.S. one whenever he pulled out his passport.

       In the end, he had to pay N89,300 in bribes for the papers he needed (fulfillment of national service, fulfillment of neighborhood militia training, exit visa from immigration and so on). Once he had them, he flew to Dubai and, after five days, went on to the United States, arriving 14 August 2014.

       When I spoke with him, he was just starting school at V.I.U. Asked about his plans for the future, he said he didn’t have any yet. “I couldn’t think about my life when I was in Asmara,” he said, adding he’d never even had a job interview and had no idea what it was like.