18 July 2009

Forced labour and tortures for Eritreans deported from Libya

Soldati eritrei
Photo Shawn Baldwin

ROME - Eritrea is investing a lot in tourism. Along the Red Sea for example, somewhere along the new road between Massawa and Assab, there is a hotel in the town of Gel'alo which no tourist should miss, especially the Italians. At least because it was built by Eritrean refugees arrested on the route to Lampedusa, deported from Libya on a flight paid by Italy and then sentenced to forced labour. That's right. But please, do not ask the Eritrean embassy for explanations, they could misunderstand. According to the propaganda of the dictatorship, that hotel would be the result of the courage of the Eritrean youth of the defence forces, engaged since 2002 in a wide development program, known as Warsay Yeka'alo Campaign. Personally, I preferred to ask for more explanations to the only three men who managed to escape from that hell. C., L. and F. agreed to talk to me, but under the conditions of being anonymous and of not revealing the European city where they are living today under international protection.

The facts date back to May 2004. An old fishing boat heading towards Lampedusa with 172 passengers, mostly Eritreans, after going adrift in the Mediterranean, turns its route back to the Libyan coasts. Once stranded on the rocks, they all run in different directions in order to escape, but the majority are arrested and sent to the prison of Misratah. C. tried soon to escape together with two friends. But they were caught on the other side of the wall. And put into an isolation cell, where they were heavily beaten and tortured for three days. After one month of custody, they were transferred to a detention camp in Tripoli. One day, early in the morning, a special unit of the army came to the prison. "They load a group of Eritreans on a truck, none of us imagined what was going to happen, we thought it was just another transfer." But it wasn't. The truck stopped inside Tripoli military airport. Where an Air Libya Tibesti aircraft was waiting for them. It was 21st July, 2004. Within 48 hours, under the discreet observation of the Eritrean Ambassador in Tripoli, three other planes departed, deporting a total of 109 refugees.

The army was already waiting for them in the airport of Asmara. After a quick roll call, they were loaded onto military trucks and brought to Gel'alo, on the Red Sea. It was not a prison, but a forced labour camp. Far from the town, there are no adequate shaded areas. The camp is surrounded by dense thorny trees, which made impossible any attempt to escape. Kept under strict surveillance, every day at 6 o'clock a.m. prisoners marched escorted by armed soldiers to their workplace, the building site of the new hotel of Gel'alo, symbol of the country's progress. There were about 500 prisoners. One hundred deported from Libya and two hundred deported from Malta two years before, in 2002. The others were people who deserted the army or who were arrested along the border while trying to flee undocumented toward Sudan. The day began with the roll call, at five in the morning, and then from six they marched and they worked on the building, under harsh conditions, continuously controlled and beaten from the soldiers, malnourished and barefoot, in one of the hottest areas of the Eritrean desert, where temperatures often exceed 45°. For lunch and dinner there was just bread and water. C., F. and L. were kept in those conditions for ten months, until 30th May 2005. Then they were sent to the military training camp of Wi'yah, for the forced conscription, which in Eritrea, since 1998, is a service for life. Throughout this period, they were never allowed to receive visits or phone calls from their relatives, who were unaware of their fate.

Their story is confirmed by a fourth witness. He is one of 232 Eritrean refugees repatriated from Malta in September 2002 and interviewed by Elsa Chyrum, in August 2005. Eyewitness of the death of some prisoners for hunger, thirst and lack of medical care: "Everybody knows – he says - that Alazar Gebrenegus, a brother who was deported from Malta in 2002, died due to lack of medical care, as he pleaded for an orange and a banana". As if hunger, thirst and heat are not enough,  the refugee continues, "the prisoners are also subjected to beatings".

Also this news is confirmed by a third source. In the "Service for Life" report, just released by Human Rights Watch, an entire chapter is dedicated to the use of torture. Elicottero, Ferro, Gesù Cristo, Gomma. The Italian origin of the names of the torture techniques suggests they are an heritage of the Italian colonial age. The report also confirms that a group of 109 Eritreans were repatriated from Libya in 2004 and focuses on the fate of those repatriated from Malta in 2002. According to HRW, they were detained in a high security prison on the island of Dahlak Kebir, in underground zinc cells, under harsh conditions of overcrowding, heat and starvation.

The big majority of the 3,000 Eritreans who reached Italy by sea in 2008 and applied for asylum, received a residence permit for international protection. Yet Italy is trying everything to stop them beforehand. The story has not started neither with the 76 Eritreans deported to Libya last 1st July 2009, nor with the 700 who are detained in Misratah, since 2006. The story had started with F., C. and L.
Yes, because the four flights which deported them in 2004 were commissioned and paid by Italy, within the cooperation agreements on migration signed in 2003 with Gaddafi. There's a document of the European Commission which proves it. There was also a fifth flight, but it never arrived at destination. Because it was hijacked. It was 27th August, 2004. The 84 passengers took control of the aircraft and landed in Khartoum, in Sudan, where they were recognized as refugees by the United Nations. What a pity that they couldn't contribute to the Warsay Yeka'alo Program!