January 7, 2024 Editor

An African gulag so ghastly that inmates risk death to escape


January 6, 2024

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WN: Fyodor Dostoevsky and others variously have said: “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” (The House of the Dead (1862); Winston Churchill (“The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilization of any country.“); Bernard Shaw said similarly in his polemic: The Crime of Imprisonment.

This of course applies as well to the conduct of war. . .  When will we ever learn?


Eritrea is riddled with an appalling variety of prisons: Underground cells of crumbling concrete, and sweltering jails fashioned from converted metal cargo containers. Cages crammed with hundreds of men who must sleep on their sides like sardines, as their cellmates wearily stand to make room, and shallow holes scraped from the earth with log and dirt ceilings so low that inmates cannot stand up.

The conditions, former prisoners recounted, are often so ghastly and the prison terms so open-ended that desperate inmates frequently attempt to escape, but those who try are often gunned down.

Unlike in many other authoritarian countries, where people can frequently avoid prison by keeping their heads down and steering clear of politics, most Eritreans face the inevitability of detention if they refuse mandatory national service that can stretch for decades, mostly in a military infamous for leaving conscripts impoverished and brutalized.

In interviews, 42 Eritreans who have been in prison, in some cases only weeks ago, described the conditions in the country’s sprawling detention network. These Eritreans, who were contacted in six different countries — some mired in refugee camps outside Eritrea or hiding in secret safe houses in African cities, and a few now living as fugitives in the West — told of beatings, stress positions and other torture, and of hunger and deaths from suffocation and gunshots, providing a rare look inside the prisons of the secretive country that has been described as “the North Korea of Africa.”

Although Eritrea has long been highly repressive, the prison population has swollen within the past three years. After Eritrea sent troops to help the Ethiopian government battle rebels in the Tigray region, Eritrea intensified its aggressive conscription campaign — sweeping up men and women, young and old. Evasion meant jail.

The extent of Eritrea’s prison system is well known. But the testimony of former detainees provides new details, never before reported, about prison conditions and the desperation of life on the inside.

Please click on: An African gulag so ghastly that inmates risk death to escape


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Wayne Northey was Director of Man-to-Man/Woman-to-Woman – Restorative Christian Ministries (M2/W2) in British Columbia, Canada from 1998 to 2014, when he retired. He has been active in the criminal justice arena and a keen promoter of Restorative Justice since 1974. He has published widely on peacemaking and justice themes. You will find more about that on this website: a work in progress.

Always appreciate constructive feedback! Thanks.