At just 23 years old, Tsegay Mehari was arrested and sent to one of Eritrea's most notorious prisons for the poems he had written. After four years of torture and isolation he was declared innocent. But the day of his release was the worst of his life.
“I was the youngest of the prisoners. So they tortured me,” says the Eritrean poet and journalist, who is now 29.
“They thought: ‘He is young, he will tell us everything.’ But how could I confess? I didn’t do anything.”
Tsegay Mehari was arrested in 2009 because of his work as a poet and journalist in Eritrea – Africa’s biggest prison for journalists, and the most censored country in the world. For the past eight years it has been ranked last in the Reporters Without Borders press freedom index. Private press is banned, and the high risk of imprisonment has forced many journalists to leave the country.
“Now, nobody but the admirers of the government is writing for the newspapers. Every true journalist and writer has either shut up or left the country,” he says.
This includes Mehari himself, who after his release had no choice but to leave behind his family and escape Eritrea.
“My friend was a spy”
Despite the strict restrictions on media and free speech in Eritrea, Mehari never kept silent. At an early age he started writing poems and articles for newspapers, radio and TV. His friends repeatedly warned him that his outspokenness would eventually send him to prison.
In 2007, Mehari spent five days in jail because he had traveled in Eritrea without a permit.
“No one had done a big crime in that prison, but the conditions were incredibly bad. I wrote a poem about it. When I came out I read the poem to one of my friends. It turns out he was a spy of the government.”
The poem was one of several of Mehari’s writings the authorities later used as evidence against him. He was arrested on February 19, 2009. On that day the authorities raided the Asmara-based Radio Bana, which Mehari had been freelancing for, and detained its entire staff of 26 journalists.
Mehari was taken to prison in Mai Serwa north of Asmara and put in a cell of six by six feet, with cement walls and floors.
“I was alone for four years,” he says. “It was like being in a grave, but I was alive. I was feeling it was the end of my life.“
Contact with other people was limited to the prison guards, who brought Mehari food through his tiny cell window three times a day. Twice a day, he was allowed to go to the toilet.
“Especially the first month was very difficult. I felt extremely lonely in that place; I was very stressed; I was thinking about my family; imagining my mother and that she died while I was in prison. I didn’t have anything to read, nothing to listen to. I was not allowed to talk to anyone.“
After six months of complete uncertainty about why he had been arrested, the interrogation and torture began. The interrogators accused him of cooperating with an opposition radio station in Ethiopia. He was also accused of writing propaganda against the regime through his poems and articles.
“One time they cuffed my hands so hard it squeezed my veins,” he recalls. “My blood circulation stopped, and I was near to death. Another time they hung me from my hands, six-seven meters up in the roof. I remember it very clearly. I can’t forgive this, ever.” Mehari was never charged in court.
Poetry saved him
But Mehari wouldn’t let them break him down; instead, he did everything he could to stay sane and not lose faith.
“I found newspapers that other prisoners, who were allowed to read, had torn apart and hidden in the toilet. I would wash it and let it dry so I could read it. It was helpful. It helped me escape from my internal stress.”
After six months Mehari was allowed to read books. While in captivity he read more than 150 books and wrote 150 poems and essays.
“I was in hospital for three days. From hospital I smuggled in a pen and started writing poems in secret. It made me start believing in things again and think about myself outside prison. In the time of darkness poetry was with me, it gave me hope.”
Despite losing four years of his youth to a lonely prison cell, Mehari keeps his spirits high. But prison also left deep scars.
“I lost trust in people,” he explains. “I can’t speak confidentially to anyone. My friend was a spy; he was one of the reasons I went to prison. How can I talk openly to people again?” Still, Mehari doesn’t blame him as an individual for what happened. “The real problem is the system,” he says.
The worst thing about prison happened on the day of his release. Having spent four years in solitary confinement, Mehari was suddenly set free on March 19, 2013. The authorities declared him innocent and apologized.
When reunited with his family he hadn’t seen or spoken to for four years, Mehari discovered that his father had passed away a year earlier.
“That is the most horrible thing that has happened in my life. Being released from prison was a special day to me. At the same time the worst,” he says; his voice is full of sorrow and regret.
“I lost my father and I wasn’t there. Even now, when I think about my time in prison, I think about how I lost him.”
Only a year after his release, Mehari was separated from his family again. After being threatened with jail, he was forced to escape the country.
“I didn’t have a choice,” he says. “The [Eritrean] government’s aim is to terrorize journalists and writers. Things become worse and worse.”
On foot, Mehari crossed the border to Ethiopia. With the help of smugglers he went through Sudan and Libya, and across the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. After a three-month journey he came to Sweden, where he was granted asylum.
“Now I am doing my best in Sweden to speak out about the government in Eritrea. I am trying to help my country even though I am here,” he says, hoping Eritrea one day will become a safe place for him to return.
“I have to be optimistic,” he says.