Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrhatu is a household name in Eritrea. Arguably one of Eritrea’s finest women poets, a radio presenter, and short story writer, she also suffered six years of arbitrary arrest in the country’s most notorious military prison, a fate many Eritrean writers share because of their profession. In February 2009, the educational radio station, Radio Bana, where Yirgalem had worked was raided by the military taking more than 30 staff members and journalists associated with the radio station into custody. Majority were released after four years, but Yirgalem and five others were released after six years without trial. While in custody, she has been iconic and symbolic figure of the unlawful detention of the Eritrean regime where her images have been widely shared on social media and posters calling for release.
Yirgalem has left her Eritrea in March 2018 and stayed in Uganda. While in Uganda, she was publishing her poems and her firsthand account of her experience in prison that was published in PEN Eritrea. Each part of her story has been receiving hundreds of shares on social media where many young poets were honoring her by changing their profile photos to her’s and composing poems dedicated to her. So far, her articles are the most read and shared articles in the center’s outlets. As she was in the case list of PEN International, Yirgalem received a one-year scholarship by Writers-in-Exile Program of the PEN Deutschland, where she is based in Munich since early December 2018.
Holly Strauss, Learning and Accountability Coordinator of PEN International, with the help of Abraham Zere of PEN Eritrea, has conducted an interview with Yirgalem about her experience in prison and other related issues.
PEN: Tell us about your life as a writer/poet/journalist both in Eritrea and in exile.
YFM: I am Yirgalem, an Eritrean raised in a town called Adi-Keih, about 110km south of the capital, Asmara. Since the later-half of 1990s, I have been actively participating in different literary events at school and then in the national media (both private and state media). I was co-founder of Adi-Keih literary club, one of the grassroots association of young writers now considered as resurgence of Eritrean literature later discontinued with the ban of private newspapers. In Asmara it was called Saturday’s Supper that was co-founded by the award-wining poet, Amanuel Asrat.
From September 2003 until February 2009, I was working in the educational Radio Bana, sponsored by the Eritrean ministry of education as a producer and radio presenter. Following the raid and ban of Radio Bana I was taken into military custody and served for six years without charges. Prior to my incarceration, I was preparing to publish my collection of poetry, that was also banned by the censorship office of the ministry of information.
PEN: What is the one thing you'd like non-Eritreans to understand about Eritrea?
YFM: It is puzzling. I am deeply saddened and at the same time embarrassed to talk about the sad state of my beloved country. Thanks to the most brutal regime, it has been producing disproportionate number of refugees; despite good resources it has degenerated to abject poverty and misery; a country of dignified and noble culture has been reduced into a lawless nation… sadly my beloved country has transformed into something else.
PEN: How did you become involved with PEN?
YFM: Among the longlist of banned things, there is no association of writers in Eritrea. Let alone such union, the very fact of being a writer is considered as potential threat in today’s Eritrea. Although I was not able to read its content due to almost non-existent internet connection, I had heard such organisation was founded by Eritrean writers/journalists in exile while I was in Eritrea. Such news is promising sign for people like myself and others of my ilk. The founders and members of PEN Eritrea were also my compatriots who have gone through the similar experience as mine, but later fled the country in search of safety. There was no any excuse not to join the centre when I left the country and I did right away.
PEN: What made you decide to share your story on PEN Eritrea's website?
YFM: I only wrote very small part of the whole experience in prison. When I first left the country, it took me some weeks to figure out and position myself in the ongoing struggle for justice. Few weeks later, as I know many people have been advocating for my release and my case being widely publicized, I wanted to assure my readers that I was doing well and still writing. Then I published some poems in PEN Eritrea’s website. The response was overwhelming. Then when September (the dark month in Eritrean history linked with ban of private newspapers and incarceration of reformist group) approached I didn’t want to pass the occasion. It was the first year I was commemorating it as a free person. I also believe I have the responsibility to write and advocate on behalf the forgotten Eritrean journalists and prisoners of conscience. It is not an option or a choice, but a mandate.
PEN: Your story has been widely read. Have you received any interesting feedback?
YFM: The response was great and interesting for different reasons. Many called, wrote me privately and I was observing the great response in social media. Some of them expressed their fear that writing such “sensitive” topic would put me in trouble even in exile. That is the inherent fear cultivate by the Eritrean regime. But the overall support and encouragement was motivating. Many suggested that I develop into a book which I have also been thinking and on the initial stage now.
PEN: Has anything changed in your life since it was published?
YFM: I am replying to you now from Germany; what I consider as major change in my life is to be in a secure place. I owe this fellowship from PEN Deutschland to my writing. But this was a consequential outcome as my prime motive for writing was to share my experience of the horrendous Eritrean prison system. I want to take the opportunity to thank Abraham Zere, executive director of PEN Eritrea, who has made it possible and Samuel Emaha who translated it to English to reach wider readers.
PEN: How has the PEN network supported you and what has it meant to you?
YFM: I received honour, recognition, and overall support thanks to PEN network. Thanks to the advocacy and promotion of PEN International I received emergency fund from PEN Netherlands while I was in Uganda; resettled in Germany and received a scholarship from Writers-in-Exile Program of the PEN Deutschland; I have received financial assistance and moral support from Reporters Without Borders, Defending Defenders, and Africa Monitors in Uganda. My poem “I am not a poet” (translated into English by Professor Ghirmai Negash) was published in this year’s booklet of Writers-in-Exile Program of the PEN Deutschland; on the occasion of Women’s Day, I would be reading from my prison experience which I hope would also help highlight the suffering of Eritrean women. A film company Evan Williams Productions has contacted me as they are working a documentary on Eritrea; I have received an invitation to participate in Oslo Freedom Forum. Similarly, I have received different invitations for interviews or readings here and there.
I feel this is a reparation to the sufferings I have endured in my home country, as the very fact of becoming a writer is an offense in the eyes of the regime. I felt honoured for the immense love and companionship I have received from all corners. Partly I believe I was able to overcome my inherent fear that just being a writer is a potential crime that was widely felt by the young generation of Eritreans. As a writer the honour you receive is not exclusively yours. It sends and motivates generation of writers. This also inspires me to uphold my passion and dedication to the writing profession.
PEN: Why do you think that PEN is important?
YFM: When certain things are extremely vital, it becomes easy to look if there are aspects that make them less important. PEN is exceptionally important as there could not be any reason otherwise.