On September 23, 2001, nearly a fortnight after the world had borne witness to the devastating twin tower fall in New York, the family of journalist, songwriter and poet Amanuel Asrat would encounter their own private catastrophe.
Along with editors of other privately-owned newspapers on that day, Asrat was arrested and detained by Eritrean national security officers in a move that has been described as a campaign to silence the critics of President Isaias Afwerki. At the time, Afwerki had been in power for eight years, a modest length in the scheme of African dictatorial governance.
Now aged 74, Afwerki holds on to the seventh place on the table of Africa’s longest-reigning leaders with 27 years in the bag. For 19 of these years, specifically, since September 23, 2001, Asrat and his fellow journalists have not been seen by ordinary members of the Eritrean public, including their families.
After they were arrested, they were not charged with any crimes, according to PEN International, the non-profit literary organization that supports writers whose courageous works fall foul of oppressive laws and societies. According to other reports, Eritrea’s government has been unwilling to shed light on the situation of the detained journalists, a tactic that has clearly worn out even the most hopeful.
“Amanuel [has been] suffering under the harsh conditions of the Eiraeiro dungeon for 19 years and counting. His whereabouts are not known. We don’t even know whether he is alive or dead,” brother of Asrat, Daniel Mebrahtu, told The Guardian.
In 2018, PEN said Asrat was thought to be one of “the few surviving journalists from the 2001 crackdown” who was however in deteriorating health. It was alleged that Asrat was imprisoned at the Eiraeiro maximum-security prison until 2016 but his current whereabouts are unknown.
Before his arrest, Asrat was the editor-in-chief of Zemen (translated as The Times). Although his work at Zemen was highly respected – for his preference for cultural and political critiques – Asrat is credited for reviving Eritrean poetry in this century.
His poem, The Scourge of War, an allusion to the border conflict with Ethiopia, was chosen in 1999 for Eritrea’s highest literary award by the country’s National Holidays Coordinating Committee.
In early 2001, he founded Saturday’s Supper, a literary club that brought together writers. The themes and subject-matters of his poems were infectious and soon enough, it was common to see Eritrean poets and long-form writers influenced by him putting together pieces on wars, politics, the issues of the underprivileged and other aspects of socio-politics.
PEN has long called attention to Asrat’s situation. In 2015, the organization asked writers across the world to translate The Scourge of War into multiple other languages while in 2017, at PEN International’s 83 Congress in Lviv, Ukraine, a symbolic empty chair was left in memory of the missing writer.
But the organization has not given up on this front. This week, the Jamaican-British dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, shared his PEN Pinter Prize with Asrat, s a gesture of solidarity from a poet of the African diaspora”.
It is the hope of the many who have waited with bated breath that a light would appear in the abyss of a situation created by the government of Eritrea.