Disclaimer: This is a blog I have not wanted to write, hoping instead to have made a hard-hitting and widely watched documentary, or had the feature film script I wrote hit the big screens, but sadly this has not happened.
I am stung by guilt whenever I think of Eritrea. This is a story about my friends; friends who have been locked up, exiled and tortured. My only weapon to try and help them is publicity, yet I have failed spectacularly in using this to assist them.
I hope that the story you will read here will prompt some action, some movement.
The Silver Halide Martyrs:
Eritrean warrior-photographers, 1963-2011
From revolutionary conformity to political dictatorship – a tale of propaganda, courage & martyrdom.
For 30 years, Eritreans fought for independence from Ethiopia in a single-minded and disciplined way. Uniquely for any liberation movement, they diverted scarce resources to document and promote their struggle. But after freedom was won, the revolutionary leadership found it increasingly difficult to be accountable, or fully democratic, a mistake in a nation willing to sacrifice all for freedom. Or so it seemed, at first.
I first went to Eritrea in what was the bloom of its newfound independence, 1997. I became infatuated with this tiny country, it’s people and it’s history. I loved the Art Deco capital of Asmara, with its vintage Fiats and antique Gaggia coffee machines. That infatuation grew into love when I found out that there were over 500,000 negatives and 20,000 hours of footage from their struggle.
While searching through folder after folder of black & white negatives, apparently taken by suicidally brave men and women, I came across an image I feel is the best war photograph I have ever seen. It was in 1990, during the Ethiopian criminal aerial bombing of the Red Sea port city of Massawa after it had fallen to the guerrillas. Solomon Abraha’s simple, shocking image saws more about war and civilians than I could ever imagine.
Uniquely, the Eritrean revolutionaries fighting for independence from Ethiopia made a decision in the ’Sixties to assign fighters – both male and female – to record the war. They wanted to be in a position to write their own history, and not have their epic struggle distorted by the outside world. They also had to use propaganda to unite the diverse peoples of Eritrea against Ethiopia. The warrior-photographers brief was to be both soldier and reporter, and to decide when to shoot with the camera or with the gun.
The archive chronicles the full tapestry of the Eritrean struggle: the early rebellion; the famine of the ’Eighties that Emperor Haile Selassie exacerbated in an attempt to starve the revolution into submission and the ten long years when the Eritrean guerillas were living in underground bunkers, besieged by the massive Ethiopian army.
Many of the documentarists died, others survived: former photographer Russom Fesahaye, recounts how it began:
“At first we were all guerillas, in the field. All I wanted to do was to fight. But later it was realized that we had to document the battles. I had worked in a photo lab in Asmara before I joined up. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Force gave me a Zenith (camera). Gun in one hand, camera in the other.
“It is so good that we did this because the pictures are our history and they will always stay. When you are writing you can say anything but for the pictures you actually have to be there. Fighting was always the main thing. Photographing was something you did when you had time.
“With a gun you can hide, not with a camera. You have to be right in the front line with the small ammunition.”
As a former conflict photographer I thought it appropriate that I should take my new bride, Leonie to Eritrea on honeymoon. Leonie fell in love with the country too, but not yet the photographer she is now, found my endless questioning of the veterans on her very first honeymoon tedious and irritating. She spent hours watching Eritrean television and was dismayed by the crass propaganda that glorified the ‘victorious’ second war against Ethiopia, that Eritrea had actually recently lost. As our honeymoon progressed, we also discovered that one of the world’s darling revolutions is quietly slipping into a dictatorship.
My rather naïve enthusiasm for the photographs was tarnished by a gradual understanding that many pictures have been set up, and scenes re-created for the camera, from my diary:
“It was an heroic endeavor – something I as a photojournalist can only stand in awe of. The thousands of negative contact sheets (the single sheet of photographic paper onto which all the pictures from a roll of film are printed, in the sequence in which they were shot) began to tickle my mind. Yes, there were in that collection some of the best and most honest war photographs I have ever seen, but there was more to it than that.
“To me, contact sheets are the windows into the photographer’s mind, his sub-conscious. The contact sheets of the Eritrean photographers were a journey into a world unexplored. I asked myself why were there so many pictures of Eritrean fighters vaulting the dead bodies of Ethiopian soldiers. Some, at least, had to be set up, a lie in black & white. Suddenly you are excruciatingly aware that these brave journalists are also propagandists.”
The Eritrean warrior-photographers were portraying their own conflict – does one expectthem to adhere to the ‘objective’ standards of journalism taught at Western schools, or even want them to?
How did the individuals choose when to play each of their various roles – photographer, fighter, patriot, comrade, propagandist? The interviews with some of the warrior-documentarists explain their motivation: they worked within a collective, and their sensitivities were attuned to the success of that collective endeavor – The Struggle.
The interviews were conducted in early 2001 – a precarious time, when Eritrea’s civil society was on the edge of an explosion following a catastrophic and mysterious war against Ethiopia (1997-2000). I had been shooting on the Ethiopian side in 1999, though severely restricted by that government too. This war – likened to the trench warfare of the First World War – followed an ecstatic liberation and six years of peace. The only feasible explanation for its origin is that the presidents of Ethiopia and Eritrea, former allies and allegedly cousins had lived out a growing personal animosity through the nations they led.
The interviews with some of the warrior-photographers are frustrating, as if no one understands the moral dilemmas of the act of photographing death, nor propaganda being a lie. “It was our duty,” is the most common answer. Surprisingly, the venerated co-founder of the ruling party and then Minister for Trade and Industry Haile Weldensae proved to be frank and critical. He questions the failure of his government to make the transition to a true democracy:
“We have to suffer from what we have done before. In following one line of thought, one school of thought, there are costs that one has to pay.
“That ideology was a very motivating thing and the people were very committed. That is why, in the liberation struggle period, the photographers – the propagandists – had an important role in the society.
“But it is not without a cost and it is particularly after independence that you start realising the cost.
“The Eritrean people need much more room for democracy… it is not something that has to be granted. This is already what had been struggled for. Almost every family has paid its dear sons and daughters to the struggle for 30 years. And now, in the last two and half years war with Ethiopia, families who had lost all their sons and daughters except one, have contributed this only remaining son or daughter to this defense of the country. Who has the right to air opinion more than this family? They have the right. It’s not a privilege, it’s not something that a government … should grant to them.”
Like most westerners that come to Eritrea, the romance of the plucky and resourceful Eritrean’s liberation struggle ensured Leonie and I were pro-Eritrean. But not all was well in this supposedly Utopian society: there were ominous signs of disquiet among senior politicians and fighters who do not find the ruling clique’s rationale for the latest bloody war convincing.
One of the highlights of our time there was to meet and interview the most famous of Eritrean war journalists, the cameraman and film-maker Seyoum Tsehaye. As a child, he dreamed of being a journalist, but instead he volunteered to fight for liberation. While on the frontline against the Ethiopians he received orders to report for training as a cameraman. It was inevitable that his work would stand out from the rest. His frankness in speaking of the stress that accompanied his work was also a far cry from the stony and duty-bound answers of his colleagues. His life became a living nightmare of torn morality and conscience:
“You feel guilty when you take all these pictures. It is different for somebody who is helping these people, than (it is) for somebody who is taking pictures, just standing over someone who is dying or bleeding.
“You suffer the video, and you know the rule: you cannot cut it in a fraction. You have to stay longer and the more you stay with the agony, with the crime, with the suffering, the more you suffer.”
Seyoum’s duty as a soldier was to follow his orders: to record an endless series of war crimes against his people. Inside, he says, he died a little every time he had to film his compatriots bleeding.
“For about a month, I couldn’t sleep, all these people come in the night in front of me like a video, you know, all of them.”
It was the courage of this great patriot – patriot in the true sense, as opposed to that which is the refuge of scoundrels – that first alerted us to the real troubles in Eritrea. His outspoken criticism of the futility of the recent border wars was unusual in a land blanketed by fear of dissent
On the other hand, Solomon Abraha, protégé and friend to Seyoum, was unquestioning of his role. He was clear of his duty as a warrior-photographer during the war, and even now is a cameraman with the Ministry of Information. He is the author of perhaps the most powerful anti-war photograph ever taken (Boy after air raids, Massawa 1990).
A journalist with the state English language newspaper whom I had befriended on an earlier assignment in 1997, Paulos Zaid, was assigned as our translator and fixer, actually he was meant to be our minder. On our last night in Eritrea, he whispered that he had been told that he might be in danger because of his views about freedom of expression. Anonymous friends had warned him that he might be forcibly conscripted or jailed.
What followed in the weeks after our departure was a merciless crackdown on dissenters ahead of the proposed first multi-party election in this single party state. Paulos disappeared, and repeated calls, emails and faxes could not raise him. None of his colleagues could say where he was. His best friend, Kidane Yibrah also disappeared. Seyoum could not be reached either. We feared the worst.
It emerged that the Trade and Industry Minister Haile Weldensae had been arrested, along with other leading figures who opposed the President Isaias Aferwerke’s increasingly authoritarian rule. The silence around the fate of the Eritreans became oppressive, and even the Committee to Protect Journalists could not discover what had befallen them.
Then, after months of silence, an email arrived from Paulos Zaid:
“It is now my 6th month since I left Eritrea on foot with only my sandals, single trousers and a shirt. This is to say that I left your address in my wallet, which I deliberately discarded at the jungle while I was crossing the mine-infested border with Ethiopia.
“At the moment, I do not have good news to tell you. If you remember my discussion with both of you at your hotel’s parking lot the night before you left, I was losing hope about and confidence in the much-talked politics of Eritrea. However, I did not realize that things would be falling apart at such speed as they have been doing in the past six months. Worse, the fire that is consuming many innocent Eritreans was to come to me if I did not flee on time. A couple of weeks after you left, I was picked up by three agents on my way home who just told me that I was frequently seen with ferenjis (White people).”
“Seyoum Tsehaye was also detained after I left. I really do not know on what charges he was detained. But I am sure it is not because of the dinner you hosted. Maybe Leonie cursed him for terrifying her about the lasagna she had that night. I very much suspect ..xx.. to have a role in all this plot. God, forgive me if I am wrong and sinning.
“Now I am contacting the CPJ to help me acquire a political asylum. Until recently I did not have freedom of movement. Now the situation is improving and I may contact the UNHCR and western embassies. I expect your advice in this case. I also need you to contact the CPJ people to put pressure on the matter. I wish I were exiled in Mars. If not in USA, Switzerland or Australia respectively. Am I demanding too much?
“Initially, I was very much disturbed and for some time suffered from insomnia. Now my health is improving. Internet service is very expensive here – 0.75 cents per minute. I have so far sacrificed 10 cigarettes to write to you. If I am able to acquire a visa for South Africa my first and major task will be to uncover the theft of your Volkswagen.
“(Under a distressful situation, humor serves as best medicine humankind could cheat themselves, Paulos Zaid, Fleeing Experience, Detention camp Press, 2099)
“Before I forget it let me tell you this: Kidane, the dark guy in a military uniform you saw in Asmara, has also cooperated with me in fleeing. Reason: (a) He fears death in a combat, (b) he was also considered as my accomplice in my “crime” of spying for a superpower. (c) he feared no one would accompany him in prison if I left alone.”
Kidane Yibrah was ostensibly a sports journalist seconded from national military service. Now safe in exile, Kidane revealed that he had led a secret life: he was one of the founders of an underground newspaper. Newly plugged into this journalistic diaspora, we discover that Seyoum Tsehaye had beens arrested, and that Haile Weldensae may have been killed while in detention.
Eventually, both Paulos and Kidane managed to get to the US, and were they were granted asylum, with the help of the CPJ.
While many have made lives outside of Eritrea, Seyoum is still in jail. Reports from a prison guard who escaped the country say that Seyoum has been held in solitary since his arrest He is frequently tortured, yet he remains unbowed.
The government remains as resolute, refusing to budge, in fact turning the entire country into a giant prison. In 1999, Time magazine writer Johanna McGeary and I spent a little time with the president Isaias Afwerki, and he did not seem insane. Yet now, I am sure he and his inner circle should be in an insane asylum.
A few contact sheets from my trip in 1997. Massawa, Eritrea.