Writers in Exile: What Shuts Them Up?
Authors fleeing persecution today are haunted not just by memories, but the ongoing threat of reprisal.
This essay is the prelude to a new LRC series, “Exiled Voices: Dispatches from the Lives of Émigré Writers in Canada.” Each month we will feature a series of pieces by a different writer or journalist who, in recent years, arrived in this country as a refugee, fleeing a homeland where their lives were at risk.
Fleeing into exile is a terrifying experience. Some of the accompanying events and circumstances are anticipated, as the new place, new language, new culture, even new weather systems, not surprisingly, make life challenging, at least for a few months. Others—the psychological and social traumas that can catch one completely off guard—may be unexpected. These challenges are particularly true for writers in exile, and as true (if not even more acutely so) today as it has been historically.
During the Cold War—that is, up until the fall of the Berlin Wall—many writers and intellectuals fled the Eastern bloc to the West, where they sought full protection from host countries. Due to more or less clear-cut ideological differences, the countries of the West and East had a clearly articulated relationship, in which the writer in exile had a more or less clearly defined role: the countries of the West were curious to know what was going on in the East, and one source was exiled writers; thus, the western countries used the work of exiled writers in the service of their own political agendas. This relationship in turn enabled writers in exile to practice their writing freely under the safe umbrella of their host country. Moving on with their lives, including the practice of their professions, was a relatively “straightforward” matter.
I fled Eritrea in 2001, after my life was threatened by a regime that had converted the entire country into a prison.
This paradigm has changed completely in the 21st century. No longer are ideologies so clearly demarcated as they were during the Cold War. The flow of writers in exile comes not only from Eastern Europe, but also from Africa, Asia and South America—from countries of differing strains and species of political ideologies, ones where censorship and intimidation tactics have a different quality and more insidious reach.
Most writers in exile are refugees who had been subjected to jail and torture because of what they wrote; yet, even in their relatively safe host countries, they still live in constant fear. The East-West dichotomy of the previous century no longer prevails, and democratic countries maintain relationships with dictatorial regimes for economic gain, even in the face of poor human rights records. Canada, for example, invests in Eritrea’s mining industries, while France invests in the Congo and the United States in Egypt. Moreover, the dictatorial regimes that exiled the writers in the first place continue to intimidate them and their families. As a result, writers in exile do not feel secure. Most of the time, they write under pseudonyms.
I fled Eritrea in 2001, after my life was threatened by a regime that had converted the entire country into a prison—a fact confirmed by Human Rights Watch in its 2011 Eritrea: Free Political Prisoners 10 Years On. Eritrea is located in northeast Africa: it is bordered in the northwest by Sudan, in the south by Ethiopia, in the southeast by Djibouti and in the east by the Red Sea. It has a population of five million, approximately half Christian and half Muslim.
Eritrea was under colonial occupation for about a hundred years. It was a colony of Italy from 1890 to 1941. After Italy was defeated in World War Two, the British took over and remained until September 1952. Then the United Nations forced Eritrea to federate with Ethiopia so as to give land-locked Ethiopia access to the sea: UN resolution 390 of December 1950 referred to Ethiopian claims on Eritrea “based on geographical, historical, ethnic or economic reasons, including in particular Ethiopia’s legitimate need for adequate access to the sea.” The federation survived for a decade before Ethiopia violated the agreement and annexed Eritrea in 1962. The Eritrean people launched an armed struggle and, for the next 30 years, fought for independence. Finally, in 1991, the Eritreans managed to clear out the colonizers, and, in 1993, the country officially became independent following a referendum.
The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice, previously known as the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, is the country’s only political party and it has ruled Eritrea since 1991. The head of PFDJ and armed forces, Isaias Afworki, was appointed president. A dominant figure, he keeps postponing general elections, which have not taken place since 1993. He refused to implement the constitution after its ratification in 1997. The border conflict with Ethiopia serves as a pat excuse for curbing human rights and civil liberties. There is no freedom of movement, freedom of religion or freedom of speech. People cannot travel around the country without a permit; travelling abroad is prohibited if one is under the age of 50. People end up in jail if they practise religions outside of Islam or Christianity (be it Protestantism, Catholicism or Orthodox Christianity). All independent presses were shut down in 2001; about 30 journalists were jailed. Thousands of people, including senior government officials, were arrested because of their political views. The country is run without a constitution and the Eritrean parliament has not met since 2002.
I was co-founder and editor-in-chief of Setit, the first and largest independent newspaper in Eritrea. The four-year period during which the newspaper operated (1997–2001) was difficult, particularly after the two-year border conflict with Ethiopia ended in 2000. We attempted to exert pressure on the government to implement the constitution, fight corrupt generals, focus on education, improve health care, and review the land and investment policy.
Of course, government officials were not happy with the content that was critical of the regime. Intimidation and threatening phone calls by government spokespeople and other senior PFDJ officials became part of our daily routine.
Nevertheless, the government could not halt the newspaper’s momentum. We persistently called upon the government to respect the rights of citizens and to implement our constitution. We published stories about the arrest of 2,000 university students, including the student union president, for refusing to sign up for a compulsory work program set up by the government. We became the voice of the people by echoing their pain and real concerns.
The tipping point came on June 5, 2001, when I published an open letter by 15 senior government officials (known as the G-15). The G-15 criticized the president and called for democratic reforms. The intimidation and harassment intended to block the free press escalated. The enforced and unjustifiable conscription, interrogation and arrest of journalists became standard practice. It was a routine matter for me to be summoned once or twice a week to answer trivial questions. “What are you trying to say in this line? What do you mean? Where did you get this information? Why do you write this story while the country is at war?” (The country was not at war at the time.) The tactics were symptomatic of a paranoid government.
“If you write any further criticism of the government, that will be your final byline.”
At the beginning of September 2001, I wrote a strong editorial about how a fight between two elephants ruins the grass. In it I pointed out that the fight between the president and the G-15 will escalate the suffering of our people, and I criticized the president for not responding to the reformers’ requests promptly. That night, when I arrived home around 10 p.m. two security officers rushed out from the shadows of my house. They blocked my path, standing a mere eight centimetres away from me. Their faces were half-hidden by their hats, making it hard to recognize them.
“Hey, we just came to give you a final piece of advice,” said a short man as he jabbed a gun that he had hidden in his jacket into my ribs. “If you write any further criticism of the government, that will be your final byline.”
I didn’t dare say anything until he moved the gun away from my ribs.
“Who are you?” I asked.
They didn’t answer directly. “Just listen to the advice we are giving you.”
That was the red flag. The government did not cross the line until the events of September 11, 2001. The attack on the World Trade Center was a game changer and President Isaias Afwerki’s regime exploited the occasion. On September 18, 2001, he ordered all seven independent newspapers, including Setit, to cease publication. That same day, the government arrested eleven of the fifteen senior officials who criticized the president in the open letter. In the days that followed, nine journalists were arrested. Luckily, the night they came for me, I was not at home. I managed to evade the regime’s tightening grip.
The accusations levelled against me and other journalists were astounding. The government media blamed us for violating press law, collaborating with the enemy, evading national service and receiving funds from foreigners—all baseless accusations. If they had been true, the government could have laid charges against the jailed journalists, but to date it has not. The journalists have remained imprisoned without due process since 2001; four of them have been confirmed dead and nobody knows the fate of the others. However, since they have been held in shipping containers in Eiraeiro (a prison camp with an average temperature of 40 degrees Celsius), their fate is, sadly, all too predictable.
Currently, no privately owned news media function in what is considered the worst country for journalists in the world. Reporters Without Borders ranks it last in the press freedom index of 178 countries. Based on the statistics for 2011 compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists, Eritrea is now the second-worst jailer of reporters – behind Iran and ahead of China, not to mention Burma and Syria.
When a colleague and I attempted to cross the border of Sudan and Eritrea with the assistance of a guide, we encountered the Eritrean army patrolling the border. They opened fire when we refused to surrender. I ran. I ran fast. My colleagues followed, but both were captured. After seven hours, travelling at an exhausting pace, I entered Sudan. It was January 6, 2002. Once the regime realized I had fled, security agents arrested my brother and my cousin in reprisal.
I was fortunate: the Canadian government granted me political asylum.
But although I thought I had left the harassment behind, that was not to be the case. The Eritrean government employs a long international arm of terror to vandalize, attack and punish its critics—wherever they are. I criticized the Eritrean government representative in Canada repeatedly in Meftih, the monthly newspaper I have published in Toronto since 2004, for manipulating the community festival to carry out the Eritrean regime’s political agenda and raise funds. On July 23, 2007, while I was having lunch in Dahlak, an Eritrean restaurant on Bloor Street, someone slashed two tires of my car. I informed the police, but the vandals were never apprehended.
I also criticized the Eritrean government for converting the country into a huge prison camp in a blog I was writing in the Tigrinyan language at asmarino.com. I awoke the morning of January 3, 2008, to find the front and rear windows of my car smashed. I could do nothing but inform the police about the vandalism.
I am not alone. There are approximately 50 Eritrean journalists who live in exile. Half a dozen live in Canada, most in constant fear, and some of those who continue to write do so under pseudonyms.
Some of us wonder who is governing here: the Eritrean or the Canadian government?
The supporters of the regime who live abroad practise their intimidation techniques under the guidance of representatives of the Eritrean government. Threats by telephone and harassment of family members still in Eritrea are also all too common occurrences. My wife took most of the heat. She was summoned to the police station several times between 2002 and 2007 to be interrogated about my activities in Canada. When I wrote in my blog about the declining quality of education due to dissatisfied teachers and poor administration, she was summoned and asked if she was the primary source for the article. They made that assumption because she is a teacher. On several occasions, she was asked to provide a list of my close friends and associates with whom I had been in contact before I fled the country. Every attempt was made to block my sources. It hardly needs stating that for her, as well as for me, such interrogations and intimidations were mental torture.
Sometimes, some of us Eritrean Canadians wonder who is governing here: the Eritrean or the Canadian government? The expectation, after all, is that the Canadian government will be vigilant in protecting its citizens, regardless of their country of origin. We wonder, however, because the Eritrean consulate forces Eritrean Canadians to pay a 2 percent diaspora tax. The Canadian government advises anyone who is being coerced to pay this tax or being subjected to vandalism or physical violence to report the incidents to the local police or the RCMP. But apart from that, the Canadian government has done little. And individual members of the diaspora will not file such reports out of fear for their safety.
Canada maintains relationships with the Eritrean government despite Eritrea’s poor human rights record and despite learning that much of the money collected from the diaspora tax is being used to finance terrorists groups such as Al-Shabab as well as rebel activities from Sudan to Somalia.
It feels to us that the Eritrean regime is ruling here, under the very nose of the Canadian government. Unfortunately, despite the ceaseless filing of reports by civic movements such as Eri-Forum, the Canadian government has not yet taken action to ensure the safety of exiled writers or to express support for the UN’s proposal to ban the Eritrean diaspora taxation practice. Likewise, the Eritrean regime appears to function with impunity via its consulate and supporters abroad to silence its critics here in Canada.
The situation is not unique to the Eritrean diaspora, as will be demonstrated by the contributors to the LRC’s “Exiled Voices” project over the coming months. Émigré writers who fled dictatorial regimes are subjected to harassment whenever they pick up their pen to expose the ugliness of the regimes from which they fled. So menacing is the intimidation that it often deters them from practising their craft openly. They feel neither safe nor secure despite the thousands of kilometres between them and their homelands.
Although Canadians appear ready and open to learning about the experiences of writers in exile, the writers are not able to set themselves free. Often they suffer from psychological trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. The wound is as fresh today as it was yesterday—even for those who have been living in Canada for many years. They have nightmares about the torture they experienced in prison. They have nightmares and feel guilt about the colleagues who died right before their eyes. They have nightmares about the miraculous and incredible journey they endured crossing borders—a flight that spared their lives. They long for the spouses, children, parents, grandparents and friends they left behind. Like a movie being played in slow motion, visions of their loved ones are always in the forefront of their thoughts.
The trauma impedes their progress; that is why most of them shut up. They struggle to master the language, to secure gainful employment by competing with other refugees for odd jobs, to be reunited with their family who are trapped back home, and to move on with their lives, which seem to float somewhere between life and death, between reality and dream. The wound penetrates every aspect of their existence.
Thus it is not surprising that some writers in exile prefer to silence themselves until they overcome their immediate challenges. The trauma of being uprooted from their homelands, from the audiences they once knew and from the language they mastered is not only overwhelming; it is multiplied exponentially when the writer lives in fear for his or her life. Such trauma cannot heal easily or quickly; full recovery, if at all possible, takes considerable time. To integrate and establish themselves as writers in the host country is yet one more stage in the long journey.
Even for a writer in exile who did not undergo torture, the transition is not smooth. To be in exile is a dramatic, life-altering experience. Often one carries two personalities: one belongs to the original country, and the other to the host country. Bridging the gap between these two identities, between the two cultures, is a perpetual struggle, and tough to handle alone.
Writers in exile face the additional pressure of trying to protect their loved ones back at home. This is one of our biggest concerns. It took eight years to reunite with my wife and children because the Eritrean government kept my family hostage. They were not allowed to travel outside the country and the activities of my wife were scrutinized closely. However, at the end of 2009, thanks to a well-orchestrated operation, I managed to smuggle my wife and my children into Sudan; they joined me in Canada in May 2010.
Granting political asylum is an enormously generous act, but more needs to be done.
Fortunately now we writers in exile have a few, relatively good support systems in place. There are a handful of literary and human rights organizations that help us pursue our professions by finding placements in educational institutions or connect us with volunteer mentors.
PEN Canada and Canadian Journalists for Free Expression assisted me in finding a placement at George Brown College and Massey College at the University of Toronto.1 The placement, in turn, enabled me to familiarize myself with the Canadian system and gain “Canadian” experience. It was a humbling time, during which I reflected deeply on how I could pursue my career in this new place. The outcome was that I founded Meftih to serve the Eritrean Canadian community, which up to that time did not have a single community newspaper. Now my colleagues and I do our best to provide our community with news and educational articles that help them to understand how the political, economic and social systems of this country function.
However, organizations like the CJFE often have limited resources. Understandably, given that the Canadian government rarely funds these initiatives directly, they lack the capacity to help every one of us.
Granting political asylum to writers in exile, of course, is an enormously generous act undertaken by a government. It provides a safe haven that writers can call home. Canada grants rights that were denied in their home countries. But more needs to be done.
In cases such as that of Eritrea, where the dictatorial regime works under the guise of “community” to silence its critics and coerce people to pay the 2 percent tax, the police should be empowered to create stronger liaisons with the community and take cultural and political training about the conflicts in regions such as the Horn of Africa, to better understand and more effectively tackle the issues.
With respect to writers in particular, without a doubt, we all would benefit if the government were to allocate budget funds to enable them to practise their professions here.
Writers in exile, after all, can be bridges or tunnels connecting cultures if they can stay the course. They have the skills and competencies to describe the commonalities and differences of cultures. They can play a vital role in identifying the challenges facing immigrants. They can enrich Canadian culture with new literary paradigms. The different perspectives they offer may also be beneficial to policy makers.
Indeed, there are about 300 community newspapers in Canada that, like Meftih, serve as bridges connecting the respective ethnic communities with mainstream Canadian society. Some of these newspapers are run by writers in exile. As a result, the ethnic communities are able to learn about Canada in the language they can understand. And the Canadian government can thereby learn about the challenges, priorities and success of the ethnic communities. Indeed, the role of these newspapers could not be more crucial in making Canada a true multicultural country that meets the emerging needs of contemporary Canadian society.
Thus, if we do not create a functional support system that helps writers in exile revive their careers and that addresses the complexity of Canada’s multicultural society in the 21st century, Canada will lose an incredible opportunity—and the dictatorial regime that made those men and women flee in the first place will claim victory.
Individuals, after all, can become engaged citizens once they know how the sociopolitical system of Canada works, which can happen through reading the papers. Instead of ghettoizing themselves, they participate in the democratic practices and institutions. As a result, we will see more responsible people who could ensure that no groups or individuals are excluded from exercising their rights. We will see more people who would work hard to make the government’s effort of making multiculturalism a success.
Such writers are key to helping preserve the treasure of multiculturalism. Indeed, through them we can make multiculturalism a treasure. That is why we should first help exiled writers to write openly and live without fear in this democratic country. They could be the first who adopt the core Canadian values and convey them to their readers—both here and abroad.