Between Homeland and Exile


Eritrean poet Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu has been living in exile in Germany since 2018, after spending six years as a political prisoner in Eritrea without charge or trial. In the Zwischenraum interview, she talks about the solace that writing gave her, about the political situation in Eritrea and about her new book "Freedom in Letters" - a personal correspondence with the writer Tanja Kinkel. A reading and discussion with both authors will take place at the Heinrich Böll Foundation on February 16.

Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu bei der Entgegennahme des Georg-Elser-Preises der Landeshauptstadt München

Safiye Can and Hakan Akçit: Dear Yirgalem, we congratulate you on recently receiving the Georg Elser Prize from the city of Munich. You call Munich your second home. What defines home for you?

Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu: Thank you. Safety, being secure and peace defines Home for me. Unfortunately, this doesn't happen everywhere and all the time. Like my country failed to be 'Home' to its citizens.

You are an Eritrean poet who was arbitrarily arrested in 2009 and imprisoned for 6 years without charge or trial in the worst possible conditions. In December 2018 you managed to travel to Germany as a recipient of the PEN Center’s Writers in Exile scholarship. How do you endure the great longing in exile and how do you bear the burden of not being able to return home and see your loved ones?

It's hard. Even the word 'hard' doesn't exactly describe it. While I was in prison, my parents, siblings, friends, and relatives, who were in distress and grief because of my imprisonment, were the ones who tormented me the most. I believe they were all very happy when I got to safety. It is a matter of choosing. Choosing the better worst. Is it the grief I felt in prison or the longing I have in a safe place? Both are very difficult. But it is better to long in a safe place than to suffer in prison. It's not something you can do, it's something you must live with. On top of that, as there is no public internet service in Eritrea, we can't talk as much as we want, and we can't even see each other on video calls.

You wrote the poems in your volume Ich bin am Leben / I am Alive, which was published in German translation in 2023, in prison. How were you able to write in prison and what meaning did writing in prison have for you?

Contents of ''Ich bin am Leben'' are poems written at three times. Before arrest, in prison and after. They are translated from my poetry book of 130 poems published 2019 in Tigrinya. The poems written before my detention are taken from my collection, which I submitted to the censorship office in 2008 and is still there denied publication. I was in a place where all kinds of human rights were violated, where paper, pens, books, visitors were not allowed, and there were rules that even talking to a prisoner like you would lead to punishment. So writing isn't allowed either. But here we are talking about poems born in prison. I just want to say one thing about how this happened. Every prisoner has his own unspeakable technique. In prison nothing does set in quickly. The days are very long until you feel the days are stuck together. An hour alone in a locked 4m2 cell feels like almost a day long. I believe I could have had better days in prison because of my poems. They were my comfort, my hope, my wound healing. They kept me busy and entertained me. There were times my poems made me feel like I wasn't alone in that tiny concrete cell.

Do you think that anger at the injustice you and many others experienced was what motivated you to write?

Coincidentally, I started writing when I was a child. I loved writing ‘poems' when I wanted to put my feelings into words. I believe that the anger of the injustice I experienced and saw committed against so many innocents motivated me to be their voice. Anger can be harmful to health. But it is necessary for the fight against injustice. Many of my poems are the result of such feelings.

How divided the Eritrean community is, can also be seen by the violent clashes that often take place during the Eritrea festivals in Stuttgart and which are organized by pro-regime associations. How do you explain that despite the obvious crimes of the dictator Afewerki, many people support this regime?

In fact, these events organized and named as festivals, are not exactly festivals. These events have disclosed the years of differences between Eritreans to the international community and medias. I can say surely that the regime is behind the events and the conflicts. But who are the supporters of the dictator? I'd rather talk about the pro-regime than about the justice seekers. I don't think there is a question for standing up for your rights and the rights of others but being a supporter of a dictator at the same time. Most of the supporters of the regime have been living in exile almost my age. Their children were not taken from their arms to the military. They were not forced to serve for free for unlimited years or and taken to war. They were not arrested illegally. All their children are in their arms. They have houses in Eritrea built with money they saved in exile. But they don’t want to live there and have never lived in Eritrea a single year in the last 30 years. So that they have never been forced to live in the dark because of lack of electricity. They did not worry about the lack of water, nor did they have to buy bread by the number of their family members. They did not ask permission to travel from city to city within Eritrea. They are the only ones who can travel to and from Eritrea. They pay 2% of their salary, organize fundraising and propaganda events here in the name of festivals in solidarity with the dictator. Those who stood up for justice were those, who experienced all this suffering and those who were angry at all the suffering.

The book Freiheit in Briefen / Freedom in Letters was recently published by Akono Verlag, which is about a personal correspondence between you and the author Tanja Kinkel about writing and everyday things, but also about the situation in Eritrea, the repression, and your experiences in prison. How did this project come about and what does the correspondence with Tanja Kinkel mean to you?

Yes, a book of three years of correspondence Letters with author Tanja Kinkel has been released. It's a Pen Germany project. I think our book is the second book in the same way. Pen Germany may have their reasons for putting Tanja and I together. I just know I was so lucky to have that opportunity. Since I can't explain more about how the opportunity came about, I would like to use this question to thank author Tanja Kinkel, PEN Germany, Akono publisher, translators Miras Walid and Kokob Semer, and our editor Mekonnen Mesghena.

Buchcover "Freiheit in Briefen. Zwei Autorinnen im Dialog" von Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu und Tanja Kinkel, erschienen im Akono Verlag.

Reading & discussion on February 16, 2024 at the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin

What does freedom mean in a dictatorship characterized by censorship? How can language be found for the unspeakable? Where is home in exile? In the moving exchange of letters "Freedom in Letters", published by akono Verlag at the end of 2023, the writers Yirgalem Fisseha Mebrahtu and Tanja Kinkel share their experiences of writing in different worlds. On February 16, the Heinrich Böll Foundation invites both authors to a reading and a discussion. Register now!

Many people are still in prison or missing after being arbitrarily arrested. For families, this uncertainty is a daily torment. After your release, have you spoken to families who are still missing their loved ones? How did your family cope with your imprisonment?

One of the most challenging I faced after being released from prison was meeting the families of prisoners. Do you believe it? It torments me! What are you going to talk about to the families when you can't give them the whereabouts of their beloved ones who disappeared for many years. Even so they want to know the daily life in prison, I can't tell them the details of the experience I went through and what I saw there. I know it's going to hurt them. September is the month of various activities to memorize the 2001 arrests of many higher officials of the government, journalists and closing of the privet media in Eritrea. I've been posting a variety of posts on September since I left Eritrea. In 2021, I wanted to remember September in a different way and decided to visit families of prisoners. Amanuel Asrat's parents are in Germany. Dawit Habtemichael’s daughter who was born two months after her father's arrest, is also in Germany. I visited them. I met Seyoum Tsehaye’s sister and David Isaac’s daughter in Sweden when I went on other occasions. These are the families of the journalists who disappeared in 2001. I also met Mrs. Aster Yohannes’s sister in London. And many others on phone. It's all painful. I don't know what they feel when they see me. Do they feel hope, or they hurt? I don’t know! My family has badly suffered because of my imprisonment. However, I think my family was better than those families. At least my family knew I was alive.

What would you like your readers to do to help the people of Eritrea?

I want readers to have an accurate picture of the situation in Eritrea. For more than three reasons, I believe non-Eritreans don't know enough about Eritrea. Our weakness, the brutality of the regime in creating a blocked country, and the fact that the world has not paid enough attention to the issue of Eritrea. There is no government in Eritrea. There is only a regime that holds the country and its people hostage and tortured them. If this weren't true, I would be the first to be happy. Unfortunately, the reality is so sad!

I ask readers not to understand the differences between Eritreans as differences of opinion. No, it isn't. Supporting a murderous regime is not a right! However, as those conflicts are being run up by the regime in Eritrea, governments like Germany can stop them as well. If the regime's events stop, the conflicts will stop. Of course, the struggle against the oppressor will continue until the demands of the justice seekers are answered.  The regime in Eritrea benefits no one, not even its supporters! He's working restlessly to be an example of an irresponsible and warmonger-leader in the world. The people of Eritrea are suffering the most atrocities they have ever seen in history.

I ask everyone to use their voice to push their government to handle seriously the activities of dictators and their supporters! Let’s think for a moment like this, when you were a teenager, you were forced into the military. For years, you stayed in. You were arrested for not returning on the ordered date after the weeks you were allowed to visit your family. You had to go back to the military after you finished your imprisonment. Years have passed without you being allowed to work and live your own life. Your siblings were also taken to military when they were old enough. As life is hard for you, you try to leave the country. But you are arrested and imprisoned for years for trying to flee. And again, back to the military. There is no change. You try to escape again and again. One day you succeed. But still challenged, not done yet. You suffered in Libya and the Sahara Desert until you reached safety. You luckily escaped death in the Mediterranean, entered Italy and continued to Germany. You started life from the scratch. And still difficulties are not solved. Your siblings have been taken to war, and your families are in trouble. You cannot return to your homeland. You know the punishment you will face if you flee the country and return. Arrest! You believe that to bring back your family's peace and reunion, the regime in your country must be changed.

Others, who have not experienced all these problems in themselves or their families, stand against you. For the regime to stay in power, they contribute money from their salaries of the country where they live in exile with you. They organize fundraising events, which they call "Festivals". They propagate war, the war which your siblings are involved forcibly, not their brothers! Because you opposed the dictator and the war, they say: "You are not Eritrean. You were paid by the West to oppose.” We Eritreans, those who want regime change in Eritrea, are facing such a problem. What would you do if you were in our position?

Once Again, I ask readers to understand the situation in Eritrea and open their heart, eyes, and ears to the Eritrean justice seekers voice.