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Paradise Denied


About the Authors


Zekarias Kebraeb was born in Eritrea in 1985 during the war of independence. In 2002, he fled his native country to escape the military dictatorship’s inhumane regime. In 2006, he was granted leave to remain in Germany. He learned German and completed a German certificate of secondary education. He now lives in Nuremberg and has earned a qualification in hospitality.

Marianne Moesle, born in Allgäu, Germany, in 1960, studied German and Romance Languages at university. As a freelance journalist and author, she writes for Die Zeit, Brigitte Woman, Chrismon and various newspapers.


About the Translator


Andrew Godfrey was born in the United Kingdom in 1985. He studied German and Philosophy and now works as a freelance translator.

Zekarias Kebraeb

PARADISE DENIED

How I survived the journey from Eritrea to Europe

As told to Marianne Moesle
Translated from the German by Andrew Godfrey

This translation has been carried out with the support of the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union (Frontex).

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PREFACE


“Nobody survived,” said the otherwise cheerful young man, his big brown eyes filled with tears he was trying unsuccessfully to hide.

He doesn’t say anything else, breathing deeply in and out to calm himself, glancing at a horizon broken by waves from the Mediterranean, a scene as if staged for just this moment. We stand there, silent and preoccupied, for many minutes, sharing the same appalling visions. Only the sun shines indifferently on this February day in 2011, in the midst of the Arab Spring.

A few nights before, a boat with roughly seventy refugees had vanished into the depths of the sea. Without attracting any attention, without being reported in the newspapers. It was just one of the many boats that had set sail overloaded – with desperate men and women and their hopes for a better future. But hope is heavy, and the old boots couldn’t cope with the moods of the sea. They simply disappear, never leaving a trace, the world knowing nothing about them. Hope survives only in the chests of their mothers and fathers. They cling to it, praying incessantly that their children might survive the dangerous sea voyage to Europe and will one day contact them again with good tidings, to finally deliver salvation to those left behind. Salvation from apprehension, from torturous fears, from the many sleepless nights.

I’m standing in a Tunisian coastal town, Zarzis, in front of a tub-shaped barge corroded by the sea and grounded on dry land. It’s one of the last remaining ships in the harbor, and it served for many years in catching fish. Now it’s to be patched up as the next means of transport for refugees. Around me, the sounds of hectic hammering and torches welding. A worker stuffs balls of hemp into fist-sized holes in the ship’s bow to make it watertight. That’s how they look up close, the ships, which I’ve read about so often and to which so many desperate Africans trust their lives. In just the first eight months of 2014, the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, documented more than 100,000 fleeing across the Mediterranean toward Italy. How many drowned en route to that imagined paradise, no one knows for sure.

Testimonials, and the fates of those individuals – just as Zekarias Kebraeb describes them on the following pages – had moved me long before 2010 and the outbreak of the “Arab Spring,” which, more appropriately, should have been referred to as the “Arab Revolution.” Again and again I had sat in horror, watching TV, where news broadcasters reported on refugees risking their lives just because they wanted to live. I saw their exhausted faces – distorted by fear, but happy – when they managed to escape. And I saw the piles of dead bodies when circumstances were against them. Even then, I grabbed an atlas and traced the escape routes of those people from Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea or Sudan. I followed the countless miles through inhospitable territories, their daily struggle against hunger, thirst, and the arbitrary violence of gangs. Even then, some twenty years ago, I noticed that the reports were only written after the arrival of the refugees. Whether people were dead or alive when they left the rotting ships – that was documented. Their passage, however, plagued by a grueling mixture of doubt and hope, remained unimagined. It was for this reason that I made my way – in 2011, together with my cameraman – toward Tunisia, in order to crouch between 342 refugees to document with a camera a passage to the Italian island of Lampedusa.

As the first journalist.

The boat that Zekarias was squatting upon took off during the night. Our boat, too.

Refugee boats always set sail at night. That way, they’re beyond the sight of the police and the coast guard by daybreak. But it’s also so that refugees don’t recognize the disastrous state of the boats. That could cause panic. The storm and the salt in the face – everyone looks back toward the coast for a long time, a last time. If everything goes well. They think of their families, fight the fear in their stomachs and the nausea in their throats. Their eyes are glued to the shores, even when they’ve long since disappeared in the darkness. The image of their abandoned home remains before their eyes like a mirage, visible for all time.

Home. What is that?

A place of origin, of certainty. A love that you can lose sight of, but never forget.

Still today, nearly seventy years after her escape from eastern Prussia, my mother thinks of her homeland, feels it in every pore of her aging body, still sees herself as the little girl on the Baltic Sea, kneeling just a few minutes’ walk from her parents’ home, a soup spoon strung on a ribbon around her neck, collecting small pieces of amber. Still today, she has the smell of the sea in her nose, senses the light of her childhood through closed eyes. And although she has never returned to her place of childhood since then, that is home!

You can live without it, but without it, you cannot live.

Why, then, do people leave it all behind, fleeing their homes, their social quilt – all of which none of us can subsist without?

Why do they risk their lives and leave their parents, too, their desperate wives, and weeping children, the most important things in every person’s life? Because powerlessness has crushed them. Because they have already watched for far too long how their lives have collapsed upon them, and into the abyss. Because, as clear as they could see, the view on the horizon held no future. Hunger, thirst, beating, torturing – they have a face. Hopelessness does not.

Zekarias Kebraeb gives hopelessness a face. His stories, what he has lived and borne, move me, make me pensive and, at the same time, flush me with anger. Because we prefer to look away, to not listen, rather than take responsibility.

Because those we have democratically invested with power pursue other interests. “Africa’s problems must be solved in Africa,” said Otto Schily, Germany’s former interior minister. Even if many felt the statement a provocation, the truth is partially contained in exactly those words.

Africa has to be allowed to help itself. You have to allow Africa to help itself rather than exploit it, rather than maintain its state of dependence, enslaving it. For a large proportion of its problems, others are to blame – not the people of Africa. As long as instability is the ultimate instrument for economic and therefore political interests, there will be refugees. And climate change will do the rest.

Of the many stories that I’ve shot in the last thirteen years as a television journalist, my crossing on the refugee ship is the one that the holds strongest in my memory. It remains forever anchored in my soul. Occasionally I still dream of it, see and hear the people with whom I shared the tight space on the boat, on a dangerous journey into the unknown. I sense how we moved our trembling bodies close together, teeth chattering to the rhythm of the diesel engine to survive the coldest of my nights. I see men like Zekarias curled up, lying on the boat, and I think then of Issam and Khaled, with whom I shared the vomit-soaked blanket at night, with whom I shared hope in the constant sorrow of the forty-five hours on the high seas.

We survived the journey, and Zekarias, too. Thousands of others were not granted such good fortune.

“My paradise is called Europe,” writes Zekarias, reminding us, unconsciously, to be satisfied. Enough of the grumbling already! Because if we look around and listen, we cannot help but see how well we’re doing in Europe. In almost every category. For this reason, too, we can afford to act more humanely.

Cologne, September 2014

Jenke von Wilmsdorff


“The secret to freedom is courage.”

Pericles


June 2001, Asmara, Eritrea: I went north to Asmara Airport. One day towards the end of my time at school, I got on my green bike, which was made in Italy, and rode six kilometers directly to the airport terminal, where Asmara looks out onto Africa and the road out of the city, which was once called Piccola Roma, terminates in a roundabout. I found a small area of raised ground with a view of the runway, sat down in the dust beneath huge cacti, and stared into the distance, gazing at this seemingly endless stretch of stone, sand and scrub, feeling the wind that came down from the mountains across the high plateau of Asmara. The air was clear and filled with the smell of the desert, of the camels and horses that trotted past pulling small wagons laden with colorful goods. I looked at the sky and whenever a plane took off, I made a wish as though it were a shooting star.

“Please, take us with you to Europe!” we used to shout into the blue sky above Asmara when, as children, we saw planes taking off. I was five years old back then in 1990, just before the end of the thirty-year war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. Our city was sealed off from the world, we were hungry and we sang along to Michael Jackson’s: “We are the world.” Then the planes brought us sacks of flour. My mother could bake bread again and we children filled our bellies. This bread tasted different from any we’d known before – because the flour came from paradise. From Europe.

In the war, I wanted to survive; now I want to be free: to think freely, to live freely. And not to have to do the military service that our country’s military dictatorship forces us to do after school, because it’s not military service but slavery. My home is Eritrea on the Red Sea. Since Italian colonists from faraway Europe discovered this beautiful corner of the earth at the end of the nineteenth century, this once-free country has become a military prison. Without consulting the people of Eritrea, after the Second World War the UN decreed that this small country on the Horn of Africa was to be part of a federation with its larger neighbor, Ethiopia. Eritrea rejected this, and in 1961 the longest war ever fought on the African continent began. The war for independence lasted thirty years and broke out again in 1998 for two more terrible years, with border skirmishes continuing to this day. The wars have ravaged the country, the green forests and fertile fields have been scorched by torrents of bombs, and the people, who’ve forgotten how to grow millet, have become soldiers.

Because war traumatizes you, war gets inside your head. You can’t think of anything except war. It’s like a ghost. “War,” whispers the government, which since the last war has forced anyone who can walk, men and women alike, into military service and spent every last nakfa on arms. While the population live in dire poverty and depend on international aid, President Afewerki parades around in a military uniform playing the big man, when he isn’t racing through the country in one of his green land cruisers or squandering money on weapons. Two hundred and two thousand men and women serve in the Eritrean military, the largest army in sub-Saharan Africa, and the number is growing constantly. More and more soldiers are recruited, and many are sent to support Somali terrorists in neighboring regions. In future, school leavers will have to spend their final year of school in an army camp, and the University of Asmara has been closed and replaced by technical colleges in military training camps. Military service, which officially lasts two years for men and women, is routinely extended; nobody knows how long it will last. The rule is permanent recruitment: perpetual military service. When I think of this lack of freedom, I’m seized by boundless rage – a rage that’s greater than my fear of death.

In 2001, shortly after the end of the war, a great exodus began of those who didn’t want to serve in the army but wanted to be free instead. Sixty Eritreans a day fled over the border to Sudan: one thousand eight hundred people a month. Just a few years later, hundreds of thousands of my compatriots are applying for asylum across the world, including the entire national football team.

Human Rights Watch describes the country, whose borders are absolutely impermeable for young people, as the world’s largest prison. If our dictator Afewerki is confronted with these figures, he laughs and accuses the whole world of fabrication on a massive scale. “The people aren’t fleeing,” he explains. “They’re simply going for a picnic.”

Consequently, people smuggling is booming. Nowadays, the illegal crossing over the Eritrean-Sudanese border costs four thousand dollars. Four thousand dollars for a dream. I had this dream too: to be free, to live free, to act free, to think free.

I am a human being,

yet I can fly,

because I have wings

in my soul,

I do not fall

I dream …

… I wrote these lines in my schoolbook. I wrote, and when I wrote it was as though all my hopes had been fulfilled. I flew up into the air with the planes and dreamed with open eyes of big adventures and of the faraway paradise: Europe! But being a refugee is no picnic. Refugees risk their lives for freedom.


First stage:
“Nobody can force me!”


2 March 2002, at home in Asmara: I take another sip of lukewarm tea and look at my mother, who I call adey. She’s standing hunched over in the kitchen. I can’t see her face. There’s a white, powdery trail of flour running along her black braids of hair, which circle around her head before cascading over her shoulders like a waterfall. She’s baking our injera, millet bread, for the whole week. The dough that she’s stirring with a large wooden spoon in a tin dish makes a slurping noise. It’s just like every Saturday morning. The sun still hasn’t reached the kitchen window, and I’m freezing. I wrap my hands around the teapot on the blue charcoal stove for a moment and pour myself a fresh glass of tea. The radio plays Eritrea FM, the state broadcaster, around the clock: there aren’t any other stations any more. The sour aroma of the dough rises into my nostrils – the smell of my childhood. Everything is the way it always has been. I’m sitting on the low wooden stool covered with goat’s leather in front of the small plastic table, drinking my tea and biting off pieces of the sweet bread while watching my mother’s movements as she bakes the bread. The sizzling sound when she puts the dough in the copper frying pan to cook the dark flatbread like a pancake, the charcoal fire that she keeps going with a fan, and her gaze, which occasionally fixes pensively on the small statue of the Virgin Mary on the shelves. I wonder whether she’s still thinking about our big argument.

I reach for my green fabric bag, which I’m wearing over one shoulder across my chest. Military pass, army jacket, a few photos, my favorite cassette, the letter from my friend Tantu with the addresses – everything is there. Plus the five hundred dollars from my brother in England, that I’ve sewn into my waistband. Ready. Our cat Lilli comes up and rubs herself against my legs. I lift her up onto my lap and she presses against my stomach. As I stroke her back, she begins to purr. I feel warm. “Goodbye, my golden girl,” I whisper into her fur. “I have to go!”

Memories: I stare out into the garden, where the apricot tree is starting to bloom. It’s spring and I’m just about to turn seventeen. I was born in 1985 in the middle of a famine; of my seventeen springs, eight of them have been in wartime. Eight years of hunger, fear, curfews, blackouts, hiding. When I was very young, my family fled to the country, and then after the death of my father, my mother struggled along in the city with us children. In 1990, before the end of the war, Asmara was sealed off from the world. We were famished and I remember well the feeling of slinking to bed every evening with a grumbling stomach and pulling the sheets right up over my head. Then I would picture food to myself: sweet berries, milk with honey, and injera soft as butter. And I would cry and imagine what it would be like to live in freedom, to go somewhere where there was food to eat. “Europe!” was the magic word that soothed and sated me until I felt asleep.

On the day, in 1998, when war broke out, I was sitting in our garden on the ground beneath the apricot tree, my bare back bent forward, my arms wrapped around my knees, my nostrils filled with the scent of grass that I’d plucked. Adey emptied a bucket of water over my head to wash my hair. It was May and the air was clear in our city in the mountains where it’s always spring. As first my adey ran her fingers through my hair and then I did so myself – I was nearly thirteen, after all – we heard the terrible roar of fighter jets and, seconds later, the sounds of bombs detonating. I leapt to my feet. There was an acrid stench in the air; clouds of terrible black smoke wafted over the city. Someone had bombed the airport. But who? The Ethiopians? I couldn’t understand it. That evening it was pitch black, with not a star to be seen, and everything was cloaked in ghostly silence – except for whispered conversations on every street corner about who’d been killed and injured.

The renewed conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia lasted two years: many black days and nights, many dead and injured – thousands. One hundred and twenty thousand Eritreans and Ethiopians dead, millions injured and the entire population traumatized. My younger sister and I often hid in strangers’ houses after school, paralyzed by fear. Then at home we would crowd into our mother’s bed, trembling, and she would pray with us and tell us fairy stories to ward off fear. I prayed silently for my father to come back from America to take us away with him, but he never came. At that time, I still didn’t know that he’d died long ago.

I can still see the disbelieving horror in my adey’s face when she received the message that Samson, one of my two older brothers, was in hospital in Keren with severe injuries. Samson, always smiling and joking, who’d been forced onto a battlefield aged sixteen even though he wouldn’t hurt a fly. That morning, birds had been singing in our garden, and so my superstitious mother had been expecting good news.

I’m the fourth of my mother’s five children. She raised us and one of my cousins by herself and brought us through the years of war. I don’t know how she managed it. My father died shortly before my third birthday. My oldest brother Mikiele was sixteen at the time, just about to finish school; Rahel was eleven and looked after us little ones; my cousin Alex, who’d lost his mother as a baby, was ten; my great friend Samson was seven, and my little sister Adiam was two years old. She was the boldest out of all of us and always close on my heels.

Only the older children knew about my father’s death. My mother kept it secret from me and Adiam for a long time, just as many things are kept secret from children in Eritrea, because she was ashamed that her husband had died of a serious illness, forcing her to raise her six children alone. “A punishment from God,” it was said. In Eritrea, people believe that illness and death are divine punishments, though nobody knows what for.

After finishing school, Mikiele went to London to study biology. This was during the thirty-year war prior to independence, when you could still travel abroad. Even though he was one of the youngest PhD students, he worked for the BBC on the side – he needed to earn money to provide for us. There was no widow’s pension, and when our mother asked the church for help, the priest sent a photographer who took pictures of me and Adiam. Orphan children with curly black hair and large, serious eyes: we were adorable children, we could stare sadly into the camera, and we knew that our photos would stir the hearts of white families in Europe. I even had a sponsor sister in Germany, Franziska, whose family was supposedly regularly sending money to the poor orphan child in Africa: only we never received the money.

There is a saying in Eritrea: you’re a rich man if you have a priest in the family!

My mother kept asking about the money and my sponsor sister in Europe. The reply was generally: nothing’s come! She still went to church every day. “Hail Mary …” Every afternoon at half past four and on Sundays, when we children would be all spruced up. She’d sold all her gold jewelry so she could cook us lunch every day. She earned a few extra nakfa by sewing school uniforms: white shirts, red cardigans, blue trousers and skirts. But it wasn’t enough.

I knew Europe from my older brother. Every month, he sent us ten or twenty dollars, and one time he even brought us the money himself. “I’ll be there in half an hour!” he told us over the phone from the airport. My mother swept the whole house with a broom in an absolute frenzy, and exclaimed “Yoo-yoo-yoo!” – the joyful cry of Eritrean women, with such force that all the neighbors came to see what the fuss was about. The whole district celebrated the return of my brother, while I was feverish with excitement as if it was Christmas. When would I finally get to unwrap my presents? But Mikiele let me squirm. A kettle, a color TV, an iron – every electrical appliance you could imagine was handed out. He only brought out my package in the evening just before bedtime: jeans, a red polo shirt and Adidas trainers. I was so proud that I kept wearing the trainers even after they’d become far too small for me. My brother even got me a small keyboard for my room: “For playing music,” he said, like a proper little Eritrean boy. I composed songs on it, and at a church competition, “Who can write the best gospel song?” – like a church version of The X-Factor – one of my songs even achieved third place.

To me, Europe, my big brother’s new home, meant a place where people always had enough bread to eat, lived in vast villas and never had to work for their money, because it grew on the streets like ivy grows on the walls of buildings. We’d seen it on TV; all my friends thought the same. We didn’t know about ATMs. When my older sister, Rahel, fell sick with diabetes shortly before her wedding and was jilted by her groom, my mother said: “It would never have happened in Europe.”

We were convinced that God didn’t punish Europeans with illnesses, war and death. We couldn’t even imagine what Europeans died of. Did they die at all? For us, Europe was paradise, with snow that made the green valleys and mountains sparkle like jewels.

June 2001 to 2 March 2002, hidden in Asmara: I was sixteen years old, and the green military buses were waiting outside the doors of the former Catholic monastery school I attended. They were to take us directly from our last day of school to the Sawa military camp. The war of 1998 was over, but there was no end to the fear of enemies. Quite the contrary: due to the terrible impact of the destruction, hunger and death, the regime saw threats to its power from every quarter and had rapidly transformed into a hysterical military dictatorship. Nobody spared a second thought anymore for the law or the constitution that the people were demanding; instead, perpetual military service was introduced for boys and girls that would, if they were lucky, eventually be converted into civic service. Anyone who dreamt of a different life was out of luck.

From now on, the moment anyone finished school it meant ciao bambini, goodbye childhood: you’ll be marching to a different tune now. Attacking, shooting, crouching and taking cover, being brave and strong, hanging on, hanging in and being hung out to dry. But only a few young people volunteered for the army. The soldiers’ drill, the torture techniques commonly used as punishment – being made to stand in the sun with your arms outstretched and your feet chained, having your head submerged in cold water – and imprisonment without trial for the slightest infringement: none of this was a secret. No, that life wasn’t for me.

I skipped the celebrations on the last day of school. I wouldn’t survive military service. I wanted to write poems and stories, play music and go dancing. It wasn’t for nothing that my little sister Adiam nicknamed me “daydreamer”. When I thought of the army, all I could see was my cousin Alex, who’s like a brother to me, who absconded and then … No! Never. Alex has been kept in one of the torture camps for over two years already, where he has had to share a hot shipping container made of sheet metal, two by two meters, with two prisoners. They’re allowed to go to the toilet once a day, their only meal is lentils and tea, and in between that they get tortured. God only knows when he’ll be released.

God damn it, I don’t want to think about that. But I’ve heard of women who were so traumatized by the brutal abuse that after their military service they would always walk pressed up against walls facing backwards, and of men who scream wildly and can no longer sleep. Along with Ethiopia, Eritrea has among the most terrible punishments of any country in the world. I knew what I was afraid of.

Nobody noticed my absence among the several hundred youths at the end-of-school celebration. Adiam, my clever little sister, who was also in the final year of school with me because she’d skipped a year, was in on it: “Come on, let’s swap places,” she’d suggested to me a few weeks before. “You stay at home with mother like a girl, and I’ll learn to shoot.” She was probably right to think that I was too stubborn, too political and too timid for military service – and naïve too. But I simply replied: “You’ll see, we can have a shooting contest.” As if!

Unlike me, Adiam is feisty and reckless. I knew everything about her and she knew everything about me. When I was sad, she made me laugh, and so I didn’t tell on her when she stole sweets from our mother’s wardrobe and sometimes I even took her beating for her when she did. Sweets were rare. At New Year, we would carry burning cactus leaves through the city together, inviting people to jump over them for a few coins. Sometimes she accompanied me with a tin drum while I sang old liberation songs into a piece of wood that was doubling up as a microphone. Although I was shy, when I danced and sang through the streets, I forgot everything around me.

So, while my friends were receiving their school certificates and military IDs and listening to formal speeches, before being transported down dusty desert roads to the military camp, I was at home, turning the music up loud: “There’s a choice we’re making,” I sang along to my idol. I too had made a choice, but a different one; to begin with, I would refuse to go into the army. I made the beds every day, shaking out and folding the sheets. My mother, Adiam and I (the only children who were still at home) had divided the housework between us. Now I had to do Adiam’s job too: cleaning the floors of the four bedrooms and the kitchen every day. The tiles had patterns in red and white, blue and white, green and white, and black and white. I loved this work: it was like dancing, and I span around with a brush and an old T-shirt as a cloth, always to the same rhythm. I couldn’t have known then that this would be my only exercise for the next ten months, or else maybe I wouldn’t have been so carefree.

I was over the moon to have given the army the slip, as though it were a boyish prank. Later, sitting under our awei’e tree in the garden, also known as a toothbrush tree because its branches can be used for brushing teeth, I looked at the setting sun, which was reflected off our neighbors’ galvanized roofs. As I chewed on the branches and flowers of my favorite tree and a refreshing breeze ruffled up my T-shirt, for a brief moment I felt – free. A freedom that smelled of the awei’e tree.

I hoped this would be enough for me to escape notice, but a few days later a new conscription notice arrived at our house summoning me to the municipal military administration building. I didn’t go but let the appointment pass by, since I suspected that students like me who’d managed to dodge military service would be forcibly loaded into a van and transported away. I only turned up at the military administration building a few days later. “My mother needed me. She’s alone and I’m the only man in the house,” I replied to the official’s questions. “What? Alone? In my file, it says that your mother has five children. Surely one of them …?”

I explained that my older brother was in England, my older sister was married, my cousin was in prison, my other brother was in the army and so was my little sister. She laughed me down. “You know what? There are mothers in Eritrea who only have one child and they still have to go into the army.” Ignoring my objections, she hurled insults at me: coward, draft dodger, a traitor to my country. “Call your mother right away and tell her to bring you some clothes for the military camp.” – “I’m not going into the army,” I said defiantly. – “Oh, you want to make your own rules, young man? Just who do you think you are? Let’s be clear, we’re the ones who make the rules around here!”

“Oh St. Francis, please help me!” Screaming blue murder, my mother and her blind friend Hadas, who visited us every day for coffee, rushed over to the administration building. Hadas, invoking all the saints, exclaimed that I was like a second pair of eyes for her; my mother too pleaded and begged for her last remaining son to be allowed to stay at home. I myself insisted on my fundamental political right to self-determination. That was more than the military official could stomach. “Stupid boy, talking like a politician.” Once I agreed to report for the next conscription call in a few weeks time, she let me go. “I’m not going to be their slave,” I muttered as I left. “Even if it means I have to desert.”

I didn’t show up to report. Stubborn as ever, from that day forth I hid in our attic for ten months with my friend Tantu like a dangerous fugitive. Tantu is a nickname which means “mosquito” in Tigrinya, because he’s so small and nimble. Unlike me, he’d actually started his military service but had escaped at the first opportunity. I was glad he’d done so because boredom shared is boredom halved. And it was boring, incredibly boring, to hide in the attic. We waited, waited and waited some more, without even knowing what we were waiting for. Just like in prison.

Three hundred days, seven thousand two hundred hours, four hundred and thirty-two thousand minutes during which we did absolutely nothing except stare at the sky through a skylight. We listened to the radio, sometimes we discussed politics, sometimes we indulged in wild fantasies about Europe where people lived in freedom and could travel wherever they wanted or else study or party, and sometimes we told jokes and made each other laugh. Mostly, we just froze.

We often listened from up there to the conversations of my mother and her friend or my sister Rahel when they came round for coffee. Rahel was always cheery though things weren’t easy for her. Like our father, she’d developed diabetes – which was seen as a disgrace, likely the work of the devil. So our mother had sent her to a healer who cut into her body to allow the bad black blood to seep out. All humbug, but there was a war and we didn’t have money for medicine. Miraculously, Rahel survived and, after her first marriage fell through, married a man who, unlike the first time round, she’d found for herself rather than by our mother. While I was hiding, her little daughter, my sweet niece Ella, was born.

Over afternoon coffee, my mother and sister usually discussed circumcision. Rahel was opposed to it, adey was in favor: “It’s tradition … what would the neighbors think?” – “I don’t care,” replied Rahel defiantly. “The neighbors will cope if they find out. But your little granddaughter wouldn’t cope with the pain, just like I never have.” She argued with my mother a lot, often ferociously, but at the end she was usually crying in her arms. Tantu and I wanted to cry too.

Nonetheless, whiling away the hours in that ice-cold, musty attic was not the life we were thirsting for. The war against Ethiopia was over, we were young and we wanted to have fun like we saw in American shows on TV. How long had it been since we played basketball in the square outside our church, St. Francesco? Since we played music? Since we read poems and stories in the beautiful Art Nouveau theater at our school? I wanted to once again rent a six-hour Bollywood tearjerker from the video rental store, watch the first half and then take it back because I only had enough money for a three-hour rental. Or to hang a cassette recorder round my neck and dance to Eritrean gospel music beneath the deep blue Asmara sky. Instead, we were locked away. Our everyday existence consisted of hiding.

My mother tried again and again, sometimes kindly, sometimes angrily, to persuade me to report to the army after all. But I never wanted to go to that penal camp, as we called it. Men with the initials “MP” (for “military police”) on their sleeves systematically combed through the districts of the city. We were afraid of them – afraid of our own army, which tore boys and girls away from their homes and families to train them as soldiers. One time, Tantu and I were hiding out at his family home when soldiers, armed to the teeth, suddenly appeared at the door. It was a raid. “Now they have us!” Panicking and afraid, we barricaded ourselves in a storeroom.

The soldiers clattered through the house, turning over every cushion, poking the butts of their rifles under beds and in cupboards, and finally rattling our door. The room was being rented to a foreign student, lied Tantu’s sister. As if by a miracle, the soldiers believed her.

Our attic, which looked out onto the military barracks located diagonally opposite, was our haven where we waited for months for a solution that didn’t exist. How I hated those walls surrounded by barbed wire, that imposing gray concrete hulk with its monstrous watchtowers. Even as a child it had frightened me, and likewise the soldiers who went in and out, tormenting us whether they meant to or not.

That was our life – or rather our not-life, for a life in hiding is no life at all. Either Tantu and I had to give ourselves over to slavery (because that’s what it is) of our own free will – or else we had to run away. That was the only way out. If they caught us, we’d be forcibly taken to a military camp, and if they didn’t, maybe we had a chance. Escape! Yes, a new magic word. But where to? China, India, America – we had no idea, we only had a handful of images in our minds. This hope slowly grew in us until finally, every morning after waking we asked each other: “Where?” Where would we go, if we could leave the country?

Europe? Europe was the only part of the world we thought we knew. I dreamed of being there in a green valley full of yellow flowers, with snowflakes falling from the sky and fluttering down onto my dark hair, which was sticking out in all directions, and landing like silver pearls and diamonds on my dark skin. The snow felt soft and warm – that was how I imagined Europe.

At first it was just a dream, a game, but gradually it became serious. Tantu and I talked more and more often about what it would be like to flee to the Promised Land. We became completely euphoric and suppressed any thought of the many thousands of African migrants who on their way to Europe had died of thirst in the blazing Sahara, been killed by human traffickers, drowned in the Mediterranean or, once in Europe, thrown themselves out of the windows of their asylum centers out of sheer despair. No, we didn’t want to think about any of that. In our minds, we were strolling through valleys and forests; in reality, we didn’t even know how we’d make it as far as the first roadblock.

“We’ve found a smuggler!” One day we were called to Tantu’s family because they had actually managed to arrange for a man to smuggle us over the Eritrean-Sudanese border. But when we were stood before him, he said: “Sorry, only one of you …” He wouldn’t budge. “No, I’m not taking two with me!” – “Why not?” Tantu didn’t want to leave without me under any circumstances. The risk with two refugees was too great for him, the smuggler said, shrugging. It was as simple as that, unless we were prepared to pay an extra thousand. Tantu’s family, who’d been saving money for their son’s escape for months, urged him to go.

“Fly away, mosquito!” I said, even though I was desperately unhappy. Concealing my disappointment, I bumped my shoulder against his. “We’ll meet up in Europe.” We shook on it.

After that day, I was alone – and I was angry. The frustration that had been mounting up for months was festering, and I ran around the house from morning to midnight. I wanted to get away too, I had to escape, leave my home, leave behind this beautiful corner of the earth that sacrificed its children for weapons, leave behind my family, my mother. I called my older brother Mikiele in England and asked him to send me money.

He did it right away, without asking any questions. He’s not the kind of person who would; he prefers to bury his head in his books. In Eritrea, it goes without saying that family members help each other out, even if they don’t always agree with each other’s plans. “Good luck!” he said, and: “Look after yourself, little brother!” He told me to call him when I reached Europe.

David, a distant relation who worked as a nurse, knew how to get a fake military pass to get through the police checkpoints that were on every street corner. I planned to ask for his help too, as soon as I’d spoken with adey.

The argument: “Adey?” The house was empty. I wanted to get out and stop hiding. I never wanted to sit in that cold, spider-infested attic ever again. I slammed the door to my room behind me so hard that the wood splintered. One more spark and everything would explode, I would explode. I threw myself onto the bed, making the iron bed frame creak, and stared at the blue wall opposite where I’d pinned up a poster of Michael Jackson. “Oh man, you’re lucky! There’s nobody preventing you from achieving your dreams!” I wanted to cry. I didn’t want anything special: just a future!

I lay motionless on the bed. “I won’t go!” I’d bellowed during our last argument when my mother had tried to persuade me to obey the conscription order. I wasn’t a rebel, not at all, but I did have a mind of my own – in fact, it was something my adey was proud of. That was why she liked to tell the story of the day of my birth: “It was after curfew when Zekarias decided to enter the world, but he wasn’t having any of that! He had his own ideas.” When she went into labor in the middle of the night, my mother had to call the enemy Ethiopian soldiers, who were besieging Asmara, to take her to the hospital. I was born well after midnight, so exhausted that I didn’t make a sound. I only cried for the first time the next day when my father and siblings came to the hospital. Right at the start of my life, I’d managed to defy restrictions. I would do it again!

I stood up, opened a window and looked out onto the street, down to Harnet Street, the street of freedom. For crying out loud, I can’t take this anymore. What’s taking you so long, my adey? A few times she’d played a joke on me and exclaimed in a horrified tone of voice: “Get your head out of sight, Zekarias, or the president will see you and drag you to the military camp himself!” My adey has a sense of humor. She’s the best adey in the world, and the most beautiful too when she plaits her hair into fine braids around her head. Whenever we argued, she always said at the end: “Yeah, yeah, you pig-headed boys always think you can smash right through any barrier and turn the whole world upside down. But that’s a good thing, because if you don’t change the world, who will? Even if you get several good thrashings along the way.” But the longer I stayed in hiding, the more often I locked horns with her.

I heard the squealing sound of the heavy iron door that leads into our courtyard: that had to be her. Adey approached the house with a bulky, dark blue sports bag in her left hand and several plastic bags in her right hand. She was standing up straight but still looked tired. Though I couldn’t know for sure, I guessed that the bags were once again filled with countless things that she thought I needed for the army. She always brought me something from the city: dried fruits, vitamin pills, malaria medication, long-sleeved T-shirts, shorts … for God’s sake! She couldn’t leave it alone. A powerful rage seethed up in me – this wasn’t a weak, harmless, little outburst, but the rupturing of a dam.

She’d barely stepped through the open front door before I screamed wildly: “Why did you bring me into the world? For God’s sake …” I ran through the hall to the front door where adey was standing, rooted to the spot. She was bent slightly forward so that her purple chiffon dress draped over her feet. “What’s the matter, Zekarias?” she cried in dismay, putting her bags down. She’d never seen me like this before. “I mean, you knew exactly how shit this life would be, didn’t you?” I repeatedly stamped my bare foot down on the black and white tiles and slammed the palm of my hand against the wall. “War, hunger, slavery; bang! bang! and you’re dead! Do you want that? It’s pointless!”

“Zekarias, please,” my mother tried to calm me down. “What you do want exactly? You can’t keep hiding.” Yes, I knew she meant well. She was sick of this stupid game of hide and seek too and was afraid of the day when they would finally find me. But right then, all I could think about was myself – about my future – and so I shouted: “Why on earth did you even give birth to me? So I could be cannon fodder? Didn’t you ever hear of contraception?” – “Zekarias, are you crazy? I had no choice and I took my children as they came.” – “Oh, you had no choice? You take things as they come?” – “Yes, exactly!” – “Don’t you have any thoughts of your own, adey, has this country ground you down so much?” – “No, it’s not that, I’m just being sensible.” – “Children should fight wars out of duty to their fatherland or duty to their mothers, is that it?” – “Zekarias, stop this at once.” I wanted to reply: Oh, to hell with Africa, to hell with Eritrea, where people, all of them, are forced to do military service. I didn’t want to do that – I wanted to live democratically, to live in freedom. And now even my own dear adey was sending me there …? Even though I’d told her a hundred times that I wouldn’t let them take me to the Sawa military camp unless it was as a prisoner in handcuffs.

“Do you really want your children to end up as slaves in a prison or a war?” Surely she would finally understand? “Of course not!” – “If I’d been in your position, I wouldn’t have had any children. That would have been the sensible thing to do, to not have any!”

“But Zekarias, I … I’m not sending you to prison.” – “And the clothes you’ve bought for me – what’s that about? I dream of a better life. And if needs be …” – “How exactly are you planning to live off your dreams?” adey interrupted me firmly.

Without paying any further attention to her bags in the doorway, she then gathered her dress up above her hips and stepped over our hens, which were now swarming around her feet. Then she laboriously unwrapped her gazella, her headscarf, from her shoulders and head and laid it on the wooden hall stand. My friends envied the fact that I could talk to my mother about anything, even when we had different opinions. That’s not normal between mothers and sons in Africa. She understood me, even when we argued about arranged marriage, circumcision or quack healers, and even when she made fun of my modern views and I made fun of her traditional ones. Other parents hit disrespectful children on the back with a belt and press their heads into bags full of spicy pepper.

“Everyone has to help to build our country up,” she said now. “Eritrea is independent …” – “Don’t make me laugh – independent? Eritrea’s mountains and valleys are independent, perhaps. But it doesn’t matter whether a country is free if I can’t do what I want.”

“Zekarias, we fought so that one day our children would have it better than we did.” My mother held out her arm to me. It was covered with a dark henna pattern from a long-ago wedding. She still wanted to calm me down. But I stepped back, and defiantly braced myself against the yellowing whitewashed hallway wall, one foot propped back.

“Better? Don’t make me laugh! How is it better to force us to serve a dictator and keep on fighting?” As I said this, my mother’s dark eyes shrank. I could see every wrinkle and twitch of her mouth. “But,” she said sadly after a pause, “you’ve just been hanging around for ten months. What exactly do you want to do, if you don’t join the army?”

Well, what did I want to do? Nothing. I didn’t know. All I knew was that things couldn’t go on like this forever. “I want to dream, not fire guns; write, sing, dance and play like other young people across the world …” Why couldn’t she accept that? When I wrote, it gave me fulfillment. Even at school I used to write: lots of poems and stories, especially heart-rending love stories, most of which were published in a youth magazine. During my months in hiding, I’d even continued to write under a pseudonym.

I love my homeland,

I love the poverty,

I feel the absence of justice,

I suffer from the power of the powerful,

I suffer from my lack of power,

I don’t want to watch any more,

I don’t want to grieve any more,

I want to do something.

So much for the dream. Forget about writing! With precisely calculated timing – one week after the devastating terrorist attack in New York – Solomon Abera, one of Eritrea’s most famous journalists, had announced at midday on 18 September 2001 on the state radio station: “As of today, freedom of the press is prohibited.” From that moment on, independent TV, radio and newspaper outlets were abolished and opposition journalists and ministers who opposed the plan were imprisoned. The global public didn’t take any notice.

Thinking of this, my rage surged up again, a bottomless anger. I jerked away from the wall, took a run-up and kicked my mother’s shopping bags through the open front door out onto the parched grass. “What am I going to do now? I want to live!”

Our hens fluttered round in agitation. Adey loved her hens, and had raised them all by hand. But right now she didn’t pay any attention to the clucking throng; instead, she took a deep, loud breath and stood up straight. Then she looked up for a moment, right up at the apricot trees outside our house, covered with pink blossom like clouds at sunrise. “Zekarias …!”

“I spit on the independence of Eritrea, if I’m not allowed to have my own opinions!” I shouted. “That’s my human right. Absolutely nobody can force me against my will – not you, not the state. You’ll see …” And suddenly my voice went quite quiet. “I’ll find a way.” – “Careful, your stubbornness will be the death of you.” – “Well, if that’s how it has to be … then it will be at sea en route to Europe!” – “No!” – “That would still be better than waiting here for my freedom until I die.” – “No, you have no choice but to do military service like everyone else, and that’s the end of it! Selam habeni! And now leave me alone!”

“You’ll see …” With these words, I stormed through the dark hallway back into the house: not into the attic, but into my room, where I lay trembling, wrapped in one of my many blankets. Dear God, there was nothing for me here except stagnation. I was a prisoner of “not yet”, motionless, trapped and lethargic. But I wanted to run, far away from here.

Father? I suddenly thought of him. He’d never had a high opinion of the army or of war; on the contrary, during the thirty-year war with Ethiopia when he was a lecturer at the University of Addis Ababa and later here in Asmara, he taught his students to think independently, to act independently – independently, not as a slave …

I must have fallen asleep because when I woke up it was dark. There was a shuffling sound in the hall – adey getting ready for bed – and then silence again. Outside, it was cold and the clear night sky was filled with stars. I lit a candle which cast long shadows on the wall, and suddenly I heard the howling of hyenas from the nearby mountains: animal choirs, whining and laughing. Free, all at once I felt free, free like I hadn’t felt for ten months. All my fears and worries vanished.

My gaze alighted on Michael Jackson; wearing a silver suit, silver shoes and white socks, a microphone in his hand, which was adorned with an elegant, glittery glove, his hair gleaming and smooth, his skin light, wearing sunglasses and a black hat. That wasn’t an illusion: he was real. He could sing and dance and moonwalk wherever and whenever he wanted.

Tantu had written me a letter to say he’d arrived safely in Khartoum in Sudan: “Come on, Zaki, get a move on!” Didn’t I actually owe it to my father to fight for my freedom? He would have been proud of me, if he’d known my plans – and who knew, perhaps he was even looking down at me from heaven. I laughed into the darkness, and suddenly everything seemed quite simple: get up and go. “Andiamo! Mr. President, it’s time for a picnic.” I breathed my words into the candle flame, causing it to flicker and then go out. My decision was firm; I would go without looking back.

Lilli meowed at the door to my room. “Come in, my golden girl.” How often I’d argued with my sister Adiam about her! Who Lilli got to lie next to while we watched TV in the evenings, who got to take her with them to bed and who she would come to of her own accord. Eventually, we let the cat decide for herself and left our bedroom doors open so that Lilli could cuddle up with either me or Adiam. If she came to me, I laughed mockingly at my sister: “You lose; she’s sleeping with me, gutted! Lilli has impeccable taste, she doesn’t like you, she only likes meeeee!” Since my sister had gone into the army, Lilli came to me every evening, making a beeline for my sheets as soon as I opened the door for her. I would miss her.


Second stage:
“Passes, please!”


NZZ Online, 4 November 2007

In Eritrea, there’s no way to go but out
This year, Eritreans accounted for the highest number of asylum applications in Switzerland. The Justice Minister believes that this is due to the decision to accept Eritrean deserters. But the number of Eritreans is increasing throughout the rest of Europe too. They are leaving their country in droves to escape widespread state terrorism. (…)

2 March 2002, Asmara, departure: My mother is still stirring the dough, but now she smiles, turning her face round. “Tzubokh gerka! – Well done!” is all she says, sticking both her thumbs up. The radio is playing a show about Michael Jackson featuring my translation of his biography from English that I did a few weeks before. I can’t hold back my tears and have to turn away. “Kulu dehando? – Everything OK?” asks adey – “… Yes, but take a look in the mirror, your hair’s gone completely white.” – “No wonder, with all the time I spend worrying about you.” – “Aren’t you glad to have at least one man about the house?” – “Yes, yes – but hidden away like a secret lover …” – “You what? – You mean a slave, or a maid. Who makes the beds here every day and cleans away all the mess?” – “Whenever my dear son isn’t writing love stories or dreaming of Europe.” – “Exactly.”

We laugh. Adey puts a glass of water down on the table for me. “Mai – water,” she says. “Come on, have a drink.” While I’m doing so, I give my farewell speech that I spent half the night planning. I can’t tell her that I’m going – that would be impossible, because she’d worry far too much like she does about Tantu, who she asks about almost every day. I tell her that I want to visit David over the weekend. David has managed to get me a military leave pass, stamped and signed by the local military office in exchange for a bribe of one hundred nakfa – thirty dollars, a small fortune in Eritrea. He is also prepared to take me to the Sudanese border right away. This is a stroke of luck, since nobody knows the country better than him.

I’ve arranged to meet him in the city center at the office of my older sister Rahel, who works as a bookkeeper for a medicine factory. She has no idea about my escape plans. Stroking Lilli lavishly, I stutter out: “I might even stay an extra few days. I need to get out and maybe he can give me a few tips on how to avoid military service.” By deserting – but I keep that bit to myself.

If I absolutely have to, I can tell white lies, but I’m not very good at it. I only do it for a joke and usually have to hold my hand over my mouth so I don’t burst out laughing. But right now, I have a lump in my throat and laughing is the last thing I feel like doing. Not like the time when I told my headmaster that there was no way I could leave my mother alone at home over the summer while I did the compulsory holiday work service – that’s to say, forced labor. “She’s blind, you see,” I had explained, and presented him with my mother’s blind friend Hadas as proof. She played along and my headmaster was impressed by my sense of responsibility towards my family in a country without any disability benefits, indeed without benefits of any kind. We thoroughly enjoyed our little trick.

If my mother knew what I was planning, she wouldn’t let me go. We’ve heard plenty of stories about refugees who go “picnicking” from the state TV station – always horror stories, of course. However, the stories with happy endings that are spread through unofficial channels – where someone makes it to Italy or Dubai or the USA – have left more of an impression than those that end badly. I’m excited …

The worst thing is that I can’t say goodbye to my mother, and that there’s nobody to encourage me and say “Chin up, you’ll make it for sure!” Only a handful of people have been let in on my escape plans. My brother Mikiele, who has transferred five hundred dollars to me via Western Union. And Adiam! That goes without saying! When I told my little sister, one time when the army had granted her leave to spend a weekend at home, that I was planning to flee the country, she quipped back: “I bet I beat you there!” – Typical, she’s always followed in my footsteps. “Fleeing like this isn’t an adventure,” I goaded her. “We’ll see who gets to paradise first.” – “Your big brother, of course …” I hope that wasn’t biting off more than I could chew.

Now there’s nobody I can shed tears of farewell with, nobody who will cry for me and take me in their arms. Nobody who understands my dreams and hopes, and nobody who understands my fear. It’s very sad.

I get up awkwardly and put on my green army jacket. I reach for my bag and put it on, wearing it across my chest. I prop my sunglasses in my hair and slip both hands as coolly as possible into my trouser pockets. “Ciao, ciao, adey,” I whisper and panic at how quiet my voice is. I’m afraid and then some. And like in a dream, I see my face with the skin burned and peeling off, my mouth dried out and full of sand, my lips bloody, my arms and legs bloated. Ever more clearly, I feel the blazing desert sun like a dagger in my chest; I see myself submerged beneath the sea with my eyes bulging and my hands clawing at nothing. It smells of death. Why won’t anybody help me? “Adey!” I want to cry out, deathly afraid. Help me, mother!

But I’m completely alone with my decision. I’m setting off alone, I’m leaving alone without any farewells, and doing so as though I’ll be coming back in a few hours. “Amlak msaka ykun! – God be with you!” my mother calls after me in Eritrean. How proud and majestic she looks. “You too!” I force the words out, almost silently, as I dash down the stairs outside the open front door.

The air tingles like it does every morning here on the high plateau, two thousand four hundred meters above sea level. The houses gleam red, brown and yellow against the sky that stretches so deep and so blue above Asmara that we call it “asmarabella”. Startled larks fly up, singing, before descending back into the bushes in a nearby park. I’m crying, but at the same time I feel light as air. Fly away, free!, chant my legs, rotating around their own axis. I’m almost ecstatic, for nightmare and dream are so close to each other. Free!, my heart pumps the blood through my veins; free!, sings the air in my lungs. “Harnet” – freedom, after eleven months locked away.

Freedom smells sweet, like the wisteria that cascades down the wall outside our house like an endless light blue waterfall. The hinges of the green garden gate creak and I walk down the broad street past the impenetrable facade of the barracks. Free – free in Asmara. My Asmara – I don’t know anywhere else. It’s almost miraculous that the city, whose name means “live in peace”, is still standing after so many wars. I rush onwards with big strides. The world feels brighter as I set off, as though the sun had broken through the clouds.

I go along the main street towards the Fiat Tagliero service station – the ultramodern building from the Italian colonial period that looks like an airplane. I don’t know anybody who has a car that would ever need filling up; instead, we buy spirits for our kitchen stove there every week. The road is almost unoccupied and so I see the car coming towards me right away: soldiers. I freeze for a second. Just don’t attract any attention! That’s the thought that hammers away in my head as the military jeep zooms past me. My heart is beating wildly but I don’t lower my head.

From the hillside beyond the government district, I hear the barking of wild dogs and all at once my euphoria dissipates. The people who live there in shacks made of wood and corrugated iron have it even worse than me, because they no longer even have the strength to run away – and certainly not the money. They spend their days boozing, begging and prostituting themselves. Rubbish and excrement pile up in the alleys where children with matted hair and scarred faces, starved to the bone, beat each other half to death because all they’ve learned from grown-ups is how to fight. The poverty is unendurable. People queue outside grocery stores with empty shelves, surviving off charity, discount and food vouchers, or help from relatives abroad.

Or else they leave – like me. The crows circling in the sky high above are waiting for those who stay behind. With long strides, I walk over the marble cobblestones that were left by the Italians. In our country, European culture is the only heritage in which we still have any pride. Our own culture has vanished: what wasn’t civilized away by the colonists has been destroyed by our wars.

Defiantly, I look up and, exclaiming “Ciao, bello!” with a flourish of my hand I blow a kiss to the tall statue of St. Francis outside our church. I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to move freely. Life is beautiful and the world is my oyster, at least until the next police checkpoint, which I encounter on the hill near my school.

Menkesa-kesi bejaka! – your pass, please!” the two soldiers call out while I’m still a way off. Prematurely aged men with arms like tree roots. During my handful of excursions in the past few months, I’ve always slipped away in such situations – what else could I have done? But not this time – I have to get out of here. You can do it! I straighten my shoulders, move them in time to a silent rhythm and finally caper over to the uniformed men. “Here please, mister,” I reply in English. Brazenly, I present the two of them with my military leave pass. They hold it up to the light, compare the name and photo with my student card and let me go on without any further questions.

Yeah! How about that? Just don’t laugh. With iron resolve, I swallow down my triumph and give a short cough. It was that simple! An army jacket and a leave pass are enough to make me a soldier. A fake soldier, but with a genuine military pass that allows the bearer to travel as a soldier for ten days as far as Tesseney on the Sudanese border. Only a few people have the good fortune to have a big brother abroad to pay for one for them. You can get anything in this country if you have the money.

On Harnet Street, the great street of freedom, I take a deep breath and start to walk. My life knows no bounds; the checkpoints can’t stop me, everything is becoming charged with new life – both the blue of the sky and my soul – or at least I hope so. Women with white headscarves walk past me like schools of migrating fish, carrying heavy plastic bags from Lidl, Carrefour or Standa, Berlusconi’s chain, though there are actually very few supermarkets in Eritrea; instead, used shopping bags make welcome gifts from friends abroad. Men with angular heads lodged between crooked shoulders sit in the shade beneath trees, while sunken-cheeked street traders in blue smock aprons hold out their rattling wares. There’s not much happening on the street but I have to be cautious.

I look behind me and ahead of me. As I hurry briskly past the large steps of our Art Nouveau theater, I feel my throat constricting. I miss the theater already. Every Saturday afternoon when I was at school, I used to read my poems there in the small hall at meetings of the Tigrinya language group. I can scarcely hold back my tears. I look up at the green, red and blue bunting that hangs over the street and cast my gaze along the chestnut-colored facade of Cinema Asmara. How wonderful it would be to stroll through the marbled foyer and sit in the velvet seats, breathing in the pure Asmara ambience one last time. I gulp: don’t be stupid! Have you already forgotten that David is waiting? You’re not free, Zekarias! Quite the opposite: if they catch you, you’ll end up in a torture cell with your cousin.

Ahead are the tall arcades of the post office building, where I used to fax my stories to the youth magazine. Now tears are running down my face. Would I ever write again? “My land on the Red Sea is free, I’m free …” or something along those lines were the words of my very first poem, which I wrote unaided when I was just shy of eight years old. With the piece of paper in my hand, I rushed to Radio Eritrea, handed it over to the porter as though it were a precious treasure and shyly whispered: “Please can you put it on the radio.” They did actually broadcast it, since it was April 1993. In a referendum, Eritrea had voted for independence with ninety-nine per cent in favor.

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