The establishment of PEN Eritrea was proposed by Norwegian PEN at PEN International’s 80th World Congress in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, this October, and unanimously agreed upon at the same Congress. Dessale Berekhet gave an impassioned speech before the entire Assembly of Delegates, describing his and his colleagues’ repression within Eritrea as well as the painful journey into exile for many. When proposing the establishment of PEN Eritrea, Dessale began to speak in Tigrinya as a tribute to his fellow writers who have been killed, imprisoned or are missing or in exile. As he began to speak, the conference hall came to a complete silence. Switching to English, Dessale began to show photographs of his colleagues and friends; Dawit Isaak – in prison for 13 years, no contact with family or outside world. Other writers and journalists making dangerous journeys to flee – personal stories of crossing the Sahara to Libya and the Mediterranean to Italy, living in uncertainty and insecure situations.
“These stories constitute the story of Eritrea, and is why the establishment of PEN Eritrea is needed”, holds Dessale, “we have to make a difference for these people. The situation with regards to freedom of expression in Eritrea is deteriorating. There is a kind of unrest – in the capital - the country in general and the capital in particular was known for peace and stability. And people used to travel day and night alike – it seems that this is part of history now”.
Berekhet conveys another story, of state media Journalist Simon Zewde, who was found dead on his way home on the early morning of Friday 10. October. Mr. Zewde has worked both as a photo-journalist and reporter for more than 15 years in the Eritrean state media, and had previously been briefly imprisoned in 2006. He was beaten by gangs in the capital city of Asmara, early morning of Friday 10. October, and the newly established PEN Eritrea are now trying to establish whether these gangs were sent by the regime or not.
“The heartbreaking deaths of young journalists and advocators of freedom of expression is devastating”, says Berekhet, “it is a very painful experience to see innocent young friends dying good for nothing; while no one has truly noticed how hurting the real price is”.
The establishment of PEN Eritrea was warmly and unanimously welcomed at the Congress, and PEN Eritrea’s Founding Team is already well on their way in establishing an organizational charter, as well as tailoring PEN Eritrea’s constitution to fit the Centre’s core values, principles and objectives of
- Developing a well cultured freedom of expression and equal access to information in Eritrea.
- Promoting fundamental human rights, peace and national reconciliation among Eritreans, in order to eliminate ethnic, religious and regional hatred and conflict.
- Shaping and strengthening Eritrean literature in line with the principle of “unity within diversity”; and
- Fostering understanding, cooperation and mutual respect among nations in the Horn of Africa and beyond.
- Preserving works of art, history, minority cultures and languages and other patrimony of humanity at times of war and peace.
Norwegian PEN stated that Eritrea needs urgent help from international community and that PEN Eritrea needs the solidarity of the entire PEN family. PEN Eritrea will be based in Norway as the leading group of 20 persons and over 140 interested members are in exile.
Although scattered across the globe, PEN Eritrea’s founding members have proven skills in terms of working together. The course of laying a base for foundation of PEN Eritrea took more than a year as there was no financial and material support to facilitate it in mobilizing members, drafting a constitution, and developing a work plan for three years. The Founding Team conducted all the prerequisite activities with meager resources available, and mobilized more than 140 dispersed journalists, columnists, bloggers, researchers, essayists, editors, poets, novelists, screen writers, playwrights and satirists.
Representing a diversity of ethnicities, religions, regions, economic statuses and political views, PEN Eritrea is committed to the values and principles of PEN International and driven by a consistent determination to overcome the challenges having met their members throughout the course of their activities.
With the long term goal of freedom of expression in Eritrea, the ultimate objective for PEN Eritrea’s founding members is to be able to return home to Eritrea. They hope this new establishment will secure some hope and success to this end.
Dessale Berekhet moved to Bø in October 2012, and has never seized his work for freedom of expression. Says Berekhet, “if it was not for the great role ICORN played in my life, I would have never thought of PEN Eritrea and I don’t think it would have been real and possible”.