Eritrean-Swedish journalist Dawit Isaak was arrested as part of the September 2001 crackdown on Eritrea’s independent press, which saw the country’s eight privately-owned newspapers closed down. As owner of the weekly newspaper Setit, Isaak was arrested along with other print journalists who have since been held incommunicado. Not one has been charged or tried. The only justification offered for their detention takes the form of uncorroborated allegations that the reporters were “traitors”.
To mark the fifteenth anniversary of Dawit Isaak’s arrest, we are proud to be able to publish a tribute to Dawit by fellow writer David Berridge.
This piece was written as part of English PEN’s inaugural Modern Literature Festival in April 2015, curated by SJ Fowler.
This poem quotes materials supplied by Free Dawit and PEN International, as well as online news reports on both Dawit’s case and the Lampedusa disaster in October 2013. Extracts from the play script of Dawit Isaak’s 1997 play Dilly Dally are from an English translation by Björn Tunbäck, part of a forthcoming anthology of Dawit’s writings. ‘sit in the reconstruction of his cell in darkness’ describes a possible replica of Dawit’s prison cell, exhibited at Mediedagarna i Göteborg in March 2015. Other sources include: ‘even in the darkest of times’ from Hannah Arendt’s introduction to her collection of essays Men in Dark Times; ‘proud-pied? daisy-pied?’ adapts William Shakespeare’s sonnets and H.D’s description of Shakespeare as ‘two-souled’ in her By Avon River; ‘began a poem at high C’ is from Joseph Brodsky’s essay ‘A Poet and Prose’ (on Marina Tsvetaeva, in his collection Less Than One); ‘sun is one foot wide’ is a belief of Alberto Giacometti cited in David Sylvester’s Looking at Giacometti. This poem was commissioned by S J Fowler for The English PEN Modern Literature Festival at Rich Mix, London, 2 April 2016.
David Berridge is a writer and bookseller living in Hastings.
In June 2016 in an interview with RFI, the Foreign Minister of Eritrea claimed that Isaak was alive, though no further information has been provided. In the same interview, the foreign minister said that these men would be tried ‘when the government decides’.
Write a letter to the authorities urging them to:
- Clarify the fate and provide information on the whereabouts of Dawit Isaak and all disappeared journalists and other writers, , and provide all of those still alive with independent medical assessments and any medical treatment they require;
- Grant the immediate and unconditional release of all detained journalists and other writers still alive who have also been imprisoned solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression;
- Return the bodies of any detained writers who have died in custody to their families; abolish the existing pervasive censorship practices, re-establish an independent media and allow international media unfettered access to the country; and encourage literary, artistic and cultural production.
Minister of Justice
Hon. Minister of Justice Fawzia Hashim
Fax: + 291 1 126422
His Excellency, Isaias Afewerki
Office of the President,P.O.Box 257,
Fax: + 2911 125123
Publicity & social media
PEN members are encouraged to share this on social media.
Suggested tweet: 15 years on, journalist & author Dawit Isaak remains detained incommunicado in #Eritrea. https://www.englishpen.org/campaigns/eritrea-15-years-incommunicado-detention-journalist-dawit-isaak/ #FreeDawitIsaak