How Dawit Isaak Lives – Peter Philpott

‘All of them are alive,’ he said. ‘The government is looking for their safety. They are in good hands, in prison. They are political prisoners and the government is dealing with them.’

Dawit Isaak shut up in darkness
Dawit Isaak alone in darkness
Dawit Isaak confined in darkness
Dawit Isaak unheard and unseen in darkness
Dawit Isaak not forgotten in darkness
Dawit Isaak not forgotten by his ruler
Dawit Isaak not forgotten by his friends
Dawit Isaak not forgotten by his family
Dawit Isaak not forgotten by his two citizen lands
Dawit Isaak not forgotten by us here today
Dawit Isaak talks to us here today
Dawit Isaak talks to his two citizen lands
Dawit Isaak talks in his silence
Dawit Isaak talks in his isolation
Dawit Isaak talks in his pain and isolation
Dawit Isaak’s darkness talks:

Once this land had a future
people fought the struggle together
got through the pain with clear hope
a new life made by the people together
all the various voices joined
all the various voices heard all the various voices talk together
all the various voices lighten darkness
magazines and newspapers lighten darkness
Zemen, Meqaleh, Keste Debena, Admas, Tsigenay, Setit
all the names tumbling out like foam
luminous like the sea at night
words various as stars in the sky
words welcoming as lit windows in the night
even the bright lights in the cities of distant Sweden
all the words that illuminate a land
Dawit Isaak helped utter these words once

But the ruler said:
we know how to handle his kind
we know how to handle such people
we must waste their lives
we must destroy their lives
we must empty their lives
we must make them live in darkness
we must do this across the land
we must never end with war
war and power must be all we know
war against ourselves is the best
anyone not fighting against my people
he is the enemy of my people
she is the enemy of my people
they must all say only my words:

A New Eritrean Vocabulary
taken from the actual Eritrean words, mainly in Tigrinya, employed in the UNHRC Commission of Inquiry on Human        Rights in Eritrea (2015), (apart from names of local plants and foods). These, then, are the ruler’s and his regime’s contributions to the world’s stock of words and concepts:
Otto — torture position with arms tied tight at the elbows behind the back
Giffa — round-up to check identity papers, travel documents etc, or seize people for national service
Bado seleste (“zero-3”, as if a radio frequency) — presidential disinformation service or state-sourced rumour mill. Even the ruler knows no one believes the official communications.
Nay hadera — people handed over to the police by security staff or officers from the military or regional administration, without their names ever being disclosed or registered
Entsa sey (“delicious bite”) — unofficial payment to secure release of a prisoner
Ferro — iron handcuffs with bolts to tighten them as torture
Almaz (“diamond”) — torture position with victim suspended by tied together elbows, just standing on tiptoe
Warsai yikealo (“heirs of the freedom fighters”) — conscripts into the effectively working-lifetime compulsory national service, used for forced labour or any government requirement
Demhit — soldiers of Tigray Peoples’ Democratic Movement, Ethiopian rebels hosted by the ruler, and used by Eritrean regime to oppress its own people and conduct giffas etc
Menkesakesi — government or military issued pass permit allowing internal travel, which is illegal without it
Lewit or Za lemish — condition which causes the sufferer to only be able to walk backwards, as she is unable to control her legs and walk in a forward direction, also accompanied by trembling. It appears the consequence of rape and other forms of ill-treatment during national service
Berari tiyt (“flying bullets”) — shooting which is claimed as accidental or friendly fire
Hizbawi Serawit (“population soldiers”) — Peoples Army militia used as guards, which anyone of any age not serving in the army can be compelled to join, thus making up for the loss of young people fleeing the country
Mahtot — requirement for children of fourteen or over to work for two months or so during the summer in various service and agricultural activities, allegedly as vocational education

These are the words of darkness
the change into endless night
closing and closing and closing
all doors on their users
tight into dark closed boxes
boxes of wood, boxes of stone
boxes of zinc, boxes of iron
boxes of steel, boxes of concrete
boxes that are pits in the earth

the words of Dawit Isaak
open up and fly
they are other than darkness
light opening
bathing like the sea
Dawit Isaak
is kept in darkness
Dawit Isaak lives
shut up in darkness
but he also lives
in the open light
his words help create:

Dawit Isaak lives
a free man
imprisoned by power
alone in its darkness
Dawit Isaak lives
shall live
in the world
his words
shall help rebuild

Dawit Isaak lives

 

Writer Dawit Isaak has been held incommunicado in Eritrea for over 17 years, one of several journalists whose whereabouts remain unknown. Take action

‘How Dawit Isaak Lives’ was first performed at the English PEN Modern Literature Festival in 2017.

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