FRONTLINE: Escaping Eritrea

Five Years in the Making, Undercover Documentary Exposes Horrors Inside Eritrean Regime’s Network of Prisons—

In the past two decades, more than half a million Eritreans have fled their homeland in East Africa, saying they are fleeing from one of the most repressive and secret dictatorships in the world. With exclusive secret footage and testimony, an undercover investigation by FRONTLINE and Channel 4 in Great Britain documents shocking allegations of torture, arbitrary detention and indefinite military service.

“I want people to know the truth. It has been hidden to this day. We need to rip it open,” a security guard secretly filmed the situation in one of the country’s most notorious prisons says in “Escaping Eritrea.”

Filming and reporting in Eritrea is almost impossible. But for more than five years, producer and director Evan Williams has been gathering secretly shot footage from inside the country and interviewing people who’ve escaped.

“It was rough. The interrogations …I think that is the first time I saw a dead body,” says Hanna Petros Solomon, one of more than 30 Eritrean refugees interviewed for the film, who was detained after attempting to flee the country to avoid military service. “As time went by, I started slowly to deteriorate … if you stop to think, it’s too much to bear.”

Collected in the documentary, the footage and testimonies of people like Hanna depict a litany of horrors: brutal, extended interrogations and torture. People detained in overcrowded rooms for years without trial. Someone dying after being locked in a sweltering-hot shipping container and begging for help. An underground cell known as “the oven” in one of the hottest places on earth.

“I remember my brothers dying, stepping over dead bodies to exit…what could be worse?,” says a man named Kyros. “It was like being in a volcano.”

One former prisoner named Michael, who risked his life to film conditions inside, says he was brutally interrogated for months: “Your hands are tied… They turn you,” says Michael, who was detained for trying to avoid military service. “They have a stick. They beat your back, your bottom, your thighs and the soles of the feet … And they also give you electric shock. Sometimes they beat you for three hours. There are some who have been detained without trial for as long as five years, being constantly interrogated.”

“The country is led on fear. Everybody is afraid for their safety,” says a doctor who tells the film team he regularly treated inmates who had been tortured in military-run prisons.

The torture, people who have fled the country say, was psychological as well as physical.

“Because there is no sentencing, you wish for death,” says a former prisoner named Tesfay, who says he was held as punishment for trying to flee military service. “You pray for it, wondering when death will come.”

The Eritrean government would not speak to FRONTLINE about the investigation’s findings, other than to say the allegations were “astounding” and that they’d seen many fabricated stories before.

Nearly five years after the United Nations Commission of Inquiry accused Eritrean officials of crimes against humanity, and even after a much-vaunted peace deal between Eritrea and neighboring Ethiopia, the former UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Eritrea tells FRONTLINE that abuses continue.

“Despite all these years of documentation and scrutiny at the international level, it continues,” says Sheila B. Keetharuth. “The patterns continue. Nothing has changed in terms of humans rights. Detention, arbitrary detention, custody of people without any rule of law. There still is no constitution in the country. There’s no free press. There is no independent judiciary. National service remains involuntary, indefinite, and is still there. It’s still conscript, forced labor and enslavement of the whole population.”

Gripping and eye-opening, “Escaping Eritrea” is a rare and powerful look inside one of the most tightly controlled countries on earth, spotlighting the voices of people who have endured the unimaginable.