Five Years in the Making, Undercover Documentary Exposes Horrors Inside Eritrean Regime’s Network of Prisons
Tues., May 4, 2021 at 10/9c on PBS and on YouTube
Streaming at 7/6c at pbs.org/frontline & in the PBS Video App
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Over the past two decades, more than a half a million Eritreans have fled their home country in eastern Africa. They say they are escaping one of the most repressive and secretive dictatorships in the world.
Now, with exclusive secret footage and testimony, an undercover investigation by FRONTLINE and Channel 4 in the UK documents shocking allegations of torture, arbitrary detention and indefinite forced conscription into military service.
“I want people to know the truth. Until this day, it’s still hidden. We need to rip it open,” a guard who secretly filmed conditions in one of the country’s most notorious prisons says in Escaping Eritrea, premiering Tuesday, May 4, on PBS and online.
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.
Escaping Eritrea premieres Tues., May 4 at 10/9c on PBS stations and will also be available to stream on FRONTLINE’s website, YouTube and the PBS Video App.
Escaping Eritrea is a FRONTLINE production with Mongoose Pictures and Evan Williams Productions in association with Channel 4 and ARTE France. The producer, director and reporter is Evan Williams. The senior producer is Dan Edge. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.
FRONTLINE, U.S. television’s longest running investigative documentary series, explores the issues of our times through powerful storytelling. FRONTLINE has won every major journalism and broadcasting award, including 95 Emmy Awards and 24 Peabody Awards. Visit pbs.org/frontline and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to learn more. FRONTLINE is produced at GBH in Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. Funding for FRONTLINE is provided through the support of PBS viewers and by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Major funding for FRONTLINE is provided by the Ford Foundation. Additional funding is provided by the Abrams Foundation; the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; Park Foundation; and the FRONTLINE Journalism Fund with major support from Jon and Jo Ann Hagler on behalf of the Jon L. Hagler Foundation.
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