‘I Didn’t Lose Hope’: Meet a Man Who Risked His Life to Secretly Film Inside One of Eritrea’s Brutal Prisons
In the more than four years he was detained in a military-run Eritrean prison, Michael said he never lost hope.
Speaking with FRONTLINE in 2016, in an early stage of what would be a multiyear investigation, Michael said he saw and experienced many abuses while imprisoned: months of brutal interrogations. Masses of fellow detainees packed into large, overcrowded holding rooms, many confined for years without trial. People driven out of their minds by the conditions in which they were being held.
But he was determined to escape one day — and to bring a secretly filmed record of what he had endured with him when he did.
“The reason I did this was to get evidence that the regime is oppressing the youth and the people and to show that the Eritrean people suffer a lot of abuses,” said Michael, who shared his story and his secret footage in Escaping Eritrea, a documentary premiering Tuesday, May 4, on FRONTLINE.
Over the past two decades, Michael and more than half a million other Eritreans have fled their home country in eastern Africa. Many said they were escaping one of the most repressive and secretive dictatorships in the world.
Filming and reporting in Eritrea is almost impossible, but for more than five years, producer and director Evan Williams has been working to gather footage secretly shot inside the country and to interview people like Michael who’ve escaped. The resulting film, from FRONTLINE in the United States and Channel 4 in the United Kingdom, documents searing allegations of torture, arbitrary detention and indefinite forced conscription into military service.
Trying to avoid the latter, Michael said, was the reason for his and many other prisoners’ arrests. While he was being held, he said, a sympathetic guard helped him smuggle in a small camera, and he worked with one other trusted detainee. He put the camera in a jacket pocket with a hole and began filming what was going on around him, knowing full well the risk he was taking.
“If I’d been caught, it’s obvious what would have happened,” said Michael, speaking to FRONTLINE in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia; he chose not to show his face in the documentary out of fear that his family remaining in Eritrea would be persecuted by the government. “There are people who have been jailed for 20 years just for speaking out. So, me, I could have been executed.”
At one point, Michael’s footage pans across a dark room in which a mass of people lie nearly on top of each other, covering the floor, the only sound a person coughing.
“There are people who have been imprisoned for four, five, up to eight years — a long time,” Michael said. “The people are so crammed together, one felt that they were dead, sleeping head to foot. Many have lost their minds.”
Michael is one of more than 30 Eritrean refugees interviewed for the documentary. Their testimonies depict a litany of horrors inside the country’s network of military-run prisons — horrors that sources tell FRONTLINE are ongoing.
Several years after Michael escaped the country, another young Eritrean, a prison guard, also risked his life to secretly film on the inside, documenting prison conditions similar to what Michael had recorded and described earlier.
“I want people to know the truth. Until this day, it’s still hidden. We need to rip it open,” the guard, who asked to be called Desta and shared his footage with FRONTLINE, says in the film.
The Eritrean government would not speak to FRONTLINE about the film’s findings, other than to say the allegations were “astounding” and that they’d seen many fabricated stories before.
For the full story and more exclusive footage, watch Escaping Eritrea. From director, producer and reporter Evan Williams, the documentary premieres Tuesday, May 4, at 10/9c on PBS stations (check local listings). It will also be available to stream in FRONTLINE’s online collection of documentaries, on YouTube and in the PBS Video App. Plus, sign up for FRONTLINE’s newsletter for free access to a Subscriber Series virtual event with the film team on Thursday, May 6.