Everyday Life in the Prison State: Citizen Bodies and Coercive State Effects

Eritreans often directly or indirectly referred to their country as a “prison” throughout my fieldwork. This phrase has been picked up by journalists and human rights organizations, which often utilize the term “prison state” to evoke the level of repression present in Eritrea (see, for example, International Crisis Group 2010). However, while journalists increasingly utilized the term “prison state” to reference an alleged network of “underground prisons” throughout Eritrea, Eritreans’ depiction of Eritrea as a prison referred instead to the sensation of living in a place where they did not have control over their lives, their livelihoods, and, most importantly, their ability to leave the country. For Eritreans, the commonly voiced sentiment that the country is “like a prison” referenced the ubiquity of experiences of being forced to do things—for example, conscription, endless National Service, arbitrary transfers of civil servants, service projects, controls over people’s movements—the sense of constant surveillance, and the prohibition on leaving the country. Talking about life in the prison state thus directly reflects the experience of state coercion.

By coercion, I mean actual instances in which people are forced to engage in a particular form of labor in a particular place, something that could occur literally at the point of a gun or through a similar threat of violence or through other coercive mechanisms. Gifa was an example of the former, but there was also a wide array of other ways in which the state could locate and relocate its subjects. The government in Eritrea forced a large number of Eritreans to live in particular places and do particular labor, either short term or long term. The government also coerced students to engage in various forms of service, civil servants to work in locations of the government’s choosing, and civilians at large to do particular forms of “voluntary” work for the state by using a variety of other types of coercive mechanisms, such as docking pay, withholding transcripts, denying leave, and threatening people with various punishments. Eritreans were “forced” to do things and, more specifically, to be in places they did not want to be. I argue that these forms of coercion constitute a state effect that alters other state effects—individuating effects, totalizing effects, identification effects, and spatialization effects—and thereby recalibrates the relationship between state subject and identification with the nation.

Although the 2002 gifa was the first time round-ups had been carried out on such a large scale, gifa-like round-ups were not unfamiliar to Eritreans prior to that. During the war, there were quite a few accounts of arbitrary round-ups by the military and military commanders commandeering civilian bodies. One group of teachers told me a particularly alarming story. On their way home late one evening in 1998, they were pulled aside by soldiers who forced them to climb on a truck. Several waiting trucks drove them a long way into the desert. Terrified, they realized that they were heading toward the front line of the war that was then actively being fought. At the front, they were told to collect the bodies of wounded soldiers, work that would typically be assigned to military personnel. Other friends and acquaintances also recounted being rounded up to have their identity documents checked during this time. The experience of being arbitrarily detained or having one’s labor commandeered was a ubiquitous one in Eritrea. While not all of these experiences were terrifying, all gave citizens the sense that their time and their bodies were not entirely under their own control. Furthermore, the government officials’ willingness to arbitrarily round up civilians, load them onto the backs of trucks, and require them to perform dangerous tasks, such as collecting the bodies of wounded soldiers, reflects an assumption that any Eritrean was available to serve the government in whatever capacity a local official deemed necessary. As a result, civilians believed they were not safe in war time, not only because an enemy bomb might drop but also because their own government—or, more specifically, an individual with unchecked power—might place them in danger.

The constraints on citizen bodies were nowhere more apparent than in the de facto prohibition on leaving the country. Emigration was effectively illegal in Eritrea at the time of my fieldwork. Exit visas were required to leave the country, and completion of national/military service was a prerequisite to receive an exit visa or a passport (GoE 1995). Receiving an exit visa was premised on completion of National Service; however, since the border war with Ethiopia (1998-2000), very few had been released from National Service, and most recruited into National Service came to believe they would be serving indefinitely (Bozzini 2011; Kibreab 2009b; O’Kane and Hepner 2009; Reid 2009). Furthermore, during my fieldwork, exit visas were almost impossible to acquire even for those who had been released from or were exempt from National Service. Additionally, the border was heavily policed, and those who attempted to leave ran the risk of imprisonment, torture, being shot at the border, or being kidnapped by traffickers (Human Rights Watch 2009).

Preventing people from leaving the country transforms Eritreans’ attitudes toward the national space, thereby altering the state spatialization effect. What Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2001) calls the spatialization effect is a means of producing an attachment between state subjects and their dis?tinct national territory. Symbols such as the map, awareness of borders, and anything that produces an understanding of belonging to national space constitute this effect in Eritrea and elsewhere. Eritreans were profoundly aware of the nation as a bounded, territorial entity; however, the coerciveness with which prohibitions on leaving kept Eritreans in produced negative attachments between citizens and national space. The country felt like a prison, and its citizens seemed to have the desire, above all else, to escape. This phenomenon continues to be evident in the large numbers of Eritreans who flee the country despite the significant risks they face in doing so. Thus, state spatialization in Eritrea has bound Eritreans to the national territory by making them feel imprisoned by it, but the fact that such large numbers of Eritreans are fleeing the country suggests that this feeling of being made captive is at least in part responsible for producing the desire to escape (Poole 2013; Riggan 2013a).

National Service also produces spatialization effects, because it locates Eritreans across the country, but it simultaneously produces two other state effects—identification and totalization. Identification effects link individual identities with the nation, while totalization effects make them feel part of a larger collective—in this case, the military. One of the key ways in which identification and totalization effects are produced is through the disciplining of time, space, and the body such that subjects come to order their individual lives in ways that align with the expectations of the totality. The experience of being in the military simultaneously produces a particular type of individuated subject and a larger collective (Mitchell 1991, 2006). National Service is, first and foremost, an experience of becoming an individual military subject, an extreme form of subjugation in which one’s entire being is subsumed to total discipline, as space, time, and the body are significantly regimented (Foucault 1995).4 Military discipline (in the Foucauldian sense), in Eritrea and elsewhere, also produces totalizing effects whereby the effect of a collective military body to defend the nation is produced (Mitchell 1991, 2006).5 National Service is supposed to inculcate the values of The Struggle, make Eritreans feel national, and incorporate individuals into a military whole. However, the coercive state effects prevalent in National Service mean that while it did produce identification and totalization effects, these came to have negative connotations, just as attachments to space did. Eritreans saw themselves not as docile, loyal individuals and not as proud members of a militarized core but as coerced subjects, forced to serve. Service denoted a collective experience of hardship at the hands of the state.6 Furthermore, coerciveness in the military was experienced through the arbitrary and unpredictable nature of military discipline. The arbitrariness and unpredictability made it easy for conscripts to believe that they were at the mercy of their superiors and imagine themselves as being punished subjects. One of the ways this occurred was through the lack of a predictable schedule while in training. Time for military trainees was both intensively managed and unpredictable, making it totally oriented toward the will of commanding officers. Recruits were expected to live moment to moment and submit their entire beings obediently to their officers. Additionally, recruits were literally punished if they did not follow orders. I discuss punishments in more detail in the next section.

The coercive effects of National Service were well illustrated by a commonly heard phrase, “in Sawa,” which appeared frequently in both public, official media and everyday conversations among Eritreans. The town of Sawa is the site of the nation’s military training facility (and also the site of the newly created boarding school for all grade 12 students), but the commonly used phrase “in Sawa” had broad and complex meanings. In its most descriptive sense, “in Sawa” meant that someone was in service, and the phrase could refer to either going through military training, serving in the military, or serving in a civil capacity. The military training facility at Sawa is celebrated and glorified in public, government-controlled media and patriotic songs. The government hosts an annual youth festival at Sawa. Additionally, it sponsored trips to Sawa for diaspora youth, where they have experiences that are distinct from military conscripts and include musical entertainment. Sawa thus produces a spatial effect as it constructs an imaginary of a particular place and an identification effect with particular national narratives. However, for most Eritreans, mention of going to Sawa evokes fear and anxiety and is emblematic of the hardships, and coerciveness, of military training. The phrase “in Sawa” merges references to an actual place that has negative connotations associated with the hardships of military training with negative sentiments about service more generally. When most Eritreans commented that someone was “in Sawa” (a phrase heard almost daily), it referenced a sense of being subservient, and vulnerable to, the government. For example, teachers who were completing their National Service as teachers often referred to themselves or were referred to as being “in Sawa” a condition that was typically pitied. Senior teachers expressed worry about being sent “to Sawa,” which evoked their concerns about having their salary and freedom taken away. Through the phrase “in Sawa,” Eritreans drew together experiences of military and civil service and linked both to an experience of hardship, referencing an imaginary that equated service, military training, and state-induced suffering. Eritreans tended to think of military training, National Service, and military ser?vice as part of the same process. For Eritrea’s leaders, this was supposed to produce an equalizing, nationalizing experience of service; however, for most Eritreans, the phrase “in Sawa” reflected an imaginary of a state that demanded service in a place that epitomized hardship.

One of the reasons service came to have negative connotations is that it became indefinite. Being a military subject is typically a temporary and limited experience. The vast majority of soldiers submit to that kind of intense, total subjugation for a specific amount of time. While militarization produces fairly common state effects, I suggest that coercive effects were created by policies that forced people to stay in National Service indefinitely, transforming what should have been willing subjects into coerced ones. The Warsai Yikaalo Development Campaign (WYDC) is the main vehicle through which military service was extended indefinitely (Hepner 2009b; Muller 2008; O’Kane and Hepner 2009). Under the auspices of galvanizing National Service conscripts to work on development projects, the WYDC, introduced in 2002, enabled the government to avoid mass demobilization after the border war concluded and effectively extend National Service. But given that there has been no significant fighting with Ethiopia since 2000, the ongoing mobilization of such a large proportion of the population is generally seen as illegitimate and outside the scope of Eritrean law; thus the common assertion among Eritreans, scholars of Eritrea, and human rights organizations is that National Service is indefinite or permanent.

Gifa during summer 2002 occurred at the same time that the WYDC was announced, further reinforcing the notion that service was now something Eritreans had to be forced to do. That summer many people, typically men who appeared to be under the age of forty-five, were detained multiple times. In most cases, they were released within a few hours, although in some cases, they were detained overnight or even for a few days. As others have noted, there was a sense among the population of being under siege not by external enemies but by the Eritrean government itself (Bozzini 2011). Gifa illuminated the effects of a coercive state to move and detain citizen bodies. The Eritrean state has always had this capacity, as, indeed, all states do; however, when widespread, mass gifa was enacted in 2002, it indicated that the government was willing to use this capacity on a scale that had previously been used only during the war to mobilize reserve troops and new military recruits for the defense of the country.

The capacity for the government to control the lives and labor of its citizens through indefinite National Service, prohibitions on leaving the country, mass round-ups, and arbitrarily commandeered citizen labor forms the fabric of ordinary life in Eritrea. Encounters with government officials, who were willing, empowered, or ordered to coerce citizen bodies in these ways, were ubiquitous; it would be hard to find an Eritrean, particularly an Eritrean adult man, living in Eritrea at this time who has not had one or more coercive encounters with someone representing the state.

Additionally, coercive state effects were felt in other, less anxiety-provoking but equally routine ways. Various types of service projects that could take anywhere from a few hours to a few months provide good examples of less extreme forms of state control. As early as 1995, the government set up summer service projects that took high school-aged youth to various parts of the country to terrace hillsides or plant trees. Similar forms of summer service exist for university students as well (and, indeed, conditions of these university service projects proved to be a political flashpoint in 2001). At the community level, mandatory cleanup days were required of entire towns several times a year. All of these projects were efforts to require citizens en masse to provide service to the government. Both National Service and other mass service projects create an individuating effect by producing subjects who think of themselves as service-providing subjects, but they also have a totalizing effect, as those in service became a highly visible corps.

The extreme and ubiquitous levels of control over bodies, space, and time in Eritrea resemble what Katherine Verdery (1996) refers to in her research on Romania as the etatization of time. Time is etatized when the state usurps people’s time, compelling them to expend their time on state projects.7 Eritreans’ time was certainly etatized. In military service, Eritreans report that the microscopic detail of when (and where) to eat, sleep, study, run, walk, dance, and play was dictated by superiors, but because National Service was indefinite, Eritreans’ time over the long haul was also controlled by the government. Entire lives were etatized because Eritreans were giving a life of servitude to the government. Eritreans complain that they could not go on to higher levels of education, get married, choose where to live, or have control over their lives because of the mandate that they serve, and in many cases serve indefinitely, either in the military or in civil service. Large numbers of Eritreans were located far from their own families and communities, giving the government direct control over when they could return home. This was true of not only military conscripts but also civil servants and even students. In all of these cases, few or no policies and procedures were in place to allocate leave in the case of a wedding, illness, death of a family member or vacation to visit family. Similarly, there was seldom a policy to determine when a civil servant or military conscript merited transfer.

Any attempt to move physically around the country necessitated an intense, interpersonal negotiation with low- and mid-level state function?aries, who thus had a great deal of power over individual lives. Eritreans describe these negotiations over leave and transfers as being based on their supervisors’ highly personal feelings, which could be positive and sympathetic to personal circumstances or negative. Supervisors were often described as making certain decisions to punish those under their command. In these instances, the discourse of punishment brought the intimate and interpersonal state into alignment with the larger “government.” Below, I explore the ways in which these experiences were depicted as punishments even when they were not necessarily actual punishments.

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