Nakura prison island

The small island of Nakura, located off the coast of Eritrea in the Dahlak Archipelago, has a long and complex history intertwined with colonialism. Known for its use as a prison island under Italian rule in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Nakura remains an infamous site in the collective memory of Eritreans. While only 6.44 sq km in area, Nakura looms large in the national consciousness for its dark past and continued human rights abuses. Understanding the tangled history of Nakura provides insight into colonialism, resistance, and identity in Eritrea.

Geography and Location

Nakura, also known as Nokra, sits amongst the islands of the Dahlak Archipelago just west of the larger Dahlak Kebir island off the Red Sea coast of Eritrea. It is a small, low-lying island, only about 6.44 sq km in area and with a peak elevation of 48 meters. The climate is hot and arid, typical of the coastal islands in this region.

Surrounded by the rich marine ecosystems of the Red Sea, Nakura’s small size belies its prominence in Eritrea’s history. Its location off the mainland coast made it an ideal site for exile, imprisonment, and forced labor during colonization.

History as a Prison Island

While Nakura has long been inhabited by local fishing communities, its infamy stems from its use as a prison island by Italian colonizers in the late 1800s. During the violent establishment of Italy’s colony of Eritrea, Nakura was utilized as the Nocra prison camp to detain and isolate resistors, freedom fighters, and general prisoners.

The cruelty of conditions on Nakura during Italy’s colonial rule is captured in Eritrean songs and oral history, where it became a symbol of the violence of colonization. Even after the end of Italian rule, Nakura continued to be used as a prison island during British administration and under Ethiopian annexation of Eritrea.

Human Rights Issues

In recent decades, human rights groups have called attention to the persistent inhumane treatment of prisoners held at Nakura’s prison. Amnesty International, Christian Solidarity Worldwide, and other organizations have reported instances of detention without trial, lack of access to medical care, and even allegations of torture, particularly targeting religious and political prisoners.

Criticism of the harsh conditions and human rights violations on Nakura have increased pressure for reform and transparency. But the island’s remote location has made it difficult for independent outside observers to verify the reports of abuse. The future prospects for change at Nakura remain uncertain.

Life on Nakura

As an island prison isolated off the coast of mainland Eritrea, daily life for inmates at Nakura reflects its purpose of detention, punishment, and removal from society. While details are scarce due to limited outside access, accounts paint a picture of tightly regulated routines in bleak conditions under the absolute authority of prison guards.

Daily Routine for Inmates

Former prisoners describe highly structured schedules and activities designed to control inmate actions and restrict freedoms. Days begin early with mandatory roll calls on the prison yard before breakfast. Meals of simple foods like lentils and flatbread are provided. Some time is allotted for exercise by running circuits around the rocky island.

Recreation and leisure are nearly non-existent. Inmates pass time confined to crowded cells. They may occasionally be permitted to sit outside in the yard. Access to bathing facilities and toilets is highly limited. Escape from the island is virtually impossible.

Conditions in the Prison Facilities

While some renovations have occurred, facilities on Nakura remain antiquated. Inmates are crammed into large cell blocks with poor ventilation and hygiene. Basic necessities like clothing, bedding, and sanitary items are in short supply.

The hot, arid climate and lack of fresh water pose challenges that are exacerbated by overcrowding. Medical facilities and healthcare are minimal. Deaths from treatable illnesses as well as suicide are not uncommon given the dire environment.

Interactions Between Prisoners and Guards

Under the prison’s authoritarian structure, inmates must follow strict protocols and rules set by guards. Minor infractions are punished brutally. This power dynamic creates an environment ripe for physical and psychological abuse.

Former prisoners have reported instances of beatings, torture, and deprivation ordered by guards. Attempts at reform have aimed to improve oversight and accountability for abuses of power. But the isolated setting of the island makes transparency difficult.

Significance in Eritrea’s History

The legacy of Nakura as a notorious prison island under successive colonial regimes has cemented its importance within Eritrea’s national memory and identity. While memories of Nakura invoke past atrocities, they also galvanize a sense of unified resistance and solidarity.

Role During Italian Colonialism

As Italy consolidated its control over Eritrea in the late 1800s, Nakura functioned as a key site for the exile, punishment, and forced labor of early independence fighters and resistors. The oppressive conditions and high mortality of the Nocra prison camp represent the violence and repression of European imperialism.

Those imprisoned on Nakura were removed and isolated from the mainland population, but their struggle became ingrained in the collective memory of generations. The camp was an instrument of terror, but also seeds of a shared national identity.

Influence on Politics and Culture

Oral histories and songs depicting the prisoners’ experiences on Nakura have become cemented within Eritrean literature and culture. These depictions transformed the island into a symbol of resistance and solidarity in the face of oppression.

Memories of Nakura have mobilized and motivated independence and liberation movements up through Eritrea’s war for independence from Ethiopia. The island remains woven into the modern political consciousness and cultural identity.

Place in Collective Memory

As a site of great suffering, the collective memories of Nakura stand as a warning and reminder of the impacts of colonialism and oppression. But stories of resilience and resistance on Nakura also reinforce a sense of shared history and identity.

The identity forged through past struggles leaves a complex legacy for Eritrea’s future. Reckoning with this history while moving towards reconciliation and reform remains an ongoing process. The island persists as a site of conscience in the national memory.


The unassuming island prison of Nakura contains multitudes within its history. As an instrument of imprisonment and punishment, it reflects the violence and subjugation of Eritrea’s colonial past. But Nakura has also become woven into the fabric of national culture, politics, and identity through stories of resistance that inspire solidarity and struggle against oppression.

Reconciling these two facets of Nakura remains an unfinished process. Its future is uncertain, poised between persisting as a relic of past human rights abuses or transforming into a site that promotes justice and remembrance. The small island will continue to shape Eritrea’s social memory and national consciousness for generations to come.


What was Nakura used for in the past?

Nakura was used as a prison island during Italian colonization of Eritrea in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Italians operated the Nocra prison camp on Nakura to detain and isolate Eritrean resistors, independence activists, and other prisoners.

How are conditions at the current Nakura prison?

Human rights groups report that conditions remain extremely poor at Nakura’s prison. Issues like overcrowding, lack of sanitation, minimal healthcare, and physical abuse and torture by guards have been alleged by former inmates. Independent access is limited.

Why is Nakura significant in Eritrean history and culture?

As the site of the notorious Nocra prison camp, memories of resistance and struggle at Nakura became central to Eritrean identity and the country’s independence movement. Oral histories and songs depict the island as a powerful symbol of both colonial oppression and solidarity against it.

Have there been any reforms or changes at the Nakura prison?

Some minor improvements have been reported, such as renovations to facilities. But human rights groups continue to call for substantial reforms to address issues like lack of due process, healthcare, and allegations of torture and abuse at the isolated island prison.

Could Nakura ever be repurposed to memorialize the past?

Some have proposed preserving parts of Nakura as a historical site to acknowledge past atrocities but also honor resistance. However, the island continues to be used as an active prison, so substantial reforms would be required before any memorialization or repurposing could occur.