Living in Hell
Testimony of an Eritrean Prisoner
William Stark, Regional Manager for Africa
International Christian Concern
Christians are an unwanted people in Eritrea. Fearing all forms of unregulated religious activity, the government has made it illegal for even a small group of Christians to meet together outside of highly regulated government churches. Christians are often imprisoned in terrible conditions for merely practicing their faith. The intensity of Christian persecution in this land has forced many Christians to risk imprisonment, execution, deserts, mountains and human traffickers to flee Eritrea.
A Prisoner's Story
Asmerom, a member of an undocumented house church in Eritrea, fled his homeland after being imprisoned for practicing his Christian faith outside government regulations. This experience taught Asmerom a harsh lesson about where Christians fit into Eritrea's society. "Being a Christian in Eritrea is like living in hell," Asmerom frankly told ICC. "Christians are treated like enemy number one in Eritrea."
According to Asmerom, Eritrea's government persecutes the Church because it perceives Christians as revolutionaries that could potentially compete for power over Eritrea's population. Because the Bible gives supreme sovereignty to God, the paranoid leaders of the totalitarian government round up and imprison any Christians caught holding something as simple as a house prayer meeting.
Arrested and imprisoned for his faith, Asmerom's experience put him in a unique position to enlighten others about Christian persecution in Eritrea. This is his story.
Imprisoned for Practicing Christianity
"One day while I was attending a worship service, security officials suddenly broke in, arrested everyone and took us to jail. After spending 21 days in jail, I was taken to a secret military prison in the desert," Asmerom said.
Without being charged with any formal crime, Asmerom was abused and tortured because of his Christian identity. "I was kept in a 10' by 14' prison house with 14 other men," Asmerom explained. "One day, a fellow prisoner attempted to escape. When he was caught, we all were punished. They took us to the [prison] yard and made us strip naked. At noon, it was 46° C (115° F). The guards poured water over us and made us roll our bodies on the scouring hot sand. As we rolled on the sand, the guards beat us with sticks.
"[My entire] body was injured after just a few minutes," Asmerom said. "Afterwards, the guards forced us to march around the yard even though many of us could hardly walk. The guards then put me in a cell that was only 6' by 6'. The cell was completely dark because all of the windows had been blacked out.
"My whole body was covered in blood. I wasn't able to rest because [I] was covered with injuries. Turning from one side to the other was a very painful experience and I cried out every time I moved."
Living in Darkness
In prison, Asmerom faced physical as well as mental torment. "The guards kept me locked in the dark 24 hours a day," Asmerom said. "[I was] given very meager meals and allowed to go to toilet only twice a day. I was allowed to go once in the morning for two minutes and then again for two minutes in the evening. If I took more than two minutes, the guards physically took me back to my cell."
"I would pray [for] God to give me a chance to breathe pure air for just a few minutes, to let me see the beautiful sun and soil again before I died. One day a small stone from the boot of one of my guards came into my cell. I hid it as if it was a miracle. I would look at it every day like a gemstone," Asmerom confessed. "It was a testament that there was something outside my dark cell."
Living in both physical and spiritual darkness, Asmerom became angry with God. "I would complain to God saying 'O God this is too much for me; it's beyond my capacity to bear this.' One day, after asking God why He was allowing this to happen to me, a voice came to me from heaven and encouraged me. It said, 'This [trial] is not beyond your capacity.' " This encounter gave Asmerom the strength and encouragement he needed to survive the wretched conditions of the prison.
Released but not Quite Free
After spending almost a year in darkness, a new official was put in charge of Asmerom's military prison. "After three months, [the] new official called on me and gave me my freedom with a warning," Asmerom said. "[The officer] said, 'Asmerom, I will let you go if you agree not to make trouble.' " Asmerom agreed and was released after spending over a year in prison for attending an unregulated Christian fellowship service.
After being released, Asmerom met his brother in his hometown of Assab. "We went to my [house] which had been abandoned for about a year and spent the night there," Asmerom said. "In the morning we met another Christian and accompanied my brother to the bus station."
"As we were walking, we were [confronted] by security officials and brought to the police station because we were three Christians walking together," Asmerom explained. "Because of this, I was taken to the military prison again, but was release by the kind official after only a week."
Asmerom finally had enough. After being arrested, imprisoned and tortured for his faith, Asmerom decided he had to escape Eritrea or die trying. Border guards, deserts, wild animals and human traffickers were just some of the dangers that stood between Asmerom and religious freedom. Risking everything, he fled to Ethiopia where he is now able to practice Christianity freely.
Escaping Hell: Testimony of an Eritrean Prisoner
William Stark, Regional Manager for Africa
International Christian Concern
It's estimated that over 2,000 Christians are imprisoned for their faith by the government in Eritrea. Sometimes called the "North Korea of Africa," Eritrea's totalitarian regime uses imprisonment, torture and murder to repress all forms of Christian activity that takes place outside of highly regulated government churches.
Asmerom, an Eritrean Christian refugee, was once counted among that number of imprisoned Christians. After being arrested for attending a house worship service, Asmerom was imprisoned in a military prison camp for over a year. In the camp, he was subjected to both physical and mental torture.
After being arrested and imprisoned for his faith multiple times, Asmerom knew he had to flee Eritrea, even though the journey posed many risks. "The danger starts when someone starts to think about escaping from Eritrea. If your escape plan is discovered, it is considered a crime and you can be imprisoned. [Also,] if you are caught sneaking across the border, you are either shot by border guards or sent to prison. There are many other dangers besides border guards. Many people get lost in the desert or are attacked by wild animals. Many also drown in the Tekeze River."
Like many Christians fleeing Eritrea, Asmerom had to buy the influence of a government official to cross the border safely. "I had a friend whose wife was the relative of someone that could help me get across the border. In the end, I had to pay a military official 13,700 Eritrean Nakfa ($1,000 USD) to safely cross," Asmerom explained.
Smuggled Out of Eritrea
Unlike Asmerom, Nata, another Eritrean Christian refugee, had to find and pay a smuggler to sneak him out of Eritrea. Nata was charged with the crime of religious extremism for attending unregulated Christian gatherings and imprisoned in inhumane conditions. In prison, Nata was exposed to many abuses including torture, isolation and malnutrition.
After his time in prison, Nata was told he would be monitored by the government for further illegal Christian activity. If he were to attend any Christian gathering, he would surely be caught and taken back to prison. Because Nata was dedicated to his faith, he knew he would not be able to keep himself from worshiping Christ with other Christians in Eritrea.
He contacted a friend who lived near the Sudan border and knew a smuggler. Through his friend, Nata was able to hire a smuggler to bring him to the border town of Kassala and then to freedom in Sudan. Nata paid the smuggler 20,550 Eritrean Nakfa ($1,500 USD) to make this journey by bus.
"There are many check points on the road to the border," Nata said. "The smuggler knew where each of these checkpoints would be and we would get off the bus and walk around the checkpoints before getting on another bus."
"When the bus came close to the border, we got off and walked over 30 miles through the desert to freedom in Sudan," Nata explained. "It was a long, hot walk."
Targeted by Traffickers
Most Christians attempting to flee Eritrea are not as fortunate as Asmerom. Many have no connections to border guards or government officials and, like Nata, are forced to turn to smugglers to bring them across the border. Hiring smugglers can be very risky. In some cases, smugglers kidnap their 'would-be clients' and either ransom them or sell them to human traffickers in East Africa.
"If someone suspects you or your family has money, [smugglers] will kidnap you and ask your family to pay a ransom of up to $30,000," Asmerom said. "[In some cases,] people are sold to the Rashida people living in Sudan or Libya who will also try to ransom their prisoners. If the ransom is not paid, the Rashida will sell the person's body parts like a business."
Asmerom and Nata were fortunate enough to escape Eritrea safely. Asmerom lives in Ethiopia and works with an association assisting Eritrean refugees. Nata lives in the US among other Eritrean refugees. Unlike Asmerom and Nata, an untold number of Eritrean Christians continue to suffer inside and outside of Eritrea's borders. Some remain imprisoned in Eritrea for their faith, while other are being trafficked as commodities by East Africa's underworld.
For interviews, contact William Stark, Regional Manager for Africa: RM-AfricaAsia@persecution.org
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