By Steven Judson
I met Alem recently in a refugee camp in northern Ethiopia. His family are still in Eritrea. Alem tries to earn a living by running a small café selling tea and snacks in the camp. He learned the restaurant business back in his native Eritrea. In fact it was through the witness of the restaurant owner where he worked that Alem came to faith in Christ in 1987.
In 1996, after 18 months’ military service, he made his way to the capital, Asmara, where he enjoyed fellowship as part of a church cell group. Then in 1998, following a recall to the military, he was stationed in Assab, a port on the eastern seaboard of Eritrea. Here, as in other parts of the country, Christians were already coming under pressure for their faith.
When he could, Alem joined with several Christian friends to pray and fast for revival among his colleagues in the military, a practice he continued when he moved back to Asmara in 2001 and became a member of the Kale Hiwot (Word of Life) Church.
Alem is a patriotic and experienced soldier whose ability and skills were valued by his military colleagues. However, in 2005 they presented him with a stark ultimatum. He was called to a meeting and told, “Give up your faith or go to prison.”
Alem had already made the choice and replied that he would continue to follow Christ. He was promptly arrested and sent to prison.
For much of his imprisonment he was incarcerated at Mai Serwa , the same prison as gospel singer Helen Berhane, who was detained for two years after releasing a CD of Christian music in Eritrea in 2004. When I asked him if he knew Helen, he replied almost nonchalantly: “Helen was in number 10 container, and I was in number seven container.”
He described the conditions inside the metal shipping containers, the lack of air, the extreme heat, the lice, the smell and the pain. “Most of the time they would keep us locked up inside the containers,” he said. “The shipping containers are not very big, only 20ft long, and many of them with around 15–20 people inside. They normally allowed us out twice a day to go to the toilet. The rest of the time we weren’t allowed out. It was very difficult, especially if you were sick or had diarrhea.”
“We liked to praise our God by singing,” he said. “If the guards heard us they got angry, opened the doors of the container and dragged out those they thought were responsible and beat them using batons. Sometimes we could see other Christians being beaten through the small 15cm x 20cm air vent in the side of the container, and we would pray and cry out to God.”
On one occasion he recalled the guards beating Helen Berhane. “While they were beating Helen, she was crying, we could hear her crying and we were also crying out to God.”
Christian prisoners are constantly subjected to mindless and almost futile hard labour for hours at a time in the heat of the day. The guards often humiliate the prisoners, seeking to demoralize them and devising new ways to rob the prisoners of any vestige of dignity in an effort to break their spirit and have them recant their faith. He told us of how he had witnessed guards making a thorn and bracken pen for a seven-month-old baby and leaving it unattended all day in the sun, as the weeping mother was then forced to work within earshot of her crying child, but never allowed to care for it.
I knew it was painful for him to relive these experiences. So I asked him how the Lord had helped him in prison. He smiled as he remembered. “God helped us to remain faithful.”
He shared how he had smuggled a Bible into the container, and how he loved to read God’s Word to the other prisoners. On one occasion one of the guards tipped them off that the container was to be searched at a certain time the following day. “Because God helped us we were able to hide the Bible and continue reading it together,” he said.
Before praying with this dear brother, I asked him to share his hopes and prayers for the future. At that moment the tears that had been welling up in his eyes spilled out onto his face. “I have two burdens,” he told us. “The first is that I might remain faithful to God and the second concerns my wife and my two children. My wife has said that she cannot accept my faith. She said that if I will sign the form stating I will no longer be a Christian, then we will be able to be together. Otherwise we cannot, and we should be divorced. I want them to believe in God and for us to be reunited as a family.”
(originally published by VOMC in the September 2009 edition of The Voice of the Martyrs Newsletter page 6. Ask for your subscription to our monthly magazine today!)
Please pray for the estimated 3,000 Christians who are still in prison in Eritrea because of their faith. None have been charged with a crime. Post a prayer on their behalf on our Persecuted Church Prayer Wall and let the world know that they have not been forgotten.