Fleeing persecution for her faith

Abinet quietly served her country for six years, but when she joined a banned church, she was arrested, interrogated, threatened, released, and then shadowed in a clumsy attempt to identify other congregants.


OSLO—“Abinet” was born in Asmara in the early 1980s. She was called up for national service in at the end of the Border War and took her twelfth year of secondary school at Sawa where she tested well and was admitted to Asmara University. After graduating, she was assigned to a ministry for her national service and worked there for N150/month for six years.

During this time she became involved in the banned Pentecostal movement for which she was arrested in 2010 and held for two months. (No one else in her family was involved.) Then she was released and followed in the apparent hope she would lead the authorities to other practitioners of the faith. I spoke with her at a café in the Norwegian capital, where she is enrolled in university.

“They took me from my office, two people from the National Security,” she said. “I didn’t know where they were taking me. We stopped at the police station near the British Library on the way to what used to be called the Keren Hotel. We had to wait for some people to get my prison papers, an official letter. I was under arrest. I had no idea where I would be taken. Then they took me to a second police station.

“I left all my valuable things, my bag and everything, in one of the offices, and I was sent to a cell inside the prison. There was only one cell for all the female inmates. It was very small: 5m-x-5m maybe. Sometimes there were only 20, but sometimes we reached up to 50, especially during the weekends for fighting and prostitution, so we had to sleep on the floor. There was a very small toilet inside. I couldn’t stop crying when I see babies sleeping beside me, seven months old, one year old. There were quite a number of children inside the prison.

“I had to wait two or three weeks for my interrogator. Until then I had no idea what the case was all about. Then one morning a guy came from the National Security office. He started interrogating me for hours and hours in a small room. The first part was about my background. Then he asked me about my religious affiliation and if I have any connections with other people. So they were trying to get information from me about the leaders, if we were receiving money from the United States, how much we paid for tithes, how much we contributed during the services. Sometimes he stops for two days, then he comes again.

“Then the interrogation was interrupted. I was threatened I was going to be taken to Mi’itir—a new place, a very harsh place somewhere between Barentu and Nakfa, up in the north. There was also another from our congregation among the female prisoners; they took three of us in the same room.

“But then one morning, they suddenly came and called. One lady was actually released a week before me. Then they called me and my friend on a Monday morning. They say we need to pack our belongings and we’re to be released home, but we were given very big warnings not to gather again.

“All my documents were held even after I was released, all my ID, so I was not able to travel. I think the release was purposely done. They were trying to get more information. Afterward, I received information from people that I had been followed. They would name places that I had been to.

“Then, a year later, they tried to get me in prison a second time. They made a call to the office where I worked, and I learned they were going to take me to a different prison, the big prison where all the political prisoners are taken.”

Abinet said she hid in Asmara while organizing a plan to get smuggled out. She declined to describe the journey out of fear of retribution against her family, but she knew precisely where she wanted to go from the moment she left Eritrea—Norway. She made this decision based on the country’s historic support for human rights.

“I really hope a time will come when everyone can give his or her testimony without any fear,” she said. “We are so much connected with our families and friends back there.”