The long road to freedom to practice her faith

Ruth did everything she was asked to serve her country—except to renounce her faith.


PRETORIA—Ruth was born in Asmara in 1980 and spent half her childhood under Ethiopian occupation and half in the heady first years of Eritrea’s hard-won independence. She graduated from high school in 1997 and went straight into the national service, when the term was 18 months, but renewed war with Ethiopia in 1998 changed all that.

After her initial military training Ruth was assigned to work with the civil police and sent back to Asmara. When the country went onto a permanent war footing, her service, like everyone else’s, was indefinitely extended. However, she was released from her obligation in 2005 when she got married and had a child a year later. Which is roughly when her nightmare began.

Ruth’s husband was a pastor in the Pentecostal Church, whose religious practices had been banned in 2002. She had converted to his faith. Her husband was arrested in 2007, after which the authorities launched a search for her that she evaded by going into hiding. Members of the national security service ransacked her home, taking books, a laptop and an assortment of family photographs, but they did not find her.

Seven months later her husband was sentenced to 14 years in prison, and they stopped looking for her. Once she thought she was safe—acting on tips from friends in the police department with whom she’d served—she returned to her parents’ home with her daughter, each day wondering if security forces would show up on their doorstep. Her parents, Orthodox Christians, continued to support her despite differences over her faith.

Ruth waited two years before building up the courage to take her national service release papers to the immigration office to ask for an exit visa. One reason she was fearful is that Eritrean authorities require a signature from both parents on a visa request when a child is involved, and she couldn’t get one from her husband without alerting the authorities to who he was and drawing attention to her own continuing involvement with the underground church.

One day in 2011, after close to a year of fruitless efforts, she showed up at the office and found herself sitting at the desk of a busy bureaucrat who was so distracted by a phone call that he simply signed the paper and waved her way. “It was a miracle,” she said. “Maybe it was God’s interference.”

Days later, she and her daughter boarded an Egypt Air flight to Cairo, and then flew to South Africa where she had contacts through her congregation.

“It’s also bad here—no job, no support system,” she said. “Being a single mother, raising my daughter, it’s really tough. But at least there’s the freedom to practice my faith.”