As an 8-year-old girl, Helen Berhane began attending church in her African nation of Eritrea—a small country nestled between Ethiopia and Sudan on the coast of the Red Sea.
Despite the fact that the general population is about half Christian and half Muslim, these groups, for the most part, coexisted peacefully. But in 2002, the leftist Eritrean government decided to crack down on all but a few sects of Christianity and Sunni Islam. The unrecognized groups were subject to legal action.
“The persecution started slowly,” said Berhane, who was a member of the largest Pentecostal church (one of the unrecognized Christian groups) in Asmara, the nation’s capital. After the government shut down church activity in 2003, Berhane, a gospel singer, said she released a CD and accompanying video titled “The Cure for the World is the Gospel,” so that “people could continue to study in their houses.” She also began teaching youth in underground church meetings.
This ended in 2004 in the wee hours of the morning as she was teaching 90 young people. Police officers arrested Berhane and several other Christians.
Females were put in a room containing other women who had been arrested for various reasons. Three weeks later, she transferred to another prison where she was held in a shipping container.
“There were around 10 of us in a container,” she recalled. “It was full of lice, and it was dirty. It was hard to sleep because we were bitten so much by the lice. It was cold at night and hot during the day. We received very little food.”
As if these conditions were not already horrific, there was the added layer of sanitation. “There was no fresh air or natural light,” Berhane said. “And the floor was always wet because there was no toilet.”
Berhane and fellow Christian prisoners would often wake up in the mornings severely bruised and sore from beatings they would endure due to their refusal to sign documents renouncing their faith.
“I kept going only because of my faith,” she said. “We prayed aloud together multiple times a day, and inside, I had peace. The guards would shout, ‘You’re foolish,’ each time they would hear us pray.”
At one point, the guards found a letter of encouragement she had written to another prisoner. They surrounded her and demanded to know where she was keeping the Bible that contained the Scripture she used in the letter.
When she told the guards she didn’t have a copy of the Bible with her, but knew the Scriptures because she spent so much time memorizing them, one guard responded, “Well, if we can’t destroy the book, we’ll destroy where you keep its words.”
They began to strike her violently in the head. The guards took her outside the container for more torture. Berhane said of one guard in particular, “He beat me countless times, taking breaks only to regain his strength. My body went into shock.”
After several days of this pattern, Berhane was dizzy, bloody, bruised and couldn’t walk. The guards tried to chain her, but her hands were too swollen.
Upon examination, a doctor said she had only a few days to live. Because the prison didn’t want the burden of dealing with a dead body, she was sent home.
She had spent a total of 32 months in prison, almost all of it in the shipping container. After her recovery, a series of events brought her to Denmark, where she has lived for several years.
“Today when I see a shipping container, it is hard for me to imagine how I survived,” she said. “But because of my faith, my experience made me stronger. My God was with me.”
Her experience also emboldened her to speak out on behalf of others who are persecuted.
“Some have been detained for decades. Some are very ill and their condition is worsening. Now, they are starting to rape and kill the women in the very prison I was in. But Jesus has suffered more than anyone.”