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Although the tiny East African nation of Eritrea has a population of just 6 million, Eritrea is one of the leading sources of refugees in Europe. There are many reasons for this, but chief among them is a lack of religious freedom.
The Eritrean government outlawed worship outside of Islam and the Orthodox, Evangelical Lutheran and Roman Catholic Church in 2002, driving all other Christian churches underground as they faced varying degrees of restrictions and attacks. Since then, thousands of Christians have been arrested and incarcerated without benefitting from a legal process. Among them are a number of prominent church leaders arrested in 2004, who remain incarcerated today, almost 12 years later. World Watch Monitor spoke with the family of one of these prisoners.
Haile Naigzhi, leader of Eritrea’s Full Gospel Church, was arrested during the early hours of 23 May, 2004. He was taken from his home to Police Station #1 in Asmara, then moved to Wongel Mermera – a dungeon-like prison in Asmara, where he still resides, alongside at least five other prominent church leaders (see list below). They have little hope of release any time soon.
For years following Naigzhi’s arrest, his wife and three children (names withheld to protect their identity) waited for his release. In 2013, his wife received credible information that the government wanted to arrest her and the children, so she decided to flee.
As World Watch Monitor reported last year, the journey out of Eritrea is fraught with danger. Movement in Eritrea is heavily controlled through an internal travel-pass system and checkpoints; anyone trying to cross the border can be shot on sight. If you make it past those first two hurdles, you reach the desert, exposed to the unforgiving elements and lawless human traffickers. Whatever destination you aim for after that could see you either crossing the Mediterranean on a rickety boat or dodging deportation from African countries with diplomatic and ideological ties to the Eritrean government.
World Watch Monitor cannot divulge the details of the Naigzhi family’s journey, nor where they ended up, but today they are settled in a new country, where they have been granted asylum.
“We feel safer here,” said Naigzhi’s wife. “We are able to freely serve God. I am also happy because the children are in a good school.”
But their 19-year-old daughter misses home. “Ever since we left our country, things have dramatically changed in a way we didn’t know they would. I knew the moment we left that we would have an uphill battle until we are able one day to go back home again. And it was all true.”
Naigzhi’s wife added: “I miss my husband dearly. It is very lonely for me.”
Their eldest daughter last saw her father when she was seven, whereas the youngest son (13) does not remember a time when they were all together.
The other boy, 17, last saw his father when he was five and confessed to also feeling homesick.
“I miss home, I miss my friends, and I miss our house,” he said.
“It is difficult, but we hold on to Jesus,” said Naigzhi’s wife.
Her daughter added: “We learnt that having a ‘bed-of-roses’ kind of life on earth is not actually God’s number one plan for us, but that everything we face in this world shapes our spirits into the beautiful spirit the Lord wishes to see in us. I am happy in every way and most especially to be the daughter of the Most High God. I am also happy to be the daughter of a prisoner for Christ. He is the best dad ever! God will make things perfect one day, and I trust Him with all my heart. He is faithful to keep His word.”
Eritrea is No. 3 on Open Doors’ 2016 World Watch List, which ranks the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian. No-one knows for certain how many Christians remain in the elaborate network of incarceration centres in Eritrea. Although there seems to have been a lull in arrests, pressure remains high on Christians and on society in general. Thousands are still intent on fleeing the country, the majority aiming for Europe. Hundreds have died trying.
Incarcerated church leaders
Head of the Orthodox Church, removed from his position in 2007 after criticising the Eritrean government for interference in church activities. Two priests accompanied by government security agents entered the Patriarch’s residence and confiscated his personal pontifical insignia. He was replaced by Abune Dioskoros – a development orchestrated by the Eritrean government. Patriarch Antonios, who has never been charged with any offence, remains under house arrest and strict state surveillance.
Senior pastor of the Kale Hiwot Church. Arrested for participating in a Protestant wedding ceremony in Barentu on 9 January, 2005. Taken to Asmara Police Station No. 5, then subjected to 10 months of solitary confinement and hard labour at Sawa military camp. Released after six years, then re-arrested six months later, after a fleeing church member, who was being monitored, called him. Now back in prison in Barentu, where he has been for 11 years in total.
Senior pastor of the Full Gospel Church and member of the executive committee of Gideons International in Eritrea. When his vehicle was found abandoned in 2005, his wife and four children assumed he had been arrested. Believed to be in Wongel Mermera prison.
Founder and senior pastor of Southwest Full Gospel Church, and member of the executive committee to the Full Gospel Church of Eritrea. Before he became a full-time pastor, Dr. Gebremeskel was also a mathematics lecturer and until 1999 was department and faculty head at the University of Asmara. Has a Ph.D. in mathematics from Chicago University. Taken from his home in Asmara Gejeret in May 2004. Wife and four children have not been able to visit him.
Anaesthetist and pastor of Massawa Rhema Church. Arrested on 3 June, 2004, five days after another pastor, Tesfasion Hagos (who has since been released and granted asylum in another country), visited his church and home. Arrested at a police checkpoint just before entering Asmara, as he was returning Pastor Hagos’ belongings to his home. Taken to the 2nd Police Station, where he was held for about two months, before being relocated to Wongel Mermera, where he remains. Unmarried.
Eritrea’s only psychiatrist. Also served as an Orthodox priest. Arrested in Nov. 2004 for allegedly being involved in the renewal movement within the Orthodox Church.
Expert theologian and Orthodox priest also arrested in Nov. 2004 for allegedly being involved in the renewal movement within the Orthodox Church.
Doctor and Orthodox priest also arrested in Nov. 2004 for alleged involvement in the renewal movement within the Orthodox Church.
Source: World Watch Monitor
On the night that Jumai was kidnapped from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok, she called her dad.
She was in the back of a truck, packed in with her schoolmates as men with guns tried to take them away. Her father, Daniel, told her to jump out of the van – but then the line crackled and the signal dropped.
He ran out of the house to try to find phone signal. When he called back, a man answered: “Stop calling, your daughter has been taken away”. Daniel realised then that her fate was “in the hands of God”. The next day he tried to call again but the line was dead.
Although some families of the missing girls were happy for us to use their photos and names, we have changed the names of Jumai and her father to protect their identity.
Until the girls were taken, the area around Chibok had been relatively peaceful. Islamist militant group Boko Haram had attacked villages further north and east but this busy market town had escaped.
Daniel, who lives in the nearby town of Mbalala, sent his daughter off to school on 14 April 2014 to sit the first of her final exams.
But late that night, in one of the most organised attacks of its insurgency, Boko Haram stormed the school compound and kidnapped Jumai, along with 275 of her classmates.
His daughter never managed to jump off the truck, like some girls who managed to escape. But Daniel has not yet given up hope that he will get her back. The two were very close.
“I understood her the best,” he says. “She worked harder than any of her three brothers and she rode a motorcycle like a man.”
A few months ago, Daniel decided to try his daughter’s phone number again. A man’s voice answered:
“This phone belongs to my wife, what do you want?”
“Who are you?” Daniel replied.
The man said: “Who are you?” Daniel ended the call.
A few days later he called the number again. Again the man answered.
“Why are you calling this number?” he asked.
Daniel lied: “I am calling you because I knew you from Maiduguri” – the largest city in Borno state.
“If you did know me you would not dial this number,” the man replied.
He called himself Amir Abdullahi – addressing himself as a militant leader. After that, Daniel didn’t call again.
Jumai is from Mbalala, a town about 11km south of Chibok and one of the worst-hit by the kidnapping. Twenty-five girls went missing from Mbalala alone.
Once a busy market town, where traders went from as far as Kano to buy beans and livestock, now the stalls are empty. The wooden bones of market stalls still fill the main square.
These days the army restricts everything people do here – they can’t buy food in bulk or even cooking gas, generators can’t run at night, so people just go home to darkness.
With no schools and no work to do, young people no longer stay here if they have the choice. Boys leave to find work elsewhere, girls of age get married as soon as they can.
Plying the little trade they can, women sell homemade snacks from plastic tubs at the side of the road.
When she wasn’t at school, Maryam Abubaker used to help her mum sell these snacks, bean cakes and noodles. On the day that Maryam was kidnapped, just before she headed off to school, she was helping her mum at the stall.
“She made $50,” her mum told us. “She is a great businesswoman. She was very lazy on the farm, but she was great with customers.”
That was the last moment that Binti had with her daughter.
Maryam’s best friend was her half-sister Hansatu. They did everything together, they shared the same friends and even made matching outfits for each other.
Hansatu loved fashion and wanted to be a designer. Just before she was kidnapped, she begged her mum to buy her a sewing machine.
After she disappeared, her younger brothers and sisters would see the clothes she left behind, they would ask where she had gone and when she was coming back. Eventually her mother bundled the clothes into a bag to stop the questions.
She shows us the outfit that Hansatu was supposed to wear on her friend’s wedding day, a few days after the exam, which never happened.
“I am going to keep it until they come back,” she says.
These belongings are the little that these parents have left to hold on to. Since their daughters were taken, they’ve received no information from the government on where they might be.
The last president refused to engage with the parents but even the new administration has done little to try to track them down. The truth is, no-one has any real idea where they might be.
For the family of Grace Paul, one photo is all they have to hold on to. Grace would be 19 now. She was a lovely singer, according to her dad. She loved maths and wanted to be a doctor.
The family have entrusted their last photo of her to their neighbour Aboku Samson to make copies of it for them.
The girls at Chibok secondary school represented the most ambitious young people in their village.
In a country where less than half of young people finish secondary school, they were the few in their community pushing for an education. And some had to fight for it.
Aisha Greman was 17 when she was kidnapped. Her father says she refused to get married while she was at school, though she was asked.
She was a hard worker and wanted to get to university so she could be a health professional.
Jinkai Yama was the oldest in a family of four girls. She desperately wanted to join the army and was a proud member of the cadettes girl’s brigade.
Her three younger sisters ask about her all the time. Last month, when there were reports that a girl from Chibok had been caught alive in Cameroon, they were convinced it was her. But the girl turned out to be from Bama, a town much further north.
Whenever it is dark and raining outside, Jinkai’s father closes his eyes and tries to imagine where his daughter is. Like many of the parents here, he has almost given up hope.
He and his wife don’t believe the government is doing anything to find them. If they did, her mother says, they would have sent a team to Cameroon straight away. Instead, it took three days.
The mistrust is so deep that conspiracy theories abound.
Jumai’s father Daniel believes his daughter’s phone number is key to his daughter’s whereabouts but thinks the government can offer him no help at all. He refuses to hand over the number to them.
The army seldom come to Mbalala, but every Sunday they pass through to shoo small traders away from the marketplace. The region is under lockdown after a series of suicide attacks. They are afraid of any place that people might gather.
When we visited, the army told us to watch out, that anyone could be a suicide bomber. By that, they even meant girls. Over the past two years, many of the suicide bombers used by Boko Haram have been girls.
They’ve attacked refugee camps and market places all over the region. In February, they attacked the market in Chibok town, just down the road, killing 13 people.
This fact hasn’t escaped the parents here, though it can’t be easy for them to accept. One mother told us how she felt about these accusations – that her daughter could be a killer. She refuses to believe it.
“I gave birth to that baby,” she said. “Even if she comes to me with a gun in her hand, let her kill me, but I will still welcome her.”
Boko Haram’s use of child bombers has increased over the last year with one in five suicide attacks now carried out done by children, the UN says.
Girls, who are often drugged, were behind three-quarters of such attacks committed by the militant Islamist group in Cameroon, Nigeria and Chad.
It is an 11-fold increase with four attacks in 2014 compared to 44 the next year, including January 2016.
The change in tactics reflects the loss of territory in Nigeria by the group.
The seven-year insurgency, which has mainly affected north-eastern Nigeria as well as its neighbours around Lake Chad, has left some 17,000 people dead.
Unicef says up to 1.3 million children have been forced from their homes across four countries: Cameroon, Chad, Nigeria and Niger.
The report from the UN children’s agency has been released as Nigeria approaches the second anniversary of the kidnapping by Boko Haram of more than 200 girls from their boarding school in the Nigerian town of Chibok.
Their abduction sparked the global campaign Bring Back Our Girls, but none of the girls have yet been found.
The Unicef report says that boys are forced to attack their own families to demonstrate their loyalty to Boko Haram, while girls are exposed to severe abuse including sexual violence and forced marriage to fighters.
The girls who are used for bombings are often drugged and then explosives are strapped to their bodies.
According to the report, Cameroon has the highest number of child suicide attacks, involving children who are as young as eight.
Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden”, has often targeted schools during its insurgency.
Unicef says more than 1,800 schools have been closed, damaged, looted, set on fire or used to shelter those left homeless in north-eastern Nigeria and Cameroon.
Over the last 15 months, most of the areas controlled by the militants have been retaken by a multi-national force and the militants are now thought to operate from hideouts in Nigeria’s Sambisa forest.
Source: BBC News
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