So far this year, more than 200,000 migrants have landed on European shores. Almost two-thirds of them have come from Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea – countries where pressure on Christians is intense.
As European politicians squabble over how to respond to the world’s greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War, World Watch Monitor caught up with an Eritrean who made the journey 15 years ago and has never returned. Even now, the man – a British passport holder now in his forties – does not wish to be identified, for fear of potential reprisals against remaining family members back home. For the purposes of this article, World Watch Monitor will refer to him as Eric.
Although Eric’s journey took place several years ago, his descriptions of his journey – and of life within Eritrea – are consistent with recent research and reports by World Watch Monitor and others.
WWM: Why did you decide to flee Eritrea?
Eric: “There were many reasons. First of all, the national service. It’s compulsory and it never ends, unless you can bribe officials. You serve indefinitely, without any salary, apart from pocket money. It’s basically slavery.
“Eritrea is a dictatorship. There is no freedom of speech, freedom of politics, freedom of religion, freedom of press. There is no medical attention whatsoever. You can’t go back to your home and see your family, so what kind of life is it?
WWM: What role did your Christian faith have in your decision?
Eric: “For me, I was a pastor and I didn’t want to go to national service at all. They took me by force. I decided to escape not only because of my faith, but because I don’t agree with the regime and with national service.
“Many people have different opinions about that, but the main reason people are fleeing – whether Christian or not, because it isn’t only Christians, it’s everyone – is because the government is brutal, it’s oppressive. There is no human rights, and national service is still going on – not only for young people; even for 65, 70-year-olds!
“The country is bleeding. There is no hope, the government is so brutal and oppressive, and people want freedom – they want to be free, whether it’s to exercise their faith or to be whatever they want to. And there is no reason to be in national service forever, indefinitely. There is no war, it’s only that the government is trying to control people.”
“[I was scared] every moment. As a Christian, I knew I could trust the Lord at all time. It contributed a huge amount of trust and confidence. But still, you’re not safe at home; not safe in Sudan; not safe when you cross the border; not safe in the Sahara Desert.”
WWM: Please can you explain a little more about life for Christians in Eritrea?
Eric: “As a Pentecostal believer, life is difficult. There are only [four] categories of religion allowed in Eritrea – Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and one group from the Evangelical Church. Apart from that, all kinds of religion are forbidden.
“You can’t even read your Bible [freely] – if you’re found when you’re reading the Bible or praying, they’ll put you in prison, or they will isolate you from the rest of the people, or even they might kill you. You don’t know what is going to happen to you.
“Thousands of people have been arrested because of their religion. Some of them were civilians, of course, but most of them were doing national service.
“For the Pentecostal believer, it’s a double torment, if you like. They go to the compulsory national service and they are not allowed to exercise their faith. Imagine! This is your faith, this is what you believe. You are attached to your faith and when you are doing your national service, imagine how you feel!
“Are you a second-class citizen? Are you a slave? You can imagine what kind of feelings come to you and, not only that, but when they find you, they might kill you, or they might put you in prison forever, or they might punish you with a severe punishment – like digging a ditch for months and months, or you are given extra work. It is against human rights.”
WWM: Why are some strands of Christianity accepted and others aren’t?
Eric: “Pentecostals are very serious. They love to read their Bible; they share their faith with others. It’s a contentious faith, and the government fears the Pentecostals because they have got harmony, they are aggressive in their faith. They obey the government, but they want to exercise their faith as well.
“There has been an epidemic of new Christians. Thousands have come to faith. When we got our independence [from Ethiopia] in 1991, the Church grew tremendously, all across Eritrea. And the government was aware of that and there is a fear behind that.
“[Most] Catholics and Orthodox don’t exercise their faith, even though they claim they have religion. They are normal people. But the Pentecostals are ‘converted’, so they are serious about their faith, they read their Bible and pray, so they are contentious if you like. That’s the difference.
“They are addicted to reading their Bible – cautiously, obviously, because if they are found, they would be arrested.”
In the summer of 2000, Eric and two friends left their military base near the town of Sawa and made for the Sudanese border on foot – usually a day’s journey, but on this occasion one that took three.
Eric: “The journey should not take three days, but we were hiding in the daytime, only walking in the darkness and there was a war [with Ethiopia], so we heard gunshots all the time and you don’t know where it comes from. If you are found crossing the border, you can be shot to death. We knew we had taken a risk, so we were very cautious, and very, very terrified.
At the border, Eric and his friends paid some villagers around $100 each to be smuggled into Sudan. (Eric says the price is now around $6,000 per family.) Eric spent almost two years in Sudan, where his wife later joined him and they gave birth to a daughter. When their daughter was six months old, they decided to continue their journey – first by trying to reach Libya.
Eric: “The thing is that you are not safe. Sudan is a very vulnerable country, they can deport you. And so you always live with those kind of feelings.
Eric paid some ‘agents’ $1,000 to take them from Khartoum to Libya. They travelled for 15 days on the top of a Toyota Hilux, with around 30 others. But after arriving in Libya and paying some other agents $400 to be taken to Tripoli, they were caught and arrested.
Eric: “We found many Eritreans in prison, who had been there for about four, five months, and it was very sad and our hearts were broken, and we cried, and my wife was thinking this would be our life, and, imagine: we have a child six months old!
“Then after five days, one of the officials came to see the prison and told us: ‘We are going to deport you to Eritrea!’, and everyone was crying and shouting: ‘We cannot go back to Eritrea, we will be killed!’ And while we were discussing, he saw the little baby and he was so compassionate on us – and said, ‘This little baby is in prison too? Tomorrow morning, you have to free this guy’.
“I was just hoping that we wouldn’t be deported. My prayer was just that I would not be deported back to Eritrea, but they freed me. I took my wife and baby and I went.”
Out of money, Eric says he was given $400 by one of the other Christians in prison to try to reach Tripoli again. This time, the 1,000km journey was a success and at Tripoli he was able to contact family, who sent more money for the final leg of the journey.
Eric confessed that he was very scared.
Eric: “Oh yes, every moment. As a Christian, I knew I could trust the Lord at all time. It contributed a huge amount of trust and confidence. But still, you’re not safe at home; not safe in Sudan; not safe when you cross the border; not safe in the Sahara Desert.
Many people have been killed in the desert – some naturally, because it’s very hot and you are thirsty and can run out of water, but some of the agents, they have guns with them and they can kill you if they don’t like you.
“So you don’t feel safe at all, and the Libyans, they ask who are you and what is your name, and obviously our names are strange for them, and they ask you if you are a Christian or a Muslim, and if you say you are a Christian they punch you and kick you, they spit on you.”
After two weeks in Tripoli, Eric took his wife and daughter to find a boat, which, they hoped, would sail them to Europe.
Eric: “It took us 40 hours, and the boat was very small. We had no access to information, what kind of boat it is going to be and who is going to be the captain. There is not information at all.
“When we got there and when I found out the [size of the] boats I was terrified and said, ‘How foolish I am!’ I had to think about my wife and my daughter too, and I regretted all the journey and thought, ‘What am I doing?’
“But there is no way to change it. It is 4 o’ clock in the morning, complete darkness and you don’t know what to do. You don’t know where you are.
“Even if you say, ‘I cancel my journey’, there is nowhere to do it – you are in the middle of the sea. So we had to go with it, and the journey started and there was no light.
“I was sitting on the back of the boat and I could touch the water, feel the water … to give you an idea of how shallow it was. And there was no light at all because it was December and it was stormy season and you could feel the waves and the storm.”
Even in Italy, the journey wasn’t over for Eric and his family, who spent more than a year in refugee camps before they were granted asylum in the UK. He now works as a pastor of a church in the north of England.
Eritrea is ranked at No. 9 on Open Doors International’s World Watch List, which monitors the 50 countries in which it is most difficult to live as a Christian.