Secret Prisons of Eritrea



Map of Eritrea. Did you even know it existed?

Yosief Kebedom Gelai was a primary school teacher. He loved children. All he wanted to do was make a difference. He cared about learning and he wanted others to love learning as much as he did. It was their passport out of hell.

Yosief was only 41 when he died in one of the secret prisons of Eritrea for not following one of the sanctioned religions. He was sick for some time though only 41 years of age but the harsh treatment and torture at the prison hastened his demise.

Eritrea recognizes the Catholic Church, Orthodox Church, Lutheran Church and Islam. No others are permitted. Abiding by another will mean imprisonment and death.

People in the secret prisons become nameless and they die an ignominious death. No one knows what has become of them.

Yosief became a Christian and is the 24th person to have died this year because he was a Christian but not one sanctioned by the government of Eritrea.

The Eritrean population is about 62.5% Christian and 36.5% Sunni Muslim. It sounds like religious freedom on the surface but it’s hardly that.

Yosief found Christ but in finding his destiny, he also determined it. He attracted the attention of the Eritrean Peoples’ Front for Democracy and Justice. He studied the Bible and he prayed, but not in the accepted religion.

Last December, he was arrested and sent to one of the secret prison’s in Mendefera. He never communicated with the outside world again. He never taught a child again.

He is not alone. There are so many more Yosiefs. So many more graves.

Religious persecution in Eritrea is getting worse by the day. This year alone, 191 Christians were sent to a secret prison in Eritrea.

If the religion is not government-sanctioned, it will mean torture and death. There are no human rights in Eritrea. There is no free press. There are no opposition parties. There is no civil society.

What were the harsh conditions Yosief suffered? It’s hard to know but they use underground cells and metal shipping containers to house prisoners. Many are in the desert and the temperatures are extreme. The conditions are dirty, unclean, overcrowded, and there is little in the way of food and water.

One former prisoner who made it out said,

“We couldn’t lie down [in the underground cell]. It’s best to be standing because if you lie down, your skin remains stuck to the floor. The floor is terribly hot.”

Another said,

“The room was about 2.5 meters by 3 meters and we were 33 people. It is very, very hot. The door is closed, the ceiling is low, about 2 meters. The temperature was about 50 degrees [Celsius]. A boy, about 17 years old, was about to die. We were not permitted to speak, but we banged the door. They [the guards] told us they would kill all of us if we did not stop shouting. We couldn’t do anything to help him.”

Amnesty International believes there are at least 10,000 people just like Yosief who have been imprisoned by President Isaias Afewerki, president since 1993. No one is ever tried. No one ever sees a lawyer. No one is brought before a judge. No one communicates with their family and friends ever again.

I wish I knew more about Yosief. He was a person. He had a life. He wanted to be part of a better world. Now he is relegated to anonymity. He is one of millions who have been tortured, imprisoned, and murdered because someone thought they had the right to take their life from them.

Many on the left see the danger in religious fervor and proclaim Atheism or anti-religion as the answer, but how are they different? Many terrible things are done in the name of Atheism as well.

Our own government is training military with booklets that list Evangelicals and Catholics as terrorists. That should frighten you. Wake up.

The answer is freedom. There is no other answer. Those of us who sit apathetically in our sheltered environments have no idea what awaits us, and, it’s true that there are no atheists in foxholes. It’s another way of saying there is some higher power, whether it be God or some other innate reality, we know that we deserve to be free. It is our right and it is worth dying for.

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