Aster feels like she has been given an extra life because she did not die in prison
Sign a piece of paper. That’s all it would have taken. But Aster and her twin sister Azieb refused to do so – and paid a terrible price. Both had been arrested for being part of a Christian gathering. Signing a document to renounce their faith would have meant freedom. ‘For my sister and I it wasn’t a temptation! It never entered my mind to do so,’ she says, as she looked back on what that decision would come to mean.
Aster and Azieb, who were identical twins, were always very close. They even came to faith in Christ together. Having been brought up in the Orthodox Church they were given a Bible by a visitor to their parents’ home in Asmara, the capital of Eritrea, and as a result they came to know Jesus Christ as their Saviour and Lord.
Like all young Eritreans they had to complete a term of national military service, which took them all over the country. Around that time they began seeking out Christian fellowship and eventually joined the Kale Hiwot Church. Azieb was soon appointed as an evangelist, and was sent to the small town of Adi Tekelezan, to do outreach work, while Aster became involved in prayer ministry at the home church. Gradually Aster began travelling with her sister.
In 2002 Azieb was arrested and briefly detained for worshipping with a group of about 100 Christians. She was released a few weeks later. But it was in 2006 that their lives were to change forever. The twins attended a celebration for a married couple who had been through a number of relational difficulties but who now wanted to celebrate their reconciliation. There were just over 30 people present.
‘The security forces were always spying on us and they knew this was a gathering of Christians,’ said Aster. ‘They arrested everybody – including even children and some who were new Christians. We were all taken to the local police station.’
A few non-believers who had been at the celebration were released after a couple of days, while others were released if they were prepared to sign a statement renouncing their faith. Aster and Azieb were among those who refused to comply and as a result spent about three months in police cells. From there they were taken to a prison at Adi Abeto, near Asmara. ‘We were there about four months. It was overcrowded and we struggled to get enough food for everyone. They were asking again and again when we would renounce our faith.’
The sisters were then taken, with about 20 other Christians, to the Mai Serwa prison, where they were locked in shipping containers – scorching hot by day and freezing cold at night. It was at Mai Serwa that Aster and Azieb met Twen, another imprisoned Christian, whose story we told in January’s Voice magazine.
Aster recalls the conditions: ‘They wouldn’t open the door during the day and the window was very small. We were allowed out at 6am to go to the toilet in an open field. Lunch was at 4pm and consisted of very watery lentils and very stony bread, which didn’t taste very good at all! For breakfast they would pass tea and some bread through the window.
‘It was so hot the floor burned your feet’
‘Everything about it was bad: the food, the overcrowding; and it was always very smelly. The container itself was rusty and gave off an awful smell when it was hot. Whenever someone was ill, they didn’t get proper treatment.
‘They continued to pressure us to renounce our faith and, one by one, people did so and were leaving. It was all very difficult. We tried to encourage each other. We tried not to ask, “Why God?”; we tried to help one another to remain faithful.’
One prisoner, a doctor, signed the security forces’ form. He was then asked to convince others to sign, too. ‘But it is very clear in the Bible that if we follow Jesus Christ we will be persecuted – so we were ready for that,’ Aster said.
About seven months later the sisters were moved to another prison, near the Red Sea coast. ‘It was a very hot place and the conditions were even worse! We were not allowed to wear shoes and it was so hot the floor burned your feet.’
The security forces imposed a variety of what Aster calls military-style punishments on the young women, including carrying heavy loads of firewood from the bush back to the prison camp.
When that didn’t work they began beating them with whips made from lorry tyres. ‘The first time three of us were called. It was dark. It was about 8 pm and we were taken to the woods.
They separated us and then started. I don’t remember how long they were beating me because I fainted. I think they carried on beating me.
‘At first I had to lie on my stomach and they were beating me on my back. Eventually they beat me on my chest and I couldn’t breathe. That’s when I passed out. I was semi-conscious and I didn’t know where I was. When I woke up they started beating me again. The whole thing lasted until midnight.’
Aster ended up in hospital for two weeks. Then she was sent back to the prison and the various punishments started all over again.
Aster’s sister Azieb (pictured), who was beaten to death in prison.
‘About two months later we had the second round of beating. There were three of us: me, my sister and a friend. They took my sister about 50 yards away and I could hear them beating her. I was being beaten at the same time. Then I lost consciousness again. I don’t know how long they carried on beating Azieb. One of them had been beating me so hard he had to rest: he was tired!’
Aster woke up in hospital again, but when she was returned to the prison her friends told her that Azieb was dead. She had died while Aster was unconscious.
‘It is like I have been given an extra life’
Aster remembers, ‘I started praying to the Lord to help me. I started to isolate myself from others and started crying a lot. Eventually I felt the Lord assuring me that he had chosen my sister to be with Him – and that consoled me.’
Eventually Aster was released from prison because of long-term ill health. She spent about 18 months in Asmara and then managed to flee to Sudan. From there she was eventually able to travel to Paris, where she now lives.
‘I tried to give some spiritual meaning to what had happened. No one has authority unless God allows it. If you are spiritually active you are going to get in trouble with the government [in Eritrea]. The person who beat my sister was full of anger. I felt sorry for them, because they didn’t seem to have any soul.
‘I don’t have any bitterness or grudges against them. They all seemed depressed. As for now, I have a good relationship with God and it is like I have been given an extra life because I might not have lived. So I will live for Him.’
HOW WE HELP CHRISTIAN PRISONERS IN ERITREA
Release International provides packages for Christian prisoners as well as financial support for families of prisoners and former prisoners.
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