Those who have read the story of Eritrean gospel singer Helen Berhane in her book, Song of the Nightingale, will be familiar with Helen’s fellow prisoner and close friend, “Esther”. Esther’s real name is Twen Theodros, and she was imprisoned in the same shipping container as Helen.
Twen is an amazing Christian woman who endured terrible beatings and torture at the hands of Eritrean prison guards. On occasions, Twen took the punishment in place of Helen and, when Helen was very ill as a result of the beatings and prison conditions, Twen cared for her. She fed Helen, washed her wounds, defended her and even carried her to the toilet when Helen was unable to walk.
Twen was arrested in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, in 2004 but was released after her father persuaded her to sign a paper saying she would not continue to meet with other Christians, share her faith or engage in Christian activities.
In 2005, she was re-arrested after she was found participating in an evening prayer meeting in an underground church. Following her arrest, Twen was sent to Mai Sirwa Prison.
In 2006, she was joined by a large group of detainees who were arrested at a Christian wedding celebration in Asmara.
Twen and the women in this group all refused to sign a paper stating they would no longer engage in Christian activities, which was tantamount to recanting their faith, so they were sent to Wi’a, to one of Eritrea’s harshest prisons.
Wi’a, which is situated on the Red Sea coast, is one of the most inhospitable places on earth. Hundreds of prisoners have died in Wi’a prison as a result of the extreme heat and deplorable sanitary conditions. The prison was eventually closed by government order. Twen and her group were then sent to Me’etr prison, in the remote northwest of Eritrea. There is no town near Me’etr prison and no public transportation; the prison houses mainly Christian prisoners.
Twen has had opportunities to escape. On one occasion, she was given permission to stay with her family in Asmara for a month because of a health problem. After being cared for and receiving treatment, Twen made her way back to the prison on her own, rather than trying to arrange to be smuggled out of Eritrea to a neighboring country.
Twen was 23 years old when she was first arrested in 2004. At that time, Twen was a new believer. Today, Twen is considered a key senior women’s leader in the prison. She continues to look after and care for other women prisoners.
Eritrea has been dominated by war and drought over the past four decades. An Italian colony, Eritrea was given to Ethiopia in 1951, by the United Nations. Independence was finally achieved in 1993, with Eritrea retaining the entire coastline of Ethiopia, along the Red Sea, where the climate is hot and dry. A small African nation, Eritrea is about the size of Pennsylvania, with a population estimated close to 4.5 million.
Religious freedom supposedly exists in this country, with the population being roughly half Muslim and half Christian. Most of the Christians are Orthodox.
FEAR of Islamist extremism and Christian evangelicalism has led the government to impose severe restrictions on international aid workers and NGO projects.
During 2002, the government banned most Christian denominations, however, the Roman Catholic, Evangelical Lutheran and Orthodox churches seemed to escape persecution and continued to function normally, until recently when three Orthodox priests were detained, two wedding ceremonies were interrupted, and a New Year’s Eve celebration was broken up. Many attendees at these functions were arrested.
Eritrea has no privately owned radio or television stations. In September 2001, the government closed the private press for “endangering national security.”
News is delivered through state-run agencies, and criticism of the government is not tolerated.
CONTACT GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS
President Issayas Afewerki
Office of the President
PO Box 257
Permanent Representative of Eritrea to the United NationsGirma Asmerom Tesfay
Permanent Mission of Eritrea
800 2nd Ave # 1801
New York, NY 10017
OTHER CONTACT INFORMATION
Telephone: (212) 687-3390
Fax: (212) 687-3138
Ambassador RepresentativeGhirmai Ghebremariam
Embassy of the State of Eritrea
1708 New Hampshire Ave., NW
Washington, DC 20009
OTHER CONTACT INFORMATION