ERITREA. Every singer dreams of realising their music to the world and that it will be possible to make a living doing what they love. But in 13 of May 2004, shortly after her gospel album T’ Kebaeku (I Am Anointed) was released, Helen Berhane was arrested.
Eritrea is a dictature and Human Rights Watch says that the government notoriously breach human rights. Polls give a varying picture of religion in the country, but one from 2011 shows that half of the population is Christian and half is Muslim. All religious groups must register to be allowed to exist and this includes giving the state personal information. Not something that you want to do in a totalitarian state. But reformed or radical congregations is never approved, for example evangelical churches.
Christians are persecuted by the state for not being authorized or get accused of spying for the West. The oppression can also come from The Eritrean Orthodox Church (EOC) who persecute those who leave the denomination. Also there’s an increased radicalization of Eritrean Muslims which have led to Christians being killed (when I talked about this last point with a relative she branded me a racist and a disappointment. I’m more disappointed in those who decapitate people because of their faith).
That’s the reason why Helen was arrested. They wanted her to sign a document promising never to be a part of Evangelical activities, which included her music. When she refused and was placed in Mai Serwa military camp. Helen didn’t get any legal representation or medical help when she needed it. She wasn’t allowed to contact her family. She was locked in a shipping container that lacked ventilation, light and sanitation. During the day the heat was unbearable while the container was ice cold during the night. This kind of imprisonment isn’t uncommon. Helen endured torture, illness and was close to death.
Helen was released in November 2006, after 32 months of custody, thanks to an international campaign and at the time she was very ill. Her comment on this is:
They don’t want you to die in prison. So they send you home to die.
She was granted asylum in Denmark with her daughter Eva. She works as a singer and speaker on behalf of persecuted Christians. Helen has written a book about her experiences called Song of the Nightingale.