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Sesuna was 14 when she first read the Bible. She became a born-again Christian and spent her school senior year in prison. Disowned by her family, she came to depend on God.

In 2002, the Eritrean government outlawed every religion except Islam, Orthodox Christianity, Roman Catholicism and the Lutheran Church. All other religious groups are illegal, and the government heavily controls approved churches, including their messages.

Since the ban, the government has arrested thousands of Christians. Many have remained in prison for decades.

Despite these hardships, the underground church in Eritrea continues to grow.

Sesuna was born to strict Eritrean Orthodox parents who divorced when she was young. She was raised in the home of an uncle and never felt wanted.

She was 14 when she read the Bible for the first time, as a requirement for volunteering as a Sunday school teacher at a Lutheran church. Through reading God’s Word, she realised that much of the Orthodox church’s teaching was not Biblical and she began attending an illegal evangelical church.

When Sesuna’s relatives learned that she had started an informal Bible study at her high school and had been suspended from school as a result, they beat her severely.

“I truly learned what it was like to be an evangelical believer that day,” she said.

As a high school senior Sesuna was sent to compulsory military training.

All high school seniors in Eritrea spend their senior year at a training camp adjacent to the massive Sawa Defence Training Centre on the border with Sudan. They live in poor conditions and are subjected to military discipline, forced labour and are at risk of sexual abuse. After six months at the training camp and another year of national service, students are assigned to either the civil service or indefinite military service. There are no other career choices. This compulsory service prompts thousands of Eritrean students to flee the country every year.

Sesuna had just arrived at the training camp when an instructor asked, “Are any of you evangelical Christians?”

Sesuna looked nervously around the room. She knew several of the other high school seniors attended evangelical churches, but no one was admitting it. Then the instructor, clad in traditional military fatigues, began to parrot the government’s explanation of why evangelicalism is wrong: “It is a belief system developed by the Americans to weaken Eritrea.”

As Sesuna began to rise to her feet, the girls around her tugged at her clothing, trying to pull her back down. Her friends knew what happens to admitted followers of Christ in the isolated military camp.

Sesuna boldly stated, “I have a Bible, and I am a born-again Christian.”

Military guards then led Sesuna to a cell. She lay on the dirt floor as prison officials discussed what to do with her. Some thought that since her parents followed the Eritrean Orthodox faith, she could be persuaded to abandon her ‘heretical’ evangelical beliefs. But others thought her bold declaration of faith indicated that she could not be rehabilitated and should be taken to prison before she could influence other students.

After deciding not to return Sesuna to her classmates, the officials at Sawa locked her in the women’s prison, where she shared a tiny room with 15 other women in vile living conditions. The prison was constructed of tin buildings that were freezing at night and boiling hot during the day. The women had to eat with their hands, sometimes off the floor, and suffered from malnutrition, poor hygiene and disease with little or no medical treatment.

They were permitted to go to the bathroom only once a day, at 6pm. The guards, fearing that some of the women might attempt an escape, took them outside in a line and watched them. Some of the guards behaved so inappropriately that Sesuna decided to stop going to the bathroom. Consequently, she ate and drank very little, and she became ill.

Every week, she was dragged to an interrogation room, where prison officials spent hours trying to get her to recant her faith. Once they even brought her schoolmates into the room to persuade her. “I knew all I had to do was deny Jesus and I would have been free,” Sesuna said.

When Sesuna became so ill that she could no longer move, guards lifted her limp body and took her to the infirmary.

She was so weak, however, that she fell off the bed and broke her back in three places. Prison officials then took her to a hospital in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, for surgery, making it clear that she would return to the prison when she recovered.

Disowned by her family and facing a lifetime of military service or imprisonment, Sesuna decided to flee Eritrea. After her discharge from hospital, she escaped into neighbouring Ethiopia. But her situation there wasn’t a great improvement. She was assigned to the worst of four Eritrean refugee camps in Ethiopia, and her Muslim roommates often hit her and stole her rations. Depressed, Sesuna considered returning to Eritrea.

In time, though, she began to attend an evangelical service in the camp – it was the first time in her life she had been able to worship openly – and she even began to teach Sunday school again. Then, after a church leader met her, he recommended Sesuna for a place at a VOM-supported Bible school near the refugee camp.

Currently in her second year of studies, Sesuna now rents her own room and stays at the school while classes are in session. “When I first came to the Bible school, I was thinking I knew many things, that I had knowledge,” she said. “Then I came here and realised I know nothing. But that is challenging me and helping me to know the Lord more. God is preparing me for tomorrow’s ministry.”

While her difficult upbringing and lack of family support could have been debilitating, Sesuna views it as preparation for her future ministry. “God has removed the human beings in my life so I don’t depend on them,” she said, “and it helps me to be strong.”

Having endured many trials in her young life, Sesuna remains keenly focused on eternity. “I know the world will pass away one day,” she said. “But if we have the Lord, we have everything.”