Imprisoned for practising his Christian faith, Eritrean national Million Mesfin Berhe was beaten and tortured for 14 months before he managed to flee his country. As millions marked World Refugee Day on Friday, he spoke to Ariadne Massa about his punishing journey and new found freedom as a refugee in Malta.
Million Mesfin Berhe, 26, sits placidly with his legs crossed, wiping his brow with a luminous green napkin and eagerly waiting for the translator to arrive so he can recount his story.
"It was a weekday in 2004. I was attending Bible studies after school, when the soldiers stormed the grounds, rounded us up, and began beating us with sticks," he says, twitching his moustache.
The small group of Christians were bundled into a truck and imprisoned, with no access to a lawyer or any chance of a fair trial. Their crime: association with the Pentecostal church.
The crackdown on Eritrea's minority churches followed a government announcement in May 2002 that only its four oldest faiths - Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran and Islam - would receive official sanction.
It was bent on countering religious 'extremism' after independent evangelical and Pentecostal churches sprung up across Eritrea. To achieve its goals, the government closed all churches that were not part of the four major denominations, affecting some 20,000 believers.
Whole congregations who chose to continue practising this 'new religion' have been harassed, imprisoned, humiliated, beaten, tortured and threatened with execution.
The mass arrests and religious persecution in Eritrea is so severe that it has been described as being among 'the worst in the world on a per capita basis'.
Mr Berhe is just one of many who endured this persecution. In prison he was frequently interrogated and beaten - he would only be freed if he signed a document promising to abandon his religion.
He was too devoted to yield to their requests so he stood firm, even when the blows rained on his skinny frame. One day they shattered the bone of his left hand and his pleas for treatment were turned down.
Wincing slightly, Million rolls up the sleeve of his shirt to expose a deformed bone, and punctured flesh where the scars snake across his arm. The delay in getting him to a doctor led to a severe infection in the bone, which Maltese doctors are now treating.
"I have to take medication for the next three months. I hope it will get better because I am left-handed and it will hamper my chance to find a job," he says with a wistful smile.
Far from having his injury treated in the Eritrean capital Asmara, Mr Berhe was held in solitary confinement and often tied for more than 48 hours in a tiny cell, which was scorching hot by day and freezing at night.
Getting off his chair, Mr Berhe lies face down on the floor and - balancing on his belly, his hands clutching his feet behind his back and bending his legs almost double - demonstrates how he was tied, a torture technique known colloquially as 'the helicopter' position.
Mr Berhe also had to endure the 'Number eight' position, where the victim's hands and feet are tied together behind his back. A stick is then placed under the knees and supported on a framework on both sides horizontally, and the body turned upside down with the feet exposed. The soles are then beaten with sticks or whips.
"I was very scared. It was hard to keep my sanity in those moments. The only thing that kept me going was my faith in Jesus and the hope of everlasting life," he says.
In the offices of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), it is hard to picture the torture he endured for 14 months, though the invisible scars are etched on his face and occasionally cloud his eyes.
However, he brightens up when he recounts how he managed to escape from the security guards after he finally persuaded them to drive him to hospital to treat the excruciating pain in his hand.
His faith proved to be his guiding light in the years that followed, because he sought refuge with friends who formed part of the Pentecostal church, and they paid for their 'brother' to escape from the country.
With his parents dead and his only brother whisked into military service, Mr Berhe had nothing to keep him in Eritrea. He knew that if the soldiers caught him they would kill him, so he embarked on a journey with Destination Europe in mind.
Smuggled in a car through the western Eritrean district of Teseney, Mr Berhe crossed the Sudan border on May 19, 2005, and walked through the desert for two days. Despite his parched mouth and scorching heat, the smell of freedom pushed him forward.
With no belongings, except the clothes on his back, Mr Berhe was again taken in by the Pentecostal group in Sudan, which paid $1,000 for his trip to Libya. He spent a year there living off the charity of his friends, but his hand was never properly treated and he required special attention.
"I was seeking a special life. I wanted to reach Europe in search of a hospital and to continue my education," he says.
His fellow Christians forked at another $1,400 for his trip from Libya to Italy and on July 27, 2007, he squeezed into a tiny boat with 26 other illegal immigrants in search of a new life.
After three days at sea, rough weather threatened to capsize the little boat and they were rescued by a Ukrainian ship, which helped them reach Malta. The group soon boarded a truck and taken to the Safi detention centre.
"I was horrified to be put behind bars. Freedom was my dream and after the traumatic journey to finally get here, I was imprisoned again," he says.
"The centre was like a zoo of humans. The days passed very slowly and we were left idle - all we did was eat and sleep. I thought I would go mad."
After 45 days, Mr Berhe became desperate and he escaped in the hope of reaching a hospital, but he was turned away because he had no documentation or status and eventually sought refuge at the Marsa open centre.
He was finally coaxed to return to the detention centre, but this time he felt equipped with the knowledge he needed to start the process for refugee status. He was also provided with medical treatment.
His streak of bad luck was finally ending, and on May 29 Mr Berhe was officially recognised as a refugee on the basis of religious persecution in his country, and released from detention.
With nowhere to stay, he moved to the Ħal-Far open centre and with the help of JRS has begun to piece his life together.
"I am very happy God did not leave me in detention. I see my life as a free man and I feel very lucky," he says.
Before his hand heals, Mr Berhe cannot work, so he spends his day reading the Bible, going to Church, and studying Maltese and English in a bid to integrate. Eventually he would like to get married and become an electrician.
"I am very grateful to JRS and the Maltese government for giving me the chance to live here. I thank God every day for my freedom."
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us