*Name changed to protect survivor’s identity

Yerosen* shudders every time she remembers that day — the last Thursday of May 2020. As much as she tries to forget the three months she spent in the hands of her abductor, the nightmare still haunts her. It probably always will.

Child marriage via abduction was a long-held custom in rural Ethiopia until 2000. That’s when the government criminalised the act and raised the age for marriage from 15 to 18. But despite a decline in cases, it is still practised in some areas — as Yerosen was to discover.


A terrifying tradition

Abduction is a hidden danger lurking in the corners of the small village where Yerosen lived with her grandfather. She had heard stories of girls vanishing before returning as the wives of much older men—their childhoods stolen forever.

Yet Yerosen didn’t think twice when a woman from her village offered her a ride on her motorbike. “I never suspected she meant any harm until the motorbike turned onto a dirt road,” she recalls. After the woman locked her in a hut and threatened to harm her if she tried to escape, Yerosen realised why she had been abducted.

“I was very scared. I cried so much,” she remembers. “I never imagined I would be one of those girls whose stories I heard with horror.”

Later that night, Yerosen came face-to-face with the man who organised her kidnapping with the help of his sister. He was 35 years old — almost three times her age.

As much as she tries to forget the three months she spent in the hands of her abductor, the nightmare still haunts her.

Community shaken

The next day, news of Yerosen’s disappearance reached the church where she has been part of Compassion’s programme since the age of six.

“It was the worst call I have ever received,” says Abdi, director of the Compassion centre at the church. “I was angry that such a crime would be committed against one of our children in the programme.

“I vowed to do everything possible to get Yerosen back and to make sure justice was served.”

Abdi contacted police and special forces, who launched a manhunt to find Yerosen’s abductors. Church leaders, Compassion programme staff, Sunday school teachers and volunteers came together to pray for Yerosen’s safe return. The pastor and Abdi led the search, along with Yerosen’s grandfather.

But the criminals had informants tipping them off about the police and the church’s plans, so they were always one step ahead. They frequently moved the girl to different towns.

Every time they moved, Yerosen’s hopes faded.


Courage in the face of fear

As fearful as she was, Yerosen decided to defend herself as much as she could. Whenever she was approached by the man trying to forcibly marry her, Yerosen said she would scream. She threatened him with a small knife she had found in one of the houses they had moved her to. He retreated every time.

Every night Yerosin sat awake by the door with the knife in her hand.

“One night, I remembered what our Sunday school teacher told us,” Yerosen says. “She said to pray if we find ourselves in any danger.

“Praying became my daily task. I prayed to God to deliver me from my abductor, to let me go back to my family, and for my captors not to harm me. I prayed every day and believed with all my heart.”

As Yerosen prayed, so did her family at church, where prayer vigils continued over weeks and months.

“The police started to lose hope,” remembers Abdi. And it wasn’t just them: Yerosen’s grandfather had given in to pleas of elders who were working with the abductor. He agreed to accept a dowry and bless the marriage.

Undaunted, Abdi continued to track Yerosen’s possible locations. Then — three months after Yerosen’s abduction, Abdi’s phone rang. When he heard a young girl’s muffled voice on the line, he broke down in tears.


A bold girl’s bold move

A week earlier, the criminals had taken Yerosen back to a secret location in her hometown. “They were busy with the wedding preparation,” recalls Yerosen. “I was waiting for the moment when I could escape. I decided to take my chances.”

Yerosen got hold of a phone and found a hiding place. She didn’t call the police. She didn’t call her grandfather.

She called her Compassion centre director.

“I snuck to the bathroom with Abdi’s number in my hand and called. I knew he would save me,” Yerosen says.

Over the phone, Abdi gave Yerosen instructions for an escape plan to be carried out the next morning. At dawn, Abdi and the pastor met at the church to see how it unfolded. A few hours later, Yerosen arrived at a friend’s house next to the church. She had escaped!

Yerosen with Compassion Centre Director, Abdi, who helped her escape.

Thankful that God had answered his prayers, Abdi took Yerosen to the police station, where he pressed charges. Then he took her to the hospital. To everyone’s relief, she was physically unharmed.

A breath of freedom

“Jesus came,” says Yerosen. “He answered my prayers.”

After the harrowing escape, Abdi took Yerosen to the capital city, where Compassion staff welcomed her. They found her a foster home with a loving Christian couple who began raising her as their own.

“She is happy and safe,” Abdi says. “It was critical that we move her out of the town since the abductors would have tried to take her back again. We are following up with the police and hoping that justice is served. I won’t rest until the criminals are apprehended.”

Yerosen walks with Abdi, her Compassion centre director, who helped her escape.

Yerosen plans to become a police officer so she can pursue justice and save girls who go through the same ordeal. She passionately talks about returning to her hometown after she has finished her education and showing everyone, especially her captors, that she has succeeded.

“I’m happy in my new home. I just can’t wait to grow up and prove to everyone that I survived for a reason — to fight for other girls like the church fought for me.

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