Imagine losing your freedom, your name, your health, and your loved ones all at once. Then, you are stripped of your clothes, your hair, daylight.
Christians imprisoned in North Korean camps say these are the first few steps of losing their identity after they are sent to jail.
"Drip by drip, like a faucet slowly running dry, you’re left with nothing but your own mind and body—and both of those will eventually be stamped out by this place," shares one Open Doors account.
Prisoner 42 says that isn't their real name, but it's how they've been referred to ever since they were first sent to prison.
"Every morning at 8 a.m., they call for '42.' When I stand up, I’m not allowed to look at the guards," the prisoner says. "I have to get up, put my hands behind my back and follow them to the interrogation room. I can see the shadows of the guards, but I’m careful to never appear as though I’m looking at them."
Despite this being a routine occurrence, the prisoner says they still experience fear daily.
"Each time they call out for '42,' they beat and kick me. It hurts the most when they hit my ears. My ears ring for hours—sometimes days," they say.
But they are grateful for their lives.
Each day, prisoners spend about an hour in the interrogation room, an ongoing routine where they are each asked the same questions.
"Why were you in China?"
"Who did you meet?"
"Did you go to church?"
"Did you have a Bible?"
"Did you meet any South Koreans?"
"Are you a Christian?"
After the extensive questioning, prisoners are brought back to their cells.
"My cell is warm during the day and cold at night—and in the winter or summer, the temperature can be unbearable. It’s so small, I can barely lie down," they say.
But they must sit on their knees with closed fists and are not permitted to lie down much.
"The place I live now is not fit for any human—but to the guards, I am not a human. I’m less than an animal. I’m locked in this cage, the heavy door and locks slamming closed behind me, echoing in the dim light that never gets brighter in this place."
Prisoner 42 says they remain in solitary confinement because in spite of their denials during interrogation, the prisoner is indeed a Christian.
"Am I a Christian? Yes. But I have to pretend. If I admit I was helped by Chinese Christians, I will be killed," the prisoner explains.
Their grandfather was a Christian, forcing the prisoner as a child to spend Sundays playing outside the house.
"I didn’t understand why and didn’t want to, but he forced me to," the prisoner recalls. Now, they understand.
The prisoner themselves came to faith after fleeing North Korea due to famine. They travelled to China and met other believers, who spoke into their lives.
"One night, I dreamed of my grandfather. I saw him sitting in a circle with other men," the prisoner remembers. "There was a Bible in the middle and all of them were praying.
"In my dream, I shouted at him: 'I am a believer too!'"
That's when they gave their life to Christ. Then, they realized they came from a Christian family in North Korea.
While walking along a street in China, a black car pulled up alongside the believer. Thinking the man wanted to ask for directions, the believer went to help the driver. They were then pulled into the car by two men.
"I resisted but couldn’t get away. They pushed me into the car and, when the door closed and the car drove away, I realized my life was over."
The imprisoned believer spent a few weeks in a Chinese prison cell before being handed over to the North Korean authorities. They underwent a strip search and had their head shaved before they were taken to their cell.
They were called prisoner 42 after the number printed on the jumpsuit given to them to wear.
"I’m so alone here. I know there are other prisoners. I can hear their voices, but I never see them," the prisoner says.
"All I can do is pray. Pray and sing in my heart. Never out loud, only in my heart."
Having been in prison a year, the believer anticipated they would die in prison. But they lived and were eventually brought to court, a victory.
Prisoner 42 was found not guilty of being a Christian. This was a rarity, as crimes like following Jesus are not typically brought before a judge. Christians in North Korea often disappear from their cells.
But the persistent denials of the believer earn them an acquittal, even without a lawyer.
Their spouse asks for a divorce before the judge to protect their children. Then, the believer is sentenced to four years in a re-education camp.
In the camp, the believer works 12 or more hours each day.
"Every day is just one long nightmare. But at least I am not alone in a cell anymore. For an entire year of solitary confinement, my skin didn’t touch a single ray of sunlight. Just to be taken from that cell, to be taken outside and to feel the wind, was amazing."
Moving and shapeless forms around the believer are other prisoners. Some are bent over, others are missing limbs. Most are very thin.
When sick one day, the believer stayed in the barracks. They believed they were alone, but then they realized a person was in the corner of the room, under a blanket.
Hardly audible sounds were coming from underneath—prayers.
The believer watched her for about a week, and then approached the woman.
"We were working outside. Nobody was near, and I walked up to her and whispered: 'Hello, greetings in Jesus’ name.'"
The woman's face drained of colour, knowing the punishment for such a statement was to be shot on sight. But realizing no one was around, the two exchanged smiles.
They formed a secret church inside the camp, meeting when they felt it was safe. They'd pray the Lord's Prayer and recite scripture together.
The believers were also able to share their faith with other prisoners, until the believer saw the woman picked up to be taken to a death camp.
"That's the last time I saw her," the believer says.
After two years of their sentence, the believer was finally released.
They want to reconnect with their spouse and children.
"My children are much bigger now. We haven’t seen each other in years," they say. "But God has watched over me. He kept me from giving up, even when it felt like I was being poured out.
"I pray and believe He also watches over my kids every second of every minute of every hour of every day. I need to tell them about this loving God."
This story is based off of true accounts from several North Korean Christians who were imprisoned in North Korea. Open Doors slightly changed or combined details in order to protect the believers who shared their stories.