The price of life

The price of life

June 15, 2013

For Eritreans, fleeing one of the world's harshest dictatorships is not impossible. Evading capture by human traffickers and brutal Bedouin gangs is the hard part.

By Ruth Pollard.

 

They emerge from a house in a remote desert village in the North Sinai, their long, thin legs barely able to carry them. That they can stand at all is a miracle. It is just a few days since the two young men escaped months of torture at the hands of human traffickers and their physical and emotional frailty is palpable. Twenty-two-year-old Tesfalem and 21-year-old Frezgi were held in two separate torture camps in the Sinai - Frezgi for 15 months and Tesfalem for seven months. To see their bodies is to witness the most gruesome abuse: Frezgi's back is covered with irregular, raised scars - wounds caused when melted plastic is dripped onto bare skin. Tesfalem's feet have been burned with cigarettes and anxiety now visibly vibrates through his painfully thin body. These are injuries I will see again and again as I meet more Eritreans who have survived the torture camps of the Sinai.

Tesfalem and Frezgi spoke of being chained together with their fellow captives in small, dark, airless rooms; of pain, sleep deprivation and unrelenting fear; of not being able to wash for months and endless infestations with lice. They only met after each managed to break free from their respective desert prisons and make it to the safety of the local mosque. It was here they were discovered by the local sheikh, who took them to the safety of his home just a few hundred metres away in the village of Sheikh Zuweid. Even now, as we sit in Sheikh Mohammed Ali Hassan Awad's house drinking sweet Bedouin tea, the young Eritreans keep a watchful eye on the door. Outside, the Sinai stretches towards the Israel-Egypt border, a beautiful but lawless land ruled by the gun and a handful of Bedouin tribes.

As the sand creeps across the bitumen on the few roads that run through the dunes, the sight of another car is rare and people rarer still - there are just a few women working in fields, black veils billowing in the afternoon breeze.
Plains of pain … North Sinai's unforgiving landscape.

Tesfalem and Frezgi's journey is a remarkable one: snatched by soldiers as they walked along a road in Eritrea towards the border with Sudan, they were sold with others to tribesmen from the Rashaida Bedouin people, who operate in Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt.
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One was brought into Egypt via boat, the other over land, crossing the vast 60,000-square-kilometre Sinai Peninsula. Along the way they were sold, and sold again, to local Bedouin criminal gangs in the North Sinai.

"Sinai is like a big a sea ... if you pay you can cross it, if you cannot, you are thrown overboard," says Frezgi. "They tortured me for half an hour every day. They gave me the phone while they were torturing me and called my family."
Incredible journey … Eritreans Tesfalem and Frezgi, who survived horrific torture in desert prisons.

The traffickers forced his family to listen to his cries, insisting they pay $US33,000 to secure his release. "It is impossible to find money like this," he says.

Frezgi's family managed to raise $US25,000 - selling property, borrowing from family and friends, and appealing to their church - but it was not enough. He was sold again and the ransom increased. In the meantime, three hostages in his group died from their injuries, he says.

As soon as they are kidnapped, the hostage's mobile phones are mined for contacts - especially for relatives who have escaped Eritrea for Western countries such as Australia, the US and Sweden - in order to extort money for their freedom. "You family, they hear, they very scared ... say 'How, how, how come money? I am too poor," Tesfalem whispers in faltering English, tears in his eyes. "They burn my body ... by cigarettes, by plastics, hit us with woods, by another things."

Tesfalem's family managed to pay the traffickers $US30,000, scraping the money together from relatives and friends. Then he was sold again for a new ransom. He did not know where it would end.

Sometimes it ends in Israel, sometimes in Egypt. But as the price of release escalates, it is clear that what began as a people-smuggling business, with Eritreans paying smugglers a few hundred dollars to escape the tyranny of their country, has evolved into a multimillion-dollar cross-border kidnapping cartel involving not just criminal gangs but corrupt soldiers serving in the Eritrean and Sudanese armies. When Israel's borders closed to asylum seekers last June due to its amended Prevention of Infiltration Law, the Bedouin's business model had to change.

This story does not stop at Egypt's border with Israel, nor at the refugee camps in Sudan - it reaches all the way to Australia, where Eritrean families are also receiving those heartbreaking, terrifying phone calls. "Send us $US33,000 or we will kill him," the kidnappers told Senay Haile's elderly parents, who live in Anseba in Eritrea's north, and who have no hope of paying such a ransom for their youngest son.

Speaking from his Melbourne home, Haile explains that his 23-year-old brother Hagos was kidnapped, along with his cousin Awstana, also 23, as they tried to leave Eritrea for a refugee camp in Sudan in August last year. They were trafficked into Egypt and sold to a Bedouin tribe. Two months ago, after the family had managed to pay only $5500 of the ransom, the kidnappers called again. "They are dead, we have killed them now," said the man, speaking in Tigrinya, the language of Eritrea's largest ethnic group.

It was the second time since January the kidnapper had told Haile's family that Hagos and Awstana were dead. The first time proved to be just another cruel hoax. This time, Haile is not so sure. "They are terrorising us," he says. "We are waiting to hear whether he is killed, whether he is released. We are expecting to hear back from the kidnappers, but so far we have heard nothing."

It is a surreal situation - a global network of ransom demands via mobile phone that places already poor and struggling Eritreans, who have often only just managed to resettle in another country themselves, in a terrible situation.

"The ransom is rising from day to day - we have heard of ransoms of up to $45,000, $50,000 being demanded, and even then you cannot get your brother or sister released," Haile says.

His elderly parents have tried to borrow money from friends and relatives but they can't raise the $33,000. A law graduate in Eritrea, Haile, 38, moved to Australia in December 2011. He is studying English and looking for work, all the while playing his part in a global lobbying exercise to try to save his brother and cousin, and get the relevant governments to stop these criminal networks.

Eritrea is a tiny country of about 5.4 million people resting along the Red Sea coast. As well as having one of the largest armies in Africa, it also has one of the most brutal governments.

There is a shoot-to-kill policy for anyone caught attempting to cross the border, and many are fleeing to escape compulsory - and indefinite - national conscription.

At least 10,000 political prisoners have been jailed without charge by the government of President Isaias Afewerki, who has ruled since the country's independence in 1993, an Amnesty International report released last month found.

Several thousand mostly young Eritreans leave the country every month, "preferring the danger and uncertainty of refugee camps and illegal migration routes to the hopeless stasis at home", the International Crisis Group says in its March assessment of the situation.

Hagos is one of those young people. "National service has no limitation," Haile says of his brother's decision to flee. "Hagos was escaping - he wants to work and learn but he was being forced into national service. He did not have a bright future. Like many Eritreans he had to leave to secure his life and save himself from war."

It is a four-hour drive from Egypt's capital, Cairo, to the North Sinai. As we pass over the Suez Canal and move closer to the peninsula's main urban centre, El Arish, the frequency of the military checkpoints, many of them heavily fortified, increases. There are machine-gun nests atop suburban apartment blocks and a deep, deep distrust of outsiders.

Local security officials are determined to monitor our every move, forcing photographer Ed Giles and me to sneak out of our hotel via the back entrance and take a convoluted route to a cafe a few kilometres away, where our driver is waiting. It is only here we can talk quietly with our contact about meeting the Eritrean refugees who have recently escaped their kidnappers.

As we drive out of El Arish towards the town of Sheikh Zuweid, just near the border with the Gaza Strip, a security official phones our driver, Yasser. "Where are the journalists?" he asks.

"At the beach," Yasser answers. It is one of many harassing calls he will take about our whereabouts over the next three days.

A land bridge between Africa and Asia, the Sinai has for centuries been a key trade route, but Israel's occupation of the area from 1967 until 1982, its subsequent withdrawal and the Camp David peace accords left the region in turmoil. And since the fall of Egypt's former president, Hosni Mubarak, in February 2011, the tenuous state of law and order maintained by an oppressive police presence has given way to a dangerous power vacuum in the Sinai.

Long marginalised and neglected by the Egyptian government, the Bedouin took matters into their own hands. At the same time, armed Islamist groups grew in strength. What ensued was chaos: cross-border terrorist attacks on Israel, clashes with police, and armed raids on military checkpoints and border security posts across the Sinai.

Amid this violence and unrest, the Bedouin have launched a series of kidnap raids on foreign tourists who are still coming, but in dwindling numbers, to Egypt's Red Sea coast.

Accusing the Egyptian government of imprisoning Bedouin tribesman without trial, they attempt to use tourists as bargaining chips to secure their release. Last month, they stepped up attacks, taking seven Egyptian soldiers hostage. Each time, the Egyptian government steps in and negotiates their freedom, or, in the soldiers' case, takes unprecedented military action on the peninsula.

Neither Egypt's Ministry of Defence, nor the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, responded to Fairfax Media's inquiries.

Muss'ad Abu Fajr, a long-time political activist in the Sinai and a former political prisoner, has shared a jail cell with African asylum seekers and has immense empathy for their plight.

In a late-night meeting in his office in El Arish, he laments the political chaos that is now commonplace in Egypt and notes that its government, led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi, is unable to deal with the country's internal problems, let alone the complex cross-border issues of people trafficking.

"The Egyptian government is already handcuffed from giving any help to their own people - they cannot get gas or oil for the cars ... so they cannot deal with this kind of big issue," he says.

It is a crime that distresses many Bedouin in the Sinai, who routinely refuse to deal with the people smugglers in their day-to-day business.

Mahmoud - the younger brother of Sheikh Mohammed Ali Hassan Awad, who gives shelter to the refugees who have escaped - has watched the steadily rising ransom demands of the Bedouin criminal gangs.

"Now some soldiers in Sudan are involved, they are caught by the Rashaida [Bedouin] and they are selling them to people here," he says. "This is not good work and this is not Islam. If you buy and sell people you are not a Muslim - I am angry that people would do this to others."

He says his brother has helped more than 200 people - mostly Eritreans, with some Sudanese and Nigerians - since the trafficking began.

In Cairo, the senior protection officer at the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Karmen Sakhr, describes the predicament Eritreans find themselves in when they arrive in Egypt's capital - a sprawling city of more than nine million people, many of whom live below the poverty line.

"Not all of them have chosen to come to Egypt, they were trafficked to Egypt ... and they are now living with the trauma of being kidnapped and extorted and tortured," she says.

"We have heard of people bumping into their traffickers in Cairo - they feel unsafe as they fear they will be kidnapped and sold again," Sakhr says.

Two months ago, Good Weekend met a group of Eritrean refugees outside the UNHRC offices in 6th of October City on the outskirts of Cairo. One after another told their story of being trafficked through the Sinai. So many lifted their shirts to show a body marked with the telltale raised scars caused by torture with melted plastic.

The first hint in Israel that something terrible was happening across its border in the Sinai emerged three years ago, when doctors at a free clinic in Tel Aviv noticed two significant changes in their Eritrean patients - a surge in demand for abortions and an equally sharp rise in the need for orthopaedic care.

"We started by interviewing a few people to understand what was happening there - in the end we interviewed 1300 people," says Ran Cohen, the executive director of Physicians for Human Rights Israel.

What they discovered was horrifying. Women were arriving in Israel pregnant from rape, and men, women and children showed long-untreated effects of torture: broken bones, shattered hands and feet, infections and severe malnutrition.

Suddenly the small volunteer clinic set up to meet basic medical needs of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers who, at that time, were crossing into Israel in great numbers, had to treat cases that involved multiple orthopaedic surgeries, abortion, and complicated gynaecological issues.

It is believed - based on data from Physicians for Human Rights and another Israel-based NGO, Migrant Workers Hotline - that between 5000 and 7000 torture survivors have crossed into Israel over the past four years, and that as many as 4000 may have died.

Journalist and activist Meron Estefanos explains what pushes Eritreans to flee. "We come from a regime that is so oppressive people would give their life to get out of the country, so they take the chance," Estefanos says. "They know people are kidnapping Eritreans at the border but they think, 'Maybe I will be the lucky one who safely passes the border.' "

In December the national Eritrea football team - 17 players plus the team's doctor - defected while playing in Uganda, she says. It was the third time members of the football team had done so - a sign, she says, of a deep desire to be free of one of the world's harshest dictatorships.

But the cost to those who flee, and to the families left behind, is great.

"The kidnappers never let up, they call you every two minutes," Estefanos says. "My cousin was in Sinai and it was so hard to know how many times she is getting raped.

"We go house to house to raise the money, we collect it somehow, people pay whatever they can, we borrow money from the bank, we appeal to the church, to the mosque - I myself have a lot of debt, it took a lot of money to save my cousin."

There are about 60,000 asylum seekers and migrant workers living in Israel, mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, Israeli government figures show.

But in the past year, the situation for those attempting to flee to Israel has significantly changed, and many believe it is these changes that have pushed the Rashaida Bedouin to expand their business from people smuggling to kidnapping.

Since Israel amended its Prevention of Infiltration Law last June, the number of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers crossing the Egyptian border has dropped from "1000 to 1200 per month to almost zero", Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Paul Hirschson tells Good Weekend. "It has been extremely effective."

The law means anyone from Africa who enters Israel illegally can be imprisoned for three years without trial and, in some cases, indefinitely.

There are about 2000 Eritreans and Sudanese held in the Saharonim detention centre in the Negev Desert near the southern Israeli city of Be'er Sheeva. That means almost all who have arrived in Israel in the past 12 months have moved from the terrifying torture camps of the Sinai to detention in another prison across the border.

For Senay Haile in Melbourne and his parents, the awful waiting game continues. The fate of his brother Hagos, the youngest of his eight siblings, and his cousin Awstana remains unknown.

Yet they are not the only family in Australia caught up in this global trafficking industry. Melbourne social worker Arhet Geberat helps other Eritreans being terrorised by the kidnappers, and she says that across Australia there are families struggling to raise funds to free relatives.

"At a community level we are aware of many people affected ... it is an epidemic, a terrible epidemic. Individual people are powerless to fight these gangs - they've grown into a monster."

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