By Meron Estefanos
I am motivated to write this piece of article due to the dire situation Eritrean refugees are facing in the Sinai Desert. I have conducted a series of heart breaking interviews with a group of 28 Eritreans and another group of 31 who are being held in the Egypt Sinai desert. Their story is beyond description. The pain they are going through is beyond words.
I have learned from the interviews that I conducted with the hostages that 7 young men have already died. There are also 6 women who are from the age of 15 to 20. The women ewre been gang raped by 4 up to 12 men at a time. From the hostages two women have disappeared, no one knows their whereabouts. Moreover, a 22 year old man told the hostage holders that he will not be able to pay the money. He was killed instantly to provide a lesson to the remaining. The captors claim they bought each of their hostages for 18 thousand dollars and they would eventually get 20 thousand dollars by selling their organs. The hostages said they are under constant physical torture. They are mentally and psychologically depressed and contemplating suicide as an option. Unless something is done to save the lives of these innocent victims, they either will be killed by the Bedouin Rashaida or act mass suicide out of despair.
To understand the situation and prepare this piece of article, I was contacting friends’ victims who have firsthand information and knowledge of the facts on the ground. Some of them are in Sudan and others in Europe. I would like to extend my thanks: to the victims for their perseverance and their willingness to make interviews and inform the outside world about what is going on in the Sinai Desert; to hose friends who helped me with information and the facts in the ground; and to all interested Eritreans who are ready to help the Eritrean refugees. There are more than 20 hours audio interview that I have conducted with the hostages. I would like to inform you that I will transcribe and present it for a public use, when I have enough time and offered help.
For now this article will try to identify: Who are these people running these activities? What is the nature of their networks? And what is really happening at the borders of these two countries? At last the article will conclude by providing a recommendation.
I am sure this article has a lot of loopholes and will attract more questions than answers. However, I sincerely hope this piece of writing will shade light and encourage Eritreans, regional and international human rights activists, civic societies to dig-out for the real facts and come up with tangible solutions to the situation.
It has been more than ten years since the bloody war between Eritrea and Ethiopia came to an end. However, the border dispute is not resolved and the current situation between Eritrea and Ethiopia could be best described as no peace no war situation, for there is still tension between the two countries and diplomatic relationship is not yet normalized.
However, in the last ten years the greatest threat to the Eritrean people has been the existing regime in Eritrea. In 21st century, there are only a few governments like the Eritrean Government that wage war on their own people. By contemporary international standards, Eritrea is becoming second to North Korea. The Eritrean oligarchy has been in power for 20 years without a popular consent. Security apparatus of the state has been engaged in mass arrest – including higher government officials who demanded reform, journalists, business men and women, certain religious sects, university students, army members, common people in the street. The list goes on and on. Prison centers are everywhere in the country, and detainees rarely appear in court. After all, the Eritrean Judicial System was killed together with press freedom, religious freedom and other forms of freedom in September 2001 – thus there is no use to go to court. In current Eritrea, there is no room for citizens to complain against their government’s bad administration. The government of Eritrea employs a totalitarian-like means of silencing and intimidating the general populace, making sure that the youth can under any circumstance, not get to the streets and question their government. To name but a few of the major political precedence in Eritrean system are: keeping the youth as hostages by indefinite national service, defining the current Ethio-Eritrean situation as a time of political uncertainty that people should not think of any political change. On top of that, the Eritrean security agents can come to any one’s house and take people without any warrant of arrest. This is one way of creating a sense of psychological threat and insecurity in the hearts and minds of citizens. People are normally taken from their homes and kept in secret prison barracks, thereafter to be released without even being asked. And in this manner, fear reins everywhere that people do not know how their lives would end up.
As a way out from this problem, Eritreans take a desperate move to flee the country – either to Ethiopia or to the Sudan. On the way to cross to Sudan, the lucky ones arrive in Sudanese territories without being caught by Eritrean patrolling agents. Inside Sudanese territories although there is continuous deportation and kidnapping by different forces including Eritrean agents and Sudanese authorities, the greatest threat to Eritrean immigrants is the Rashaida Bedouin who have an utter contempt for the lives of Eritreans.
In recent years, the western parts of Eritrea, bordering the Sudan have turned to be centers of lucrative economic activities, involving a huge sum of money both in terms of the US Dollar and local currencies. This economic activity is not what an outsider would usually think of - the conventional interstate movement of goods and services. It is rather a life costing economic engagement as a result of which many lives of the Eritrean youth have been jeopardized. But there seem to be some poignant questions to ask about the main actors and beneficiaries of this human trafficking business. Who are these people running these activities? What is the nature of their networks? And what is really happening at the borders of these two countries? The obvious answer, not supported by documented records though, is that there is an involvement by the Sudanese and Eritrean authorities and the Bedouin Raishaida ethnic group. And this article attempts to explore the strategies of the Bedouin Rashaida in hijacking Eritreans and the role of Eritrean, Sudanese, Egyptian and UNHCR authorities.
3 Bedouin Rashaida
The Rashaida ethnic group is one of the nine ethnic groups in Eritrea. Originally they came to Eritrea fleeing tribal wars and starvation in Arabia about 140 years ago.
The Rashaida as a distinct Arabic ethnic group live in scattered areas in western and northern Eritrea, parts of Egypt, bordering the Sinai desert and Eastern Sudan. These people do not have a permanent residence and settled life. In fact, they are the most favored ethnic group according to the Eritrean political structure. These are the same people whose youth are exempted from any forced conscription and whose members are free of any national duties. And now, they have moved too far, acting as de facto administrators of the western borders of Eritrea and Eastern Sudan. They set their mobile tents across the scorching deserts of Eastern Sudan, waiting for new preys to come. There are three main ways by which the Rashaida hunt their victims. Most of the time, they hijack the victims when they cross the border all by themselves. At times, they kidnap them from the refugee camps and there are times too, when some human smugglers hand over the refugees for certain amount of money (in other words, the Bedouin Rasahida buy the refugees from other smugglers at a certain price and use them to gain more money)
4 Kidnapping Refugees at the Borders
Before the refugees arrive at the refugee camps, they (Rashaida bandits) kidnap the clueless youth and take them as hostages. They keep them under a tight control, their hands and legs tied with chains so that they could do no harm to them. And they search every part of their bodies, asking them if they have a mobile phone or an address book that shows they have relatives abroad. They force them to call their family members abroad and ask them to send money. To do so, the Bedouin Rashaida took the refugees to their scattered and remote houses. Usually, the Rashaida ethnic group whether they live in Eritrea, Sudan, or Egypt, they are not integrated with other tribes or groups of people – and they live in tents at family level. This is one of their conducive environments to do their evil deeds. Their houses are often tents and originally they were nomads, but these days they are abandoning to drive camels or herd goats – instead they are engaged in kidnapping Eritreans using guns and pick-up cars. Their daily work is to drive to the Sudanese-Eritrean border and to look if there are Eritrean immigrants coming. Once they kidnap an Eritrean, they will put shackles both in his legs and hands. Then the victim will be asked to talk to his relatives abroad to transfer ransom money to the kidnappers’ account in order to be released. If there is any delay in transferring the money, the victim will be physically abused and/or raped. If the victim has no relatives abroad, he/she will be forced to call to Eritrea and to tell his/her family to transfer the ransom money. The more the money transfer is delayed, the more the victim is abused, tortured, raped…etc.
Once the kidnapper gets the money, he will not let the victim to go to the refugee camp – instead he tells to other friends to come and to take the victims. The later will also do the same. In other words the kidnapper is selling the refugees to other kidnappers.
5 Kidnapping Refugees from Refugee Camp
Starting from the last two years, the Rashaida bandits have devised another mechanism to cause maximum suffering on Eritrean emigrants in Eastern Sudan. They search new Eritrean emigrants in the agricultural fields near the UNHCR refugee camp, kidnap them and take them directly to Egyptian Sinai - the headquarters of Bedouin Rashaida where the greatest human rights violation takes place. In Sinai, every hostage is asked to pay around US$8000 to US$20000. For someone from Eritrea, with less than $ 500 per capita, it is highly unlikely to afford to pay such money. Then the hostage’s life will end there, if he/she does not get financial support from relatives or friends abroad. Those who pay the money will face another threat to their lives in their attempt to cross to Israel – Egyptian police could shoot them to death. Only the lucky ones will arrive in Israel.
Recently, with the new anti-emigrants policy of Israel, the number of Eritreans who willingly go to Israel has declined. This means, the Rasahida Bedouin’s business is severely hit. As an alternative, the Rashaida are engaged to hijack Eritrean refugees from the UNHCR’s refugee camp in Eastern Sudan. Most of the victims were kidnapped from the agricultural fields near the camp. As the UNHCR’s camp does not provide the basic necessities for refugees, some of the refugees especially those who have no relatives abroad, work in the nearby agricultural fields. The ration of UNHCR per refugee for two weeks’ time is: a half kilo of lentils, a half-liter of oil and six kilos of sorghum or wheat – nothing more. It could be easily understood how the Eritrean refugees are suffering. Therefore, refugees have to work in the nearby agricultural fields - although with scanty wages, often with less than US$ 4 per day. Most of the recent victims who were kidnapped and taken to Egyptian Sinai were taken from the agricultural fields. However, there are also several Eritrean refugees high jacked from the Camp of UNHCR itself.
6 Kidnapping Refugees from other Smugglers
There are also a few Eritreans who are actively participating and collaborating n this inhumane act of high jacking. These are the same people who have in many ways suffered from the repressive regime in Asmara and now amassing a huge sum of money by brokering people between different Bedouin Rashaida. They pretend to help the youth out of Eritrea by arranging the journey. And they charge thousands of US dollars from their subjects. At times, these people sell Eritrean refugees to the Rashaida as commodities and in return they get money. They get their fair share for that matter and the victim faces a life threatening situation.
The Bedouin Rashaida – who consider Eritrean refugees/emigrants as commodities – have no respect for Eritrean life nor do they have a little sympathy for humanity. The question that could be raised easily is that: Isn’t there any other body that could protect the Eritrean refugees? Let’s see the Sudanese Government, the Eritrean Government, the UNHCR and the Egyptian Government one by one.
A. The Sudanese Government
Loose governance has been a key element in Sudanese politics. What is happening in South Sudan or Darfur or Eastern Sudan is less controlled by the central government in Khartoum. To some, this is a deliberate tactic with the intention to give more freedom to tribes in remote areas as long as situations are not a threat to the central government. By so doing, the greater Sudan can remain one despite the problems in different regions. However, many sources and as international standards show, the Sudan is a failed state in the making – where the government is unable to control the country; civil society has collapsed and rampant corruption is prevalent. Thus the Sudanese Government cannot provide protection to Eritrean refugees, even if there is a will on its part.
In addition, the Sudanese Rashaida, like their brothers in Eritrea, have no feeling of Sudanese nationalism. Like the Eritrean Rashaida, the Sudanese Rashaida are nonchalant with what’s going in Sudanese politics and rarely have representatives in any previous or present Sudanese Governments. And some people argue, the Rashaida ethnic group freely moves among the borders of Eritrea, the Sudan and Egypt, and one cannot identify them as Sudanese, Eritreans or Egyptians. They have no affiliation to the respective countries they live, and are more attached to their tribes in other countries. This trans-border movement of the Rashaida bandits makes them uncontrollable and uncontainable by the weak Sudanese Government.
Besides, the Sudanese authorities in Eastern Sudan are the former Eastern Sudan rebels who came to power with the help of the Eritrean Government and whose intelligence and security services are highly influenced by the Eritrean government. It is to be recalled that the Eritrean government played a greater role to solve the Eastern Sudan problem. As a result the Eastern Sudan authorities are loyal to the Eritrean regime – and are pleasing the Eritrean Government by deporting Eritrean refugees back to Eritrea. An Eritrean who is caught by Sudanese police, and if his/her case is transferred to the court in Kassala, it is becoming certain the refugee will be deported to Eritrea. This is common; especially among new asylum seekers who do not get chance to go to the Shagarab Refugee Camp. Thus, to a certain degree Eastern Sudan authorities are responsible for grave crimes against Eritrean youth.
B. The UNHCR
Despite the tens of thousands of refugees in Eastern Sudan, the UNHCR has one Refugee camp – Shagarab Refugee camp.
Refugees are squeezed into the bursting camp and nobody can tell the exact number of refugees living there, for many refugees leave the camp and pursue their journey to Khartoum, to other villages near the camp and to Israel. Perhaps overwhelmed by other priorities or by failing not to take the Eritrean situation seriously, the UNHCR is not exercising its sole mandate—helping refugees. In the camp, refugees are not getting enough food and shelter.
Hundreds of Eritreans arrive each week. The Shagarab Refugee camp is a straw of tents and hats with no fixtures or furniture to speak of. At times 15 refugees are housed per tent, and the camp is based on the desert with burning temperature with no enough water and shelter.
Continued unresponsiveness to provide basic food, shelter and medical supplies in the refugee camp is forcing refugees to search for work in agricultural fields near the camps–which in turn resulted in kidnapping by Bedouin Rashaida. Above all, the UNHCR and the Sudanese government could not ensure the safety of refugees from within the camp – for some refugees are kidnapped from the camp by the Bedouin Rashaida and Eritrean agents. Thus, the UNHCR’s lack of proper treatment on refugees puts the well-being of all the refugees – and particularly the new refugees - at grave risk.
C. The Eritrean Government
There is abundant evidence that the crisis of Eritrean refugees is largely caused by bad governance, intolerance, compulsory mass conscription and lack of democracy in Eritrea. However, the worst part of the story is that the Eritrean regime does not even go through the minimum diplomatic exercise of protecting or inquiring about the fate of Eritrean refugees who fall in the hands of the Bedouin Rashaida in Eastern Sudan, Egyptian controlled Sinai, and in Libya.
D. The Egyptian Government
The Sudanese-Eritrean border Rashaida bandits are fully equipped with machine guns, swords and model pick up cars. They hunt and kidnap refugees from UNHCR “protected” camps in Eastern Sudan and transfer them to camps in Egyptian controlled Sinai and perpetuate slavery in 21st century. It is hard to believe that these smugglers work separately all by themselves. The Egyptian security apparatus, unlike its counterpart in Sudan, is powerful enough to control what is happening in Egyptian territories. And because the Sinai Peninsula is a gate to Israel, there is continuous surveillance by Egyptian forces. Thus, the latest excuses by Egyptian authorities saying: “ we do not know any prison centers in the Sinai peninsula run by Bedouin Rashaida’’ is absolute hypocrisy. Thus, Egyptian officers are likely to be part of the network, or are intentionally abandoning the suffering of Eritrean youth.
- The best solution to Eritrean Refugee crisis is basically on the hands of the existing regime in Eritrea. The Eritrean Government has to make some basic adjustment in the way it treats its citizens and in the way it governs the country. However, in the eyes of the current political atmosphere of Eritrea, it is unlikely to expect changes from within. Therefore, the international community has to take its responsibility to pressurize the Eritrean government to respect basic human rights in Eritrea
- The UNHCR, on the other hand, has to revise its procedures of hosting, accommodating and protecting the refugees. It has to go beyond forming refugee camps and providing rations for daily consumptions. UNHCR officials and donor organizations have to devise mechanisms where refugees can support themselves by utilizing their capacity.
- And in the short term, the UNHCR has to provide refugees with reliable protection, shelter, food and basic medical supplies.
- The Sudanese Government, on its part, has to abide by international law concerning refugees and should not deport Eritreans. And more importantly, the Sudanese Government has to take strong measures against the Bedouin Rashaida.
- Regional governments could also request support from InterPol and may be use GPS to trace the human traffickers whose phone numbers are available with and through their victims.
- Eritrean Human Rights activists and civic organizations should also register Eritreans who collaborate with Bedouin Rashaida. Some of the Eritreans who used to collaborate with Rashaida bandits are now in EU, USA and other countries. Thus, every Eritrean human rights activist should work hard to bring those people to justice.
9 march 2011