Sinai: In the Realm of Death
In the current weekly print supplement Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin, published in the German leading newspaper SZ, a horrific story about the torture of kidnapped Africans in Egypt's Sinai is spreading across 24 pages. Called "In the Realm of Death", it is a harrowing account of an 18-day trip to hell by the award winning journalist Michael Obert and Magnum photographer Moises Saman. As the report is only published in German but contains vital information especially for Egyptian readers and government authorities, I am recounting their trip here and added translations of vital passages that are chilling to read. Wherever quotation marks are set, the passage is a direct translation of the original report.
If anyone wonders if the horrid accounts of torture practices mentioned here are factual or not just products of over imagination, I can assure you I have read and heard numerous reports to this for a long time now that are as brutal as these. A human rights organisation in Israel alone has collected testimonies from over 1,300 Africans who barely survived the torture camps in the Sinai. Their stories tell of unspeakable crimes against humans and they carry the – well documented – horrific scars and injuries to go with it. The brutalities reported here in this report sadly are factual. We have to face it, whether we like it or not.
It is my wish that more people are willing to be aware of the terrible crimes against humans that are ongoing day by day by day in the Sinai desert. And that we manage to pressure the interim Egyptian government to undertake steps to put an end to one of the biggest atrocities of our times.
I urge anyone who is fluent in German to read it. It gives harrowing insights into the mindset of the torturers of Sinai, the Egyptian authorities who look away – and a world that does not care.
In the Realm of Death
His wrists are strangely twisted to the inside, the arms of his sweater are much too long. Only when Selomon leans on the table, the dirty bandages of his hands appears. With his teeth he removes the left one, a claw emerges. The most of his palm is torn away. Only the thumb and half an index finger have remained, a claw made of bone and skin. "They hung me from the ceiling with iron chains", Selomon says in a low voice. "Four days. On a hook like a slaughtered beast."
In December 2011 Selomon, 28 years old and studying computer science, fled the dictatorial regime in Eritrea into neighbouring Sudan. In the east of Sudan he is kidnapped by local gangs who sell him to human traffickers. In a month long ordeal they smuggle him all the way up to the Sinai in Egypt where he is sold to Bedouins who keep him in a torture camp. "They are not human beings", Selomon says; his mutilated index finger trembles. "They are bloodthirsty savages."
Thousands have been held captive in the Sinai in the last years, thousands like Selomon have been tortured. The hostages come mainly from Eritrea, but also from Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia. Their kidnappers beat them with sticks, chains and iron rods until they disclose the telephone numbers of their families. As soon as the call is established, the torture begins: The kidnappers press burning cigarettes into their faces, brand them with red-hot irons, pour boiling water over them. They wrap their fingers with cables and plug the cables into the electric sockets until the flesh turns black or pour gasoline over their heads and ignite it, while the relatives of the hostages back home have to listen to their screams over the telephone.
"30,000 dollars", says Selomon. "That's what they demanded from my sister."
According to estimates by international organisations more than 7,000 hostages have passed through the torture chambers of the human traffickers in Sinai in the past years. In addition more than 4,000 are said not to have survived; their corpses are rotting in the desert or have been buried by residents who came across them. Currently up to 1,000 are believed to still be held by the kidnapping Bedouins.
"If you drive there, the kidnappers are going to kill you", Selomon says. Then he holds out his mutilated hand. Between index finger and thumb a piece of paper is stuck. "My sister kept it, perhaps it still works." It is the telephone number of his torture camp.
The search for the kidnappers leads to Al-Arish, the capital of North Sinai. A four hours car drive from Cairo and barely 70 km away from the border to Israel the atmosphere is tense with militant Islamists attacking police stations while soldiers with guns behind barbed wire fences are trying to protect the state institutions. Rival Bedouin gangs too get into heavy fighting at times with machine gun fire causing havoc right in the middle of streets.
» "In the Sinai we don't talk to each other anymore," says Hamdi Al-Azazi in his little office in Al-Arish. "We solve problems with guns."
Al-Azazi, a human rights activist, is sitting in a room where the shades are drawn day and night. The door is secured with heavy latches. "In the past two years we found hundreds of mutilated bodies of Africans in the desert," Al-Azazi says and shows us photos on his computer of corpses: beaten to death, starved, burned, even in death chained to each other. Bodies without heads. A baby with a smashed skull. A young woman, dosed with gasoline and set on fire. "Before she died," Al-Azazi emphasises. «
Al-Azazi is constantly speaking of his religion, Islam, while he drives the journalists to a grave site. His religion forbids him to look away if others suffer. "It doesn't matter if they are Muslims or not."
» In the whole region people call him up when they find corpses of tortured Africans. Al-Azazi collects them, washes them and covers them in white cloth, then he buries them. "More than 500," he says as we enter the graveyard on the outskirts of Al-Arish. The mass grave looks like a rubbish site. "Seven here," Al-Azizi says and walks over torn sandals, ripped up clothes and plastic bottles, as he shows us the markings he made in the wall of the graveyard. "Four here, nine here, a baby here." The last victims he buried two days ago. Two men and a young woman with wide open eyes that could not be shut anymore and now haunt him in his dreams.
In the evening we try to call the number, Selomon gave us. But it is constantly busy. «
The gruesome fate to be a hostage
Selomon's story of horror began in the refugee camp Shagarab. After five of his friends at the university had been arrested by the security forces of the Eritrean regime for criticising on a blog the lack of freedom of speech, and then he too was getting interrogated, Selomon managed to flee across the border to Sudan, where in the camp of the UNHCR he deemed himself safe. But one day, while he was on his way to the area where food is served, six men with machine guns jumped from a Landcruiser and abducted him right under the eyes of the Sudanese soldiers who are getting paid by the United Nations to protect the refugees.
The kidnappers belonged to the notorious Rashaida tribe. With the butts of their guns they beat Selomon to the ground and threw him onto the back of the pick-up. A month long odyssey began. Sold from one group to the next, a well organised network of gangsters smuggled him into Egypt. Together with 150 other Eritreans they were hidden in a truck declared to have loaded poultry. Under this disguise they were driven up north, across the Suez canal and to the east of the Sinai. The only fresh air into the truck came through slits from the motor. When finally heavily armed Bedouins opened the back of the truck to unload their human cargo, seven Africans had suffocated, amongst them two children and one baby.
» For days we have been searching in Al-Arish for a sign of those thousand African hostages who in the torture camps of Sinai share Selomon's fate. But wherever we ask – the governor of North Sinai, the local military command, the generals of the border guards – the doors are slammed shut, telephone conversations are cut, faces that were friendly a minute before turn to masks of stone. It is, as if we were searching for ghosts.
In the hospital of Al-Arish we at least still find the handcuffs that chained those victims of torture to their beds who – in most cases heavily injured – could flee or were released after ransom was paid. "Off to prison," a doctor with a stained coat tells us, as we ask of their whereabouts. "Or deported to Cairo." But just to make sure, we should ask at the morgue, he adds.
If the hostages survive the torture in the camps and manage to come free, their horror is far from over. Many wander about aimlessly for days through the desert, are held back from crossing into Israel by the huge wall erected along the border, and get arrested by the Egyptian police. Because, instead of going after the kidnappers and torturers, the Egyptian authorities go after the victims. Along the border they risk being shot on sight by border guards. Severely injured are receiving basic treatment at the hospital of Al-Arish but are chained to their beds with handcuffs. "So they don't run off," the doctor in the stained coat says. "All these people are criminals."
Whoever does not show visible signs of severe torture is immediately bundled off to the police prison where they are often held in far too big numbers in far too small cells with barely water and food. Even the UNHCR is not allowed to visit them. Reason given: these people are only seeking economic profit and have no right to political asylum.
And so Eritreans are deported back to their country, although they run the risk of getting arrested, tortured and even executed for "treason" because they left their country without permission. "Acting like this, Egypt violates the Geneva Convention," says Mohammed Dairi from the UNHCR in Cairo.
We almost give up hope of still finding Africans in Al-Arish when we suddenly get a tip-off that 122 former hostages are being held in the police prison. The only way to them is via the chief police commander of North Sinai. We also want to ask him why the authorities do nothing to stop the kidnappers and their torturing.
General Sameh Beshadi invites us to his office. Coffee is served. He can offer us five minutes of his time, his staff inform us. After waiting for two hours the General suddenly does not want to meet us after all. Now we need a special permit to ask him questions. It can only be applied for in Cairo.
"Access to African prisoners forbidden," says the young officer who leads us out of the highly secured police head quarter. "Precautionary measures against a bad press." Then he lowers his voice and confides that the tribal areas in the desert, where the torture camps lie, mean pure death for any stranger, even for the police. "The Bedouins just bump us off," he whispers. "Not for a million would I go into that desert voluntarily."
It takes days until the journalists finally find someone who is willing to take them there. The Bedouin is straightforward: "The gangs see a car with two white men, they react quickly: First they take your car, then it's you. It's either kidnapping or a bullet to the head."
He wants them to meet Sheik Ibrahim Al-Manei who owns a number of smuggling tunnels in the area where the torture camps lie. His Sawarka tribe is said to have thousands of militia men under arms.
The Bedouin drives the journalists past the checkpoints around Al-Arish into the desert in the direction of the border. Most of the houses on the route are in a desolate state, women carry water from the wells to their houses, young men sit in the shades of trees and polish guns. "No work, no money, no future," the Bedouin says. "No wonder, many of us become criminals."
Almost an hour drive away from Al-Arish to the east the journalists reach Al-Mehdia. Only a few kilometres from the Israeli border, highly armed Bedouins, smuggling gangs and Islamists are standing face to face. Already on reaching the first houses pick-up trucks with huge machine guns on top appear; young Bedouin men, their faces hidden behind red and white cloth, have their fingers on the trigger. Their guide puts his head out of the window – he is known to them and they let them pass. "If you don't belong here", he says, "you're dead." Al-Mehdia is considered one of the most dangerous spots in the Sinai.
No one dares to knock on the killer's doors
They meet Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Manei in a barely finished building with tinted windows. The Sheikh is around sixty years old and he belongs to those Bedouin leaders who reject the human trafficking. He takes up Africans who could flee, gives them clothing and food and sees to it that they are treated medically. The last ones, he says, he had transported to Cairo and handed over to a humanitarian organisation.
In order to isolate the human traffickers he meets up with other leaders of the Bedouin family. They boycott the traffickers, don't allow them in their supermarkets, pharmacies or workshops anymore and deny them their women for marriage. "The first women have divorced from the human traffickers, " he recounts with satisfaction.
According to experts on human trafficking, around 10,000 Africans have been ransomed out of torture camps. At a price of around $ 30,000 per person this sums up to 300 million Dollars. Whoever can't afford to buy an African with money can exchange his Toyota Landcruiser for three hostages. For a truck he can get seven. Are the traffickers ever going to give up on such profits?
» "They make millions," Sheikh Al-Manei says. "But Allah is taking their lives."
He knows exactly who the traffickers are and where the hostages are tortured. Why doesn't he just organise his militia men and storm the camps to put an end to mutilation, rape and murder? "No Bedouin is allowed to interfere in the affairs of another family," says Al-Manei. "That would result in bloody feuds with numerous killed."
And who are the traffickers? Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Manei tries to be vague. In almost all families of the area some are involved, he says. Then he finally does give a name: Ouda Abu Saad of the Jalouf tribe. Only years ago he was herding goats. Now he has build himself several million Dollar palaces in the desert with architectural rooftop designs copying the Far East. Could one meet him? Sheikh Ibrahim almost chokes on his tea. Under no circumstances is he willing to show us where Ouda Abu Saad lives. "First they torture you, to find out who send you," he says, "then they bury you alive in the desert." Not even the powerful Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Manei would dare to knock on his door.
The traffickers have ruined the lives of thousands. Each case has its own story, as that of Selomon. Together with 25 other hostages from Eritrea they pushed him into a cellar. No light, no bathroom, for days no food and nothing to drink. His kidnappers beat him until he discloses the telephone number of his sister in Asmara. As she picks up the phone she is forced to listen to the screams of her brother. Then a loud thump. With heavy iron rods the Bedouins break Selomon's wrist. To his sister they say: "$ 30,000 – or we kill him."
Selomon's family does not have that sort of money, they are peasants. His parents sell their house and all their livestock, but it is not enough. While his sister begs relatives and friends in Europe and America to come to their aid, the phone calls don't stop. Every time his sister picks up the phone, she hears Selomon's screams.
His torturers put him in such heavy chains, that at his feet the skin is torn off right down to the bones. In front of an adjacent cell queues of Bedouins wait daily for their turn raping the women. With melting plastic of carburettor hoses they burn their nipples and ram iron rods into their vaginas. Even if women die of the torture, their chains are not undone. For days the corpses remain chained to other hostages who are still alive.
In the end they hang Selomon with his hands from the ceiling "on a hook like a slaughtered beast." When they finally take him down four days later, his limbs have gone dead. He will never feel his fingers again.
The Bedouin guide of the journalists points out a problem: "The camps are hard to find. They keep changing the location all the time." In any house they pass in Al-Mehdia Selomon's fate could at this very minute be repeated.
"If only one European is abducted somewhere in the Middle East," he continues, "then the whole world cries out, the media goes crazy and everything is done to rescue the hostage – but with thousands of Africans the world looks aways and lets them rot to die."
Fact is, the European Union, and Germany too, have so far looked on without much actions as the torturing and killing continues in Egypt's Sinai. The German government, according to a reply in parliament from October 2012, is perfectly well informed on the brutal crimes of the Bedouin traffickers. Yet German politicians, visiting Egypt, still rather talk about trade agreements, development aid and tourism.
"The German government must finally pressure Cairo," demands Annette Groth, human rights representative of the party Die Linke in the German parliament, who has been dealing with this problem for quite some time. "The Egyptian government must act firmly against the crimes and put the criminals to trial." Besides that, Egypt must adhere to the international conventions and treat African refugees humanely and offer them the possibility to ask for asylum. Egypt is obliged to respect the treaties it has signed on this with the European Union, says Groth. This obligation holds true too for the new interim government under President Mansour.
Meeting a murderer
After many futile attempts the journalists finally get to meet with a murderer. It took immense persuasion until one of the torturers was willing to speak to them:
The Bedouin is around 40 years old and, as he says, has stopped the human trafficking out of fear of Islamists, who do not accept these crimes and threaten the traffickers.
We want to know what goes on inside a Bedouin when he tortures Africans to death?
"Nothing," he says and smiles. "I regularly got my money." The salary for the henchman: the equivalent of 120 Euros per month. The man shows no signs of remorse. Instead he recounts, as if talking about the peach harvest, how they rolled women into straw mats and put them on fire; how they ripped off a baby from its mother's breast, strangled it and played football with it; how they filled a hole in the ground with hot coals and put a metal grid over it, then throwing hostages on the red-hot rods. "African Barbecue," says the man and sips his tea. "Black meat."
How is it possible for a human being to inflict such horrors onto others? "We learned our trade in the prisons, in the torture camps of Mubarak," says the Bedouin. Many of his colleagues were tortured themselves for years in the dungeons of the regime. With the methods they now use for their own hostages.
The horror for Selomon goes on for eight months. Then finally his family has collected the $ 30,000 and sends it via Western Union to a connecting agent in Israel. By now Selomon only weighs half his initial body weight, not more than 40 kilos. He can't stand on his own anymore, hardly is able to speak. On 26 June 2012 the Bedouins throw him out into the desert near the border. He is unconscious. Other Eritreans, who survived and are with him, manage to help him across the border.
"Let me die," he pleads in the hospital of Tel Aviv, where he is brought. Down from the broken wrists on his hands are dead. The surgeons amputate most parts of them. Seven operations, three months in hospital. Now he lives in a refugee home in Tel Aviv. His future? "200,000 Dollars," Selomon had said to us in a low voice when we had met in a Café while he was staring at his stumps; then he named the countries leading in this complicated surgery: "America, Canada, Denmark, Germany.
Up to the end of their journey into the "realm of death" the journalists can't see the hostages that are being held in the torture camps. They are invisible. And as they drive back to Al-Arish this seems to them to be a metaphor:
Because the world can't see these people and hardly anyone knows their stories, the kidnappers can torture them unhindered.
On a little farmstead they make a stop. A 15 year old boy, casually holding a straw between his teeth, leads them through some peach trees that grow behind the house. A group of little children come running and they join them sitting in the sand. Abu, the boy, tells them that he has two more years to finish school. So what does he want to become one day? A teacher? A doctor? He says, he knows someone who finished as the best of his class in the final year. "And still he has found no work."
» So what does Abu intend to do, when he finishes school? "Torture Africans," says the boy suddenly. We don't react. Perhaps he has heard that we are interested in the subject and tries to impress us. But Abu starts to delve into details with feverish enthusiasm: "Ram red-hot nails through their hands, pour boiling water over them" – the children scream in delight – "make 30,000 Dollars ransom money and then sell them to someone else for 5,000 Dollars."
Perhaps these are only cruel phantasies of a child. But for the moment they tell us more about the future of North Sinai then anything else. What did the torturer tell us in the desert? "If one day we can't get any Blacks anymore, we go to Cairo and get our hostages from there."
We have already arrived back in the Egyptian capital – when suddenly the mobile phone rings. The number shown on the display is the one Selomon had given us, the number of his torture camp in the Sinai. We take a deep breath, then we pick up the phone.
Her name is Tzega, a desperate woman says on the other end in English. She is 21 years old and from Eritrea. The ransom they demand is 40,000 Dollars.
In the background we seem to hear a metallic sound. Suddenly Tzega gives off a terrifying scream. "I am bleeding! I am bleeding!", she keeps screaming into the phone. "Help me! Oh my God, they are cutting of my fingers!"
Then the line goes dead. «
The original article appeared in German in the Süddeutsche Zeitung Magazin on 19 July 2013, a weekly periodical to the newspaper SZ. In addition it was published by the Tagesanzeiger-Magazin in Zurich. – The names of victims in this report have been changed for their protection.
The author is award winning journalist Michael Obert. The photos were taken by Magnum photographer Moises Saman.
Both journalists, though much experienced with reporting from war zones, have not been able to stomach the horrors they came across in the Sinai. The pictures still haunt them. After their return to Germany they have contacted numerous clinics and organisations in an attempt to help the young Eritrean Selomon to get the much needed hand reconstructive surgery. So far they have had no success.