Desert Hostages

Tuesday, 20 March 2012 12:08 Naomi Conrad

Eritrean refugees are being abducted in Sudan and sold to human traffickers in the Sinai desert. Many hostages are held for months, tortured and threatened until their relatives manage to pay their ransom. The criminal organisation is operating in several African countries – and even in Europe.

The filthy blankets crawling with lice are far too thin to shelter Mariam – not her real name – and her three-year old daughter from the biting desert cold. The threadbare fabric is spattered with dark rust-coloured stains: Mariam’s dried blood – and that of the many other hostages who were shackled to the bare floor before she was forced to take their place.

“Everyone is sick, we all have diarrhoea”, Mariam whispers. Her voice is faint. The mobile signal is bad, but she is too afraid to speak up: one of her captors is standing outside the door. She is terrified the Bedouin, a member of the Rashida tribe, will hear her. He and four other men torture them every night. “They make us lie on the floor naked and burn our backs with melted plastic bags”, a hostage in his late forties – we will call him Salome – says: “Sometimes, they pour water on us and put electricity through our chains.” Mariam’s daughter is taken outside during the torture, but she is afraid they will hurt her nevertheless. The hostages are shackled together in groups of fours and fives; some are too weak to speak when the phone is passed on.

Desperate pleas to friends and relatives

The mobile is their lifeline to the outside world and their only means of escaping the torture: every day the hostages call their friends and relatives begging them to pay the ransom. A friend of Mariam’s sister has posted a desperate plea on the social media sight Facebook, asking her friends to help her raise the 27.000 US dollars needed to secure Mariam and her daughter’s release. For Mariam’s mother is dead; her father is a farmer in a small village in Eritrea. It would take him a lifetime to pay the ransom.

Mariam’s husband lives in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. The young couple had decided to flee Eritrea. They had heard of the Eritrean shoot-to-kill border policy, but not of the abductions. Nevertheless, they were desperate to leave. According to Human Rights Watch Eritrea is “one of the world’s most repressive regimes”. In its 2012 country report the independent human rights organisation based in Germany describes a country lacking even the most fundamental freedoms. Almost the entire young generation is forced to serve in the military indefinitely.

“We thought we were safe”

Mariam had paid a trafficker to take her and her daughter from their small village to neighbouring Sudan. From there she had wanted to make her way to Ethiopia to join her husband. “As soon as we arrived in Sudan, one of the trafficker told us he would take us to the nearest city and the refugee camp”, she says. Instead, Sudanese traffickers forced them into a car at gunpoint and handed them over to their Egyptian captors. Both were from the Rashia tribe, she says. “We thought we were safe when we had made it to the border and saw the border guards”, Salome says. He wasn’t. Corrupt Sudanese border guards sold him on to the traffickers.

The UNHCR is aware of the stories of abductions and corrupt Sudanese border guards, Philippa Candler concedes. The UNHCR’s head of protection in Sudan says that some 2000 refugees arrive at the Shagarab processing camp every month. While almost all Eritrean arrivals are granted refugee status allowing them to be moved to one of the 12 refugee camps the UNHCR runs, almost 80 percent leave Shagarab within two or three month. “Most of them move on because they have contacted traffickers or smugglers”, Candler says. As many as 1000 refugees never even make it to Shagarab. For the Sudanese government does not allow refugees to move freely in the country and so traffickers remain the only options for those wanting to join relatives and friends in Europe, Israel or other African countries. Candler stresses that Eritreans, Ethiopians and Somalians are being held hostage in Sudan and the Sinai desert.

International network

Mariam knows she is being held in the Sinai, but can’t be sure exactly where. The house is large, she says, and possibly purpose-built: there are no floorboards or any furniture. She was transferred to the house from a smaller one. “There as an Eritrean working for the (Arabic-speaking) Bedouins”, Mariam says. He spied on the hostages, she says, and reported back to the captors. Mariam believes she was transferred to take the place of other hostages: One man had died after being tortured; five had been released because their relatives had paid their ransom.

“This is an international smuggling network”, Meron Estefanos says. The Swedish-Eritrean journalist describes an increasingly professionalized operation: The ransom payments are no longer transferred via WesternUnion to Cairo, as they were a couple of months ago. Rather, relatives hand over the money to middlemen operating in countries with big Eritrean diasporas, including Switzerland, Sweden, Israel and even the United States. Meron is convinced the Egyptian authorities have given their tacit approval. An American print journalist says he was explicitly warned by the Egyptian government not to pursue the story.

Up to 40.000 S dollars

Meron and several other activists have compiled names: the names of the kidnappers, the hostages and the addresses of the houses where they are being held. According to the journalist, some 300 to 500 hostages, possibly even more, are currently being held in the Sinai. The numbers are steadily increasing – as are the ransom payments: Hostages whose relatives live in Europe or the US are sometimes asked to pay up to 40.000 US dollars, up from a couple of thousand dollars just a year ago.

Mariam’s kidnappers have given her relatives a deadline to pay the ransom, then they are threatening kill her and her daughter. When asked what she thinks will happen to them, she doesn’t have an answer. A week later, the phone is dead.