Q&A: Eritreans escape to torturous Sinai

Journalist discusses how thousands of Eritreans flee their repressive country only to be tortured in Egypt’s Sinai.

Estefanos, a human rights activist, meets Eritrean refugees who were tortured in Sinai [Meron Estefanos/Al Jazeera]

Mounting documentation of human rights violations in Eritrea – arbitrary arrests, torture of prisoners, forced military service with appalling conditions – highlights why almost 5 percent of Eritrea’s population has fled the country in the past decade.

The UN refugee agency estimates in the past year nearly 4,000 Eritreans left the country every month.

During their journey from Eritrea, many refugees experience traumatic abuse at the hands of traffickers who hold them captive and torture them to elicit a ransom from their families. In 2014, Human Rights Watch released a report documenting that since 2010, Egyptian traffickers tortured Eritrean migrants in the Sina peninsula with rape, burning, and mutilation.

Some are killed upon payment of ransom; others die from injuries.

Meron Estefanos is a Sweden-based Eritrean journalist and human rights activist. Her weekly radio show broadcast from Sweden – “Voices of Eritrean Refugees” – focuses on the plight of Eritrean refugees, specifically the thousands who have been kidnapped, tortured and held for ransom in Sudan and Sinai.

Kidnapped Eritreans or their family members call into her show, and she gets their stories out in an effort to free them.

On international Human Right Day, Al Jazeera spoke to Estefanos about the ordeals of the Eritrean refugees caught up in the dangerous web of human traffickers.

Meron Estefanos, Eritrean journalist and human rights activist

Al Jazeera: Why did you get involved in the plight of Eritrean refugees?

Meron Estefanos: I moved to Sweden 26 years ago. I moved back in 2002 and left in 2004. I had a great time there and I was treated very nicely. In contrast, my childhood friends spent years and years in military service. One of our neighbours had disappeared. 

Seeing what was happening to the people around me reminded me that if it wasn’t for my Swedish passport it could have been me. When I moved back to Sweden, I felt, if I can’t help the Eritrean people in Eritrea, then maybe I should help the Eritrean people outside of the country.

The Sinai Bedouins put them in shackles, and give them phones. They force them to call their families while they are being tortured.

by - Meron Estefanos

Al Jazeera: How did you get involved with the Eritrean hostages?

Estefanos: In 2010, I received a call from a guy in the UK who told me his brother was kidnapped. He was being asked to pay a ransom.

He gave me the number and I decided to call to investigate if this was true. I asked if I could broadcast the interview on my show. Although I had heard about the kidnappings, this was my first contact with a family that had someone who was kidnapped.

That was my first encounter with the kidnappers. They allowed me to talk to the hostages.

I thought it would only be one call. But the hostages saved my number, it circulated from one group to another in different torture camps, and they would call me to tell their stories.  

Al Jazeera: How could they have access to phones?

Estefanos: The phones work as tools for the kidnappers to force the hostages to call their families and ask for ransom as soon as they arrive in Sinai.

The Sinai Bedouins put them in shackles and give them phones. They force them to call their families while they are being tortured. This is a way to apply pressure on their families to pay the ransom. 

Al Jazeera: You have been campaigning to bring the world’s attention to this for years. How has it been going?

Estefanos: When I first started talking to the hostages, I would contact every human rights organisation, every journalist, to publicise this issue. Four years later, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch wrote about it. 

Al Jazeera: Can you tell me about the hardest calls you had to take?

Estefanos: I will never forget the first call. It turned my life upside down. I was listening to 29 people being tortured.

Every time someone died from the group they would call me. It was the worst feeling. When these people died, I would be the one forced to tell their families that their loved ones had died. 

A priest died in Sinai. I called his sister in Eritrea to notify her. The family doesn’t have money. The whole village sold everything they owned, yet the money was not enough. The ransom was $20,000. They went to a second village – he was a respected priest. They, too, sold everything they owned. In the end, they had $19,500. They sent it to the kidnappers. But were told it was not enough, there was still $500 left. 

The sister went to a third village. That’s when I called her to tell her that her brother had died.

Many refugees have fallen victim to human traffickers who imprison and torture them for ransom [Meron Estefanos/Al Jazeera]

Another case was a mother and her baby that were tortured together. He was a year old, tortured the same way as the adults. The mother died under torture. The child was released when he was three-years old. I went to visit him in Israel.

It was shocking to see on a child’s small body covered with all sort of burn and shackle marks. 

Al Jazeera: Some people might ask is it worth the risk? Isn’t it better to stay in Eritrea?

Estefanos: Life must be even worse in Eritrea than with the Bedouins of Sinai. I have a friend that lost both his hands in Sinai. But he always says, ‘I still blame the regime that got me out of my country.’

People say ‘we were hoping that it wouldn’t happen to us.’ It’s about dying while trying and have a chance of a life. 

Al Jazeera: From where are the refugees taken? 

Estefanos: From the Eritrean-Sudanese border, and the refugee camps in Sudan.

The UNCHR say that the kidnappings from the camps have stopped. But I know of at least four cases this year. I spoke to people who were kidnapped from the camps. They even get kidnapped by the Sudanese border guards and sold to tribes. 

Al Jazeera: Is it true that Sudanese and Eritreans are all involved in the human trafficking and torture? 

Estefanos: Of course. Without the Eritreans’ help this wouldn’t be possible. Similar kidnappings are now happening in Libya. Eritreans are always involved. And Sudanese soldiers are helping.

Al Jazeera: What are your hopes and dreams?

Estefanos: My dream is for the dictatorship in Eritrea to end so Eritreans stop fleeing. That is the root cause. The Sinai torture camps will continue to operate as long as the regime in Eritrea is there. 

I hope that Eritreans will go back to Eritrea, instead of fleeing from Eritrea, and that the last hostage is freed.

I also want to bring every person responsible for the kidnapping and torture to justice. 

Follow Fatma Naib on Twitter: @fatmanaib

Source: Al Jazeera