It was four days since he'd left Sudan, hidden under blankets in the back of a pick-up truck. Five days since he had first been chained to the others under a tree in the wilderness. Eight days since police and soldiers had arrested him as he entered Sudan from Eritrea, and sold him to the traffickers. The previous night they slept near the Nile, but now they were on the move again, somewhere in Egypt. I have to withhold the guy's name for his safety, but let's call him Awet.
The two trucks were carrying 17 prisoners and driving fast, but as they passed the checkpoint Awet happened to lift the blanket a little. He saw a uniformed Egyptian officer with his hand in the air, waving the traffickers' convoy through. They had already been kidnapped, chained, beaten and starved, but the worst was yet to come.
The convoy carrying Awet reached the east coast of mainland Egypt in darkness. Still chained by the ankles, the prisoners were made to wade into the sea to a waiting boat. One little girl was too short to manage, and her mother was too weak to carry her, so Awet placed her on his shoulders.
After six hours at sea, they reached the Sinai, wading 2000 feet — still in their chains — to shore, where they were loaded into pickup trucks. They were then driven to a house, where they were sold again to different buyers. Awet and five others were taken to another house, blindfolded, shackled and forced to listen to the sounds of suffering around them. There were already another eight captives there.
This was no isolated case. According to an estimate in a report from Tilburg University, more than 25,000 people have been abducted by traffickers in Sudan or Eritrea since 2010, before being taken to the Sinai peninsular and tortured in order to extort a ransom from their relatives abroad. The torture often takes place while the relatives listen on the phone, a technique used to ensure that the money is paid quickly. It's a lucrative trade; an estimated $600 million of ransom money, according to the report, has been paid in the last three years.
I interviewed Awet in December on behalf of Human Rights Watch, which released a report yesterday based on 37 interviews with victims of the trafficking gangs. Eleven of their interviewees recounted 19 instances of collusion on the part of Egyptian police or soldiers. Many also recounted the involvement of Sudanese border guards, who are known to arrest refugees from Eritrea before selling them to the gangs.
Before the report was released, it was suspected that such a vast trade couldn't take place without officials turning a blind eye. And recently, in fact, a trafficker who goes by the name Abu Faris bluntly told a Sinai-based journalist that he bribed security officers to look the other way.
"We smuggle immigrants from the Egyptian-Sudanese borders to the Peace Bridge and Shahid Ahmed Hamdy tunnel in Suez, paying big bribes along the way," he said. "Then we put them in a warehouse, offering them food in exchange for additional funds that we already paid as bribes in order to facilitate their access to the border point."
In a telephone interview on Monday, a spokesman for Egypt's foreign ministry denied that Egyptian officials were involved in allowing human trafficking. He said that the practice had radically reduced since July of 2013, when a military-backed government took over following massive street protests and the security presence in Sinai and on the nation's borders was subsequently strengthened. Because smuggling routes are also used for gunsand drugs, he said, they are a security risk and must be guarded.
However, according to activist Meron Estafanos — who monitors the trade from her base in Sweden — since November of 2013, the trickle of desperate phone calls has slowly begun to increase.
According to several accounts, prior to the current crackdown security services knew the locations of several of the torture houses, but failed to act. In 2012, for instance, a Cairo-based NGO and locals opposed to the trade gave details of the torture houses to the police, who did nothing.
"There is no way we can do anything about it. That area is known for being under the control of well-armed groups. The police can’t enter," an officer told one local at the time. The General Intelligence Services, equivalent to the CIA or MI6, said they had "other priorities."
In June of 2013, a few frustrated locals began to take things into their own hands, organizing theirown armed raids of a few torture houses. Since then, authorities insist that they have been taking action.
During his captivity, Awet was woken at 5 a.m. every morning to be beaten. But he was lucky. A gregarious and warm man, he had many friends and a large family with connections abroad. Within a month they raised the $33,000 his captors had asked for and transferred it to an intermediary in Saudi Arabia. The unlucky ones couldn't pay, and often succumbed to their torture.
"At night they would bring a dead body covered with a blanket and show us," Awet said. "And they said: 'See, this guy has been killed because he hasn’t paid.' They would tell us to bury them so the dead body [didn't] rot."
Other victims recall sharing their cells with bodies for days or being made to hug the corpses.
Reading survivor testimonies, common themes emerge: the electrocutions, the rapes, the burnings with fire and melted plastic, the whippings and beatings. Several victims report being hung by the wrists from the ceiling with their arms tied behind their back.
"They hung me three times and my arms got very bad. Now I can’t use them. It is difficult to do things without arms," one man told researchers.
Awet eventually made it to Cairo, where he is waiting for the UNHCR to process his claim for resettlement. He is unable to work and lives with other survivors on handouts of around $50 a month. Many have profound psychological difficulties and live in fear of recapture by the gangs, who have informants in the Eritrean community and threaten anyone who they discover has spoken to the press.
lthough informal criminal gangs carry it out, the trade relies on state officials at every point, and at every level. Like other refugees, Awet fled Eritrea after being subjected to 16 years of forced military service in one of the poorest, most militarized nations on earth. Eritrean officials are deeply implicated in the trade. According to the United Nations Security Council Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea, for example, in some cases ransom fees are transferred to Eritrean diplomats abroad.
The 2013 report states: "The Monitoring Group has also received testimony regarding ransom fees that have been paid directly to Eritrean officials. In one case, a German-based Eritrean citizen was forced to raise roughly $12,000 from friends and family to release two of his cousins who had been kidnapped in Sinai, Egypt, in 2011, after they had escaped from Eritrea and had joined a human trafficking caravan in the Sudan. The funds were transferred to a family member in Eritrea who delivered it in cash to a government security office in Asmara."
Egypt's crackdown in the Sinai — which some locals say is routinely harming civilians in the pursuit of radical Islamist insurgents — may have slowed the torture mills for now, although researchers fear they will reappear elsewhere, or in the same place, once the campaign against militants is over.
But for the trafficking victims rescued by the authorities, the ordeal is far from over. Once they're picked up, they are then imprisoned in Egyptian police stations. At the moment, not only are the UNHCR denied the right to visit the victims, but the authorities require the prisoners to raise money for their own flight to Ethiopia - which accepts Eritrean refugees - as a condition of release, a less gruesome and costly reenactment of the demand made by the traffickers.
I put it to the foreign ministry spokesman that Egypt should at least promptly allow these people to go to Ethiopia, if that is what they want. He responded by calling for international agencies and foreign governments to help pay for the process.
"It takes two to tango," he said.
Awet is strong. I have a feeling he'll manage to build a new life once he gets out of Egypt. But the anguished face of a young friend of his, who was tortured much more harshly and for much longer, stays with me. More than a year after his escape he seemed profoundly ill at ease, always frightened, always worried, even when in a place of safety.
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