A shocking and extraordinary telephone conversation with two kidnapped hostages in Egypt’s Sinai desert has given me evidence of what the UN has called “one of the most unreported humanitarian crises in the world”.
Thousands of refugees from Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan are captured by criminal gangs and held for ransom. They are subject to appalling brutality. About 4,000 of 7,000 victims have died in the last four years, according to some estimates. The kidnappers use Sinai because swathes of it have become lawless since the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace treaty stipulated that only limited numbers of Egyptian forces could go there.
In an effort to learn more about these atrocities and to help draw them to public attention, I contacted an Eritrean activist who has been trying to help victims. She and I managed to talk to a kidnapper, Abdallah (A), on the phone. In the transcription of the conversation, the activist is indicated by M and N is for Nazek (I am presented as a teacher from Scotland called Sara):
A -I swear by god, I swear by god that I am only losing money on them. Our agreement was until Thursday; this conversation does not help, believe me; listen to me.
M -Please if you may; give me a bit more time. I have a lady who wants to help. Can you speak with her? I called her to help but she does not trust me. She wants to check first that what I am telling her is true…
A-Who is she? Where is she from?
M-Her name is Sara, she is a teacher from Scotland. Do you want to speak to her?
M-She can speak some Arabic as well. Speak with her. We need to raise the money, we need her to help…
A-$15000 by Thursday.
M-Yes, I know. We need to raise the $15000, but please you need to give me more time to raise the money. Can you give me few more days?
A-When will you pay? Friday?
M-No, please, we need until Monday.
A -OK, Monday 8am.
M-8 am will be too early. It is 6am in Scotland. The banks and other institutions will not be open by then. We need until at least midday.
A-The money must arrive to Israel by 12noon on Monday. I am doing this as a favour.
M-Thank you for understanding and for your help. I am grateful for what you are doing. God will award you. But please be kind to the boys, don’t beat them. They are no good to us if they are injured and cannot walk.
A-I gave them medication; we are like brothers. You can speak with them but you need to respect your word.
At this point I joined the conversation:
N -Hello. Good afternoon. Who am I talking to?
N -Hello Abdallah. M told me about the situation. Can I check with you what is happening? What is the situation and what is required?
A -What is required is the money. You pay the money and they go free…
N- Can you tell me about the boys; are they ok?
Then the phone went dead.
Later I managed to talk to 24-year-old Nasir Abdul Fadel. He was kidnapped in Sudan and taken to Sinai, where he has been held for six months. Nasir said that there was one other person with him in the house where he was a prisoner and ten others in houses around them.
“We cannot survive here. We get one meal a day: a loaf of bread and a glass of water. I cannot eat food; I cannot open my mouth because of my wounds. My body is in a very bad condition."
“We have only until Monday to pay $15,000 otherwise … they will beat [us] until [we] die. They say if they get the money they will release us to either Cairo or Israel. Half the people who were kidnapped here before were sent to Cairo and half were killed. Five people died here and seven were freed."
“There were eight people in the house when I arrived from Sudan; 25 of us came together but I cannot see them any more..."
“They [kidnappers] say to us regularly that we have to get the money – and then they rape and beat us. They sometimes rape us with a bottle as well."
“We are in a very bad condition. We can’t survive like this for more than two weeks. We have lots of injuries from the beating. If we stay here we will die. Please help us...” I
n another conversation, 14-year-old Haftoum told me he was seized nine months ago with his 15-year-old cousin, who has since died from torture. At first Haftoum didn’t want to talk. He said he had been beaten so badly that he is in severe pain. He has not had a single bath since his kidnapping. He cannot go to the toilet on his own: he has to be carried there. Haftoum said that he has a hole in his backside; the kidnappers are using him for sex and they insert bottles into his rectum; his injuries are infected and covered with insects; he has never been given medication.
“I can’t eat. We get bread and salt, not good food. If you do not help me in 2-3 days, I will die. I want to go to the doctor, my body is all damaged. I can’t sleep; I can’t sit down ...” He has only one contact, a friend of his mother who is in Israel. She is the only one who is in touch with him. He said they were about 20 minutes by car from Israel. “I am scared to die. It is too much. I cannot handle it. It is too long till Monday. I need to get free from this place… Can you get for me money?” he pleaded tearfully.
As this newspaper went to press, the boys were still in captivity. We heard relatives were still trying to raise the money and negotiations with the kidnappers were continuing. Just before uploading the story on the Migrant Voice website (two weeks later) I contacted the activist for an update. She told me that they had managed to get a two week extension from the kidnappers (until Monday 9 September) but the price for this was that they (the two boys) would be beaten daily. However, the remaining requested amount was not raised (the kidnappers already received $20.000). There were no calls from the boys this week.
These conversations and the situation for the two boys affected me deeply. I wanted to try and help. I contacted a number of prominent Arab journalists to seek their help. One of them was an Egyptian journalist from Sinai who has covered the issue of African migrants in this part of the world. He confirmed the widespread kidnapping, torture and killing of African migrants in the Sinai desert. He also explained that the criminal act of kidnapping people in exchange for ransom is not confined to African migrants. The organised criminals also kidnap Egyptian citizens including high ranking officers in the Egyptian Army. The officers’ families also have to raise the ransom to free their sons. I asked the journalist if he could report the kidnapping of the two young Eritreans to the authorities, and gave him the names of two kidnappers with their telephone numbers. I also mentioned that the two African migrants were held about 20 minutes by car from the Israeli border. He came back to me the next day to confirm what he has already told me on the phone earlier.
With the escalation in the tension and the security situation in Egypt, African migrants are not currently a priority for the Egyptian authorities. Even if they wanted to help, it would have been impossible to locate the position of the victims along the very long and treacherous border. The kidnappers use Israeli telephone numbers to make it harder to trace them. This is also a very rough terrain, only the kidnappers know their way around the area. Even the army comes under regular attacks from kidnappers in this lawless part of the country. The army there can protect itself only. Although they come from the area’s tribes, the kidnappers operate outside the local tribes who have a completely different way of life and values. The local tribes have assisted many of the fleeing or released migrants and helped them to safety.
Feven Hadera, founder of the UK-based African Women Empowerment Information Centre, who has visited refugee camps in Ethiopia and met freed hostages and heard their stories, said that she is kept awake at night worrying about the victims. “But the problem is, people have to stop paying kidnappers or they won’t stop seizing people.” It’s an impossible choice, she added. “The kidnappers are very organised and have agents in both Cairo and Israel to collect the money from distraught families. Those who tried to trick them paid the heavy price with their loved ones lives”.
Petros Tesfagherghis, coordinator of the UK Eritrean Refugee Support Association, said that outside Eritrean local media outlets, the news about the traumatic experiences of the 2000 people, mostly the youth, leaving Eritrea every month, receives little coverage. On most occasions, they cross the border to Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Yemen where they face imprisonment and untold abuses, he added. “The level of torture they face at the hands of human traffickers in Sinai, Egypt is the most harrowing. Those who fail to pay ransom are often murdered in cold blood and their organs sold to collect lucrative profits. Their bodies are thrown in refuse dumps”.
Amnesty International reported in April: “Many people held captive in Sinai have been subjected to extreme violence and brutality while waiting for ransoms to be paid by families. Including beatings with metal chains, sticks and whips; burning with cigarette butts or heated rubber and metal objects; suspension from the ceiling; pouring gasoline over the body and setting it on fire … being urinated on and having finger nails pulled out. Rape of men and women, and other forms of sexual violence have been frequently reported.”
I ended my telephone conversation with the two young Eritreans by saying: “thank you for sharing all this information with us. Try to be strong. We are thinking of you and praying for you. We will do out best to help you”. The memory of this conversation will no doubt remain with me for very long time, especially the voice and words of the 14 years old child. The child who went on what he thought was an adventure of a lifetime, little aware of the cruel world out there. He trusted me to help free him and end his suffering and to tell the whole world what was happening to him. I could only do the latter.
Photo information: A 'lucky' 13-year-old who managed to flee from the kidnappers. Feven Hadera helped him get to a refugee camp in Ethiopia.