Sinai Desert: A Brutal Prison and Grave for Thousands of Ethiopian, Somali, and Eritrean Refugees
by Betre Yacob
“We were 16 people. Once we first arrived inside the house, we were asked for money. One guy said straight away that he won’t be able to pay. They [the captors] wanted to make him an example; ….so they undressed him in front of us and started beating and poking him with big wooden sticks. They then inserted a stick into his… He was bleeding all over. After more beatings, they poured petrol on him and set him on fire. After he died, they left his body in the room with us until it became rotten and worms started crawling. They forced all of us in turns to hold him.”
This story may seem to be taken from a Hollywood horror movie as it is so horrific. But, unfortunately, it is a true story. It is what an Eritrean survivor, held captive in Sinai for eight months after being kidnapped from Eastern Sudan, said recently while describing his ordeal to Amnesty International.
Kidnapped mostly from Eastern Sudan, many Ethiopian, Somali, and Eritrean refugees are held captive in Sinai Desert by Bedouin criminal gangs [people-traffickers] with the objective to obtain tens of thousands of dollars in ransom money in exchange for their release. During their captivity, they are subjected to several acts of extreme violence and brutality, including rape of men and women and other forms of sexual violence. Some of those who are unable to pay a ransom are simply killed like what we have seen here above in the story; some others are murdered to demonstrate to the families of other captives the seriousness of the threats. Many die as a result of routine torture.
Lamlam, 17, is another survivor. She experienced extremely brutal abuses. She says that everything was a nightmare more than one can imagine. “The kidnappers would make me lie on my back and then they would get me to ring my family to ask them to pay the ransom they wanted,” she says. “As soon as one of my parents answered the phone, the men would melt flaming plastic over my back and inner thighs and I would scream and scream in pain. This, they hoped, would put extra pressure on my mother and father to find the money.”
The New York Times estimates that 7,000 Ethiopian, Somali, and Eritrean refugees have been abused this way over the last four years, and that 4,000 of them have died. The victims include men, women, children, and even accompanying infants. The majorities of them are also estimated to be aged between 15—25. However, some NGOs and international organizations place the number of the victims far higher. According to different human rights organizations, this new form of brutal ‘business’ has been escalating, as the impunity guaranteed to the criminals continues. Reports indicate that there have been no prosecutions of criminals responsible for the abuses so far.
Different testimonies and reports shows that the methods of tortures that are often used to increase the urgency of captives’ pleas to relatives to pay the money to secure their release are extremely brutal and often lead to a wish to die. These include electrocution; pouring gasoline over the body and setting it on fire; burning with cigarette butts or heated rubber and metal objects; water-drowning; amputation of limbs; beatings with objects such as metal chains, sticks and whips; suspension from the ceiling and suspension in contorted positions for prolonged periods of time; hanging by hair; and forcing to stand for extended periods of time in desert heat. According to testimonies, captives often face a combination of these all methods.
In its latest report Amnesty International said that victims have also reported having fingernails pulled out. The group further said: “Many have also reportedly been deprived of food, water, medical treatment and showers for prolonged periods. Many former captives also reported being chained throughout the duration of their captivity, often to other captives.” A research conducted by Tilburg University and Europe External Policy Advisors shows that women are tortured while pregnant – and their pregnancies are often the result of the rapes they suffer. If they find themselves pregnant, women hostages are told that the ransom will double once their baby is born. Many hostages succumb to the torture. This torture can be functional as it takes place to extort the ransom from relatives, but it can also be gratuitous.
Different reports indicate that ransoms are often paid despite the amounts demanded by the criminals are very excessive—often from USD 30,000 —50,000. Relatives sell their possessions such as houses and lands, to get the money demanded and free the hostages suffering from extreme acts of brutality; many borrow while some go from church to church begging people to contribute. Some hostages are, however, killed even after their ransom has been paid after many up and down.
Kidnapping in Eastern Sudan
Many Ethiopian, Somali, and Eritrean, who left their repressive and impoverished countries in search of a better security and life, get kidnapped and become hostage every single day. The significant majority of the victims are, however, Eritrean. Different researches indicate Eritrean refugees are often kidnapped on their way to refuge camps in East Sudan, where asylum-seekers undergo a refugee status determination procedure and are issued with documentation. There are, however, significant reports of kidnapping from inside refuge camps, particularly from Shagarab. There are also some incidents from Mai Aini camp in Ethiopia.
The kidnappings are mainly carried out by Sudanese criminal networks made up of local tribesmen with the support of different individuals— often Eritreans. There are also allegations of the involvement of members of the Sudanese security forces and corrupted Eritrean military officials working around Eritrea-Sudan border. According to testimonies, once the Eritreans refugees are kidnapped, they are soon sold to the major criminal gangs known as Rashaida in East Sudan. They are then forcibly transported to Sinai in harrowing journeys that last for several weeks, and sold to Bedouin criminal networks that held them hostage and torture them to extract ransom payments from their families. Reports indicate that during the journey to Sinai refugees are subjected to violence, including beatings and rape, and cruel treatment, including deprivation of food and water.
- Eritrean tells of Sinai torture for ransom (bbc.co.uk)
- UNHCR: Eritreans continue fleeing to Ethiopia and Sudan (ethiotribune.net)
- Swedish Court is First in Europe to Charge Blackmail in Sinai Case (blogs.wsj.com)