'In Sinai, I Saw Hell,' Trafficked Christian Says; Refugees Are Easy Prey

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 22, 2013 | Go to article overview

'In Sinai, I Saw Hell,' Trafficked Christian Says; Refugees Are Easy Prey


Byline: Ashish Kumar Sen, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Egypt's lawless Sinai Peninsula is a living hell for thousands of refugees from sub-Saharan Africa who are being kidnapped and tortured by a network of rapacious human traffickers.

Most of the refugees are Eritrean Christians; others are from Ethiopia and Sudan.

We have an idea about hell from the Bible, said Yonas Habte, a 32-year-old Eritrean Pentecostal Christian who was trapped by the traffickers. In Sinai, I saw hell.

The traffickers chain together groups of men and women; pour molten plastic on their bodies; deprive them of food, water and sleep; subject them to vicious beatings and electric shocks; and force them to smoke hashish and rape one another, according to survivors interviewed by The Washington Times.

They forced us to behave like animals, Mr. Habte said in a phone interview from Cairo, where he was released in May after his sister in Australia paid a $40,000 ransom.

In Eritrea, Mr. Habte was persecuted because of his religion.

Our church was locked. ... We couldn't even pray to our own God, he said.

In December, he fled to Sudan in search of a better life but became trapped in a vicious network of extortionists.

Sudanese soldiers arrested him and sold him to members of the Rashaida, an Arab tribe, which in turn drove him to the Sinai, where they sold him to Bedouin traffickers.

Many of the refugees fleeing into Sudan do not get very far before they are taken by the Rashaida, said John Stauffer, president of the America Team for Displaced Eritreans.

Eritrean forces turn them over to the Rashaida, or they are sitting prey, kidnapped while walking to the nearest town in Sudan.

Once in the Sinai, the kidnappers give their captives mobile phones and demand that they call their families to beg for large ransoms.

These people are tortured while their families are listening on the other end, said Stockholm-based Meron Estefanos, co-founder of the International Commission on Eritrean Refugees.

Security in the Sinai has worsened since Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was ousted by the military July 3, after four days of massive protests against the Islamist leader. Bedouins have attacked Egyptian military personnel. Christians, too, have been assaulted.

A 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty limits the number of Egyptian forces that can be deployed in the Sinai. This month, in an acknowledgment of the grave situation there, Israel permitted the Egyptian army to deploy two more infantry battalions to the peninsula.

The flow of asylum seekers into Israel from the Sinai slowed to a trickle last year after Israel constructed a fence on the border with Egypt to keep out African migrants.

As the refugee flow to Israel decreased, the Rashaida started to lose money, so they began to kidnap refugees from camps inside Sudan, Ms. Estefanos said.

Sudanese soldiers guarding the United Nations' Shagarab refugee camp in eastern Sudan often work with the kidnappers.

A large proportion of refugees are abducted from the camps, said Mirjam van Reisen, a professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands who co-authored a report on human trafficking in the Sinai with Ms. Estefanos.

Girmay Berhane, a 23-year-old Eritrean Christian, was a refugee at the Shagarab camp when he was arrested by local police because he did not have the proper papers. …

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