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Bodies in the DesertMichael Glenwood

Bodies in the Desert

Thousands of asylum-seeking Eritreans, Ethiopians and  Sudanese have been kidnapped  and tortured in the Sinai Peninsula.
Survivors suffer years of  mental anguish and live a stateless, hand-to-mouth existence.
The human trafficking chain must be stopped.

The truck stopped at 2 a.m. somewhere in the Sudanese desert.

The trafficker called to the six women in the back of the truck he was driving, telling them to send out the dark-skinned girl. “I knew he meant me,” recalled Merhawit (not her real name). “The other women gave me up. You have to understand that when people are afraid for their lives, they often do not make noble decisions.”

The trafficker told Merhawit, then 17, to follow him. She told him that she preferred to be killed rather than raped and that he should “pick his best weapon to do so.” The trafficker grabbed a metal pipe and hit her over the head. “I felt my hands go numb and then slowly the rest of my limbs. I was drenched in a dark blood that covered my entire body. I eventually fainted on the spot in the desert. He left me alone thinking I was dead,” Merhawit said.

After the man left her, one of the women risked leaving the relative safety of the truck to check on Merhawit. When she saw that Merhawit was still breathing, she returned to the others and begged them to help her carry the wounded woman to the truck. If the trafficker noticed, she would tell him that she couldn’t leave a “sister’s corpse to rot in the desert.” The body, she would say, must be properly buried. The others agreed, creeping out to retrieve Merhawit and lift her into the truck. To prevent the trafficker from noticing their stowaway, they hid her under their seats, praying she would survive.

The truck rumbled on across the border into the endless desert in Egypt, where the man sold the women to traffickers who would take them to the Sinai Peninsula. The new traffickers noticed Merhawit’s condition and gave her some milk to revive her. She’ll never know if altruism or the desire to protect a newly purchased commodity motivated them.

I remember one patient who watched Egyptian soldiers shoot and kill her best friend and one of her children. She had no words for her pain.

Merhawit’s journey was just beginning. In the Sinai, things would get much worse.

Like many of the women and men I interviewed in Israel as part of my doctoral research, Merhawit is an Eritrean asylum seeker who fled her home in the hope of finding freedom and security. She left Eritrea with her sister who died of an illness while they were crossing the border into Ethiopia.  She is one of countless thousands of Eritrean, Ethiopian and Sudanese people who in their flight have fallen victim to a human trafficking chain that, since 2009, has been a source of misery, abuse and torture.

Many of these victims—once their ransoms are paid—are abandoned at the Israeli border. There they find an entirely new struggle for survival. Most of those who make it into Israel to seek asylum are detained and banned from formal employment and citizenship. They lead a stateless, hand-to-mouth existence, taking work where they can and enduring the scorn and resentment of some Israelis.

Before I arrived in Tel Aviv in 2012 to research access to family planning by Eritrean asylum-seeking women in Israel, I knew almost nothing about these horrors even though like Merhawit, I am a member of the Tigrinya-speaking people from the area along the Ethiopian and Eritrean border.

I was born and raised in a tightly knit community of Eritreans and Ethiopians in the U.S. who were resettled from Sudanese refugee camps in the 1980s. Stories of war permeated my childhood. Members of my own family fled the despotic Ethiopian regime that decimated villages where people opposed it. I knew little, however, about the suffering and hardship my family and people in my community endured. I didn’t know how hard it was for them to regain the physical, psychological, economic and political security taken from them.

It was only by speaking with hundreds of asylum seekers like Merhawit that I began to better understand my own family, my own community. Although they are separated from today’s asylum seekers by time, experience and geography, both share the struggle to obtain the basic essentials for a full life. My work with asylum seekers in Israel and my new understanding of my own family’s experiences have reshaped my future and made me commit to helping asylum seekers in their struggle to maintain their resilience in the face of suffering.

A Bitter Journey

Since gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has been led by an increasingly authoritarian regime with a zero-tolerance policy to opposition. In addition to forced military conscription, the regime has expelled international NGOs, closed its main institution of higher learning (the University of Asmara) and persecutes anyone who challenges government policies or does not belong to the four state-sanctioned faiths (Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Islam). Today under the military dictatorship, Eritrea is one of the most socially, politically and economically restrictive countries in the world, according to Dan Connell, PhD, an expert on Eritrea and a professor of journalism and African politics at Simmons College in Boston. As a result, more than 200,000 Eritreans have fled the country since 2004, according to Human Rights Watch estimates.

The journey for those who flee is long and often beyond human endurance. Many report going without food for up to two weeks and drinking urine to survive. Every point along the hundreds of miles of roads and open desert is dangerous because of the threats of kidnappers and bandits. Some asylum seekers pay smugglers to guide them from their homelands to refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia or other places of relative safety. Yet, according to European and Eritrean researchers and activists, a significant number of those who cross the Eritrean-Sudanese border fall prey to human traffickers roaming the area. Some people are intercepted while en route to or from a refugee camp, while others are abducted from camps like Shagarab in Sudan. Still others are abducted while working in nearby agricultural fields, living in border cities like Kassala or even within Eritrea itself.

They are then held in the Sinai while kidnappers extort money from their families—often torturing them as their loved ones listen by cell phone. The ransom demanded for each captive ranges from $25,000 to $50,000, and is largely financed by family members who sell property, beg in churches and take loans from banks and friends, said Sweden-based journalist and human rights activist Meron Estefanos. When the ransom payment arrives via an international network of collaborators, some captives are released, some are sold to another trafficker and others are simply killed. Those who survive torture in the Sinai are taken by traffickers to Egypt’s border and told to run toward Israel.

Asylum seekers who escape the bullets of the Egyptian border guards and make it onto Israeli soil are stopped by Israeli soldiers. They are taken to a detention facility in the Negev desert. The first wave of Eritrean asylum seekers who arrived in Israel in 2007 were held briefly and then sent in buses to Tel Aviv and expected to fend for themselves. By 2012, Israel responded to the influx of African asylum seekers by building a fence on the border with Egypt, implementing strict immigration policies and detaining asylum seekers for at least three years without trial (since changed to a minimum of one year). The official stance of the Israeli Ministry of the Interior is that the majority of Eritreans are economic migrants who do not deserve the protection and social support afforded to asylum seekers and refugees under international law.


  • arif

    Karachi 08/26/2014 01:59:52 AM

    I don't have the words to describe my feelings after reading about the horror asylum seeks endure. Power to you for highlighting this on going atrocity.

  • Saher

    Amman 10/21/2014 06:05:14 PM

    Great work Tsega, God bless you

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