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Bodies in the DesertMisha Vallejo

Bodies in the Desert (continued)

The Price They Pay

I began to learn about the asylum seekers’ plight as I conducted my qualitative study of the factors affecting the sexual and reproductive health of Eritrean asylum-seeking women. In addition to the interviews for my research, I volunteered as a translator at the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel Open Clinic and at the African Refugee Development Center in Tel Aviv, where I met many survivors of human trafficking and torture in the Sinai.

I translated for people who were filing legal requests for resettlement. They were demanding the release of detained victims of human trafficking or seeking services for disabled asylum seekers so they could continue living in Tel Aviv. The more I heard, the more I learned that their suffering didn’t end in the Sinai. People continued their fight to endure on a daily basis.

Every step I took getting to the clinic each afternoon became increasingly difficult. What would I hear today?

I remember one patient who watched Egyptian soldiers shoot and kill her best friend and one of her children. She had no words to describe her pain. I recall a patient who watched his wife, then eight months pregnant, raped repeatedly by traffickers while they were held in the Sinai. When they were finally released, she gave birth to a dead baby in the desert. She was hemorrhaging so they had to run towards Israel where they could seek emergency care, forcing them to leave the infant’s body behind. The husband begged the health care workers to recover his son’s body from the desert so that it could be buried.

The bullet wounds, burns and electrocution marks left on the survivors never ceased to stun me. The traffickers even electrocuted and burned people’s genitals. One patient asked me why my eyes widened every time I heard about the torture. “Ajokhee. It’s okay, halefu Tsega haftey. It has passed,” he said. I could not believe that he was setting aside his own pain in order to comfort me.

“I was so weak, the wind blew me over and even the darkness of night was too bright for my eyes,” Girmay said of his release from the torture house.

Girmay’s Story

One night I was at Physicians for Human Rights–Israel, borrowing the gynecologist’s examination room as a makeshift office. A young Eritrean man came in. Girmay (not his real name) was handsome and in his mid-20s, yet he seemed haggard, fatigued beyond his years. He quietly said that he felt obligated to share his experiences if it could help call attention to horrors experienced by asylum seekers. He spoke almost without interruption for three hours.

Fleeing indefinite military conscription in Eritrea, he crossed the border into Sudan, wearing a jelebaya (a long robe typically worn in many parts of the Middle East and Africa). Things fell apart quickly. He joined other migrants who paid smugglers to take them north, but the smugglers later abandoned them in the desert. Shortly thereafter, traffickers scouring the area for new victims abducted them.

Girmay and a group of 30 asylum seekers were stuffed into bags, thrown into a truck in Kassala, Sudan and taken to the Sinai Peninsula. He tried repeatedly to escape, jumping from the truck and attempting to camouflage himself in the sand. Each time he was returned to the truck, he and the others were beaten. The last time they smashed his head with a rock and beat him until he vomited blood. During his seven months of captivity, Girmay did not see the light of day. “They asked for a $44,000 ransom to release me. I told them to do whatever they wanted to me, because I couldn’t come up with the money. ‘We don’t kill quickly,’ they told me.”

Captives were moved from location to location. Girmay and others (including infants and children) were shackled, often naked, and kept in different torture houses. They starved. They were covered in lice.

“[The traffickers] beat us so badly. All of the scars on my legs are from them walking over my body and beating me senseless. They walk on your wounds, you know,” Girmay told me. During his long months of captivity, Girmay was burned with boiling plastic and electrocuted. It was common for women’s vaginal areas and nipples to be burned. Captives were also forced to torture others, including raping their female and male counterparts. This torture would last through the night. He recounts vividly the day that two of the traffickers raped two young Eritrean women in the adjacent room. When one trafficker pulled down his pants and asked for the virgin first, Girmay and his fellow detainees clanked their shackles and screamed for them to stop. “They were taken away and raped anyway,” he said. He recalled sadly the fate of a young Ethiopian woman who was raped and tortured, taken forcibly as a trafficker’s wife, and then, after many months, dragged by her chains to a holding cell to be raped, burned and strung from the ceiling by her arms. Girmay watched countless people murdered, even after their ransoms of up to $35,000 were paid.

To find a way to pay their ransoms, the captives dialed random phone numbers abroad. Many calls were to Israel where many survivors live. In the beginning, Girmay said, he didn’t want to call his family in Eritrea; it was a holiday and he didn’t want them to spend the time mourning for him. When they refused to call anyone for help, the traffickers beat them more, dragged them by their chains and hanged them upside-down. After one man fainted, the traffickers poured water on his face to see if he was alive. When they saw that he was breathing, they told Girmay to choke him to death. “I was horrified. I did it. I pretended to choke him. Thankfully, he didn’t die,” Girmay said. When the newly arrived captives saw those living in the torture houses they were shocked. “Our skin hung from our bodies as if we were 90 years old. I had lost all of my hair,” he said.

Girmay paused for a moment as he explained that he remained in the Sinai Peninsula torture houses until, after the seven long months, his family paid $25,000. “When I was freed, I had no strength left in my body,” he said.

The traffickers released Girmay, two men and three women at night. “These people were not as abused as I… I was so weak, the wind blew me over and even the darkness of night was too bright for my eyes,” he said. The traffickers wanted to take the women separately, but Girmay and the other men refused, knowing what would happen to them. Repeatedly, and even at the end, they tried to separate the women and rape them. Finally, a trafficker was charged with taking them all to the Israeli border.

Girmay and the others crawled under the border fences. Israeli soldiers detained them, bandaged and fed them. He and the others were put in a tent. It was January, freezing cold and raining. “Despite the harsh weather I couldn’t feel because all of my nerves were no longer working, and I felt as if all of my skin cells were dead,” he said. “To this day my nerve endings feel permanently damaged.” Finally, he was taken to a hospital and eventually to Tel Aviv.

I recount these details not to shock but to share the reality of the ongoing torture that asylum seekers experience in the hands of human traffickers.

Both Girmay and Merhawit arrived in Israel before 2012, so their detention period was short. Like many asylum seekers during that time, they had significant psychological and physical trauma, no understanding of their surroundings and no social support. Many had nowhere to go and, until they found shelter, slept in the park near the central bus station.

After my interview with Girmay, we walked together to the bus stop. I didn’t know what to say to him, other than to express the horror that I felt. I asked him what I should say to other survivors in the future, when they shared their experiences with me. He said “tsinaat nay Iyob yi habkum” or, “May the strength of Job be with you.”


  • 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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