Inside Sinai's Torture Camps

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How Bedouins are kidnapping and ransoming African refugees in Egypt's lawless hinterland

RTXW07V-615.jpg.jpgMigrants from Eritrea rest outside a building used to house people waiting to be smuggled into Israel. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

CAIRO -- Memories of torture still haunt 17 year-old Ksamet five weeks after she was released from a small, underground room where Bedouins held her captive for two months in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula. She was repeatedly raped, beaten, and burned as family and friends abroad raised money for her $25,000 ransom. "They tortured us almost every day," Ksamet, from Eritrea, said through an interpreter. "And every week, if we didn't pay, they'd torture us even more."

The young woman is one of hundreds of Africans who have been held against their will in the lawless region that borders Israel, often severely abused and largely ignored by the international community. Bedouin are holding over 1,000 people, and Egyptian police are detaining 500 more, according to Meron Estefanos, a Sweden-based Eritrean activist and radio presenter who has spoken to hundreds of Eritreans held hostage in the Sinai.

The steady flow of people north through the Sinai has taken place since 2006 and initially consisted mainly of Sudanese migrants paying to be smuggled to economic opportunities in Israel. In 2008, many Eritreans seeking asylum in Israel started to come, too. The vast majority were trying to escape poverty and conscription under an oppressive dictatorship where indefinite national service is mandatory for most -- frequently into their 40s and 50s. Legally leaving the country is nearly impossible.

Hostages report being subjected to electrocution, burned with molten plastic, beaten with chains and rods, hung by their hair, and threatened with organ harvesting.

While many Eritreans taken hostage in the Sinai had paid smugglers to take them to Israel, more and more of those held hostage over the past three years never even had a desire to go there. Many have been kidnapped in or around refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia or on Sudan's borders -- or sold by rogue smugglers or corrupt Sudanese border guards -- and brought to Sinai where Bedouin extort them for cash. "I had no intention of going to Israel," said Ksamet, who left behind two sick parents after the military drafted her. "I wanted to go to Khartoum."

Instead, her and her fiancé, who was also fleeing military service, made it just across the border to Kassala, a city in eastern Sudan only a dozen miles from Eritrea. But after four days there, her smugglers -- whom she had paid about $3,300 -- sold her to members of the Rashaida tribe of Eritrea and Sudan, notorious for trafficking people and weapons up the Red Sea coast. Ksamet's fiancé ran free before they could get ahold of him. "I still don't know where he is," she said.

Hostages report being subjected to electrocution, burned with molten plastic, beaten with chains and rods, hung by their hair, and threatened with organ harvesting, among other torture methods, according to refugee-aid groups and activists. Sexual abuse ranges from rape and the burning of genitalia to sodomy with heated objects -- even to children.

Eritrean villages sometimes sell off homes, livestock, and jewelry to free relatives from the kidnappers; ransoms can reach $50,000. The Bedouin put their captives on the phone with family in the diaspora, beating them so their relatives hear them scream as they plead for help.

The Bedouin hold them for months on average, and many people do not survive. Dumped corpses litter the desert, with 4,000 dead over past five years, according to a September report Estefanos co-authored through Tilburg University, in the Netherlands, and Europe External Policy Advisors, a research center in Brussels. "The treatment has gotten to a level where they would rather die than live," said an employee at a refugee-aid organization in Cairo.

Those raising money often pool funds to free women and children first. Ksamet was one of three women in a group of 14 that also included children. "I was the only woman left" after the other two paid their ransom, Ksamet said. "So they prioritized me." Often even when the ransom is met, activists say, the Bedouin merely collect the money and sell their human haul on to the next group of kidnappers, ensuring more rounds of beatings and begging.

* * *

Though over 84 percent of Eritreans seeking refugee status around the world in 2011 received it (or humanitarian protection), Egypt and Israel have denied many of them the opportunity to even apply. Egypt generally views the sub-Saharan Africans as economic migrants, and the Israeli government labels them "infiltrators."

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Ben Gittleson is a reporter based in Cairo whose work has appeared in The National, at The Daily Beast, and on ESPN.com.

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