7 March 2014

Egypt: 'It's Not a Place You Go to Die, but a Place You Go to Suffer' - Torture and Trafficking in Sinai


Lawlessness in Egypt's Sinai peninsula allows traffickers and kidnappers to make a commodity out of human life.

Tel Aviv: Eyob sits, one hand clenching his knee, the other hidden in the pocket of his jacket, as he recounts the ordeal he suffered at the hands of kidnappers in Egypt's Sinai peninsula.

Eyob was attempting to journey from Sudan to Israel, but was taken shortly after he crossed Sudan's border into Egypt. He and 88 others were captured, blindfolded and chained down like animals with no idea of what might happen to them. They were transported to an unknown location where Eyob was told he would be taken to Israel the next day: that day came 6 months later.

Sadly, Eyob's story is far from unique, and in many ways he was lucky to have even survived. According to a study published by Tilburg University in December 2013, 25,000 to 30,000 people have been victims of trafficking in Sinai since 2009, of whom 5,000-10,000 have lost their lives.

People become victims of traffickers in two main ways. Many are refugees - often from Eritrea - who pay smugglers to transport them across the Sinai peninsula to the Israeli border, while others like Eyob are simply kidnapped from refugee camps or elsewhere.

Either way, these individuals are taken hostage and held for ransoms worth tens of thousands of dollars. It is estimated that since 2009, human trafficking networks in Sinai have generated over $600 million. The smugglers are typically either from the Rashaida or Hidarib tribe who pass on their hostages to Bedouin cells in the largely lawless deserts of the Sinai peninsula.

Stories of these practices have been increasing since around 2009, when it appears criminal networks started move from smuggling humans towards kidnapping them. More often than not it seems, those held hostage are tortured while they await their fate too.

"They tied me up with chains so I couldn't resist, and then put melting plastic on my back," recalls Eyob, who also tells of how his torturers cut off the fingers on his left hand after he refused to rape some of his fellow hostages.

According to testimonies from many other victims, it seems brutal beatings, gang rape and even murder are common occurrences in these 'houses of hell'. "After they had beaten us for so long, many people died," says one survivor. "They even gave one of the men who had died to the dogs outside in the desert," says another. Bareki, another individual who found himself at the mercy of human traffickers, offers: "It is not a place you go to die, but a place you go to suffer."

Human Rights Watch has also spoken to many survivors and recently compiled their similarly heart-rending testimony in the report I Wanted to Lie Down and Die.

Complex human trafficking networks have also been linked to the organ trade industry though relatively little attention has been focussed on this issue. "They will take your organs if you don't pay them what they want," says Eyob.

Despite testimonies from victims making their way into the media and pressure from human rights groups, there remains little evidence that governments are taking the necessary actions to tackle the problem.

Former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi's order to security forces to claim control over the area proved frustrating, with 16 Egyptian soldiers killed in attacks in 2012.

And the militarised efforts of Egypt's new de facto leader, Field Marshall Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, to clamp down on militants in the region do not seem to have had much success either and have arguably even backfired.

Eyob is just one of many individuals that have experienced the reality of human trafficking in Sinai. His physical scars bear witness to the cruelty that continues to occur, while his memories remain barricaded behind feelings of survivors' guilt.

Perhaps the most tragic aspect of his story, however, is how it is far from unique. Thousands have endured the same fear, pain and torture as Eyob, and unless governments coordinate to disrupt what has become a safe haven for traffickers, many thousands more will too.

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