Testimony: Sudanese refugee details torture by Sinai smugglers

By Sigal Rozen

It has been almost two years since chilling evidence of horrors inflicted by human traffickers on refugees on their way to Israel through the Sinai desert started being published and broadcast in Israel and throughout the world. NGOs have provided detailed information, systematically collected, regarding smuggling networks operating in the Sinai and beyond (in Israel, Ethiopia, and Sudan) to influential bodies in the international arena including diplomats, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), and the Israeli authorities. Despite these numerous appeals, and the concrete nature of the information that was transferred, the detention camps, the extortion, and the torture continue.

Throughout the past year, Israeli, American, and European human rights organizations have had continuous contact with Eritrean and Sudanese refugees held in the torture camps in Sinai. Refugee hostages use cellular telephones provided by their captors to extort large sums of ransom money from their relatives and friends. Despite recent reports in the media regarding the release of hundreds of refugees held captive in the Sinai, and their arrival in Israel, it is apparent that hundreds are still being held captive in the Sinai, some of whom are experiencing physical abuse, torture, systematic  rape, and even death, all with the objective to obtain tens of thousands of dollars in ransom money in exchange for their release. Heinous methods of torture and extortion, as previously reported, including in a recent report by Amnesty International, include prolonged group bondage, electroshocks, suspension by the limbs, burns from white-hot irons, starvation, severe sexual abuse and more.

Until recently, the vast majority of the captives were Christian Eritreans and some Ethiopians of Eritrean origin. But in recent months, Hotline for Migrant Workers and Physicians for Human Rights, two Israeli NGOs assisting the torture survivors, have been meeting more and more Muslim torture survivors – mainly, refugees who fled the genocide in Darfur.

M. is one of the torture survivors who managed to arrive in Israel this month and give us his testimony. From his story, one can understand that many more refugees are still in the hands of the traffickers, being tortured in the hopes that their relatives send ransom for their release. One also understands that providing the ransom does not guarantee release: M. survived despite not paying the ransom, while others were burned before his eyes, even though their ransom may have already reached the traffickers.

Following the testimony are images of the burn marks on M.’s body. View with caution.

Testimony of M., a Sudanese refugee and member of the Zaghawa tribe

I’m a 22-year-old African, member of the Zaghawa tribe which is persecuted by the Arab regime is Sudan. I fled Khartoum to Egypt about two and a half years ago and I was hoping to reach the US. Life is Egypt was very hard for Africans and I did not see a possibility to leave from Egypt to the US, and therefore I decided to continue to Israel.

In Cairo, I found someone who was willing to take me to Sinai, and from there I continued on my own. In the area of al-Arish, I was kidnapped by a group of smugglers who took me with them and kept me captive in a small shed covered with plants. They handcuffed me with about 20 Eritrean and Sudanese. I don’t know where exactly I was, but near the shed where I was held, there were about 60 additional sheds where Sudanese and Eritreans were held captive. Women were not held with us, but probably, there were sheds where women were kept because we heard their cries when the smugglers would torture them.

The smugglers, Ismail and Musa, brought in people whose job was to beat us with sticks and burn us by throwing flaming plastic bags at us. The smugglers did this so that we call our relatives and ask them to send them money. I didn’t have anyone to call, my family has no money, and there was no one to pay the ransom for our release. Among the captives there were people who called their relatives who promised to send money for the release of their relative from captivity.

After two months of such torture, most of the captives in our shed were burnt to death, even the ones whose relatives had promised to send in money for their release. Among all the captives in the shed, only F. and I survived. In late January 2012, the smugglers left us, thinking that we will die in the next few days anyway.

Despite the severe burns, we managed to climb on the mountain in the direction of Israel. After two hours of walking and crawling in the night, we reached the Israeli border, where we waited for the Israeli soldiers to pick us up. The soldiers took us to Saharonim Prison.

The testimony was collected by Sigal Rozen and Tamar Arev from the “Hotline for Migrant Workers” with the help of a translator.

Sigal Rozen is the Public Policy Coordinator of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, which she helped found. She has been active on behalf of asylum seekers for the last 13 years.