“I had talked to Dejen, and knew he had given up hope and was waiting to die. His body was infected all over, and now he was too weak to speak. So we asked Omar for a ‘package deal’ — to free Dejen and three others for $15,000 — and he agreed.”
Estefanos explained that in the context of Sinai smugglers Berhane had actually been fortunate to fall into the hands of Abu Omar, whose henchmen had tortured him and killed and raped fellow Eritreans before his eyes.
“Omar is considered one of the best (of the traffickers),” she said.
“He will at least lower his price — the others will just kill you or let you die, and dump your body in the desert if you cannot pay.”
In December 2013, Estefanos and two Dutch academics presented a report to the European Parliament that detailed how up to 30,000 Eritreans had been abducted and taken to Sinai since 2007 by traffickers who had extorted at least $600 million in ransom from their victims’ relatives and friends.
From 2006, Eritreans and Sudanese crossed Sinai in large numbers on their way to seek refuge in Israel; by the time Israel erected a fence to close its border with Egypt in 2013, some 37,000 Eritreans and 14,000 Sudanese had entered the country.
Human Rights Watch documented in 2014 how Israel rejected the asylum requests of 99.9 percent of Eritrean and Sudanese claimants, and coerced refugees to leave the country, giving them the choice “of spending the rest of their days locked up in desert detention centers or of risking detention and abuse back home.”
Few if any Eritreans now want to go to Israel, but the smuggling network formed a decade ago continues to abduct and trade refugees, to the profit of Sudanese traffickers and troops, desert gangs and the Bedouins of northern Sinai.
The vast majority of Eritreans now reaching Europe pay smugglers thousands of dollars for a place on a rickety, overcrowded boat to cross the Mediterranean from Libya to the coast of Italy.
With Libya in violent collapse, refugees are now terrorized not only by armed kidnapping gangs that roam the Sahara Desert, but groups that swear allegiance to ISIL, and prefer to murder rather than ransom their captives.
In June, ISIL in Libya captured 88 Eritreans, less than two months after the group released videos showing the execution of 28 Ethiopian Christians who had been seized while seeking a route to the Mediterranean and Europe.
“In total, probably 500 Eritreans have been captured by ISIS, and many people leaving the country now learn a few bits of the Koran, because ISIS spares those who it thinks are Muslims,” said Estefanos.
“I used to think that Sinai was the worst that could happen, but at least there you can survive if you can pay a ransom,” she added.
“With ISIS, Christians have no chance.”
Abu Omar’s men dumped Berhane, three other Eritreans and an Ethiopian prisoner in the Sinai desert, and pointed them in the direction of the Israeli border.
“We were free, but so weak we could hardly stand,” Berhane recalled.
“Egyptian border guards started shooting at us, and the Ethiopian could not even move. We had to leave him there, and he died. The Egyptians took the four of us who survived to a military hospital.”
Escaping captivity in Sinai was still only the start of Berhane’s ordeal, however, as it is for many Eritreans.
After being treated in an Egyptian hospital he said he was jailed, then recaptured by Bedouins who attacked the facility, before escaping and finding help from a local charity. In terrible physical shape and with no prospect of reaching Europe, Berhane borrowed money from an activist to buy a flight to Ethiopia — Egypt makes Eritreans pay to be deported.
With a loan from friends, Berhane set off again for Europe, and this time reached Libya, where he spent two months with other Eritreans in a trafficker’s house before paying $6,000 for a perilous boat journey across the Mediterranean.
He was luckier than hundreds of Eritreans who have drowned on the long and often rough crossing, and was rescued by an Italian ship after seven hours at sea.
In a life of such suffering, the memory of the Mediterranean seems to hold a special terror for Berhane and many other Eritreans.
“I don’t want to think about that journey,” said Temesghen Fisshaye, sitting beside Berhane in a café in the Netherlands, where they are both seeking asylum.
“There were more than 300 of us on a small wooden boat. I don’t know how, but we made it almost all the way to Italy, and a Polish ship picked us up.”
The 33-year-old Fisshaye reached Europe this summer, after being repeatedly beaten and robbed by smuggling gangs on his voyage north to the Libyan coast, where he was held in a warehouse by a trafficker for about 10 months.
“The sea crossing was terrible, but at that point only two outcomes are possible — to live or die,” Fisshaye said.
“And if you are to die, better to die in the sea, trying to get Europe, than to die in Libya.”
Eritreans know that mortal danger attends every stage of their flight to Europe, but there is no sign of their exodus abating.
“The price for getting here is too high. What happened will never leave me. But I had to get out of Eritrea,” Berhane said.
“We have no choice,” Fisshaye added. “We leave home to save our lives.”
Both men hope their relatives will join them in Europe, but know that refugee life will not be easy.
In traditionally liberal Sweden, more than a dozen refugee centers have burned down in suspected arson attacks in recent weeks, and the arrival in the European Union of more than 700,000 refugees this year is fuelling support for far-right parties across the bloc.
For some 40,000 Eritreans still in Israel, where they are regularly called “infiltrators,” life is even harder and prejudice stronger; last month, refugee Habtom Zarhum was shot dead after being lynched by a mob that thought he was a terrorist.
Meanwhile, Meron Estefanos’ phone keeps ringing, with desperate calls from Eritreans in their homeland, in Sudan, Egypt, Israel, Libya, and on death-trap boats struggling across the Mediterranean.
“The EU grants asylum to almost all Eritreans who request it,” she said. Last year, the EU granted protection and permission to remain in the bloc to 89 percent Eritrean asylum seekers.
“But they are forced to go through hell to get here. Why does the EU make them go through this, if it accepts that they deserve protection? Why not give them a legal, safe way to reach the safety that they need?”