Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters

Eritreans risk deadly odyssey to reach Europe

Eritreans brave ISIL, torture, imprisonment and perilous seas to make new life in EU

Dejen Berhane, 25, now lives in Amsterdam.
Dan McLaughlin

Editors note: This is the second in a two-part series. Part 1 looks at why thousands of Eritreans are fleeing their country each month.

AMSTERDAM — As Dejen Berhane starts a new life in Europe, far from his African homeland and the desert dungeon where months of torture almost killed him, the shy Eritrean knows he would not have survived his odyssey if not for a little girl called Ahlam.

Berhane, Ahlam and her parents were among thousands of Africans held captive by people-smugglers in Sinai, an Egyptian peninsula dotted with the lairs of traffickers who imprison and torture refugees until their relatives pay a ransom.

The Sinai dungeons are just one of the dangers that some 5,000 Eritreans brave each month, as they escape a brutal dictatorship that has made their poor and isolated country a major contributor to record numbers of refugees now reaching Europe.

In addition to armed groups from Sudan to Sinai who seek to abduct them for ransom and a treacherous Mediterranean Sea crossing that has killed more than 3,000 people this year, Eritreans now face a new peril: Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) gunmen who have caught and executed scores of African Christian refugees as they crossed Libya.

As the European Union struggles to cope with its biggest refugee crisis since World War II, there is no sign of the exodus slowing from Eritrea, where a United Nations commission in June accused the government of “systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations … [that] may constitute crimes against humanity.”

Facing conscription by an Eritrean army in which national service lasts indefinitely, Berhane crossed into neighboring Sudan in 2012. He was seeking a job that would support his indebted family, in which he is the eldest of seven children.

He and about 16 other Eritreans were captured by Sudanese soldiers, who said they would take the refugees to one of several United Nations-run camps near the border; instead, Berhane said, the troops sold them to local Rashaida tribesmen.

A new arrivals center in eastern Sudan in October 2015.
Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah / Reuters

The Rashaida are notorious for kidnapping Eritreans and other travelers in Sudan and selling them to Bedouin traffickers in Sinai, people-smugglers in Libya, or to intermediaries who buy and sell captives and demand ransom for their release.

“We didn’t want to go with the Rashaida, but they had guns and swords and whips,” said Berhane, a slight and softly-spoken 25-year-old.

“They put us in a truck and covered us up, and drove us all the way to Sinai. I think they paid bribes at checkpoints along the way, and then they sold us to Egyptians, who sold us on to the Bedouins,” Berhane said.

The 16 Eritreans were bought by three different Bedouins and divided up, with Berhane and six others being taken away by a man known as Sheikh Abu Omar.

“We were kept underground in the desert, in the basement of a big house. When we arrived, we saw that some of the other prisoners couldn’t walk. There was blood on the walls, and the smell was terrible. They chained our hands and legs, and told us that if we didn’t pay $50,000 in one week, we would be killed.”

Berhane’s account of his gruesome ordeal closely resembles those of other Eritreans who have fallen prey to an estimated 50 trafficking gangs in Sinai, which are believed to have extorted some $600 million in ransom money since 2009 (PDF).

“I knew we didn’t have $1,000 at home, never mind $50,000,” Berhane recalled.

“My family tried to gather what they could, but I was just waiting for my time to die.”

Berhane called his family in Eritrea from a phone that all the prisoners used to ask for ransom money from their relatives — but he knew they could not pay, and what he saw in Omar’s dungeon, where 35 people were in kept in about 500 square feet, left no hope of mercy from his captors.

“The guards only came in to beat and torture people. To scare us, they would kill someone. Beatings took place every day, and I saw five people killed – four men and a woman — who did not get the money on time. One was electrocuted on his tongue, another was beaten to death with a spade.

Like many Eritreans who survived captivity in Sinai, Berhane says the Bedouins made him call his relatives to ask for money, and tortured him while he spoke to them.

“I have lots of scars from where they burned me, and they broke my hand,” he said.

“They made me lie down and dropped melting plastic on me. They gave people electric shocks, and hung them up by their arms. They raped people. After a while, you are so weak that you can’t think properly, or speak normally on the phone. I was just waiting for the end.”

Berhane knew his impoverished family could not buy his freedom, and so placed no hope in the phone that his captors left in the dungeon, to let prisoners beg relatives for help and receive news of whether ransom money was on its way.

But on Monday March 12, 2013, Meron Estefanos called the number from her home in Stockholm, Sweden.

Estefanos is an activist and journalist who left Eritrea more than a decade ago, and presents a show on Paris-based station internet broadcaster Radio Erema, during which she talks to compatriots in her homeland and those seeking refuge abroad.

On this day, she spoke to an Eritrean called Adem, who was being held with his wife and eight-year-old daughter, Ahlam, in the same room as Berhane.

Adem told Estefanos that the Bedouins had just electrocuted two prisoners on the roof of the jail, and that when Ahlam had cried after seeing the bodies they had beaten her.

The traffickers had also sworn to Adem that they would force the other prisoners to gang rape his wife, and would sell Ahlam, unless his relatives paid ransom by the following Sunday.

After talking to Estefanos, Adem gave the phone to his young daughter, and Ahlam talked about her day: how Omar’s men hit her, and beat her mother and father with sticks, and how “everyone was being tortured, and two boys got killed.”

“They are still with us, they are covered in blankets … they are dead, covered in blankets here next to us in the house,” Ahlam said.

Eritreans around the world donated money to buy Ahlam and her family freedom, in a campaign coordinated by Estefanos.

Estefanos said the campaign raised more than $40,000, enough to release that family and some other prisoners as well.

Eritrean refugee Temesghen Fisshaye, left, and activist Meron Estefanos in Amsterdam.
Dan McLaughlin

“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?”


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