February 15, 2011
By DINA KRAFT
TEL AVIV — About 1,000 African migrants trying to cross the Sinai Desert from Egypt into Israel have been systematically beaten, raped and held captive for ransom in the past year by the Bedouin smugglers they hired to help them make the journey, an Israeli advocacy organization said Tuesday.
Testimony collected by the Hotline for Migrant Workers in a new report depicts a network of torture camps in the northern reaches of the desert where the migrants, mostly Eritrean, are sometimes held for months in abusive conditions, while their Bedouin captors press their families abroad to send thousands of dollars in ransom money.
“I was a virgin when I arrived in the desert,” said a 21-year-old Eritrean woman cited in the report, who was held for six months. “During the first few times that I was raped, I cried and resisted, but that didn’t help. They wouldn’t leave me alone. After that I stopped resisting. Only when the $2,800 arrived did the smugglers unchain me.”
In their accounts in the report and in person, the migrants recall a pattern of abuse, including gang rapes and beatings with electric rods and heavy sticks. Often, they said, they were shackled together in groups as their armed captors kept them under guard. At one of the camps, captives were given T-shirts with numbers printed on them and were referred to by those numbers.
Physical torture typically accompanied the captors’ extortion calls, usually by satellite phone.
“The most painful moments were when they called my family as they beat me and I cried out,” said Avraham Asmara, a 25-year-old Eritrean man who was held for a month before escaping and crossing the border three weeks ago. “I was always thinking about what my family was thinking and feeling when they heard me like this.”
At a news conference, Mr. Asmara said he had paid $3,000 to his smugglers to take him across the desert, but was taken captive. His family members in Eritrea sold their home and belongings to send his captors $8,000 of the $10,000 ransom they demanded, he said.
There is concern among Israeli human rights officials that the upheaval in Egypt will make it even more difficult to crack down on the kidnappings, which they say started last year. The Bedouins and Egyptian authorities have had tense relations for years, with the Bedouins complaining of discrimination and harsh treatment. The vast, sparsely populated Sinai Desert has long been something of a lawless no man’s land.
Reut Michaeli, executive director of the Tel Aviv-based Hotline for Migrant Workers, voiced concern that when the migrants, including women pregnant from rape, do make it across the border to Israel, they are not provided state-financed medical treatment.
The group Physicians for Human Rights — Israel, which runs a clinic here for migrants, referred 165 women for abortions in 2010 and suspects that about half were raped while in Sinai, according to its report in December.
According to official estimates, about 33,000 Africans, most of them migrant workers seeking better economic prospects but some of them refugees from war in Sudan, have crossed into Israel from Egypt since 2005, setting off a national debate about how to handle the influx. The number rose to about 13,600 last year from fewer than 4,900 in 2009, according to Israeli Parliament figures.
Male migrants who were held captive told of being beaten when they tried to protect the women, and there are also reports that men were raped.
Musa Naiem, 35, from Sudan said the camp where he was held, in sight of a Bedouin village, was a fenced-in pen with three rooms covered by a cloth roof. He and others slept outside in the sand and had no toilets or showers.
Mr. Asmara said he liberated himself and his fellow captives with a handcuff key secretly recovered from the captors by a woman who had been raped. On a day the smugglers were in another room, he unlocked himself and the others. Together they overwhelmed and disarmed their captors and fled into the desert.
It turned out they were only a half-hour’s walk from the Israeli border.
Pulling the small silver key from his wallet, Mr. Asmara turned it in his hand and said: “This is for me to remember. This is the key that helped 50 people find freedom from hell.”