Sinai torture for Eritreans kidnapped by traffickers
“As soon as one of my parents answered the phone, the men would melt flaming plastic over my back and inner thighs and I would scream and scream in pain.
‘Please help me’
I will never forgot the desperate words, broadcast on the BBC, of an Eritrean refugee who was being held hostage in Egypt’s north Sinai.
“It’s bad, bad. Have no enough food, enough water,” a tearful and desperate man called Philemon Semere told me on the phone last November.
“Always hit by sticks and burnt by fire and electricity. Daily burning by fire. My body is burning. Please, please help me, Mike.”
Semere, along with two other Eritrean refugees, is still in the hands of his kidnappers who have threatened to kill him if his family fails to pay the $25,000 they are demanding.
When I asked the leader of the kidnappers how he could justify torturing and murdering hostages he replied without any sense of shame or regret: “A lot of people I have killed here. This is my work, I live by this work.”
Listen to the interview
“This, they hoped, would put extra pressure on my mother and father to find the money.”
A man standing next to her gently places a hand on her shoulder as she finishes speaking.
Zere, his faced swathed in a red and white scarf, was one of those kept with her in a windowless basement room for almost a year.
“They had about four of five of us tied up together and they would pour water on the floor and then electrocute the water so that all of us would get electrocuted at the same time,” he says.
“They would starve us, they would burn us and they would not let us sleep.”
Zere says that nine out of the 20 people held hostage with him died. But, he tells me, by that point those still alive would have welcomed that fate.
“All of us were actually hoping for death because that would have been an escape from the torture.”
In fact Lamlam and Zere were able to escape – rescued by a local Bedouin leader, Sheikh Mohammed al-Maniri.
A small building at the back of his house is now home to a dozen people that he has rescued.
Sometimes though, he says, it is too late.
“Many people we bring here have been really badly tortured.
“In two cases recently some of those we rescued died, here in this house, because they had been injured so much.”
‘Hundreds of bodies’
The UN has described the growth of the kidnap and people trafficking trades in Sinai as one of the most unreported humanitarian crises in the world.
It estimates that 3,000 Eritreans alone fled their repressive and impoverished country last year.
Many headed for the swollen refugee camps of neighbouring eastern Sudan, now home to more than 90,000 people.
The UN says that 70% of the new arrivals then vanish.
Many fall into the hands of ruthless and well-armed people-smuggling gangs as they try to make their way to Israel or Egypt in search of a better life.
Whilst some do make it through, others are sold on to different gangs two or three times as they are trafficked north.
Hostage victims are often taken to the largely lawless, desert area of north Sinai, where their kidnappers can operate with near impunity.
In 2012, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said that a “criminal network” of smugglers and traffickers was “taking profit of the desperate situation of many Eritreans”.
Egyptian security forces do operate in this region but only in limited numbers because of a long-standing peace agreement with neighbouring Israel.
In the mortuary in the town of El Arish, the extent of the carnage caused by the gruesome kidnap trade is even more evident.
“Since the revolution there have been hundreds of bodies because the borders have been more lax,” says mortician Era Ki, as he points towards the deep-freeze cabinets in front of us.
“The corpses usually have torture-style injuries.
“The ones that come from the Bedouin [people-traffickers] have always been tortured to get their families to pay ransoms.
“If their families can’t pay, they have no use for them and torture them to death.”
Even those whose families somehow manage to pay the large ransoms demanded, often feel they cannot go home now that their relatives have been financially ruined.
Berhane, an Eritrean refugee I met living in a squalid Cairo slum is one.
After being beaten, tortured and electrocuted for months before his family paid $30,000 (£20,000) for his release, he says he has constant terrifying flashbacks and cannot face going home.
Berhane has this message for any Eritreans thinking of following in his footsteps: “Stay where you are.
“Whatever you do, don’t let yourself fall into the hands of the traffickers.”
Mike Thomson’s Assignment, Escape from Sinai, will be broadcast on the BBC World Service on Thursday 7 March at 09:05 GMT.