Screams from the Desert

I can't get the sounds of their torture out of my head. Sounds I imagined. But the accounts of the Eritrean men, women and kids we met at the Shagarab refugee camp in East Sudan are terrifyingly real.
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I can't get the sounds of their torture out of my head. Sounds I imagined. But the accounts of the Eritrean men, women and kids we met at the Shagarab refugee camp in East Sudan are terrifyingly real.

The refugees from Eritrea thought they were buying a simple cross-border ride to freedom via Sudan to a safe country. Instead they were being led to locked compounds to be chained and shackled, beaten with iron rods and subjected to electric shock. Instead the women were dragged into the forest and raped systematically.

I've heard terrible accounts from refugees in my professional life, but the problems faced by Eritreans crossing the border into Sudan are particularly disturbing -- and rarely reported. Taking advantage of the steady stream of fleeing refugees, smuggler gangs have expanded their human transport trade to the more lucrative business of kidnapping for ransom. Their criminal smuggling route extends through Sudan and Egypt up to the border of Israel.

Here's one story that I haven't been able to forget:

Two days after being kidnapped in Sudan, Zahra*, 21, was taken by a group of six men into the forest away from the group, tied by her hands and legs. One man held her down, and another held her legs open; all six of the men raped her repeatedly: She was not fully conscious and could not later say for how many hours this went on. When they had finished she was dragged back to the group and kept in chains, naked. She was tied to 10 other women and children for two weeks. They were burned with matches and beaten and their fingernails were stapled to their fingertips. Finally her mother was able to raise the money from the church for her release.

My colleagues working in the Shagarab camp where most of the victims end up tell me that at least 2000 people leave Eritrea every month. For a flat but hefty fee, a smuggler, they are told, will transport them to a promised land like Israel, Australia or Europe where they will join relatives and begin a prosperous future. But deception is a human smuggler's trademark, and the smugglers of East Sudan are particularly cruel and greedy.

Their victims are on the run, vulnerable and defenseless. The smugglers take the few belongings they have, and are especially interested in their mobile phones. They look for foreign numbers -- of relatives or friends, perhaps, who have already made it to some promised land. When the numbers are dialed, the torture starts.

The survivors say it is the loudest, most tormented screams that generate the most cash for the kidnappers. A family member, anxiously retrieving a call from a departed daughter, son, cousin, sister, hears sounds of abuse so horrific they will pay anything to set their loved one free. The amount of ransom charged ranges from $5,000 to $40,000 and is enough to destroy a poor Eritrean family financially for life. The faster the money is wired to designated accounts in third countries, the sooner the torture will stop and the victims will be set free.

For the poor souls whose families are unable to pay, things can get much, much worse. They might get sold on to another band of smugglers and passed on to linked-up gangs in the Sinai region of northern Egypt where they may become slaves or, grotesque as it sounds, they may be killed for their organs.

My organization, UNHCR is deeply troubled by these accounts. We are teaming up with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to help the Sudan authorities to enhance security. Meanwhile we offer the victims shelter and basic services and counsel them not to move on no matter how they long for a life in a new country. I am sure that only a crackdown on an international scale will put an end to this evil trade. People who decide to flee their countries should arrive to zones of safety, not torture.

* name changed for protection reasons. This account was given to a UNHCR field worker in East Sudan.

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