Inside Sinai’s Torture Camps: How Bedouins are kidnapping and ransoming African refugees in Egypt’s lawless hinterland
Memories of torture still haunt 17 year-old Ksamet five weeks after she was released from a small, underground room where Bedouins held her captive for two months in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. She was repeatedly raped, beaten, and burned as family and friends abroad raised money for her $25,000 ransom. “They tortured us almost every day,” Ksamet, from Eritrea, said through an interpreter. “And every week, if we didn’t pay, they’d torture us even more.”
The young woman is one of hundreds of Africans who have been held against their will in the lawless region that borders Israel, often severely abused and largely ignored by the international community. Bedouin are holding over 1,000 people, and Egyptian police are detaining 500 more, according to Meron Estefanos, a Sweden-based Eritrean activist and radio presenter who has spoken to hundreds of Eritreans held hostage in the Sinai.
The steady flow of people north through the Sinai has taken place since 2006 and initially consisted mainly of Sudanese migrants paying to be smuggled to economic opportunities in Israel. In 2008, many Eritreans seeking asylum in Israel started to come, too. The vast majority were trying to escape poverty and conscription under an oppressive dictatorship where indefinite national service is mandatory for most — frequently into their 40s and 50s. Legally leaving the country is nearly impossible.
Hostages report being subjected to electrocution, burned with molten plastic, beaten with chains and rods, hung by their hair, and threatened with organ harvesting.
While many Eritreans taken hostage in the Sinai had paid smugglers to take them to Israel, more and more of those held hostage over the past three years never even had a desire to go there. Many have been kidnapped in or around refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia or on Sudan’s borders — or sold by rogue smugglers or corrupt Sudanese border guards — and brought to Sinai where Bedouin extort them for cash. “I had no intention of going to Israel,” said Ksamet, who left behind two sick parents after the military drafted her. “I wanted to go to Khartoum.”