Meron Estefanos (39) telephones Eritrean refugees being held hostage in Sinai from Stockholm. “As the fifth one died, I resolved to free at least one hostage”, says the Swedish-Eritrean radio editor.
Meron Estefanos was born in Eritrea. At the age of 14 she came together with her father to Sweden. From her home, she phones Eritrean refugees in Sinai, while these are being tortured. She broadcasts these conversations every Thursday in her radio programme Voice of Eritrean Refugees. The broadcast is aired on Radio Erena, a radio station in Paris, which can also be received in Eritrea via satellite. Radio Erena is regarded as the only independent information source in Eritrea In 2013 Meron Estefanos collaborated on the documentary Sound of Torture. In it one also hears the voices of Biniam and Sehar. The film won the Prix Europe for the best intercultural TV programme in October 2014.
Do you still recall your first interview?
“That was three years ago with Biniam.
I had already heard, that fellow countrymen of mine would be kidnapped and tortured in the Sinai desert, but had never spoken with a survivor. Until an Eritrean from England called: “My brother has been taken hostage. They are demanding 20,000 US dollars. You don’t believe me? Here is a telephone number!”
I called and got to speak with Biniam. He was being held, along with 28 other persons. I couldn’t fathom it that they were being held for 20,000 US dollars per person. Why didn’t anyone know about it?”
You then often called Biniam.
“He had stored my number and called me back shortly after. Later I called him over Skype. I also spoke with other persons in the group.”
Did you speak with all 29 hostages?
“Yes, and with some I felt a special connection. To Biniam for example, and also to Sehar (18). She was the only woman in the group. Everyone had been tortured, but Sehar was on top of that raped every day by four or five men. The way she cried – I had never heard anyone cry like that.”
How did you know that they were tortured and raped?
“Your phone rings, you say “Hello”, and the kidnappers start their torture. They do that deliberately, so that the family hears the screams and pays the ransom faster.”
I also ask them how they want to be remembered, in case they do not survive
What do you say, when you speak on the telephone with someone who has been tortured to such an extent?
“At first I cried with them. That does them good, because their own family will put down the phone. They cannot endure the horror. In the meantime, I know more. When for example I am on the phone with someone who has been tortured by Abu Omar – a more measured hostage-taker –then I say: “Chin up, those with Abu Abdullah are jealous of you. It is a lot worse there!” And when I have a hostage of Abu Abdullah’s on the phone, I talk about people who have survived the torture. I also say: “When you are free, we will go and have a coffee.” I want them to look towards the future, to think of the moment when it will all be over. That way they keep up hope. But I also ask them how they want to be remembered, in case they do not survive. I want something of them to survive. I remember a young man. He regretted two things: that he had had no child, and that he had not kissed his mother goodbye, as he fled Eritrea.”
What was his name?
“Yonas. He is dead.”
Where is he buried?
“Nowhere. The bodies are simply thrown into the desert.”
What happened to Biniam’s group?
“One after the other died. Three, four, and as the fifth died, I could no longer sleep. They had called me every five minutes. The hopelessness, their screams ... I abandoned my studies and wrote to dozens of relief agencies and politicians. After three weeks with not an answer, I knew: These people have been abandoned to themselves. And I resolved that I would save at least one person.”
You collected money, to buy Sehar free.
“Yes, that was very difficult, because the Bedouins did not want to let her go at first, and because an Eritrean who secretly brokered for us, went over to the side of the Bedouins in the end and worked for them. In the end, she was indeed released and reached Israel. She lives in Sweden today.”
The second hostage was a girl, who reminded me of myself
Did you ransom any more hostages?
“Yes. I don’t even know how many in total. The second hostage was a girl, who reminded me of myself. I ransomed her with money that was still left over from Sehar. The girl was in another group of hostages, with whom I’d also made contact in the meantime. As I was on the telephone with her, all she could do was crying. I had also done exactly that as a 14-year old girl before, when I had moved to Sweden. My mother had stayed in Eritrea. At that time, it was very expensive to phone Africa, something like three Euro per minute. My father got together quite a lot of Kronor [Swedish currency – Ed.], and with the money we then went to a telephone booth. I called my mother, and then was unable to say anything more at all, to my father’s great frustration.”
When a Dutch person is kidnapped, on the government side they will say: “No ransom money is to be paid! That will only lead to more hostagetaking.” Between 2009 and 2014, the price to ransom someone rose from 1,000 US-dollars to 30,000. Is it right what you do?
“When a Dutch citizen is kidnapped, the government perhaps pays no ransom. But all other possible measures will be taken, to free that person. In March 2013, the Norwegian Ingvild (31) together with the Israeli Amir (34) were kidnapped in Sinai. Within a week they were free! No one intercedes for the Eritrean hostages. I know that it is not good to pay ransom money, but as long as the world does nothing, there are only two options: pay or let die.”
One man donated 500 kilos of salmon. This was sold and the money donated
How do you obtain these thousands of Euros?
“I try over chat programmes like Paltalk and post little messages on Facebook. Sometimes listeners donate money, when a particular request touches them. Many ransoms are paid through a sort of “ransom group”, which originated by chance in Norway. Many Eritrean refugees also live there. An Eritrean, whose brother was kidnapped, encountered the same girl every day in his village in Norway. One day she asked him: “Why do you look so sad? What is the matter?” And he told her about his brother. At first she did not believe him. Then she researched on google, and came into contact with me. She decided to help. She is incredibly creative; she called up local papers, organised a benefit concert. She enthused the whole village for the cause. One man donated 500 kilos of salmon. This was sold and the money donated. Another offered his paintings. It was conceived as a one-off action. But as I later told her about a father whose four children from age eight to 13 were abducted, she began anew to help with collecting money. Norwegians, who have helped once to ransom a captive, are also prepared to help again. They remain in contact with each other over it.”
How do you send 30,000 US-dollars to a kidnapper in the desert?
“Via Western Union or through MoneyGram. Those are businesses where one pays in the money to one branch, and someone else can pick up the money at another branch. A little while ago the ”ransom group” met and exchanged experiences. A man from Bergen, a real villager, had to take a large amount of contact money to Oslo. He was only allowed to send up to 4,500 US-dollars from each office. He went with his banknotes from one office to the other, and told a different story each time. One family, who already very often had ransomed people, was put on the black list by MoneyGram. “Your name keeps showing up too often! The amount is too high. Please do not use our services anymore!“, they would be told.”
They tortured the child and forced the mother to look on
You can’t ransom everyone.
“No... Some just don’t have any luck. With one mother (21) I felt an enormous connection. Salam. She was kidnapped together with her one-year old son. They tortured the child and forced her to look on. When he cried, they tortured Salam particularly gruesomely. They poured petrol over her head and set it on fire. “Make him stop screaming!”, they shouted. He cried even louder, so they tortured the mother even more. I wanted to ransom Salam, but by the time I got the money together, it emerged that she had been sold to another group. It lasted months, before I found her again, but then I had to start collecting all over again. I called her often, but somehow she couldn’t put over her story well. When Sehar cried over the radio, people called, who wanted to pay the ransom. For Salam nobody called.”
What happened with Salam?
“She died. Her little child was sent with another freed hostage two months after her death. He is living now in a home in Israel. Things haven’t gone well with him. He sees it as a game, to maltreat the other children in the crèche with a knife.”
How are other Sinai survivors faring?
“I try as often as possible to visit them. Then the memories surface. Biniam is now better. He even makes jokes now about the torture. “Do you still remember how the Bedouin hit you back then like that? You cried like a baby! Ha ha ha...“ That is his way of coping. The first time Sehar saw me, she fainted. Then she began to scream. She was that traumatised. Survivors who arrive in Israel or are deported to Ethiopia, receive no psychological support.”
Mankind had let them down twice
Is there no one who accompanies the hostages after their release?
“I have a friend, whom I know because of Sinai. After ransom money was paid for him, he was deported to Ethiopia. On the way to Libya he was abducted again. His family paid a ransom for him once more. At last in Libya he manged to find a boat to Italy. This boat sank. He survived, but 366 fellow travellers died; among them twenty survivors of Sinai. Mankind had let them down twice.”
Why the way leads through the Sinai DesertEritreans flee to the first democratic land where they can settle. Initially they went through the neighbouring land of Sudan to Egypt and Libya, from where they took a boat to Europe. In 2005 the European Union concluded a deal with the former Libyan leader Muammar Al Ghaddafi, whereby this route to Europe was closed to refugees. Egypt also undertook strict measures against illegal immigrants. They were taken into detention, from which the only way out was deportation back to Eritrea. The Eritreans eventually discovered the smugglers‘ route set up by the Bedouins through the Sinai to another democratic country: Israel. However, the more Eritreans came to Israel, the more they were less welcome. They don’t get work permits and were all at once described as infiltrators – a word which up to then had only been used to designate the Palestinian arch-enemies. The Israeli Interior Minister even once called the Eritreans the "cancer in our body“.
The remilitarised Sinai desert is a lawless area. The abduction of Eritrean refugees has become a new source of income for some Bedouins in the Sinai desert. Huge houses were built with the first ransom money, with cellars full of iron chains to shackle the kidnapped Eritreans. These are veritable torture camps. Eritreans are not only abducted in the Sinai wilderness, but also from refugee camps in Sudan and Ethiopia. The ransom sum demanded in the meantime stands at 30,000 US dollars per head, but can go up to 60,000 US dollars.