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Yonathan Habte, trafficking survivor: "At least if I died, it wouldn’t go on"

Traffickers operating in Egypt’s Sinai desert hung this Eritrean refugee by his wrists for so long that by the time he was released and reached a hospital in Israel, most of his hands had to be amputated
"They’d hung me up for too long by my wrists" (Courtesy of Filmon Tsehaye)

In March 2012, Yonathan Habte*, then 26, decided to flee Eritrea where he had evaded military service and was facing jail. With a background in computer engineering, he was confident he could make a life in another African country. Instead, he was kidnapped near the Sudanese border and trafficked to Egypt, where he barely survived three months in two different camps in the lawless Sinai region, near the Israeli border. He talked to IRIN over the phone from Sweden. 

“My plan was just to leave Eritrea as fast as possible. After you finish college, you’re supposed to go to the military but I refused. I was working in the capital illegally because I didn’t have a pass. A few friends of mine had disappeared and I thought I’d be next. The plan was just to get out of there, regardless of where, but since I was born in Sudan and could speak the language, I decided to go there. 

“I knew about the risk of kidnapping, that’s why I didn’t use a smuggler and chose to rely on myself and some of my friends. When we got near Kassala [in eastern Sudan], some Rashaida (local tribesmen) tried to take us, but there were six of us and we fought back. From Kassala, they [the authorities] took us to Shagarab refugee camp.

“Security there was non-existent. The Rashaida could come and leave as they pleased, and the security guards were corrupt and even collaborated with them. After three weeks, I was collecting firewood with my roommates one morning when they [the Rashaida] raided the camp. 

“They came in with three vehicles and they managed to get me and two other guys. They beat us up, of course, and took us somewhere north of Kassala, where we were joined by other Eritreans that had been kidnapped. 

“Then they moved us further north where we were joined by more Eritreans. After a few days they had enough people to be called a ‘batch’, and they sent us on our way. They said they were sending us to Israel.

“Along with about 30 other people they sent me to Sinai. At the border, they handed us over to some Egyptians who used a small boat to get us across the Nile to a city called Aswan. Then they used a big poultry truck to transport us across the Suez Canal. As soon as we crossed over to Sinai, we were divided up among the smugglers and I was taken with 12 others to a torture camp where they demanded US$3,500 [for my release]. 

“They made us call home to our families two or three times a day and every time they beat us up so our families heard us screaming. Some friends and relatives pitched in to pay the $3,500. As soon as the wire transfers were done, they put us in a car and sold us to another smuggler and this guy demanded $30,000. He said he paid a lot of money to get us and he expected a return. 

“The second camp was worse. They don’t give you much to eat, just a single piece of bread for the whole day and you’re very weak and they keep beating you all day; they took turns. It intensified when you called home, but it was constant. There were three women with us and one of them was pregnant, and they still kept beating her. 

“They whip you and hang you from your feet upside down, or your wrists; they dripped molten plastic on your body. After about a week, one of the people I was kidnapped with died. I myself was in a very bad situation. In the first camp, they had broken my wrist and they tied the chain to my ankle so tightly that it was buried into my flesh. My sight was very poor and I could hardly stand up. 

“Since the Israeli [cell phone] signal still works in Sinai region, they would make you call any Eritrean in Israel you knew to send you [cell phone] credit to call internationally. Once you had credit, they would make you call home all day, to [friends and family in] Europe, the US, they didn’t care where, they just cared about getting their money. 

“I didn’t expect my family to come up with $30,000 so I was giving up hope. I tried to commit suicide by cutting my jugular with a wire, but it was too old and rusty so it didn’t work. One of the translators was an Eritrean and I asked him to get me any kind of poison that would help me die, but he refused. I just kept imagining my mum receiving these calls and not having the money to pay, and not knowing what to do. At least, if I died it wouldn’t go on and on for months. 

“I’d been there three months and I was so weak at that point that I was unconscious most of the time, delirious even. That’s actually when my friends and relatives were pitching in to come up with this $30,000. I warned them that they shouldn’t pay a single cent unless they heard my voice because I expected to die any day. But finally they came up with the money and wired it. 

“I was too weak to walk. Both my hands were damaged by this time because they’d hung me up for too long by my wrists. I’d lost feeling in them and the flesh was starting to fall from my bones on both hands. They gave me to another Bedouin guy who was responsible for the crossing from Egypt to Israel. 

“He wasn’t as cruel as the others; he even tried to help me and advised me to stay in Sinai a few weeks to regain my strength before crossing the border, but I refused. So he sent me along with about 150 other refugees, mostly Eritreans and some Sudanese. I tried to walk but after a few metres I collapsed and the others carried me the rest of the way. 

“We managed to get to Israel and as soon as we got into contact with some soldiers, they sent me to a hospital where I stayed for three months. I contacted my family and told them I was alive, but I didn’t tell them about the injury to my hands. I lost most of my fingers and those left I can’t move much, so they’re pretty useless. I was informed they did what they could, but that I needed more advanced surgery. 

“They sent me to a shelter in Petah-Tikva [east of Tel Aviv] and I stayed there for a year and a few months. I was feeling horrible. Even though I was glad I was alive, in a way I felt like maybe I would have been better off dying, because now I was just dependent on others. I’ve always relied on myself and hated to ask others for help, and to be in this position. It was the torture in Sinai all over again. 

“In Israel, they considered people like me infiltrators, regardless how many times I spoke of what had happened to me. By the time I got in, we didn’t have a chance to apply for asylum, and this anti-infiltration law allowed government to detain anyone for up to three years. That’s what really depressed me, because after all I was a victim of, they treated me like a criminal. 

“I wanted to leave but I didn’t have a passport, and I couldn’t go to the Eritrean embassy because I had opposed the government by deserting. Also, I didn’t have any money. My family are still in huge debt; they could barely survive, let alone help me. 

“I was talking to many journalists about what had happened to me, and that’s how I met some activists who came to Israel with a delegation in 2013. They invited me to talk in the European Parliament and I said, ‘Fine’. So my friend and I came to Brussels in December [2013].

“We decided to come to Sweden, and now we’re in the midst of the asylum seeking process. It feels like a new chapter of my life. I want to get surgery for my hands. In a way I was blessed, because even when I was in Israel, I met some individuals who wanted to help me, so they’re trying to raise $200,000 [for the surgery]. I have some donors in Germany. I thought I could seek asylum here first and then go and have my surgeries either in Germany or the States.”

*Not his real name


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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