07/11/2014 03:40 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2014

Bodies in the Desert


The truck stopped at 2 a.m. somewhere in the Sudanese desert.

The trafficker called to the six women in the back of the truck, telling them to send out the dark-skinned girl. "I knew he meant me," recalled Merhawit (not her real name). "The other women gave me up. You have to understand that when people are afraid for their lives, they often do not make noble decisions."

The trafficker told Merhawit, then 17, to follow him. She told him to kill rather than rape her and that he should "pick his best weapon to do so." The trafficker grabbed a metal pipe and hit her over the head. "I felt my hands go numb and then slowly the rest of my limbs. I was drenched in a dark blood that covered my entire body. I eventually fainted on the spot in the desert. He left me alone thinking I was dead."

The others crept out to lift her into the truck. To prevent the trafficker from noticing their stowaway, they hid her under their seats, praying she would survive.

The truck rumbled on across the border into the endless desert in Egypt, where the man sold the women to traffickers who would take them to the Sinai Peninsula. The new traffickers noticed Merhawit's condition and gave her some milk to revive her. She'll never know if altruism or the desire to protect a newly purchased commodity motivated them.

I met Merhawit while in Tel Aviv conducting a qualitative study on the sexual and reproductive health of Eritrean asylum-seeking women. In addition to my research, I volunteered at the Physicians for Human Rights-Israel Open Clinic and at the African Refugee Development Center where I translated for many survivors of human trafficking and torture in the Sinai. The bullet wounds, burns and electrocution marks left on the survivors never ceased to stun me. One patient asked me why my eyes widened every time I heard about the torture. "Ajokhee. (It's okay), Halefu Tsega haftey. (It has passed)," he said. I could not believe that he was setting aside his own pain in order to comfort me. After my interviews and translation work ended every day, I would walk or bike the seaside route home. I always felt sad, angry and anxious. What could be done to break the trafficking chains in the Sinai? My feelings were heightened by the knowledge that such atrocities would not be tolerated if the victims were citizens of a nation that advocated effectively on their behalf.

Since gaining independence from Ethiopia in 1993, Eritrea has been led by an increasingly authoritarian regime with a zero-tolerance policy to opposition. In addition to forced military conscription, the regime has expelled international NGOs, closed the University of Asmara and persecutes anyone who challenges government policies. It is one of the most socially, politically and economically restrictive countries in the world. Since 2004, more than 200,000 Eritreans have fled the country.

The journey for those who flee is long and often beyond human endurance. Many report going without food for up to two weeks and drinking urine to survive. Every point along the hundreds of miles of roads and open desert is dangerous and human traffickers roaming the area kidnap a significant number of those who cross the Eritrean-Sudanese border. Their kidnappers keep them in the Sinai while extorting money from their families -- often torturing them as their family listens by cellphone. The ransom demanded for each captive ranges from $25,000 to $50,000, and is largely financed by family members, who sell property, beg in churches and take loans from banks and friends. When the ransom payment arrives via an international network of collaborators, some captives are released, some are sold to another trafficker and others are simply killed. Those who survive torture in the Sinai are taken by traffickers to Egypt's border and told to run toward Israel.

Israeli soldiers stop those asylum seekers who make it onto Israeli soil. They are taken to detention facilities in the Negev desert. The first wave of Eritrean asylum seekers who arrived in Israel in 2007 were held briefly, then sent on buses to Tel Aviv and told to fend for themselves. By 2012, however, Israel's response to the growing influx of African asylum seekers was to build a fence on the border with Egypt, detain asylum seekers for at least three years without trial (since changed to one year) and to implement strict immigration policies. Its official stance is that the majority of Eritreans are economic migrants who do not deserve the protection and social support guaranteed to asylum seekers and refugees under international law. They are banned from formal employment and citizenship. They lead a stateless, hand-to-mouth existence, taking work where they can and enduring the scorn and resentment of some Israelis.

Girmay's Story

Another patient, Girmay (not his real name) was handsome and in his mid-20s, yet he seemed haggard, fatigued beyond his years. He quietly said that he felt obligated to share his experiences if it could help call attention to horrors experienced by asylum seekers. He spoke almost without interruption for three hours.

Fleeing indefinite military conscription in Eritrea, he crossed the border into Sudan, where he joined other migrants who paid smugglers to take them north. The smugglers abandoned them in the desert. Shortly thereafter, traffickers scouring the area for new victims abducted them.

Girmay and the others were stuffed into bags, thrown into a truck and taken to the Sinai Peninsula. During his seven months of captivity, Girmay did not see the light of day. "They asked for a $44,000 ransom to release me. I told them to do whatever they wanted to me, because I couldn't come up with the money. 'We don't kill quickly,' they told me."

The captives were moved from location to location. Girmay and others (including infants and children) were shackled, often naked, and kept in different torture houses. They starved. They were covered in lice. "[The traffickers] beat us so badly. All of the scars on my legs are from them walking over my body and beating me senseless. They walk on your wounds, you know." The captives were forced to torture others, including raping their female and male counterparts. He recounts vividly the day that two of the traffickers raped two young Eritrean women: When one trafficker pulled down his pants and asked for the virgin first, the others clanked their shackles and screamed for them to stop. "They were taken away and raped anyway," he said. After one man fainted, the traffickers poured water on his face to see if he was alive. When they saw that he was breathing, they told Girmay to choke him to death. "I was horrified. I did it. I pretended to choke him. Thankfully, he didn't die," Girmay said. When newly arrived captives saw those living in the torture houses, they were shocked. "Our skin hung from our bodies as if we were 90 years old. I had lost all of my hair," he said.

Girmay paused for a moment as he explained that he remained in the Sinai Peninsula torture houses until his family paid $25,000. "When I was freed, I had no strength left in my body," he said.

The traffickers released Girmay, two men and three women at night. "These people were not as abused as I... I was so weak, the wind blew me over and even the darkness of night was too bright for my eyes," he said. The traffickers wanted to take the women separately, but Girmay and the other men refused, knowing what would happen to them. Finally, they were all taken to the Israeli border.

After Girmay and the others crawled under the border fences, Israeli soldiers detained them, bandaged and fed them. He and the others were put in a tent. It was January, freezing cold and raining. "Despite the harsh weather I couldn't feel because all of my nerves were no longer working, and I felt as if all of my skin cells were dead," he said. "To this day, my nerve endings feel permanently damaged." Finally, he was taken to a hospital and, eventually to Tel Aviv. Girmay arrived in Israel before 2012, so his detention period was short. After being released, he had nowhere to go and slept in the park near the central bus station until he found shelter.

After my interview with Girmay, we walked together to the bus stop. I asked him what I should say to other survivors when they shared their experiences with me. He said "Tsinaat nay Iyob yi habkum" or, "May the strength of Job be with you."

I am now in the U.S. working on my dissertation, but I am not the same. The experiences that so many asylum seekers shared in their interviews, in conversations, in late night phone calls broken by sobs -- they are a part of me now. What do I do with these narratives?

Merhawit's words come back to me.

She exhorted me to do something -- to use the skills, knowledge and resources I have to make a difference. She told me that I could reach many more people than she ever could. This is your responsibility, she told me. Then crying, she said, these words:

"Tell everyone. Tell everyone. I am expecting you to do so. Write it online. Write it everywhere."


This was first published in the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Magazine. To read the complete version, click here.