Kidnapped and tortured en route to Israel

Egyptian smugglers promise to help African migrants get to the Israeli border, but capture and extort huge sums of money before releasing them

African migrants at a shelter in Tel Aviv (photo credit: AP/Oded Balilty)
African migrants at a shelter in Tel Aviv (photo credit: AP/Oded Balilty)

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — The young man from Sudan holds his arms close to his sides, as if still at the mercy of smugglers who he says poured hot melted plastic over his back, whipped him with wires and beat him with sticks as he lay face down and naked.

He pulls up his shirt to reveal scars that crisscross his arms, back and stomach.

Mutasim Qamrawi is among a growing number of African migrants reporting they were tortured in Egypt’s Sinai desert by smugglers despite promises to sneak them into Israel, where they hoped to find freedom and a decent job. The smugglers then extorted the migrants’ families for more money.

Sudanese Mutasim Qamrawi, 22, shows his scars from four months he was held in captivity by smugglers in Egypt's Sinai desert (photo credit: AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Sudanese Mutasim Qamrawi, 22, shows his scars from four months he was held in captivity by smugglers in Egypt's Sinai desert (photo credit: AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“You sit in your own grave until you can get the money. That is the only way to leave — or death,” said Qamrawi, 22, who was held in captivity for four months.

Human rights advocates say the situation is worsening, because smugglers are using harsher torture methods and demanding more money — as much as $40,000.

They cite accounts by Africans who have arrived in Israel, and from those still in captivity who make frantic phone calls. Those stories were echoed in Associated Press interviews with Africans in captivity and those released.

Qamrawi said smugglers kept him and some 60 other men in a hut, shackled by their legs. Each day, about a dozen guards burst into the room, making them lie down naked, one at a time. Then the torture began. Qamrawi said he saw 16 men die under torture, screaming for help, because they took too long to gather the ransom money.

Other Africans say smugglers gang-raped migrants, electrocuted them, kept them in the desert sun, deprived them of food, threatened to remove their organs, shackled them together and left them unwashed.

They include a 27-year-old Eritrean who reached Israel in February. He limps on his deformed legs, cannot close his swollen hands and wonders whether he will ever be healthy enough to work again.

Smugglers beat him with pipes and electric prods and smeared melting plastic on him. Women in his group were taken outside to be raped. Six men died, their bodies left to rot beside him for days at a time.

“Every time I close my eyes, I think about all the people I left behind in the (underground) room. They always come to mind,” said the Eritrean, who provided only his first name, Touldeh, fearing his captors could still harm him.

Israeli advocates say although the torture happens in the Sinai, Israel can do more for freed captives when they arrive in the Jewish state.

“Every minute that we are waiting, more and more people are being tortured,” said Shahar Shoham of the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights, which treats many new arrivals, including Touldeh, in a free medical clinic.

Tens of thousands escape harsh African life to start anew in Israel

Some 50,000 Africans have entered Israel in recent years, fleeing conflict and poverty in search of safety and opportunity in the relatively prosperous Jewish state. They need the smugglers’ help to navigate the rugged Sinai desert and reach Israel’s border. The smugglers are nomadic Bedouin tribesmen.

For several years, smugglers ran a lucrative trade. But with Israel rushing to seal the border, smugglers are raising their prices as migrants try reach Israel before it’s too late.

Africans say the journey to Israel begins in a shantytown in northern Sudan, where initial contacts with Bedouin smuggling tribes are made. Most smugglers keep their word and deliver them to Israel’s border for a few hundred dollars.

But in a growing number of cases, smugglers are luring Africans with prices that they inflate once they reach the Sinai. Other smugglers, tempted by easy profits in human chattel, are rushing in, buying and selling captive Africans. A smaller number of Africans say they were “kidnapped” by smuggling clans eager for more profits.

The smugglers force captives to call friends and relatives to beg for money, usually while being tortured, to increase pressure on loved ones. As a result, the trade is strikingly open, and reporters and advocates may also contact the hostages.

In a conversation with AP, a woman who said she was a 20-year-old Eritrean said she was being held in captivity for months and repeatedly raped by smugglers who guarded the basement where she and a dozen men were chained. She said she didn’t know where she was, or when the guards might burst in.

“I am afraid of the men outside,” she said. “They do bad things, they rape us.” She spoke on a crackly telephone line, interspersed by hushed silences and whispers of other captives waiting to use the phone.

The woman requested anonymity, fearing the smugglers. She said her family couldn’t afford the $23,000 the smugglers were demanding to release her.

Although it was impossible to verify her claims, her number was provided by Meron Estafanos, a Sweden-based Eritrean activist. Such stories are common, she said.

Captive Africans raise the money from friends and relatives in Israel and from more affluent expatriate communities in Europe and the United States. The money is delivered through local middlemen. Those who can’t pay linger in captivity. Some don’t survive, although exact numbers are not known.

Between 1,500 and 2,000 Africans enter Israel each month, according to Israel’s Interior Ministry, most of them from war-torn Sudan and Eritrea.

Israel doesn’t deport them because their countries’ human rights records are so poor. But they are not granted any official status either.

After a brief processing period, they are allowed to go free, though they may not work. Many flock to Tel Aviv slums and find illegal menial jobs as cleaners and dishwashers in restaurants.

African migrants who escaped war-torn countries and came to Tel Aviv(photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)
African migrants who escaped war-torn countries and came to Tel Aviv(photo credit: AP/Dan Balilty)

The Africans have sparked a debate in Israeli society. Many Israelis believe their country, which emerged from the ruins of the Holocaust, must help the oppressed. Activists ask the government to give them medical treatment and official status. Yet others fear the influx will threaten the Jewish character of the country of almost 8 million.

Last year alone, some 17,000 Africans made their way to Israel, according Israel’s military.

Alarmed by these growing numbers, and fearful of militants creeping through the porous border, Israel is racing to finish a 150-mile (230-kilometer) long fence along its border with Egypt.

Ironically, many of the men building the fence are African migrants. Israel also is preparing to build a detention center to hold up to 11,000 migrants. The center is to open in the coming months and be completed this year.

Africans began entering Israel through the Sinai after Egyptian security forces violently quashed a demonstration by Sudanese refugees in 2005. As word of prosperity and safety in Israel spread, their numbers swelled. Most Africans paid a few hundred dollars to $3,000 for their passage.

About a year and a half ago, prices began to skyrocket, along with abusive extortion attempts.

Dozens of Eritrean women began asking for abortion referrals at a clinic run by the Israeli branch of Physicians for Human Rights. The women said they were raped in the Sinai. African men sought treatment for wounds they said were caused by torture.

Bedouin smugglers did not answer repeated phone calls seeking comment. African migrants in Israel who call their loved ones in captivity supplied the numbers.

Egyptian security officials said they are unable to chase the smugglers in the rugged terrain.

The officials said that as many as 100 bodies belonging to African refugees were found in the Sinai desert last year, with many of the deaths resulting from dehydration, starvation and torture. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity in line with police rules.

Qamrawi, who now lives in a crowded Tel Aviv shelter run by other Sudanese migrants, says the smugglers knew they were doing something terribly wrong.

He said the smugglers forbade the captives, many of whom are devout Muslims and Christians, from openly praying.

“One of the guards told me that he did not want God to listen to us,” he said. “They were afraid God would punish them.”

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.

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