'Some of the Greatest Crimes Against Humanity in Our Time Were Committed in Sinai'

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Alganesh Fessaha in Tel Aviv. 'Many of the Eritreans who are now in Israel and are candidates for deportation are survivors of this horror in the Sinai.'
Alganesh Fessaha in Tel Aviv. 'Many of the Eritreans who are now in Israel and are candidates for deportation are survivors of this horror in the Sinai.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Ayelett Shani
Ayelett Shani

Talking to Alganesh Fessaha, 60, in Neve Shalom. She's an Eritrean doctor living in Milan and founder of the Gandhi Charity aid organization.

'Women were raped over periods of weeks and months, every day, all day. Children and little girls were raped too. They told brothers to lie with their sisters. They treated them as sex dolls, as if they were filming porn.'

How did you first hear about what was going on in Sinai?

Five years ago, an Eritrean family came to me and told me their son had been kidnapped and was being held in the Sinai, and the Bedouin were demanding a large ransom for his release. I immediately traveled to Egypt to see what was happening there.

These are refugees, from your country, Eritrea, who tried to cross the border into Israel.

This is really a long chain, people who wanted to flee Eritrea paid the Bedouin – Sudanese smugglers. Sudanese Bedouin of course promised them they would reach Israel safely, but in reality, they sold them to Bedouins in Egypt. They passed through five or six hands on this journey from Sudan, through the periphery of El Arish, and on from there to the closest point to the border with Israel.

Many of them were murdered or held there for ransom. They tied them up, put hot irons on their backs, dripped boiling plastic on them, sexually abused them in ways that are impossible to even imagine, and during the torture they called their families, to let them hear the crying and screams, while they demanded money from them. The amounts grew as the Bedouin realized they had a regular stream of refugees. If at the beginning the ransom was $1,000 per head, later they asked for 60 times as much.

The families probably didn’t have that kind of money.

True, and then the kidnappers would sell [the victims] to organ brokers. Many of the bodies we found in the desert were ravaged completely. They did not even sew them up after removing the internal organs or corneas from them.

You showed me pictures that I don’t think I will ever forget.

Women were raped over periods of weeks and months, every day, all day. Children and little girls were raped too. They told brothers to lie with their sisters. They treated them as sex dolls, as if they were filming porn.

Alganesh Fessaha in Tel Aviv. 'I was simply completely done with for a few days afterwards.'Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Many of the Eritreans who are now in Israel and are candidates for deportation are survivors of this horror in the Sinai. The people who want to deport them don’t know what hell they went through to reach here. I read a lot of books and testimonies of people who were tortured throughout history. I have never heard about such brutality.

For many Israelis the Sinai is the Garden of Eden and the Bedouin are considered friends. It is unimaginable.

'Twice I was arrested and sat in an Egyptian jail. They put me in a small cell where it was impossible to sit, only stand. If I fell asleep, a guard would come and run a baton along the bars to wake me up. I stood that way for almost a week.'

Money corrupts people. Of course, not all the Bedouin are like this, some of them helped rescue people. But in Sinai a few of the greatest crimes against humanity in our time were committed. I saw with my own eyes and heard with my own ears. Elderly women who suffered abuse, babies that were raped. Every time I went there, I was simply completely done with for a few days afterwards. I simply couldn’t function.

Weren’t you afraid to move around there, a woman by herself? Weren’t you afraid that you too would fall victim?

The minute I saw bodies strewn about the desert I lost my fear. I was busy just with the attempts to save them. I received threats too. They told me they would kill me, very slowly. Twice I was arrested and sat in an Egyptian jail. They put me in a small cell where it was impossible to sit, only stand. If I fell asleep, a guard would come and run a baton along the bars to wake me up. I stood that way for almost a week. My legs were so swollen that I couldn’t move. But I knew that what was happening to me was nothing compared to what was happening to others, and that kept me going.

And in the end, you managed to rescue a lot of refugees, both from the hands of the Bedouin and from the Egyptians.

Egyptian Army soldiers are seen in the troubled northern part of the Sinai peninsula during a launch of a major assault against militants, in Al Arish, Egypt, in 2018.Credit: \ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

The Egyptians built special jails for illegal immigrants. I managed to reach an agreement with the Ethiopian authorities and immigration authorities in Egypt that they would be transferred to camps in Ethiopia. I was able to rescue almost 10,000 people from the prisons in Aswan, El Arish and Alexandria. They are now in Ethiopia. The refugees that we rescued from the Bedouin, almost 1,000 people, were admitted to Canada and Australia. But in the end, over 8,000 people were murdered in the Sinai. Their bodies were cut up, their organs sold.

Where were the organs sent to?

We tried to investigate where they went, but as of today we still don’t know with certainty. I assume they were destined for Saudi Arabia. The Bedouin didn’t even want to bury the people, so they wouldn’t make the Muslim cemeteries impure. At first, we didn’t even know about it, until one day a dog was digging nearby, and it uncovered a body. Only then did we realize that they simply threw the bodies into the garbage. After I begged the authorities to allocate a burial site for us, they gave us one 65 kilometers from where we were. We buried the people there. Those for whom we managed to find out their names were buried with a slip of paper, with their names on it. The rest were unidentified.

There is really no words. What is horrible here is that these are not isolated cases. Both in terms of the extent and the patterns – you are describing a system, something organized.

President Isaias Afwerki of Eritrea addresses the 66th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Sept. 23, 2011.Credit: Jason DeCrow/AP

I think that at the beginning there really were only a few incidents. But when they understood that many people were trying to cross there, the mafias seized control of the route. I’m also convinced that the Eritrean authorities were involved in this. There are 10 border crossings between Eritrea and Sudan. How did people manage to cross them? They leave in army or police cars. There’s someone in on it, senior army and police officials, and if they are involved, then it’s clear that Afwerki [Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki] knows about it.

I showed the pictures I showed you to the relevant officials in the EU, in real time. I begged for help. No one gave a damn.

The same way they couldn’t care less about what is going on now in Libya.

I was in Libya two months ago. You think it’s any better there? Again – rape, torture, people who have simply been sold as slaves to the highest bidder, without them or their families even knowing where they were.

One such man, who managed to escape after six years in which he worked on a farm without pay under subhuman conditions, told me that his boss told him that as far as he’s concerned, [the man] was less important to him than his dog, less important than his camel. Libya has become hell. And now the refugees are trying other routes. They won’t give up.

Tell me a little about the reality they are so desperate to escape – life in Eritrea under the tyrant Afwerki.

That man is one of my greatest enemies. I know him.

You mean you know him personally?

Yes. I was very active in the movement to free Eritrea [Eritrea was under Ethiopian control until 1993]. We first met in Sudan. It was very common for the fighters to travel to Sudan to rest and regain their strength. Afwerki was already well-known. He was always busy with propaganda, he argued that everyone had to enlist in the struggle to liberate Eritrea, and I remember that already then it bothered me – this falseness. He demanded that people sacrifice their lives, but his family, his mother and his four brothers who were with him there in the hotel in Sudan, he smuggled from there to the United States.

I told him he should be ashamed, how dare he demand that people go out to battle while he had a different life planned for his family. My father, who was a known freedom fighter in Eritrea, always said, “That man is going to destroy Eritrea.”

He was right.

Yes, he was right. Afwerki has destroyed Eritrea.

What’s he like? What kind of person is he?

He is very unbalanced and unpredictable. What kind of person steals a dream from people that they’ve been fighting for for 30 years?

His regime is 10 times worse than Ethiopian rule had been. It’s a real tragedy.

During the first years, he still made a pretense of wanting freedom and democracy, but then he simply started to jail all the people who had fought with him shoulder to shoulder. His best friends, who helped him come to power, some of them were [government] ministers. When they started to ask him why he wasn’t doing what he’d promised, he simply threw them into jail.

Do you think that was his plan from the beginning?

I’m sure. Nothing is coincidental there. In his satanic way, he is a very organized person. When they call Eritrea Africa’s North Korea, or a country that’s a prison, these aren’t just slogans, it’s the reality. In Eritrea there are 350 prisons.

For a population of less than six million people.

It’s an incredible number – why does such a small population need 350 prisons? These are not the prisons that we know. It could just be a dungeon that someone dug under his villa, or closed metal tanks that are placed in areas where the temperatures reach 36 degrees [Celsius] in the dead of winter and 65 degrees [150 degrees F] in the summer. The prisoners stand in the dark. They don’t know if it’s day or night. They only have small holes that they press their faces to in order to breath. Anyone who speaks out against Afwerki is immediately thrown into prison.

Afwerki’s police go to schools, pick out the children who look the most intelligent and brainwash them. They tell them, listen carefully to what your parents are saying, to the conversations between your siblings, and then come to us and tell us everything you’ve heard. That’s how you’ll save the country. But don’t tell anyone that you’re saving the country. It’s a secret. And then if a mother says half a word about Afwerki, or even about the economic situation in Eritrea, the child immediately informs the authorities and the entire family is arrested and jailed without knowing why or how. That’s Isaias Afwerki’s regime of fear.

On the free speech index, Eritrea is ranked below North Korea

There is no free speech. All the newspapers, the radio, television – it all belongs to the government. Anyone who dares to speak a word of criticism will be thrown into jail. Generally the family doesn’t even know where the person is. He simply disappears.

Tell us a little about the obligation to serve in the Eritrean army, another Afwerki policy that leads so many to flee Eritrea.

At the age of 16, all men and women must enlist. It’s called Sawa. You must serve in the army until you are at least 50.

Eritrean asylum seekers showing scars of torture inflicted by Egyptian smugglers in the Sinai, at a protest at the Interior Ministry. Credit: Moti Milrod

The soldiers are essentially slaves to their commanders. There is serious sexual abuse in the army, against both men and women.

True, especially women who look good; they turn into the property of their general or colonel. It’s called kip. A sex slave. She serves him all the time, and if she gets pregnant, she has to have an abortion, because he has a wife and children in the city.

Can anyone get out of army service?

Only the children of very senior army officers. Their parents send them abroad.

So there are no families in Eritrea? If you walk the streets you won’t see children playing?

There are children, but only a few. The soldiers can’t start families when they’re in the army. They can only get a leave to go home after two or three years. Many times they take advantage of that leave to hide or escape. Many women try to get themselves pregnant before they turn 16, because that’s the only way to avoid the army.

So there are no new generations.


Do you think that’s also part of a plan?

I’m sure of it. Afwerki wants a country without citizens. That’s why he’s simply wiping out the population. In the last wave of refugees that reached our camp in Ethiopia, there were a lot of children, kids who were 10 or 12. They said they knew that if they waited until they turned 16, it might be too late.

Afwerki shut down the university. He has paralyzed the educational system.

Not just the university. There are no schools in Eritrea except for the military schools. That’s how he maintains control.

What’s daily life like for people in Eritrea?

There’s great fear. Even if there were schools, people wouldn’t go. They don’t want to be registered anywhere. They are busy evading the regime. People in Eritrea sleep in their own homes one day, in the home of friends the next. There are those who only dare to go out at night, and those who only go out during the day. They know that at any moment someone could be coming for them.

That’s why many people who succeeded in fleeing Eritrea are afraid to talk about what’s going on there. They’re afraid they’ll get to them. They threaten their family left in Eritrea and demand ransom.

There have been attempts at revolt, but they failed.

Afwerki has succeeded in planting fear deep in people’s hearts. Under such a regime, people can’t really organize because they can’t trust each other. That’s the reason they haven’t succeeded in overthrowing him. Today all his bodyguards are Ethiopians, because he doesn’t rely on Eritreans. Once everybody knew where he lived, today he’s in hiding. He knows that the people are dreaming of getting rid of him. He doesn’t go around like a peacock as he did in the past.

He is probably very smart and sophisticated.

Very, he’s absolutely satanic. And what’s most important – he has backing. Someone is behind him. It could be any country with power – from the Arab world, from Europe, even Russia.

Israel is also on good terms with him. He controls a very strategic point on the Red Sea.

In addition to its own territory, Eritrea holds nearly 300 islands in the Red Sea. The same alliance he has with Israel he has with many countries because these are very important strategic assets. I’m sure that all the people backing him know he’s crazy, they know that it would be better not to deal with him, but their desire for control tops all these considerations, and meanwhile Eritrean citizens are suffering.

This is a pattern that repeats itself in many African countries that fight for their independence only to end up with a tyrannical regime.

Behind every tyrant there’s backing by interested parties. I think that African leaders ought to be ashamed of themselves. Is this what people gave up their lives for? To replace an old conqueror with a new one? I despise these leaders who aren’t stopping what’s going on in Libya. The Africans there are being murdered and raped and sold in slave markets, and they are silent. They set up committees but don’t do anything. They don’t know how to protect their people. They only know how to be European puppets.

During your visit to Israel you met with many refugees who are slated for deportation and you spoke at a gathering. What would you want to say to the Israeli authorities?

These people work here, speak the language, and have had children here in Israel. They want to and are able to integrate into Israeli society. Israel is a state of immigrants, and is certainly aware of the significance of deporting these people to Uganda or Rwanda. These people suffered abuse and rape, and their relatives were murdered before their eyes. How can you cause them more suffering? To deport them to the unknown? They have no future in Rwanda or Uganda.

Two weeks ago I interviewed a naval strategist with NATO. He argued that the solution to the refugee problem is to return people to their countries of origin. I argued with him, saying that isn’t a good solution for people who were prepared to risk their lives to flee from those countries. He wasn’t persuaded.

To me this reflects the enormous hypocrisy of European countries that caused the situation in Africa and now are complaining that they can’t handle the people who are running away from there. The nations of the world are concentrating on how to stop the refugees and protect their borders, but why do these people have to flee? Who is supporting those tyrannical regimes? Who looted Africa and led to a situation where in many of the countries there’s no water or the land is contaminated?

Why aren’t they stopping the crimes against humanity that are taking place in their countries of origin? Why doesn’t anyone stop Afwerki? It would be much easier than planning how to stop the refugees – just make sure they have normal lives in their own countries.

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