At Least 7,000 Eritreans in Israel Survived Torture, Rape in Sinai

Most women and girls were gang raped daily by Bedouin traffickers; many men raped as well.

Vered Lee
Vered Lee
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Dat, a few stumps where his fingers had been viciously cut off.
Dat, a few stumps where his fingers had been viciously cut off.Credit: David Bachar
Vered Lee
Vered Lee

When Dat (not his real name), a 29-year-old victim of human trafficking, tries to talk about the torture he suffered in the Sinai desert, his thin body cringes, his eyes cloud over and he says: “I still can’t talk about what happened to me while I was in captivity. Not even today.”

After a short silence he shows the marks of his torture, burned into his body. He spreads out his hands in embarrassment, showing a few stumps where his fingers had been viciously cut off, rolls up his shirt to show his back, filled with signs of serious burns, then turning his neck to expose some deep scars which still haven’t healed.

Dat was born in Eritrea to a poverty-stricken family. He served in his country’s army for five years before deserting and fleeing. “I escaped the tyrannical regime there, not the country itself. You can’t really leave your homeland,” he says. “But my country is under a dictatorship – military service is worse than slavery. We are drafted without knowing when we’ll be released. That’s why I had no choice.” His wife and daughter had escaped earlier to Sudan and Dat had planned to join them. Israel wasn’t part of his plan, but the Bedouin human traffickers who abducted him in 2011 changed things. They led him to torture camps in the Sinai desert, where he remained for seven months.

“They asked me to pay $7,000 and I couldn’t raise that kind of money for a long time” he says. “Five years have passed since then and I still have nightmares and sleeplessness, pain, difficulties in concentrating, confusion, stress and anxiety. What happened to my hands interferes with my ability to work” he adds. “I work a few hours a day and barely provide for myself. My wife and daughter are in Sudan without a provider. They’re also in very bad shape, and I feel horrible at not being able to help them.”

Guide to recovery

When asked about his coping strategies he tells of a recently published book called “A Guide to Recovery for Survivors of Torture,” released by the UN Refugee Agency. The book, written by Dr. Diddy Mymin-Kahn and the Eritrean nun Azezet Kidane, is based on conversations and therapy for survivors of the torture camps in Sinai. It’s a guide that provides theoretical information along with practical advice on how to deal with the traumatic experience.

The cover of 'A Guide to Recovery for Survivors of Torture'. Design by Michal Schreiber.Credit: Sasha Eidelman

“It’s the first time I’ve read a book that manages to relate to exactly what I feel,” says Dat. “Before that I saw a play on the topic and I identified with its content. I also read reports and stories about those camps but this book approaches the topic differently. I read it slowly, sometimes returning to a previous chapter and rereading it again and again. The book accompanies my thoughts and gives me the strength to continue living.”

What’s special about this book?

“It’s a therapeutic book. It tells you how to relax. I can’t sleep at night because of my nightmares and the book gives some tips that help me contend with the problem. I know many people in my community who’ve undergone torture and are suffering from trauma. I suggest they read this book to lighten their suffering.”

The book was written jointly by Mymin-Kahn, a clinical psychologist by training, who studied the effects of rape and sexual abuse on asylum seekers from Eritrea, and Sister Kidane, who in 2012 received an award from the U.S. State Department for her struggle against human trafficking. In clear and simple English and Tigrinya the authors try “to introduce a bit of light and hope into readers’ lives.” The book contains illustrations and quotes by Nelson Mandela, Carl Jung and asylum seekers who survived the torture camps. A few pages are left empty, devoted to personal comments by readers.

7,000 torture/rape victims - or many more?

The majority of victims in these camps are Eritrean. Human rights groups in Israel as well as the UN Refugee Agency estimate that 7,000 survivors now live in Israel. Kidane shifts uneasily in her chair at hearing these numbers. She stresses that her experience makes her believe that the numbers are much higher. “Everyone who’s come through Sinai has suffered some degree of trauma. All of them have some mental scars.”

Dr. Diddy Mymion-Kahn and the Eritrean nun Azezet Kidane.Credit: David Bachar

Most of the women and younger females were gang raped on a daily basis in these camps and many of the men were raped as well. “It’s not talked about because of the shame factor but the numbers are high among the men too,” explains Kidane. “Everyone in the community can tell of someone else who was raped there but they won’t talk of what they themselves went through. The cruelest time was between 2011 and 2012, during which men and women suffered the harshest torture.”

The idea of writing the book, says Mymin-Kahn, came from “the understanding that there are many asylum seekers who find it difficult to function or who avoid certain activities due to their traumas.” She and Kidane explain that the lives of these asylum seekers in Israel don’t afford them the opportunity of looking after themselves. When one is busy with daily survival, they say, traumas get repressed, along with emotions and problems.

“Even when we met people who wanted to care for themselves they didn’t persist, since Western models of therapy were foreign to them. Coming once a week on a certain day at the same time was too difficult for them, culturally and financially,” says Mymin-Kahn. “We wanted to help them even on the most basic level. The aim was to provide accessible information, basic and simple, on topics such as phobia, anxiety, sleeplessness, depression and sexual assault. They could read it in their spare time at their own pace, whenever they needed an answer.”

The two have been collaborating for six years in assisting the Eritrean community. When Mymin-Kahn hugs Kidane, a nurse by training, the nun affirms that they are like sisters. Together they run the Kuchinate project (the word means 'crochet' in Tigrinya), an artistic-social-economic initiative in which participants weave African-style baskets for a living.

Missionary work

Each of them reached the torture and rape saga in their own way. Mymin-Kahn worked for five years as a psycho-social coordinator at the African Refugee Development Center, which runs centers for assisting African asylum seekers in Tel Aviv. Kidane was born in Eritrea and belongs to the Comboni Missionary Sisters convent. As part of her missionary duties she left Eritrea when she was 25 years old and wandered through Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Britain. She arrived in Israel in 2010 and started volunteering with Physicians for Human Rights. She collected 1,500 testimonies from victims of these camps in Sinai. Her activity significantly contributed to uncovering these camps and to the raising of awareness in Israel and overseas.

Illustration by Keren Brookman.Credit: Sasha Eidelman

“Asylum seekers told me they were held in the desert until their families and communities paid a large ransom,” recalls Kidane. She says they were held there chained together, in filth and overcrowded conditions. Many told of people dying next to them, remaining tethered to them for days. “They were held for hours under the blazing sun without any food. Abuse was a routine matter. They added diesel fuel to their water, they burned them with red-hot irons and electrocuted them, making them engage in forced labor, always with verbal and physical abuse.”

Mymin-Kahn says these testimonies reflect the cruelty of the Bedouin traffickers. “We clearly see how they gradually cross every boundary of inhumanity in abusing their victims. One could see them ‘perfecting’ their methods, making the abuse a conveyor belt of hellish torture. They totally crossed every boundary during that period.”

Victims' shame, silence

Kidane describes at length the problematic cultural pattern among these survivors, which she says prevents them from taking care of themselves. “They have no personal or community awareness of psychotherapy. It’s not obvious to them to seek help due to shame, a sense of guilt about what was done to them and a fear of being stigmatized.” In addition, some survivors are ashamed that they had to borrow money to be freed. They focus on their work to return the money.

“They don’t understand the need to deal with these wounds and talk about the trauma,” says Kidane. “There’s an Eritrean woman who suffered terrible abuse and who now lives in Holland. She’s been offered psychotherapy but has refused. She contacted me and asked that I send authorities in Holland a letter relating her story since she can’t talk about it again. Western forms of healing are different than Eritrean ones, which encourage repression and ignoring the trauma.”

Mymin-Kahn adds that Eritrean society is considered to be conservative, with the worst government repression and violation of women’s rights in Africa. It’s not by chance that it’s been called the North Korea of Africa.

“Victims of sexual abuse there are doubly injured – in addition to the shame, they are shunned by their communities,” says Kidane. “Before dealing with the rape they worry about what will happen to them when people find out that they were raped.”

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