Eritrean Refugees Are Dying on the Road to Freedom

Sister Aziza, an Eritrean nun living in Israel, mourns the tragic loss of life of Eritrean refugees in the recent Lampedusa shipwreck, and calls for international action against the torture camps in the Sinai.

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The Eritrean community in Israel is in deep mourning, following the terrible news of the two ships that capsized on the way from Africa to Italy. More than 300 bodies have been recovered. Many of us here have relatives or friends who were on the boats and met their deaths by drowning.

Eritreans seeking their way to Italy, like those of us here in Israel, are fleeing an Eritrean dictatorship that subjugates, persecutes and tortures its citizens. These refugees flee in the hope that they will be able to live in dignity as free men.

The disaster in Italy brings back afresh to our community the memories of the difficult circumstances which caused so many to leave their country, and of the horrific events which occurred to so many of us on our way to Israel.

Thousands were kidnapped by smugglers and imprisoned in the Sinai for many long months and even for years, during which they were subjected to torture, beatings and abuse.

This terrible situation has been taking place now for years, and the voice of the asylum seekers who are captured in the Sinai is still not heard. We here in Physicians for Human Rights - Israel hear the testimonies of the lucky ones who have managed to escape the torture camps, and accompany them in dealing with the difficult traumas, memories and scars that they carry. They, and we with them, wish to speak out and tell the world what is happening.

Many people do not realize the terrible situation that a person who has been forced to leave his homeland and risk his life to arrive at a place he can live in freedom and peace finds himself. How sad that so many boundaries, fences, prisons and dangers stand in the way of asylum seekers, who wish to arrive at a safe shore.

Just recently we learned that, with God's help, 150 people escaped from the torture camps, as a result of the chaotic situation prevailing in the Sinai following the attacks by the Egyptian army. But the escapees have disappeared; we do not know what has happened to them. Among them are two young girls, whose fathers here in this country are anxious as to their fate.

Unfortunately, the Egyptian army attacks in the Sinai do not have the goal of rescuing those people still imprisoned and tortured there. We pray for their release and for the safety of those who have disappeared. To these regular prayers of ours, we have added these days our additional prayers in memory of the victims of the many shipwreck disasters near Italy. Our hearts and our souls are with the families and friends of the missing and the dead.

Many thousands of Eritreans die on the tortuous road to freedom. We pray that the day will come when we can return safely to our country. Until then, we ask the nations of the world to look closely at our suffering, that they help the victims of the Sinai torture camps and the Eritrean asylum seekers scattered around the world.

Azezet Habtezghi Kidane, also known as Sister Aziza, is an Eritrean nun in the Comboni Missionary Sisters who volunteers as a nurse for the NGO Physicians for Human Rights-Israel’s Open Clinic and was granted the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking In Persons (TIP) Heroes Award by Hilary Clinton in 2012.

Eritrean refugees in Tel Aviv marked the Lampedusa shipwreck tragedy on October 12. Several Eritreans living in Israel had relatives aboard the ship.

Friday October 18 marks the United Kingdom's Anti-Slavery Day, and the European Union's Anti-Human Trafficking Day; there will be a march in central London calling for end of kidnapping and torture of refugees in Sinai, many of whom are Eritrean and Somali. Sister Aziza wrote this piece to be read out at that march.

Migrants from Eritrea rest outside a building, used to house people waiting to be smuggled into Israel, near the Egyptian-Israeli border in Sinai December 25, 2010. Credit: Reuters

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