This article was first published by Al Jazeera English.
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Puckered flesh has knitted across Idriss’ shoulder, masking the deep gash below. Four months earlier, his captors had scooped the skin out with a blade. The back of his Eritrean companion, Birikti, is seared with scars. The men had placed red-hot strips of wood inside her dress, and then handed her a phone. “They told me to call my parents and ask for $30,000,” she says.
Idriss and Birikti are victims of one of the world’s most under-reported and sadistic crimes: Human trafficking. In Egypt’s North Sinai, a small patch of desert territory close to the Israeli border, migrants seeking a better life are often kidnapped and tortured by traffickers. Over mobile phones, families back home are forced to listen to the screams and then told to hand over ransoms of up to $50,000 (£30,000) to make the torture stop.
Since 2007, as many as 30,000 migrants – mostly Eritreans – have been held and tortured by Sinai-based human traffickers.
Many had dreamed of a fresh start in Israel, which has a growing community of African workers and so far has refrained from mass deportations of undocumented immigrants. Instead, deceived by their would-be helpers, they are held for months in underground rooms just a few metres wide. These “stores”, as escapees call them, are hidden from view in the sparsely populated North Sinai desert.
In a disturbing new trend, the traffickers have started directly seizing people just for the purpose of extortion. Many are taken from Sudan’s refugee camps. Others, like Birikti, are kidnapped from the Sudanese city of Kessala.
Sitting in the North Sinai home of a local sheikh, she described her ordeal to Al Jazeera: “I was arrested by the border police and handed to a tribe.” She said she had gone to Sudan to work. “They held my nose and poured liquid into my mouth. I do not remember anything between that and the store in the desert.”
Many allege that refugees are sold to members of the Racheida, a tribe living on the border of Eritrea and Sudan. They are later passed on to contacts in Sinai, most of whom hail from local Bedouin tribes that dominate the north of the peninsula.
Some migrants are eventually released, or escape to Cairo. Others are left wandering the desert, risking starvation or arrest by Egyptian or Israeli border guards.
Photos of Birikti at the time of her escape show skin branded by deep burns. The scars are still visible four months later, and her feet remain blackened by the electric shocks.
“I saw people die in my cell,” she said. “The only thought in my mind was ‘please, kill me too’.” According to new research, around a quarter of the hostages die or are killed in captivity.
Echoes of Birikti and Idriss’ stories can be found in hundreds of other testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch. Rights groups estimate that thousands have died at the hands of the traffickers. Common methods of abuse include beating with metal rods, electrocution, burning with molten plastic, and the insertion of piping into the captives’ vaginas and anuses. Sexual abuse is routine, and victims include children as young as 14.
Birikti’s ordeal ended after a local sheikh, Mohammed Ali, led an armed raid on the store in which she was held in July.
“When we heard about the intensive torture of these people, including one old woman who had been raped, we were horrified,” Sheikh Mohammed told Al Jazeera. “This is a crime against our religion. We found the owner outside the store and he was forced to let us in [because] we were ten men. We found some terrible cases inside, including one 14-year-old boy in an individual cell. We took the hostages with us, as well as two of the guards outside the building.”
North Sinai is now the focus of a military operation by the Egyptian army, as it attempts to extinguish an armed insurgency that has gained momentum in the five months since Egypt’s Islamist President Mohamed Morsi was deposed in a military coup.
Military checkpoints and a driving curfew beginning at 4pm have made escaping from Sinai difficult. For now, Birikti and Idris remain in limbo, waiting for the army’s campaign to end.
“The armed forces are conducting a military operation in Sinai against three things: Terrorism, drug trafficking and human trafficking,” said Badr Abdellatty the Egyptian Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson.
“We have a legal framework which makes trafficking a crime, and we now have an increased commitment to implementing this. I believe the armed forces have managed to disrupt a lot of the traffickers’ activities and arrested many members of their gangs. It’s a serious issue and it’s been there for years. But now things are getting better.”
The operation is also targeting the traffickers, and a handful of their houses have been destroyed or damaged in raids. But their captives are also being punished. Since July, the Egyptian authorities have arrested at least 144 undocumented African migrants in the area.
North Sinai residents say the army’s campaign has reduced the flow of new migrants to a trickle. “When it started, they drove the hostages away in a jeep,” a farmer Al Jazeera. “But when the army goes, they’ll be back. They are a part of this community, after all.”
After Al Jazeera’s visit to North Sinai, local residents reported that nine new migrants had since arrived in Sinai’s underground stores.
As members of the tribes that inhabit much of North Sinai, the traffickers have close ties with local communities. But as the torture methods grow more extreme, residents say a rift is appearing between traffickers and their kinsmen.
“We are angry with those who work in trafficking,” said Said, the brother of a prominent local sheikh. “Two of their homes were hit by the military operation, and we think that is fair as they were guilty men.” Others say they now refuse to entertain the traffickers in their homes, or greet them in the street. Community censure is a powerful act in this tribal society.
Said is also angry that the government has done so little to end the trade. “When the business was flourishing, we repeatedly told the authorities,” he said. “They told us that it was not a problem and that it was none of their business.”
Amnesty International has condemned the Egyptian government for what it describes as lax enforcement of anti-trafficking laws. “There simply isn’t the political will to do anything about these abuses, particularly not in the current context of a crackdown in the Sinai,” says Nicholas Piachaud, the organisation’s North Africa campaigner.
Although Cairo-based legal NGOs continue to mount criminal cases against known traffickers, none have been successful to date.
“The testimonies we receive are absolutely haunting,” Piachaud said. “If the refugees escape, they may seem like the lucky ones but they are still living every day with the hell that they’ve been through and the survivor’s guilt over those who remained in the camps, and there’s no help for them.”
As the escapees in North Sinai wait for the day they can leave their safe house, they still speak of their hopes for their future. Idriss says he just wants to make it to Cairo. For Birikti, the dream is a reunion with her children and a job cooking international cuisine.
“Before they took me, I was working as a cook for a Canadian company,” she says. “For the sake of my children and the sake of my mind, I just wish I could to this once again.”