The Sinai is a beautiful peninsula piece of desert land situated between the main land of Egypt on the one and the Red Sea and Israel on the other side. It is known for its tourist attractions in the south like the St. Catherine's monastery at the foot of Mount Sinai and the numerous exceptional diving sites at Nuweiba, Dahab or Sharm el-Sheik. Many tourists visit the South Sinai for holidays and marvel at the beauty. But little do they know that only a few hundred kilometres further north human tragedies of an unbelievable volume are happening daily – which tomorrow will cost an 8 year old girl her family and her sanity.
For years with the knowledge – and some suspect the consent – of the Egyptian government human trafficking has been going on in the north-eastern part of the Sinai with Bedouins from the Rashaida tribe holding human refugees hostage, demanding unbelievable sums of money for their release. The hostages, mainly from Eritrea but also from Ethiopia and Sudan, are often kidnapped in the South Sudan after fleeing their violent countries, some kidnapped even right from the UNHCR refugee camps in the region, then transported to the Sinai where they are held in underground locations or buildings housing up to 100 and more. They are subjected to unspeakable torture as the kidnappers try to press ransom money from the hostages relatives. For this purpose the kidnappers hand cell phones to the hostages and force them to call their relatives at home or overseas begging for the enormous sums of money that can reach up to $ 50,000 per person.
To make sure the relatives get the urgency of the matter, the kidnappers torture the victims while they are talking on the phone by beating them or dropping hot melted plastic on their naked bodies. Other hostages are beaten, burnt or even raped in the background to produce the right noise level to intimidate the hostages relatives to extremes. After such horrible phone calls not only are the hostages badly injured and traumatised, their relatives are frightened too and seek to do anything to get their family members out of the hands of these brutal gangsters. This the kidnappers know and have therefore scaled up on the brutality to an extent that is barely possible to believe or describe. The hostages are brutally beaten, burnt, hung up by their feet or hands for days, raped with plastic pipes or even – in the case of the women – hot iron rods. Eric Schwarzt, until 2011 U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, has worked on human rights issues for more than 25 years. But, he says: "I have rarely if ever heard about abuses as dreadful as those perpetrated against migrants by theses smugglers."
These abuses are the bitter reality for 8 year old Ahlam, an Eritrean girl currently held hostage in the Sinai with her father and mother. They all have been subjected to heavy beatings and witnessed the brutal killings of other hostages just this week. The kidnappers demand $ 40,000 ransom payable until tomorrow, Sunday, or they will take bitter revenge. The father will be beaten, as has happened before, more so the kidnappers have announced that the mother will be publicly gang-raped by other hostages forced to undertake this. Forced gang-rapes of female hostages performed by male hostages at gun point occur frequently at these camps. There is no doubt that the mother will be subjected to this horrific crime. To top it all however the kidnappers have announced that, should the ransom not be paid by tomorrow, they will sell 8 year old Ahlam to other kidnapping gangs and forcefully remove her from her parents for ever.
Ahlam knows this, as do her parents. In a telephone call on March 12 to the Swedish-Eritrean radio journalist Meron Estefanos, who regularly keeps phone contacts with the hostages and tries to connect to family who can provide help, both the scared father of Ahlam but also the girl herself have spoken of the horrors that await them tomorrow in the Sinai if the ransom money is not paid. Ahlam told how frightened she was as two male hostages had been brutally murdered that day in front of her eyes – and in response to her crying the kidnappers had grabbed and beat her. The girl was terrified when she spoke of the kidnappers announcement to sell her off on Sunday to other Bedouin gangs.
Estefanos and others engaged in trying to help the horribly abused and often mutilated hostages in the Sinai started a donation campaign on the internet to raise the ransom money so that Ahlam could be saved. Until tonight just around $ 15,000 could be raised, not even half of what the kidnappers demand. Whether this will be enough to at least put the gang-rape of the mother and the selling of Ahlam to other criminals on hold is hard to tell. It must be feared that the kidnappers will do at least the one or the other to heighten the pressure on those that try to raise money for Ahlam and her parents to be released. More than once the demanded ransom was paid but the hostages were not given freedom but passed on to other kidnappers who in turn started to demand money or else would kill the hostages. No one can say what tomorrow will bring for Ahlam and her parents.
Despite the fact that the human trafficking and the horrific abuses of hostages in the thousands has been going on for years, is well documented and known, no Egyptian government to this day has made any attempt to secure the freedom of the people who suffer unbelievably at the hands of these brutal gangs. The reasons are speculated on, but no official indication has ever been given why these human rights violations on such a scale are allowed to go on daily in the Sinai. Fact is that there is no hope of any intervention by army or security forces on behalf of Ahlam, her parents and the many hostages held captive with them in an unknown location in the desert. No one will come to their rescue tomorrow. Their fate is sealed.
While we go to bed tonight looking forward to a bright new Sunday tomorrow, 8 year old Ahlam and her parents will not be able to close their eyes this night, shivering with fear in the knowledge of the horrors that will await them tomorrow. And they know the horrors will come.
Now you know too.
The original telephone conversation between Merano Estefanos and Ahlam and her parents this week. Listen/read to know what will happen tomorrow in the Sinai, the piece of land everyone loves so much: