We should be aware of it by now. We should be aware that on our planet millions of people are adrift. Some wander because they crave for a safe haven to protect them from the violence that threatened them at home. Others try to escape the extreme poverty that characterises life in their land of birth. Some sex, as modern slaves. And then there are those who are kidnapped, tortured, extorted and blackmailed.
Governments and policy makers in the Western world speak about people adrift as a threat to the security and prosperity of their constituencies. And then, sometimes, out of the blue, these people are pictured as tragic victims of heartbreaking circumstances – as if these circumstances are not part of the world we are constantly co-creating and as if these victims are not our responsibility. Every once in a while a boat full of what are misleadingly called ‘asylum seekers’ capsizes and sinks in the Mediterranean Sea. The Mayor of Lampedusa then laments the impossible job the people of his island have in providing food and shelter in what is labelled a refugee ‘crisis’. The president of Italy explains the unfairness that lies in the fact that his country has to take the entire burden of people trying to enter the European Union from Africa. There is talk of measures and new, fairer arrangements. In July 2013, Pope Francis visited Lampedusa, mourning those who drowned and denouncing the indifference of the world.
On 3 October 2013, another boat carrying mostly people from Eritrea sank. The Italian Government announced that the 366 victims would receive a state funeral. After their meeting held the same month, Europe’s leaders expressed their moral outrage. But what European leaders proposed reveals that, in fact, they would not change their migration policies.
However, what happened to the bodies of those drowned in the Mediterranean Sea on 3 October was even more astounding. All but two of the victims were Eritreans, who were offered posthumous Italian nationality. Meanwhile the survivors, many of whom had lost relatives in the buried without the presence of the survivors in various places in Lampedusa. The preparations for the state burial were stopped. The Italian Government organised a commemoration service instead, which was attended by the Ambassador of Eritrea, the country that the dead had tried to escape. The survivors, who were locked up, were unable to attend the service. In Eritrea, the government forbid mourning ceremonies and ordered that all obituaries be taken down.
The history and fate of the people adrift seems to count for nothing. They are only seen when they ‘interfere’ with those who consider themselves the real owners of history. But they are there, among us – bodily present and in need of food, shelter, protection, company. That should count for something. Sometimes they succeed in becoming legal in our world. Sometimes they are detained and, after a while, deported back to where they came from. Sometimes they are sent from country to country, without money or means of existence, Many end up wandering, unable or unwilling to go back to where they came from; not allowed to stay where they ended up. They survive. They sleep in highly overpriced. But who will protect them from the slumlords and others who try to exploit them? Unrecognised in their dignity they become a ‘problem’
Sometimes, almost as if accidentally, there are people who recognise them as human beings and try to support them, try to help them when help is needed, try to make them feel human again. And succeed at least somewhat.
We know from history that there have always been holy places. Places where the Divine is present in a special way and where the ambivalence that characterises human history is not dominant. Places where light, goodness and meaning are concentrated. There have probably also always been unholy places, places of meaninglessness, of darkness, of death. Places where everything people are afraid of seems present. Places that come to symbolise evil. We, modern people, consider ourselves to be rational and we try to forget that we also have these symbolic places that stand for everything we want to get rid of, want to exclude from our lives and ban from our world. But we have them alright, whether we admit it or not.
Because the existence of these places is denied, nobody takes responsibility for what happens in situations we dare not look at. There are people in what we consider, and not without reason, places of doom who we would rather avoid and ignore.
However, is this a message we can give to our fellow human beings:
“We are sorry, but you are doomed, we cannot stand what we see and hear when we look at your life and hear your story.”? Probably not, but we still try.
Sometimes that which we try to expel breaks through and it becomes clear that it is impossible to ban it from hearing and sight, impossible to ignore. People feel compelled to take responsibility. One of the authors of this book, Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean woman living in Sweden who hosts a radio show for Eritreans in the diaspora, was confronted with a growing number of stories where they were tortured by their abductors to make their family pay a ransom. This is the ultimate commoditization of people!
Being a journalist, Meron started to investigate what was in fact happening. Others became involved; people who also could not ignore the stories of human tragedy that they were being told. The Sinai desert, which for ages has been a symbol of disorientation, hunger, thirst, lack of shelter, lack of meaning and order, seemed to reveal itself in these stories as a place of evil, as a contemporary hell – but with real, living people in it, real suffering, real cries for help, real appeals for compassion and fellowship. It was hell protesting against hell, evil confronted by the cry against evil that is present in the midst of evil. In my view we cannot just notice evil, and then try to ignore it, because being constantly aware of it, is too much to bear. The protest against evil should also be heard. And responded to.
Responding to the protest against evil is not without danger. Sometimes evil is so strong that it seems to encapsulate even the protest. And, it could be argued that, if nobody cared that people are being tortured and killed, they would stop. And, the fact that the ransoms are being paid by the desperate families USD when it all started in around 2008 to 30,000 to 40,000 USD now, and sometimes even higher.
But how can human beings be indifferent to what is happening to their loved ones; how can we be indifferent to what is happening to our fellow human beings? Indifference cannot be a weapon against indifference and contempt. Indifference dehumanises us already on a devastatingly large scale. We cannot but protest against indifference, siding with those who beg to be noticed in what is happening to them. At least, that is how this book is written: from the belief that the cry for help and the cry to be heard and seen and to not be alone should be the starting point from which a new kind of community can grow, even if the only thing one has to share is despair.
One of the poems on the opening pages of this book is a reaction to the image of coffin with a child’s body simple marked 92. It is the body of one of the unidentified victims of Lampedusa, prepared for burial. Selam Kidane, an Eritrean human rights activist living in Great Britain, laments that it is unbearable that this child does to him. On one level, this book is a monument to the people who live in hell, but are still naming themselves, still attempting to tell us who they are and the stories that are important to them, because these stories constitute their lives. The Sinai may seem to be a place of evil, a place to be avoided as much as possible. But it is also the place of their stories, their lives, their struggle – a place that compels us to listen to these stories and to let ourselves be engaged by these stories.
This book gives these people a voice, a place in which to put their stories; stories about what is happening in the Sinai. This book also exposes the reader to these stories – not to tell us to engage, but to make it self-evident that we must engage.
After World War II the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted. In December 1948, it was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations. In the second clause of its Preamble, the Declaration reminds the world how in recent history
…disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people.1 One sometimes wonders whether this aspiration still exists. Because, if it belief, and freedom from fear and want to make themselves heard? Would at to change their situation not be a necessary expression of our recognition of their inherent dignity? As the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human justice and peace in the world”.2 The authors of this book attempt to honour the dignity of the Sinai victims tortured and extorted. If they somehow manage to survive these ordeals and end up in Israel, Egypt or Europe, they are routinely treated with indifference, contempt and, sometimes, outright hatred. They are still not seen for who they are. This sometimes drives them to despair. On 2 July 2013, an Eritrean Sinai victim who had been jailed for a year in Saharonim, a detention centre in Israel where illegal immigrants – mostly from Africa – are imprisoned, sent an open letter to the world stating:
There were about 176 Eritrean in ward three. We went on a hunger strike on Sunday 23-06-2013 in the morning and continued until 30-06-2013. On that period, many of us lost their consciousness, or became dehydrated. No medical help was offered to all those people, except for few of us who were affected very badly. Speaking on my behalf, due to previous health problems, I was very badly affected by the hunger strike. I was almost in from the immigration authority. Some courageous Eritreans told them:
They asked us to eat food but we decided to continue the hunger strike till death, for eight days.
On Sunday (30-06-2013) in the morning, while some of us were on beds, with plastic robber [sic] and took them away. We didn’t know where they took them, but we heard later, that 24 of them were taken to the Seventh Ward. The rest of us were taken to Ktsiyot prison. There we were told to go to the office one by one and we were forced to eat by threat of being taken to isolation cells. Finally I want to tell you the hunger strike was very difficult and dangerous for our life. I am a witness that everybody lost any hope and patience.
What the Sinai victims are going through is unimaginable for most of us, and fortunately so. The Sinai survivors will have to live with the scars for the rest of their lives. We should not be surprised if they sometimes become utterly desperate. The awe-inspiring miracle is that they so often have the courage to go on and even to make something of their lives.
Those people are bone of our bones, flesh of our flesh, to paraphrase the Biblical Adam as he met for the first time another human (Genesis, 2:23), and that should make us proud. It should also lead to outrage as it really starts to dawn on us that our next of kin are being commoditised, exploited, and treated without the slightest bit of respect for their inherent dignity. As least know their stories, because they are theirs, no matter how appalled and heartbroken we are because of what they tell us. Even if they tell us they would my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1).
This book started with the act of listening. Its authors listened to the voices coming from the Sinai quite literally. One of the mind boggling facts about what is happening in the Sinai is that we are witnessing unspeakable atrocities while they are going on. In order to extort the ransom from their families, the what is happening to them, and sometimes even expose their relatives to their cries of pain and despair while they are being tortured. It does not necessary make them less lonely in their experience. It may mean that they develop a self image of being a burden to their families. It sometimes makes them want to die, to free their families of the grief that comes with the awareness that their son, the money to free her or him.
Meron Estefanos, Mirjam van Reisen and Conny Rijken started to listen to the voices sounding from the Sinai for those who want to hear. They became bring together different approaches, different concerns, and different ways of expressing their concern. Meron Estefanos is a journalist and an activist. Mirjam van Reisen has a background in international relations and is educated in social and political sciences. Conny Rijken is a victimologist and a human rights lawyer. Together they have mapped out what is happening in the Sinai and unearthed what is really going on in its context. While doing so they present slowly, but surely, the terminology in which the reality of the Sinai is both exposed and obscured.
What is happening in the Sinai is part of what this book calls the ‘human trafficking cycle’. After the presentation of the different kinds of stories that are circulating about what is happening in the Sinai and the emotions they carry in Chapter 2, a charcoal sketch of the cycle, as the authors have reconstructed it, is presented lot of Sinai victims come from Eritrea. Why is this so and how do they end up in the Sinai? This is explained and reconstructed in Chapter 4. What exactly is happening in the Sinai, how does it work, and who are involved and why? That story is told in Chapter 5, in all its monstrous detail of dehumanisation, brutality, cynical opportunism and sadism, and of the deep trauma and despair this produces. Chapter 6 describes what happens to the Sinai victims after they have managed to somehow become free of their traffickers and end up in Israel or Egypt. Usually they are detained there and deported back to Eritrea, the country they make it to Libya, where they are also put in prison, often tortured and raped, and deported back to Eritrea. Some try to cross the Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Many drown. The prime minister of Malta has called the Mediterranean ‘one big graveyard’.
In Chapter 7 we meet the boy whose picture is on the cover of this book. His name is Berhan, which in his native Tigrinya means ‘light’. Berhan was in all those places. He escaped from Eritrea at the age of 15 to avoid being drafted as a child soldier. He was tortured in the Sinai, escaped through Egypt, through Libya, across the Mediterranean Sea. He was on the boat that sank on 3 October, but survived. When in Lampedusa, the Italians didn’t want journalists to chase the stories of the victims and released the survivors somewhere in Rome. They was captured by the police in Germany and put in prison. As this is written, Berhan is still ‘free’, out there somewhere. This chapter will contextualise the entrance into Europe and the applicable legal framework. It shows the end continue, despite all the declarations of good will and all the declared efforts to implement human rights and protect the vulnerable.
Chapters 8 and 9 contain the conclusions and formulate recommendations that
It was mind boggling and heartbreaking. Nevertheless, I consider it an honour and a privilege to have been present at some of the interviews on which this book is based. In some mysterious manner, while witnessing what had happened to them – and what is sometimes still happening to their family members – they of a sum of money subject to the power of others. They clearly still inhabited and owned their own history, despite everything that had happened. The
spoke about the choices that they made in a situation designed to rid them of all choices, about their moral deliberations in a world from which all morality seems to have been expelled. They embodied, as it where, a stubborn and usually silent, but impressive, revolt against the injustice to which they have been subjected.
At the end of Chapter 2 there is a story that in fact comes from one of the daughters of the authors of this book, who is 14 years of age. After being told about some of the stories presented in the book, she responds:
I hate myself and my little life; I would do anything if I could get ten people out of those torture camps and go myself instead. But it isn’t possible.
I have to change it, I have to and I will. I don’t care about the rest I want to do. I don’t care. It all isn’t important. If I could help their lives by giving mine.
This is touching and shocking. Touching, because a young woman deeply understands what it means that she lives in a world in which these stories are lived, although usually not publically told. Shocking because for her the only possible response seems to be to offer her own life as ransom, as some of the relatives of those captured in the Sinai wanted to offer their lives as ransom for their brother or sister, for their child or spouse.
Impressive as this is, as it testifies to the dignity of the human spirit, even in the most atrocious of circumstances, and important as the moral and existential intuition is that there are things that require the dedication of one’s life without reserve, there should be other possibilities. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states:
…it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.4
To unearth the trafficking cycle brings with it the obligation to work for the legal protection of refugees who leave their country, for change in the situation that forced them to leave and to make the country to which they are fleeing the safe haven they crave for. Here we Europeans have to be honest with ourselves: We claim to have a system that protects the basic human rights of each and every person, but some of our regulations have devastating effects on the vulnerable and damaged people we say we want to especially protect. Either we lie cynically and shamelessly about our true intentions, or we change our laws and regulations in response.
Ultimately, I feel it is a test. Do we still stand by the aspirations for which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stands? Do we still believe that it is our calling to work for the “advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear”? Do we have the dedication and the creativity to translate that into the ‘rule of law’? There is hardly any reason to be optimistic, I think. But I possess a hope that somehow is born from the stories documented in this book.
Chapter 5 presents the story of a woman called ‘HT’, her name changed for reasons of safety as she was deported back to Eritrea and would face severe torture camp in the Sinai. She named him Ra’ee, which in Tigrinya means revelation. HT explains:
I have been through bad times and good times. I have seen it all. I cannot help but hear a Biblical undercurrent here. As Isaiah famously prophesied:
…the Lord himself will give you a sign: Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14).
The unstoppable birth of new life, even in the most devastating of circumstances, is a sign of hope for the future, feeding the awareness that something different should be possible and will ultimately occur. We read how Ra’ee does not get enough to eat and becomes ill, but somehow miraculously survives. We read how, in a context of utter indifference to the fate of human beings, sometimes the child is able to break down walls that are impenetrable otherwise. People do respond, give his mother a little extra to take care of herself and her offspring, become aware of the impossible situation in which the Sinai victims have to live. And the child’s father is still waiting to see his son, Revelation. But he knows that they are part of the same reality, just as his mother knows. Hope dies in the Sinai on many occasions. But hope is also born again, even there. This in itself is a sign of hope, but at the same time a sign of obligation to live from that hope, to work for conditions in which this hope is vindicated and Revelation is respected for his intrinsic dignity and protected in his intrinsic vulnerability. In this sense, I feel that this book is a sign of hope. Sad, tragic, painful hope, but still: hope.
Read complete text here.