Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel

Sinai torture industry captured in haunting new documentary

Date: 13.6.14 Source: HAARETZ, Liat Shlezinger

“Hello?”

“Please, Meron, my sister, hurry up! Hurry up! Please! Rescue us tonight!”

– From the opening scene of the documentary “Sound of Torture”

Sinai desert, high noon. Human footprints are embedded in the burning yellow sand. The sound of a crying woman is heard in the distance. The opening scene of “Sound of Torture” thrusts the viewer into an uneasy journey. It is a deeply unsettling trip, amid voices of people who are reaching out by telephone from captivity – an entry into the nightmares of others, people undergoing physical torture. The brutalized people on the line are crying out, begging for their lives. The film moves between conversations and fragments of testimonies.

“If I ever get out of this hell, it will be like being reborn,” one person says. The call is abruptly cut off. “Two people died here tonight! Please! Send help!” another voice pleads.

Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean woman living in Sweden, broadcasts these voices over the radio and interviews the torture victims. They are voices that no one wants to hear. The voices of broken people, who break a little more every day, ground into the dust by savage abuse. Many of the voices heard in the film belonged to people who are no longer alive.

Israeli-born Keren Shayo’s filmmaking debut, “Sound of Torture,” was shot in Israel, Sweden and Egypt. It follows Estefanos, who has interviewed (by phone or Skype) thousands of Eritrean captives in torture camps in Sinai.

Since 2009, when Shayo began work on her film, there has been mounting evidence of the existence of a torture industry being run by Bedouin smugglers of human beings in northern Sinai, who kidnap asylum seekers trying to get to Israel through Egypt. More recently, because of the falloff in the number of people from Eritrea and elsewhere in Africa who are trying to enter Israel – deterred by Israel’s construction of a fence along its southern border – Eritreans are also being snatched from refugee camps in Sudan and sold to merchants who incarcerate them in the Sinai torture camps. The abductors demand high ransoms for the captives’ release and will stop at nothing to pressure the families to pay.

Estefanos’ interviews also reveal stories about asylum seekers living in Israel who try to rescue relatives. Amaniel, from Eritrea, for example, raised money to rescue his wife, Hiyriti, who was abducted when she was seven months pregnant and gave birth to her firstborn, a boy, in shackles.

According to estimates, there are today some 53,000 Africans in Israel who have applied for refugee status. Of them, some 7,000 are believed to have passed through the torture camps of Sinai.

For more than five years, representatives of the Eritrean community in Israel and human rights groups here and abroad have been warning about the atrocities being perpetrated across the border with Egypt. The most common of them, according to the testimonies that have been collected, are rape; scalding of flesh or burning of bodies with cigarettes; electric shocks; hanging; enshacklement; food, drink and sleep deprivation; amputations of the hands; and genital mutilation. Harvesting of organs is also not unknown.

To date, no significant action has been taken to root out these practices. Now, however, various efforts are being made in Israel to hold up a mirror to the Sinai torture industry: Shayo’s film and a children’s book containing testimonies. Perhaps the heightened publicity will shame decision makers in Israel and elsewhere into taking more responsibility for helping to mitigate or even ending the phenomenon.

The power of “Sound of Torture” stems primarily from its disembodied but all-too-human voices. An Israeli viewer is overcome by a sense of helpless outrage as he hears the anguished voices of the tortured, pleading for help, so close by. Absurdly, though, instead of putting a stop to the phenomenon, the phone calls the torture victims are forced to make only end up greasing the wheels of the torture industry.

Relatives refill the captives’ prepaid SIM cards, which use Israeli phone numbers. If the family members don’t do this, the Bedouin deny their hostages meals: The abductors abuse the captives before and during the conversations, to ratchet up the pressure and extort money from the families. Insane as it sounds, the method works.

The greatest absurdity, though, is that today anyone can call the torture camps in Sinai for next to nothing (the phone numbers have a widely used Israeli prefix: 054). The prisoners’ exact location is easily discovered with fairly simple means. The details of the bank accounts belonging to the traffickers in human beings are known far and wide. Many of those who have been liberated from lengthy incarceration said that they dreamed “only about one phone call.” The prisoners call constantly, but no one comes to their aid.

“The bottom line is that it’s obviously just not important enough, even though people are dying there all the time,” says Shayo, the director of “Sound of Torture.” Her hour-long film, which won the debut award in the Israeli competition category at the recent Docaviv International Documentary Film Festival in Tel Aviv, was produced by Osnat Trabelsi and Galit Cahlon, and supported in Israel by YES Docu and the New Fund for Cinema and Television. (The movie, which also had international funding, will be broadcast on June 18 by YES Docu on satellite television.)

All the screenings at Docaviv were sold out, with more added, for which the tickets were snapped up within minutes of going on sale.

“The response that amazed me most was that people had no idea that this was going on,” Shayo says. “I was flabbergasted. It’s been talked about for five years. There have been media reports, and these people are walking around with the scars right here, next to us.”

How do you explain the reaction?

“Maybe it’s a mechanism of repression. I can’t explain it. I also found that many people drew a comparison between the torture phenomenon and the Holocaust. Maybe because we talk about ‘camps,’ and in the film we see the clothes and shoes of people who died scattered along the border. People told me, ‘It’s like talking with Holocaust survivors on the phone.’”

‘They are all dead’

Shayo originally set out to make a different film: She wanted to trace the life story of an unidentified individual, who was buried by Israeli authorities alongside asylum seekers whose bodies were found on the Israeli-Egyptian border. Inscribed on his headstone is: “Unknown – Infiltrator – 3/1092.”

In the meantime, she happened to be present when someone she knew in the Eritrean community received a phone call. “It was from the torture camps,” she recalls. “There were 20 people on the line, shouting, crying, begging for help. A week later, he told me: ‘Remember all those people? They are all dead.’ At that moment, I knew the film would be about the torture camps. I was sucked in.”

Shayo, 34, was born in Ramat Gan and now lives in Jaffa with her partner. Her own parents were refugees, Jews from Lebanon and Syria, who came to Israel in the 1960s. Issues of foreignness and migration were constant themes in her life.

“Arabic was spoken at home, and I remember being ashamed as a girl, because I felt different,” she says. “I was raised on stories of escape and the desire to find a safe haven.”

Shayo’s involvement with refugees and asylum seekers began in 2007: “The encounter with them was riveting for me; I was extremely interested in illegal migration and its consequences. I remember that the biggest problem was that the refugees had no clothes. What a difference between now and then.”

Her curiosity led Shayo to undertake a challenging journey to Latin America, where she documented on film migrant women from Guatemala making their way into the United States illegally, on freight trains, via Mexico. Returning to Israel in 2009, she began to hear about the testimonies of the Eritreans and other victims in Sinai.

The first survivors of the torture camps started to arrive at that time, and rumors began to spread about what was going on across the border. The ransom demands at that time were in the range of $3,000 for each captive, but have now spiraled to $30,000 and even $40,000. The testimonies were hard to digest, but the appearance of similar scars on the refugees’ bodies and the recurring descriptions of the abuse were all too real.

“I immediately understood two things,” Shayo explains. “The first is that this phenomenon was going to increase exponentially. The second was that no one would care and no international body would intervene to end it. I had seen exactly the same pattern in Mexico: No one wants to intervene in something that is liable to be interpreted as facilitating illegal migration.” Thus, Western countries protected their borders while turning a blind eye to what went on just over the line, and the torture camps took root.

Shayo found Estefanos, the heroine who would become the linchpin of her story, some five years ago in a café in south Tel Aviv near the old Central Bus Station – an area inhabited by large numbers of asylum seekers and migrant workers from a range of countries. More accurately, Shayo first heard Estefanos there, when she noticed a group of Eritreans listening avidly to her radio program in the café.

Estefanos was interviewing a woman named Salam who had been incarcerated, together with her infant son, and tortured, for more than a year and a half. “The little boy grew up in captivity and spoke only Arabic, because he learned the language of the torturers. I remember that Salam was crying terribly,” Shayo says now.

She got in touch with Estefanos, and together they set out to track down another young woman, Timnit, a 19-year-old who had disappeared after her brother ransomed her from a torture camp.

Estefanos, a leading human rights activist in the international Eritrean community, broadcasts from her home in Sweden. She also helps the relatives of persons who have been incarcerated to raise ransom money, and assists the survivors. Her children play Nintendo on the sofa next to her while she takes calls from shackled refugees who are being subjected to electric shocks.

Estefanos is deeply empathetic and offers them psychological support. The local Eritrean community, deeply grateful and appreciative of the help she provides, plies her with love in her visits to Israel. Many of them break down when they see her. One young survivor, Semhar, who appears in the film, seems to be traumatized when she meets Estefanos, with whom she had spoken while in captivity. “I am like your big sister,” Estefanos whispers to her as the two cry together.

During the shooting of the film, Estefanos went to Sinai, filmed the buildings in which the torture victims are held, and interviewed neighbors. In a local police station, she went through a photo archive of hundreds of deceased people, discovering that Timnit, the young woman she and Shayo were looking for, had died with hundreds of others. It was clear from the photographs that the bodies had been buried in a state of decomposition.

An Egyptian who runs an organization that assists the captives complains to her in one scene, “I need more refrigerators! Eight hundred bodies of Eritreans are buried where you are standing. Tell the world I need refrigerators!” Estefanos is speechless at the scale of the horror.

Cruel dilemma

Estefanos used to transfer considerable funds via credit card to cover the ransom Eritrean captives through her own bank account, until she was placed on the credit-card company’s blacklist. The Eritrean community in Israel was initially wary of publicly airing the moral dilemma they were facing: to pay the ransom and thereby encourage more human trafficking – or to stop cooperating with the traffickers and pay the price in the form of the captives’ lives?

“Sound of Torture” shows the process undergone by the community in addressing this issue, in the course of several local meetings in a south Tel Aviv park. “It’s a question the community agonized over. In the end, they decided not to pay. That lasted a few days, until someone paid. My answer to that question was clear from the outset,” Shayo says.

Namely?

“Obviously, you pay.”

Even though that sustains the brutality?

“If someone I loved were there, I would pay no matter what. I would not sacrifice anyone’s life. I am well aware that paying keeps it going. All the money that comes into the traffickers’ hands only whets their appetite. On the other hand, the solution will not come from that, and it needn’t come at the expense of people. International intervention is called for.”

How do the Eritreans raise such large amounts of money?

“Take, for example, Amaniel, whom the film follows as he tries to rescue his wife. He obtained $10,000 from her family in Eritrea, who sold all their property, and another $10,000 from his family. Here in Tel Aviv, he went from house to house among members of the Eritrean expat community to raise money. Everyone had to give something, even $100. I was amazed at the resilience of the community, which on the one hand lives in absolute helplessness, yet also displays this kind of solidarity. I myself was involved in the fundraising by means of an article I helped him publish on the Walla [Hebrew] portal. I gave my email address. We were able to raise $6,000; one person donated almost the whole amount.”

That’s not in the film. What made you do that?

“It wasn’t filmed or documented in any way. I did it because his three-month-old baby was going to die in captivity if he wasn’t taken away from there. There are situations in which you can’t remain indifferent. I thought that would make a happy ending for the film, that there would be one good thing in all this.”

The happy ending did not come to pass. Just as Amaniel managed to raise the $30,000 ransom and bring about the liberation of his wife, Hiriyti, and the baby – Israel built the fence along its southern border, and refused to allow their entry. For days, Hiriyti and the baby languished under the broiling sun, without food or water, until Israel deported them to Egypt, from which they returned to Eritrea. It’s been two years since the family was wrenched apart, and a reunion is not in sight.

How were you able to come to grips with all these terrible stories?

“Meron and I cried a lot together. The pain was sometimes overwhelming. The hardest thing for me was to come back after a day of shooting with the feeling that the material had to be made public immediately. That it was a matter of life and death. But I waited, because I knew I had to work on it, to make it powerful enough, otherwise it wouldn’t have the needed impact. I felt the clock ticking constantly.”

Did you ever break down while making the film?

“Yes. It was when Salam, the first person whose story I was exposed to and who was held captive with her child for a long time, died. The film was actually supposed to be about her. Meron tried to raise money for her, but in the end she was sold to a different trafficker. While shooting the film, we found her again. Hariyti told us that Salam had arrived in the camp where she was being held and was in a terrible state. She said her whole head had been burned. Meron told me: ‘She doesn’t have much time left, we have to get her out now.’

“A few days later, when we were filming Amaniel speaking to Hariyti, she told him that a woman had died that day. I immediately asked who. ‘Salam,’ she said. At that moment, in the middle of shooting, I burst into tears. I just fell apart.”

What happened to her little boy?

“We asked Hariyti to try to get the smugglers to give her the boy until we could raise the ransom. He was freed with her and crossed the border with someone else, who is now in Israel. The boy is in a children’s home. I met him. It was too wrenching to put into the film. I still don’t have a photograph of Salam. But I think about her a lot and try to imagine what she looked like.”

Even though the people who are responsible for the existence of the torture camps are known, you avoid pointing an accusing finger at them. Why?

“Accusing someone immediately makes the discourse shallow, creates ‘camps’ on the right and the left, and the story itself is lost. This is a complex story, and it is the responsibility of each of us to cope with it. When we blame someone we divest ourselves of responsibility. I do not do the work for the viewers. Everyone comes out of the film with his own thoughts.

“And that is truly the situation: There is no solution in sight, and we have to sit together and find one. To do that, we have to first stop ignoring the subject. When people ask me, after a screening, ‘How can it be? Where is the world?’ I reply, ‘Who is the world? The world is me and the world is you. We have to do something about it.’”

What do you think can be done?

“The first thing is to be aware. It’s clear to me that everyone can find time to fight against the phenomenon. But the more basic thing is to understand who the people around you are – these ‘infiltrators.’ We need to meet them, listen to their stories My goal in the film is to generate action, to get the torture camps shut down and help the survivors, who are in need of rehabilitation and assistance. Hardly anyone has entered Israel since the fence was built, but we have to help the survivors who are here.

“I have to say that even though the film got good reviews and attracted a great deal of interest, I was disappointed after the premiere at the Amsterdam International Documentary Festival [the world’s leading festival for documentaries], because I’d been certain that something would change. That was half a year ago. In the meantime, there are increasing testimonies that the Sinai model has replicated itself in Libya, where refugees trying to reach Italy are being abducted. Meron has started to interview people in Libya who are describing similar methods of torture. The torture camps in Sinai continue to operate with impunity. I was positive that the earth would tremble when the film was released. That didn’t happen.”

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