By Daniel Nelson

The kidnapping and torture of Eritrean refugees in Egypt’s Sinai desert

Even This Will Pass

Even This Will Pass

Image by Aida Silvestri

is one of the most shocking and undercovered stories of our times.

According to some estimates, about 4,000 of 7,000 victims have died in the last four years in what the UN has called “one of the most unreported humanitarian crises in the world”, and if you wanted evidence of man’s inhumanity to fellow beings, look no further.

The aim of the trade is to make money (up to $60,000 for a captive) by seizing refugees primarily from Eritrea but also from Somalia and Sudan, truck them to the Sinai via Suez – obviously with the collusion of people in the Egyptian military, since they travel through high-security areas. Sinai was chosen because since the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace agreement, it has been a no-go area for the Egyptian military and a safe zone for all kinds of traffickers.

Families of the refugees (including some in Israel) are contacted by phone and money demanded. The captives are given the phone to appeal for help and are often tortured while making the call.

Extracts from a couple of such phone calls have been recorded and published by Migrant Voice, a London-based organisation.

At a meeting at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London recently, the most prominent campaigner on the issue, Meron Estefanos, said the number of captives had recently been reduced because the Egyptian military’s political clampdown had forced Muslim Brotherhood supporters into the Sinai, where they had been chased and attacked by government forces. So Sinai was no longer a safe zone for traffickers, many of whose houses – built with ransom money – have been bombed in the confrontation.

The problem has not gone: it’s been relocated, because Eritreans continue to flee “the North Korea of Africa”. Their plight is still scarcely recognised – and few governments have responded to Meron’s appeals for action – but an exhibition in a tiny room in east London is a tiny reminder of the atrocities.

The Eritrean-born photographer’s portraits of 10 Eritreans who escaped and made it to London show no faces and sometimes do not give real names. They are blurred images, overlain with a coloured thread that charts their escape route. Each picture is accompanied by a text summarising, briefly, their unspeakable experiences.

Their experiences are sad, poignant, shocking. The show changes nothing, but at least it’s a reminder of an appalling situation. It’s called, hopefully, Even This Will Pass.

* Even This Will Pass, Aida Silvestri’s photographs, is at Roman Road Project Space,  69 Roman Road, London E2 until 26 April.

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