They crossed the border at midnight, grief-stricken at the death of their daughter the previous day. Gebre’s two-year-old girl Arsama perished from the flu. The night after they buried her, Gebre, 28, and his wife Teka, 25, decided to make their way to Ethiopia.
Arsama’s death was just one reason for their escape. Gebre was exasperated with seven years in the military – part of Eritrea’s obligatory decades-long national service – with not even enough money to pay for food for his family. There seemed no end to the misery, Gebre recalled, here in Ethiopia.
The crossing took place under a new moon. The plan was to go first to Sudan, stay for a bit and then move to Ethiopia. Gebre had friends who knew the trails across the mountainous border and they guided them through, avoiding the Eritrean patrols. By dawn, the family was walking to Shagarab refugee camp in eastern Sudan, where they would regroup for the next leg of their trip.
Gebre asked for directions from local residents. After their conversation another group of men pulled up in a pick-up truck. These men, called raishida, were light-skinned and carried AK-47s. Gebre and his wife were ordered into the back of the vehicle, which was then covered with canvas. The men told the couple that they would be taken to Shagarab camp.
Each year thousands of Eritrean refugees attempt to make the crossing into Sudan and Ethiopia. Many are bound for Egypt, Israel, Morocco and Europe, but for some the journey ends in misery. At the Mai-Aini and Adi-Hirush camps in Ethiopia, there are more than 400 people who have been returned by Egyptian authorities, including Gebre and Teka.
UNHCR believes that many others have either starved to death in the desert, died crossing rivers or been killed by smuggling gangs. “The deportees are the lucky ones,” says Michael Owor, head of UNHCR’s sub-office in northern Ethiopia. “I am very sure that many refugees just perish.”
Officials at UNHCR have expressed alarm at the number of refugees that are attempting to make the perilous journey from Ethiopia to third countries. A recent report indicated that as many as 80 per cent of new arrivals at Shagarab had come from camps in Ethiopia.
“Those who fail the first time come back to Ethiopia only to try again,” says UNHCR Field Protection Officer Benoit Hamanyimana. “They feel like they have lost everything and therefore have nothing left to lose. We need to offer them psychological support, but also livelihood programmes so that they can discover their potential and stabilize their situation.”
Smugglers even attempt to penetrate the refugee camps, offering transport to third countries in exchange for payment, which is often provided by relatives of new arrivals. In one case Ethiopian authorities arrested a group of aid workers who were suspected of providing assistance to smugglers.
In many respects Gebre and Teka’s journey is typical. An hour-and-a-half after they were forced into the pick-up truck, the pair found themselves in the compound of the smugglers, who demanded 45,000 Eritrean nakfa (US$3,000) to secure their release. “They told us that if we did not find the money they would wrap us in plastic then burn us,” Gebre said. “They beat me, but not badly. They beat my wife hard enough to leave a scar on her back.”
For 10 days the threats continued. Gebre told his captors the truth, that he didn’t have the money to pay their ransom. “We didn’t think about anything except just to escape or to wait and see what happened,” says Gebre.
He and his wife didn’t escape and they weren’t killed. Instead they were sold and taken in another pick-up to Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where they were sold again – this time to Bedouin.
They were taken to an enclosed compound where they were fed a small amount of rice and porridge. There were about 35 other captives. Sudanese, Somalis and Ethiopians sat quietly. Every attempt was made to isolate them. Everyone was told that if they spoke they would be killed.
The Bedouin allegedly told Gebre and Teka that they must come up with US$6,000 ransom or be killed. The couple believed them. They gave Gebre a telephone and told him to call his family in Eritrea.
He got through, but it was more than his kin could afford and they had to beg for help from others. The negotiations for payment lasted more than five weeks. Having paid the ransom, the Bedouin now left the couple in the desert.
“I had never wanted to go Egypt and I never wanted to go to Israel,” Gebre says. “But we knew what we would face if we stayed in Egypt so I asked the Bedouin which way to the Israel border.” The captors pointed their fingers and Gebre and his wife began to walk.
It was only a few minutes before they heard the shots ringing through the air. The tribesmen had pointed Gebre and Teka towards an Egyptian patrol. Gebre was shot in the lower back, the bullet exiting near his stomach. Teka had a part of her arm ripped off by another shot.
They were taken to a hospital in Sinai, where a female doctor treated their wounds. Gebre described her as the first person during their journey to treat them with kindness. After a month, they were taken to an Egyptian prison. “It was underground and you couldn’t see anything,” Gebre recalls. “We were separated – males and females. I couldn’t talk to my wife.”
Describing the experience, Gebre says, “You feel as if you are losing your mind.” In fact, many thoughts passed through his mind. “I thought about my parents and how they transferred their lives to the Bedouin for me,” he says. “I thought about how I was disabled because of the bullet wound. My wife had been wounded. How would she take care of herself?”
Gebre thoughts also turned to his daughter, Arsama. “I thought about how she passed away at such a young age,” he says. “What would she have said to me? She probably still would have been too young to understand what we have lost.”
Finally, the kindly doctor came to the prison to treat the couple’s wounds. She told them she would return. Several months later she arrived, this time with a representative from the Ethiopian embassy in Cairo. The man took the couple’s photo and their address. The doctor told Gebre that she would pay their airfare to Ethiopia.
A year after their ordeal, Gebre and Teka are living in Mai-Aini Refugee Camp and have a child named Samuel. “I think of my son and I have at least some hope in my life,” says the proud father, smiling. “I hope that he will go to school and become responsible. I hope that one day when I grow old that he will take care of me.”
By Greg Beals in Mai-Aini Refugee Camp, Ethiopia (UNHCR)