The phone call came from eastern Sudan, just as the grocer reached the corner of U and 9th streets NW on a spring day three years ago.
The man spoke clearly in Mebrahtialem Gebrekidan’s mother tongue, Tigrinya, the language of his native Eritrea. Your nephew is being held captive, the voice told him. Pay us $7,000 and we’ll release him. “I just opened my door and stopped driving,” says Gebrekidan, who lives in Columbia Heights.
Gebrekidan, 37, immigrated to the United States seven years ago, part of an Eritrean diaspora that numbers in the hundreds of thousands. After a short time in New Jersey, he moved to the D.C. area, where his sister also now lives, and eventually took over ownership of Greenway Market, a grocery on East Capitol Street that he sold last year. But he left behind family members who he says struggle under oppressive political conditions in one of the poorest countries on Earth.
Haben, Gebrekidan’s nephew, had fled Eritrea, fearing harsh imprisonment for skipping out on mandatory military service, and was taken by captors almost immediately after crossing the border into Sudan. Gebrekidan negotiated the ransom down to $4,000; he sent it to friends in Sudan who traded the cash for his nephew, who made his way to the Sudanese capital, Khartoum. But just three months after he was released, the nephew, then around 20 years old, was kidnapped again by tribesmen in the area, called Rashaida, after he was betrayed by smugglers he’d enlisted to bring him to Israel. They kept him in Egypt’s Sinai peninsula and demanded $33,000, according to his uncle.
Gebrekidan reached out to family and friends in England and Israel, who struggled to come up with the cash as his nephew was beaten, electrocuted, and hung upside down “like Jesus Christ,” Gebrekidan says, his arms outstretched as he recalls the story in an Ethiopian bar in Bailey’s Crossroads. It took three weeks to gather the money, after which the traffickers brought the young man to the Israeli border. He crossed and was picked up by Israeli soldiers, then was released and has been living in Tel Aviv since, according to Gebrekidan.
Gebrekidan is one of the thousands of Eritreans across the globe whose life has been touched by torture and extortion. Preying on Eritreans’ vulnerability—they lack help from their own government, which has been accused of complicity in the kidnappings—the hostage-takers have benefitted from chaos in a region whose poor aren’t among the top priorities of humanitarian organizations or international bodies.
Because of its sizable population, the Eritrean immigrant community in the D.C. area has been particularly affected by this crisis. Worries about kidnappings often dominate discussions in businesses around the U Street NW corridor, a center of Eritrean émigré culture in the region, and East African bars and shops in Springfield and Silver Spring. Last May, hundreds turned out for a march across Washington hoping to raise awareness of Eritrean refugees’ hardships, and a conference in Alexandria brought experts and advocates together to discuss the human trafficking. From cab drivers to lawyers, a large number of Eritreans in the region—a population that could be as large as 50,000 people, according to Tricia Redeker Hepner, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Tennessee who has researched the Eritrean diaspora, although that’s an educated guess—seem to have been affected. Their home country has long suffered from poverty and political oppression, but the kidnappings are relatively new, intensifying in frequency over the last few years and gaining occasional media attention.
Still, many Eritreans in the D.C. area who have had relatives or friends kidnapped are afraid to speak up, worried about reprisal from the regime or afraid to confront the issue, according to Solomon Sengal, 53, an Eritrean human rights activist in Springfield.
“There are a lot in this area, but they don’t talk, they don’t want to talk,” Sengal, an electrical engineer, says. “They just quietly pay the ransom and keep it quiet.”
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Life in the D.C. area is idyllic compared to the years of warfare and political oppression many émigrés experienced in Eritrea, a small nation in the Horn of Africa that gained independence from Ethiopia 21 years ago. But in recent years, Eritreans’ lives have been frequently interrupted by frantic phone calls from the deserts of Sudan and Sinai, a troubled territory populated by Bedouin tribesmen that provides a refuge for jihadi militants.
“If you go out to some of the coffee shops where Eritreans gather, you hear all these stories,” says Michael Andegeorgis, executive director of the Alexandria-based Eritrean Law Society and an immigration attorney. Everyone seems to know someone who has contributed to a ransom payment, if they haven’t themselves—by dipping into savings, responding to pleas on Facebook, and rallying community members at churches and cafes.
“You just receive a phone call out of nowhere, like a distant cousin,” Andegeorgis says. “You didn’t even know this kid left the country. But you receive the phone call telling you, he’s in the Sinai desert, please help him.”
Andegeorgis, 40, moved to the United States from Eritrea 12 years ago to attend graduate school, got married, and stayed. He says Eritrean culture emphasizes helping community members when they’re in financial need. Andegeorgis once chipped in money for a kidnapping victim—the relative of a friend in Oakland, Calif., he says.
“Clients bring it to my attention in my office,” he says. “We hear it quite frequently.”
Eritreans began migrating to the U.S. in small numbers in the 1960s, when the country was still part of Ethiopia, according to Hepner. Subsequent waves in the 1980s and over the past five years brought thousands more, mainly as part of refugee resettlement programs, and the D.C. area has long been home to one of the largest communities in the country, Hepner says.
Spread out across northern Virginia, the District, and the Maryland suburbs, many Eritreans frequent the same cafés, groceries, and hairdressers as members of the region’s sizable Ethiopian community, scattered in strip malls and storefronts from Falls Church to Silver Spring. Despite political differences, Eritrea and Ethiopia share many cultural, religious, and culinary traditions. Around U Street NW, restaurants like Keren, Dahlak, and Selam serve Ethiopian and Eritrean fare. An Eritrean cultural and community center is located at 6th and L streets NW.
The Eritreans in the D.C. region are among the luckier ones. Fleeing persecution at home, hundreds of thousands of Eritreans have become refugees over the last several decades. Poverty, political repression, and a dictatorial regime that requires indefinite conscription have pushed many into Sudan, Ethiopia, and Israel. They often pay smugglers thousands of dollars to reach Israel or Europe, but in the last several years, more and more Eritreans have instead ended up as hostages in Sinai after their smugglers sold them to Bedouin tribesmen, many of whom live just miles from the Israeli border.
The kidnappers beat, rape, and kill many of the hostages, often as they plead on the phone with relatives to pay ransoms that can reach as high as $50,000. Former hostages and human rights activists tell stories of abductors chaining the hostages to one another, beating them with rods, dripping molten plastic onto their backsides, and electrocuting them. Men and women are sexually abused and threatened with organ harvesting. Some are killed as a warning to others to pay up.
The traffickers steal hostages’ phones and look for information about relatives in the West, who can pay higher ransoms, sometimes by wiring the money via Western Union or MoneyGram. Little has been done to track the money transfers, largely since no international body has seriously taken up the issue. More than 1,000 people, the vast majority Eritreans, were being held hostage in Sinai as recently as last spring after a peak of more than 2,000 was hit in 2012, according to Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean activist and radio host in Sweden who has spoken with hundreds of kidnapped people in the region and written reports on the subject.
The flow of sub-Saharan Africans into the territory virtually stopped when the Egyptian military stepped up a campaign against militants in northern Sinai last summer, but it picked up again in November, and there are now between 100 and 150 migrants being held there, Estefanos says. Between 4,000 and 10,000 Africans have died or gone missing in Sinai, while around 20,000 survivors of torture in the peninsula now live elsewhere, she says.
In a February report, Human Rights Watch blasted the Egyptian and Sudanese governments for not doing more to stop trafficking. Keeping the victims coming is “hugely profitable” for the traffickers, according to Claire Beston, the Eritrea and Ethiopia researcher for Amnesty International.
“There must be some kind of justice for those who were lost in Sinai,” Estefanos says. “It is really sad.”
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The hostage crisis, of course, doesn’t just impact Eritreans abroad. Hostages in Sinai have reported their families in Eritrea selling off all their property and possessions to come up with amounts of money unfathomable in a country where the per capita gross domestic product last year was $1,200. “No one in Eritrea can afford that much,” says Alem Zewoldai, 64, an Eritrean opposition political activist in Arlington who has contributed to a ransom payment. “So what they do is call relatives over here or in Europe, and they ask for help so their child can be saved.”
The U.S. embassy in Eritrea’s capital, Asmara, sometimes hears from concerned relatives or friends, and officials there direct them to appropriate law enforcement agencies, according to an official from the Office of East African Affairs in the State Department’s Bureau of African Affairs.
But some family members take a more direct approach. When Tesfu Teckle, 57, a bus and taxi driver from Takoma Park, received a call in 2009 from people who were holding his 17-year-old nephew in Sudan, he recognized the language the kidnappers spoke. “I said, ‘I know you are Eritreans. If you kill that child, I promise someone from your family will get killed,’” says Teckle, a pro-democracy activist who is on the board of the America Team for Displaced Eritreans, a Pennsylvania-based refugee assistance organization. His nephew was held in isolation until Teckle could wire the $3,000 the hostage-takers demanded to Sudan, where a friend made the exchange.
Sinai remains a largely lawless area. For Egyptian leaders struggling with domestic tumult, East African hostages remain a low priority. Meanwhile, a U.N. Security Council report in 2012 linked senior Eritrean military officials to the trafficking. “There are clear signs that the Eritrean government is aware of it and involved with some of the details of the kidnapping and extortion,” John Stauffer, the president of the America Team for Displaced Eritreans, says.
In a statement, Eritrea’s chargé d’affaires in Washington, Berhane Solomon, calls the U.N. report’s accusations “baseless” and says the Eritrean government and military have actually tried to combat trafficking. The army, he says, “has been registering substantial achievements in bringing individuals and groups to justice.”
Sengal, the human rights activist in Springfield, says Eritreans feel helpless when the countries that can act have not done so or have even encouraged the kidnappings. Over a lunch of stews and injera, Sengal explained how his brother and sister-in-law, as well as their two small children, were tricked and held by the Rashaida in Kassala, Sudan, at the end of 2011.
Sudanese security officials eventually freed them, but only after the captors beat his brother and demanded $9,000 for the family’s release.
“They are cattle,” Sengal says, calling these initial payments “appetizers” since the traffickers often take the money, then sell their human cargo to others who ask for even more. “They bring them to one place until they send them to the slaughterhouse.”
Ocbai Kifle, who sells half-smokes and drinks at his food cart near Judiciary Square, moved to the U.S. from Eritrea in the mid-1980s. Three of his relatives have been kidnapped in Sudan, including one who was taken to Sinai.
Right from the start, says Kifle, 61, he decided not to let the traffickers push him around. The first time he got a call about a kidnapping, of his brother in 2011, he became incensed when he learned the young man had disregarded his warnings about trafficking.
Kifle refused to pay the $7,000 the hostage-takers wanted, although his sister and another brother did eventually hand over a smaller amount of money.
“The whole world knows,” Kifle says of his countrymen’s travails. “I’m not saying the world is not helping us, but it’s not enough.”