He could hear their screams. Some were close, some echoed from far away. He knew they were being tortured. He prayed quietly to God that he would not be next.
“I wasn’t really thinking, I was just thinking 'this is it, I’m dead'.”
A protester in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, November 2011.
It was late 2011, and with Egypt reeling just months after a popular uprising had deposed autocrat Hosni Mubarak, 18-year-old Awet decided to leave his home country of Eritrea for Sudan and then Egypt, from where he could apply for asylum in a safer country.
But at the Eritrean-Sudanese border Awet and the other Eritreans travelling with him were taken hostage by Egyptian Bedouin traffickers, most likely of the Rashaida tribe, who operate across Eritrea, Egypt and Sudan, often in cahoots with corrupt local officials. They took 70 refugees that night and drove them to Rafah, a town on the edge of Egypt’s border with the Gaza Strip, where they were held in dank underground cells.
North Sinai is a dreaded destination for African refugees, who traffickers use as human currency in an elaborate and lucrative trade of organ harvesting and kidnap for ransom.
Rape, starvation and electric shocks are all used to elicit ransom payments from families. Those who can’t pay are put to work on cannabis plantations or have their organs harvested.
An Eritrean refugee in Cairo displays the wounds he received while being held captive by traffickers.
Awet was chained up and fed bread and water for over a year until his mother, Nebiat, gathered the $4000 his captors demanded. At least five other refugees died during this time.
Awet had fallen victim to a system of exploitation that stretches from soldiers to government officials. A leaked United Nations report in 2012 named Eritrean general Teklai Kifle as one of the ‘masterminds’ behind extensive human and arms trafficking networks.
After the ransom was paid Awet, delirious from heatstroke and severely malnourished, was dumped at Egypt's border with Israel, where he blacked out. He woke up hours later to find he had been shot in the leg. He was taken to hospital by the Egyptian military.
The gunshot had shattered his knee, forcing him to undergo seven surgeries. Awet still walks with crutches and a limp. He spent a year in El Arish hospital in northern Sinai before moving to the capital, Cairo.
Unable to work, in constant pain and stuck in a city not kind to vulnerable newcomers, he waited for two years for the UN's refugee agency, the UNHCR, to place him in a new country. Eventually the news he had been waiting for came: he had been granted refugee status and would be flown to Perth – an 18-hour flight to what he hoped would be a new life.
This perilous journey had begun in Eritrea, a small nation on the Horn of Africa often compared to North Korea for its record of oppression. The country has been ruled under a state of emergency since 1998.
Most activity in the country relates to the military, one of the largest in Africa. Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, a former rebel, insists mass militarisation is necessary due to the threat posed by neighbouring Ethiopia. Everyone aged 16 and older is required to undertake national service for indefinite periods. As a result, the country continues to suffer an exodus of youth.
Consecutive national football teams have used matches abroad as an opportunity to defect, so the government decided that only Eritreans who live abroad would be allowed to play in the team. In 2012, information minister Ali Abdu defected while on an overseas trip. That same year Eritrean Air Force pilots took the president’s plane and flew to Saudi Arabia seeking asylum.
“Everyone will say they support the government and life is good," Awet says. "But then why do so many people take their chance to leave?
An Eritrean child at a veterans’ cemetery in the village of Adi Tekelezan, with a mural depicting fighters for the country’s independence.
“No one living there will tell you the truth because they are afraid to speak.”
Those Eritreans living abroad are afraid of jeopardising their relatives still in the country. Awet constantly looks over his shoulder and is scared to have his picture taken or be recorded speaking.
After finishing high school, he began national service in a remote desert training camp.
He found himself constantly thinking of his father, a soldier who died in 2000. “I don’t want to be like my father, I want to have a future in this life,” Awet said.
An Eritrean soldier, right, patrols the border opposite Djiboutian soldiers at the countries’ disputed border near the Red Sea in 2008. Eritrea’s military conscription is a major factor in youth fleeing the country.
After six months of training, Awet fled one night with four other recruits. The desert landscape had left many who attempted to escape disoriented, fleeing in the night only to find by morning that they had walked in a circle back to the camp. But against the odds, the five made it.
Coming to Australia did not mark the end of Awet's ordeal. He had been living in Perth for a little less than two years, studying English at TAFE, when he received a devastating call.
His mother Nebiat and his six-year-old brother Meron were missing.
Awet (left) with his mother Nebiat and his brother Meron, six, and sister Silvana, four.
They had been separated from his four-year-old sister Silvana, who had arrived in Cairo and was in the care of distant relatives. The trio had been smuggled from Eritrea to Sudan, where they had lived for over a year. But facing a deteriorating situation, Nebiat decided to continue to Egypt, where she hoped to get the paperwork to be reunited with Awet in Australia.
Three days after leaving Sudan they made it across the Egyptian border to Aswan. They stayed in a transit house overnight with the traffickers before their group was dropped off at the local train station. A Cairo-bound train sat on the tracks. The group, mostly in their 20s, began to run to catch it, but Nebiat struggled with luggage and two sleepy children. One of the boys scooped up Silvana and the luggage, but in the panic Nebiat and her little boy didn’t make it.
Watching the train disappear into the night, Nebiat broke down on the platform. Her daughter was in the care of strangers and the bag containing her remaining possessions and Awet's contact details were gone.
Back in Perth, a distraught Awet hatched a plan to fly to Egypt.
On November 6, 2017, he landed in Cairo to begin the search of his life. But how do you find two lost Eritreans in a country of 96 million people at a time of political repression and xenophobia, amidst a crackdown on African migrants?
Awet, still not an Australian citizen, possessed only a travel document, putting him at risk of harassment and detention. He also stood to lose his Centrelink payments, his home back in Perth and potentially his right to stay in Australia altogether.
I first met Awet in a coffee shop in downtown Cairo. It was mid-November and his family had been missing since June.
He had picked up an unmistakable Australian twang, but had a look about him I couldn’t place, but would come to know well from the Eritreans I met: startled eyes, a resigned, pained expression and the posture of a person braced to jump up and hide.
We spent weeks visiting every organisation in Cairo dealing with refugees. With each visit, Awet's frustration grew.
“They don’t care, to them we are just more bodies. The woman told me ‘why would your case be special, Awet? There are so many like you’,” he related after a particularly bad meeting.
“My mum came by desert – she’s nearly 50, can you imagine travelling across the desert at this age?”
The Red Cross confirms Awet’s request to trace his missing mother and brother after they were lost in Egypt in June 2017. The references to July in this letter are clerical errors.
We spoke to lawyers, aid workers, diplomats and refugee advocates, hoping to get some news. We collected a village of supporters along the way. Everyone was sympathetic but no one could tell us anything.
The search was at a standstill when I suggested a lawyer friend and I might go to Aswan and look for Nebiat and Meron ourselves. A stubborn Awet insisted on coming too, but it would be dangerous to have him go to police stations where he could be detained.
In the end, the lawyer went to Aswan while I waited with Awet in Cairo.
I was pessimistic – a friend called to say that a group of African refugees had been arrested at the same time that Nebiat went missing. I began to prepare Awet for a grim outcome.
The lawyer had been in Aswan just two days when we got the call. He had done the impossible. He found Nebiat and her son in Kom Ombo, 50 kilometres north of Aswan.
Before the lawyer left, we had looked at maps, pinpointing safe spots the pair might have stopped at for refuge, and wrote lists of police stations and detention centres to check. He went to all of them but there was no news.
The lawyer, a Christian himself, decided to start going door-to-door at local churches.
At one church people immediately recognised the story. They asked many questions, fearing he could be a trafficker. Then they told him to wait.
A Christian icon from the apartment of Awet’s family in Cairo.
A few hours later they brought Nebiat and Meron to him.
After everything they had been through, we didn’t want to risk mother and son being picked up and detained on the train to Cairo. But no one would issue papers that would safeguard their passage.
Desperate to be reunited with Silvana and Awet, they decided simply to catch the overnight train. Against all odds, no one stopped them to check their papers.
Shortly after dawn, Nebiat climbed off the train in Cairo and saw Awet waiting on the platform. She collapsed.
“I couldn’t believe I would be found. I was so happy to see them.”
Are we there yet?
A few days later I made my way to meet Nebiat in the backstreets of central Cairo, where a maze of grim apartments have sprouted up as temporary homes for refugees.
The building is poorly constructed and tilts to one side, rain turning the unpaved alleys into a sea of mud and untreated sewage. But up several flights of a staircase so narrow your shoulders brush the concrete, a striking but thin Nebiat was holding court in a tiny living room, her hair braided down the centre of her head in the traditional Eritrean style.
Members of the Eritrean community filed through the house to pay their respects as news of her return spread.
Silvana was the least visibly scathed by the ordeal. Meron has the body of a child but the wearied demeanour of an old man. He stayed close to his mother, sometimes translating for her but mostly listening intently to our conversation.
Though relieved to be reunited with her children, Nebiat was too traumatised to leave the house or sleep much.
She told us that after the train left without them, they stayed in the station, too frightened to leave. In the morning, a man passing by saw them crying and gave them food.
Meron had learnt some Arabic in Sudan, so when the man approached them, he told him what had happened and that his sister was lost.
“You must leave the station otherwise they will cut you or kidnap you,” the man said.
But Nebiat didn’t want to leave, worried that Silvana might return. For the next few weeks they slept outside a tea shop whose owners gave them food, until a woman in the area known to assist refugees offered them a place to stay.
Traumatised: Awet’s mother Nebiat.
Before leaving Eritrea, Nebiat had worked in a military camp for over a decade as a cook and cleaner. The government doesn’t provide these services so troops pay out of their own pockets. As a result, she says, women like her are at the beck and call of soldiers, working around the clock for the equivalent of $25 a month.
These camps are precarious places for women, who frequently leave them pregnant. Nebiat's two youngest children were fathered in the camp. Her voice trembled when we spoke about her time there.
It took a year of collecting money from everyone she knew to make up Awet’s ransom, and it was after that she decided to leave, fearing reprisals for his departure. “There is no protection, no security,” she said. “And if your child left, they harass you and want to know where he is.”
It was a harrowing decision because going meant leaving two other teenaged children behind, knowing that military service wouldn’t be far away for them. But attempting to take anyone their age across the border would immediately draw attention.
For Awet to get his mother and two siblings to Perth, there are many forms to be filled and obstacles to be tackled. A laborious process of DNA testing involves procuring a kit from an approved lab in Australia, sending it to Cairo and getting it administered at the embassy, in the presence of its doctor, before it is sent back to Sydney to be tested.
Just a few weeks after his family was found, Awet returned to Australia. Running low on money, he had to finish his English course, a requirement for enrolment at university, where he wants to study IT. It could take years for the family’s papers to be approved, and there is still no guarantee that they will be, but he has to pay rent.
As far as Centrelink is concerned, Awet's ordeal did not warrant his absence. Even after he explained his family were missing, they had cut off the small payments that were helping him get by, saying the situation he faced had not met the official definition of an “acute family crisis”.
On the night he was leaving Cairo, we gathered at Awet's apartment. The room was packed with distant relatives and the wives of friends who had come to cook his farewell meal. As we sat down to eat injera, the traditional flat pancake with lentils, on vast trays in front of us, Silvana swiped the lentils from my plate. Her cousins, sensing how funny this was, refused to eat from their own plates and followed suit.
We laughed and hugged, promising to keep in touch. I asked Awet if he was nervous about what came next. He said he was, but he was also hopeful again.
“Before I was thinking second to second,” he said. “Now I’m living day by day.”
Maddison Sawle is an Australian journalist based in Cairo.
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