Meron Estefanos – Voice of Eritreans

Eritrean refugees trying to reach Israel are kidnapped, held for ransom and tortured in the Sinai desert. Many do not survive. Meron Estefanos campaigns for the world to take notice of these atrocities. She thinks that the film Sound of Torture will make a difference. ‘I hope this film will be an ambassador.’

‘I could not understand that this crime is going on while the whole world is silent about it.’ When Meron Estefanos first found out about the kidnapping and the torture of Eritreans in the Sinai desert, she wrote to the UN, the European Parliament and the US State Department. ‘I thought: when they know, they can send soldiers and rescue them’. No such thing happened.

For years, Swedish-Eritrean Meron Estefanos has been trying to draw the world’s attention to the plight of the Eritrean Sinai hostages, and more broadly to the dire human rights situation in Eritrea. The film Sound of Torture follows her to Israel, where she meets former hostages who she has helped and supported over the telephone in her radio programme Voices of Eritreans.

The Sinai route to Israel became popular among people fleeing Eritrea after the European Union sharpened its border controls. Initially, they paid a comparatively modest fee to the smugglers and their reception in Israel was not unfavourable. But the situation quickly worsened. The smugglers started kidnapping Eritreans, also ones who had no intention of going to Israel. They demanded ever-higher ransoms. Many were tortured. At the same time, Israel’s attitude to African refugees became more hostile.

Estefanos campaigned in Brussels, Washington, New York (at the UN) and Stockholm, but to little effect. ‘We don’t know who to turn to,’ she says. It does not help that many in the Eritrean Diaspora live in denial. Followers of the Eritrean regime ‘romanticise the heroes that gave us freedom from Ethiopia and prefer to ignore the human rights abuses,’ she says.

The regime denies that thousands of Eritreans flee the country every month, and that many are kidnapped and drown in the Mediterranean Sea. Regime loyalists abroad react likewise. Estefanos: ‘When a boat capsizes in the Mediterranean and the regime denies that the people who drowned were Eritreans, these loyalists will repeat that – even when they know somebody with a relative who died in the accident.’

The regime loyalists try to discredit Estefanos and her work. They even accuse her of organising the kidnapping. However, she says, ‘the more I am criticised, the more I am motivated. I must be doing something right when they are so pissed off.’ And when the Sinai issue became known, some regime supporters called saying: ‘Even if we don’t like your political stand, we thank you for what you are doing for the hostages.’

By Gijsbert van Liemt