This article is part of a 3-part epic. Part 1 can be found here.
CANNABIS CULTURE – The Holy Land is home to some spectacular scenery, but no vista in the country can lay claim to sunrises as majestic as those of the Egyptian Sinai. Standing on the shoreline of the Gulf of Aqaba, locals and visitors alike gaze to the East and watch the sun emerge above the mountain range on the Saudi Arabian side of the seawater inlet, unobstructed by any man-made structure.
The name ‘Red’ in “Red Sea’ may be derivative of its Hebrew name, ‘Reed Sea’, so called for the seaweed that grows in abundance in its tropical waters. But red also describes the stunning hues of the cliffs that run along its entire east coast, from Jordan in the north down to Yemen in the south, where its waters spill into the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and from there, into the Indian Ocean.
Standing at the water’s edge, anyone could be forgiven for losing track of time, forgetting their stresses, and drifting into oblivion – all the more so if one was smoking some of the local herb. The indica strains that can be easily acquired at Bedouin encampments on the Sinai coast are not especially potent, but they are plentiful and inexpensive.
After a blissful four-day break on the beach with his paramour, 30-year-old graphic designer Elyasaf decided it was time to head back north, to return to the rigors of his regular life in Tel Aviv.
He never made it past Egyptian border control.
“Today I remind you of my sins,” Elyasaf confessed to Cannabis Culture, recalling the terrifying turn of events that followed. The quote from scripture (Genesis 41:9) was a reminder of his ultra-Orthodox upbringing, and a reference to the Biblical figure Joseph being tossed into an Egyptian jail, a fate he was about to experience himself.
“I had a packet for holding tobacco,” says Elyasaf. “And marijuana had been put in the packet. It wasn’t a whole lot, but it wasn’tso little, either. I arrive at the border. At that moment, when I remembered that I had it on me, and I wanted to throw it out, it wasn’t possible any more. I was next to the Egyptian soldiers.”
The customs officials examined Elyasaf’s luggage and found the packet that contained the sensimilia. “He took out the tobacco packet, and opened it. He looked inside and was totally surprised. ‘Where did you get this good quality stuff?’ He really enjoyed sniffing it, several times. ‘Where in Egypt can you get these things nowadays?’ And then: ‘You’re going to go to jail for years.’”
Egyptian officers then transferred Elyasaf to a holding center nearby, where conditions could not have been more different from the Bedouin beach utopia he had just departed from only an hour earlier.
“You enter a place that is something like a hole in the ground. You are immediately blinded. There was constant blinding light, 24 hours a day, with a vent that also makes a crazy, horrible noise, 24 hours a day as well,” says Elyasaf. “The cell was separated into two rooms. One of the rooms, you don’t want to enter it, you don’t want to smell what goes on there, you don’t want to see the rats, and even a snake.”
Entering the cell for the first time, Elyasaf started to take stock of his miserable circumstances. “At first I blink my eyes and I try to see. And I see just one figure in the room, lying on the ground at first. And he gets up, it’s a dark-skinned young man with knotted hair,” recalled Elyasaf.
“A few seconds passed before I realized that the guy is talking to me in Hebrew! In fluent Hebrew, Israeli in every way, without a hint of an accent! So I said, ‘Hey, what are you doing here? How did you get here?’ And then he tells me his unbelievable crazy story.”
Kidnapped in broad daylight in downtown Tel Aviv
Back in Tel Aviv, Ablel said goodbye to his friend Semere and hailed a private taxi. “I spoke the language well,” he told Cannabis Culture. “I told him where to take me and where to bring me back.” As requested, the cabbie ferried him to one of the private financial institutions serving the African refugee community and other foreigners who are often prevented from opening regular bank accounts in Israel. Ablel made his deposits and returned to the taxi, still waiting for him outside.
“He’d been calling around while I was gone, until I came back. He’d been calling around. I didn’t even think about who he could be calling, didn’t even think about it. My mind was elsewhere,” says Ablel. “He told me there was also another person he would pick up that was also going around where he was dropping me off, so he wanted to pick him up.”
It is not uncommon for Israeli cab drivers to make this request of their customers, so Ablel didn’t think much of it at the time. But as soon as the second passenger entered the vehicle, his malicious intentions were made apparent. Ablel was violently attacked and his face sprayed with a noxious poison that temporarily blinded him and rendered him unconscious.
He was then whisked right out of the country.
Ablel’s captors drove him down to the desert and dumped him in a dark ditch. After what felt like a day or two – he could not be sure as he was held in isolation – Ablel was fished out of the pit and forcibly taken to the Egyptian border.
There, at the border fence, he was transferred to another set of captors. “People were being welcomed by the types who buy and sell,” Ablel recalls. “I was hearing about how they take people into Sinai and Sudan and stuff like that, but I never thought that kind of thing would happen to me.”
Ablel was then held for months in a shipping container in the Sinai, not far from the border with Israel. “They started telling me to talk,” Ablel remembers, “and began the torture.”
Torture camps just across the border from Israel
While Ablel’s friends fretted over his fate, he was forced to endure physical tortures for months, and to witness the torture of several other Eritrean refugees he was held with, just teenagers.
For decades, Bedouin tribes across northeast Africa had smuggled goods across national borders, including human cargo. When the number of Eritrean nationals trying to cross the Sinai Peninsula and enter Israel increased exponentially in the late 2000’s, not all of their Bedouin smugglers contented themselves with charging the refugees a simple fee to transport them to the border. Some of these gangs began to torture the refugees in the most gruesome ways, hoping to extract from them even more money.
“We have a culture of collecting money, funding things. Whenever we hear an Eritrean has a problem, we are always raising money for different issues. And this made it easy,.” Swedish-Eritrean journalist Meron Estefanos told Cannabis Culture. “We have become like goods!”
In addition to the predictable set of abuses – beatings, electrocutions, and rapes – these gangs also invented a new type of torture to further torment their captives: melting hot plastic and dripping it onto the bare skin of their hapless victims, causing immense pain and leaving ugly scars. The smugglers would then force the refugees to call up their relatives in other parts of the world and plead with them to transfer tens of thousands of dollars to the smugglers’ bank accounts. Only upon receiving payment for the full sums – large by Eritrean standards – would the smugglers release the refugees and shepherd them to the border with Israel.
Just a few weeks before Ablel was snatched and smuggled into the Sinai, Estefanos visited the peninsula to document the ongoing abuses. There she met and interviewed some of the very Bedouins who trafficked and tortured African refugees, and asked them why they did it. “They give you different reasons,” recalls Estefanos. “One would say, because they were tortured themselves by [the then-recently deposed ruler of Egypt for thirty years, Hosni]Mubarak, and this is what they have learned. Others will say, there are no jobs in the economy in the Sinai.”
Other Bedouins she spoke to weren’t ashamed of their behavior and didn’t attempt to excuse it. “Somebody actually told me, these are not human beings, we see them as cattle,” says Estefanos. “I asked them, ‘But even if you see them as cattle, you don’t torture animals!’”
It is difficult to find an Eritrean national in Israel today who was not either tortured by these human traffickers, or forced to witness them torturing others, or pressured to contribute significant sums of money to secure the release of family members and friends. The knowledge that so many of their countrymen suffered these unspeakable horrors, and that many more were forced into complicity, remains a source of great pain and great shame to Eritreans in Israel.
‘Tortured without mercy’ for months in a shipping container
The torture Ablel endured still traumatizes him, but in a series of interviews with Cannabis Culture, he reluctantly dredged up memories of the horrific abuse he suffered. “They hit my neck, my jaw and my mouth,” says Ablel. “I couldn’t talk or say anything. I was just straight crying.” The beatings went on for two months straight, he says. “It was hurting me, but then I got numb as it went on. They treated me however they wanted. They’d hit me whenever they came around,” Ablel remembers.
His daily diet consisted of just half of a pita bread, and he had no choice but to go to the bathroom in the same shipping container he was being held in, along with other prisoners. And in addition to the torments that he himself suffered, Ablel was also forced to witness his captors abusing the other Eritrean refugees. His jailers “tortured without mercy,” he says, burning their backs and lopping one young man’s ear clean off his head.
Ablel’s captors demanded $35,000 for his release, a princely sum. But his initial kidnappers had mistakenly left his mobile phone back in Israel, and without the device, Ablel couldn’t be sure of his family members’ phone numbers. “I would start thinking to remember the numbers, but I’d mix them up and give it to them incorrectly. It wouldn’t work for them. Whenever that would happen, they would hit me,” says Ablel. “After some time, I didn’t have any capacity to sustain it.”
After about eight weeks, the fates finally granted Ablel a reprieve from his daily tortures. One of his captors removed him from the shipping container he was being held in, and walked him up a high hill. There he hoped Ablel would get better cellphone reception, so that he could call up a family member and plead for a ransom payment. But as they climbed up the steep hill, Ablel glimpsed an opportunity to flee from his captors. With a sudden movement, he shifted his weight, shoving the guard down the hill, and then making a break for it.
Though his health had seriously deteriorated, Ablel still managed to escape on foot. He walked and walked through the desert, until he came to a road, where he collapsed in a heap. “When I got to the street, I just sat there and waited. I was waiting for a car. It was almost night. Some would see me and pass. Motorcycles would pass. They’d drive by and keep going.” After about six hours, someone took pity on him, and called the police for help.
After two months of torture, Ablel made for a harrowing sight. His clothes amounted to not much more than ripped rags scarcely covering his gaunt frame, replete with open wounds. “I’d cut the sleeves so that I could wrap the bloody wounds,” he recalls.
He was now free but in foreign territory, lacking documents that could attest to his identity and to his legal status, and without the support of a sovereign state that would vouch for him. The Egyptian police put Ablel a decrepit cell just a couple of kilometers from the Israeli border.
And there he languished for months, until one day, Elyasaf entered the cell.
END OF PART 2
David Sheen is an independent journalist and filmmaker born and raised in Canada, now reporting from the ground in Israel*Palestine. His written and video work focuses primarily on the country’s racial and religious tensions. In 2017, Sheen was named a Human Rights Defender by the Ireland-based Front Line Defenders. Sheen’s website is www.davidsheen.com and he tweets from @davidsheen.