Bedouin successes fighting people traffickers

photo : CNN

photo : CNN

by Frederik Pleitgen and Mohammed Fadel Fahmy, CNN
Editor’s note: Watch the CNNI documentary “Stand in the Sinai” on Friday September 21 at 1530 and 2030 GMT.

The area of Al Mehdia near Egypt’s border with Israel is a lawless place even by Northern Sinai’s standards.

There is no police force and a military offensive launched recently after a deadly string of militant attacks on Egyptian border guards, has not stopped the illicit trade that flourishes in this area.

Tankers full of fuel still make their way to smuggling tunnels leading to Gaza in broad daylight and marijuana fields are cultivated with elaborate irrigation systems in the middle of the desert.

Last year CNN visited the region as part of the Freedom Project spotlighting the depths that the traffickers have sunk. Now we revisit the remote region to see Bedouins tackling the trafficking on their doorstep.


Al Mehdia is an area that thrives on smuggling, including a human cargo of African refugees who are trying to make it Israel in the hope of finding a better life there.

They are the poorest of the poor. Coming mostly from Sudan and Eritrea, many fall into the clutches of brutal human traffickers who hold them captive and demand huge ransoms.

They endure torture and rape, and if they cannot find someone to pay the ransom they are often killed.

Al Mehdia is dotted with torture camps run by Bedouin gangs. The trade is lucrative. The traffickers demand between $35,000 and $60,000 for the release of a captive.

In the past, some of those who could not pay have had vital organs removed, which the Bedouin gangs then sold to corrupt doctors.

But now, a band of Bedouin tribal chiefs have started to fight back against the people smugglers.

Sheikh Mohammed Abu Billal, a powerful chief from the Sawarka tribe, is leading the charge.

Mohammed is a Salafist – a radical form of Islam – but he is also deeply humanitarian in his beliefs. “What the traffickers are doing is against the will of God,” Mohammed told me when I recently visited him in Al Mehdia.

Mohammed has set up a safe house where African refugees who escape the torture camps are brought and given protection from the human traffickers.

“I have about 200 supporters in this region,” Mohammed said. “People now stand up to them there. In the past, if an African escaped the camp, the criminals were able to catch them again, but now the traffickers don’t dare enter the people’s lands. We bring the refugees here and provide them with food, water and clothing, and get them doctors.”

Sheikh Mohammed took me to the safe house. Fourteen Eritreans were staying there, all of whom had escaped the compound of a torture camp only a week earlier.

The men and women all bore clear scars from the torture they endured and many of them had horrific stories to tell.

“You are lucky if you can rest for one hour. Every hour, or every 20 minutes they would come and hit us. They used a big stick. After a while you do not feel your body anymore,” one refugee, who did not want to be identified, told me.

Others described how the people traffickers would melt plastic on their backs and they showed me their scars, many of which were still fresh and some infected.

Another man from Eritrea also described his ordeal: “They chained our hands and legs together and hung us upside down and started hitting the bottom of our feet. They melted plastic on our skin and just kept constantly hitting us. And they told me, ‘if you do not pay ($33,000), no one will come out of this alive.'”

It might seem inconceivable that people smugglers would demand tens of thousands of dollars from refugees who have little more than the shirts on their backs.

But they have a ruthless system that works. While they are being tortured, the refugees are forced to phone relatives abroad and beg for money.

There are even accounts of them having to call home while they were being raped to beg for cash to pay the massive ransoms.

“There are usually signs of torture and rape. They arrive here in very bad condition, dressed in rags and often starved,” Sheikh Mohammed told me.

He said some women had become pregnant from rape while in custody and had still been subjected to beatings.

Both the traffickers and those now combating them are Bedouins. In some cases they are from the same or affiliated tribes.

In an illustration of how close-knit and closed off this community is, Sheikh Mohammed pointed out the human trafficker’s compound to me from where the refugees he was now harboring had escaped. It was barely 500 yards away from Mohammed’s own house.

He also warned us not to go there or risk being shot by the ruthless traffickers.

Despite the traffickers’ compound being so close to the safe house it is impossible for Mohammed to simply go there and shut the operation down by force. That, Mohammed says, would violate inter-tribal norms and could lead to tribal warfare in this close knit community.

But Sheikh Mohammed has powerful allies. One of them is Sheikh Ibrahim al Munai, a proud smuggler who owns several tunnels where goods are transferred from Egypt to Gaza.

Sheikh Ibrahim says he loathes the people smugglers and has vowed to stop their brutal business once and for all. He says: “This trade is not part of Bedouin culture.”

Sheikh Ibrahim says the alliance to combat people smuggling in Sinai has already had great success, bringing down the number of kingpin traffickers from 120 to about 22, he says.

Ibrahim says in this tribal culture the action against the traffickers begins by speaking out in the community and organizing demonstrations, but that sometimes violence can be an option.

“We have to use our minds to keep force as the last resort,” Sheikh Ibrahim told me as we were having tea in his compound.

“We pressure them. Stores are not allowed to sell bread, sugar, or tea to those traffickers. We have provided vendors with a list of their names and stopped them from selling to the traffickers. There is a serious boycott and some families refuse to let them marry their daughters as well.”

Sheikh Ibrahim and Sheikh Mohammed say they have saved hundreds of African refugees from the people smuggling compounds. But they also concede there still is a long way to go as this illicit and brutal trade remains highly lucrative for those who are involved.

source : CNN


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