Sunday, March 24, 2013

Children held hostage in Sinai

During my last few weeks in Egypt, I tried to learn more about how Eritreans fleeing oppressive conditions at home end up held hostage in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, routinely beaten and raped until their families pay tens of thousands of dollars for their release. I wrote about the topic for The Atlantic back in November.

Members of the region's Rashaida tribe generally kidnap the Eritreans after they flee to Sudan or Ethiopia, handing them off to Bedouin in Egypt who keep them chained up while physically and sexually assaulting them. The abuse often takes place as the Bedouin force the Eritreans to call their relatives back in Eritrea or across the world and beg them to pay their ransoms – up to $50,000 per person. Hundreds are probably being held hostage in the Sinai, according to activists.

In January, I sat at an outdoor café in Cairo with four Eritrean children who had been kept captive for a month and a half in Sinai last year. I interviewed them for a story about how the Bedouin received money from the United States and Europe via Western Union and MoneyGram payments; unfortunately, I wasn't able to finish the article, so I wanted to share the children's story here.

The kids had lived with their grandmother in the Eritrean town of Shambuko, after their father, Bieday, moved to Norway. With the hope of smuggling the kids to him in Europe, Bieday paid someone to bring the four kids, who in January ranged in age from 11 to 14, out of Eritrea. But when they reached Sudan, the smuggler handed them over to Rashaida tribesmen.

They spent a month in the Sudanese desert before the Rashaida took them up to Sinai – 19 people locked in one truck for the two-week journey. Once they reached their destination in Sinai, a garage, the Bedouin tied them up with wires and chains. "We were very scared because they hit and beat us," Mirhawi, 14, said.

The girls said they did not suffer any sexual harassment, although sexual abuse is common for Eritrean hostages – both men and women. Still, the physical and mental abuse was constant, including beatings, according to the Eritrean man who was caring for them in Cairo. "We were held captive all the time – we couldn’t go outside," Fiyori, 13, said. "They tied cloth blindfolds on us, and we couldn’t see who was around us," added Tesvamkay, 14. "They tied us up with chains. They hung the people with us from the ceiling."

Finally, Bieday, the father, collected the $50,000 the kidnappers demanded for the children, and a taxi whisked them away to Cairo. The Norwegian press covered his ordeal. Check out this Norwegian report (in English via Google Translate) and this Facebook page for photos and video of the kids and the father.

In January, the children waited in Cairo, where they had been living for five months. They spent their days sitting at home, watching Arabic, Turkish and English television they hardly understood as the Norwegian embassy sorted out their cases.

"We only think about going to our father," Hiyab, 11, said. "We just think about this – nothing else." His older sister Mirhawi added: “We’re going to forget Sinai, and we’ll only be happy.”

Egyptian security forces have done little, if anything, to stop this flow of traffickers; police and military have been accused of complicity in Eritrea, Sudan and Egypt. With no country to advocate for them – rights groups say the Eritrean government is one of the most oppressive in the world – the Eritreans feel all alone.

A recent Wall Street Journal article looked into this transnational flow of people and money, and it's definitely worth a read.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The fountains of Iraq

A Kurdish man sells Muslim prayer beads.

Over a year and a half after heading off to Cairo, I moved back to the U.S. last month to search for a job in journalism here. It's been great seeing family and friends and eating Mexican food.

Before I left the Middle East, I made a quick trip to northern Iraq, home to the semiautonomous region of Kurdistan.

The Kurdish people reside in a landlocked region at the intersection of the border of four countries: Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. Turkey is home to the largest concentration of Kurds, who are ethnically and linguistically distinct from the Arabs, Turks and Persians who hold power in those countries. But three northern provinces in Iraq represent the Kurds' most tangible success to date in achieving their dream of a state of their own.

Iraqi Kurdistan has its own security force, social services and visa process. It also sits on billions of barrels of oil, which has been fueling the region's economic prosperity for the past five or six years. Fancy SUVs cruise past luxury hotels, malls and cookie-cutter developments with names like Italian City and the American Village. I stayed in Italy during my visit, and like parts of Rome, it smelled of sewage thanks to some very slipshod construction.

Since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, Kurdistan has avoided the sectarian violence that has racked the rest of Iraq. No need for a security detail in downtown Erbil, the regional capital; I felt at ease sipping pomegranate juice by the city's beautiful bazaar and outdoor fountains (in Iraq!).

Erbil's city center

Iraqi Kurds generally love Americans and the men who took on and toppled Saddam Hussein: George Bush and his son W. After decades of oppression, including Saddam's genocidal campaign in the late 1980s that used chemical weapons, air raids and other means to destroy thousands of villages and kill up to 180,000 Kurds, they welcomed the 1991 Gulf War and the 2003 invasion.

Occasionally, I came across American flags on display, and they weren't on fire! Like at this authentic burger joint:

Just like home.

While the Iraqi flag often flutters alongside its Kurdish counterpart, animosity toward the Arab-dominated central government in Baghdad runs high. Kurdish leaders say they want to remain part of Iraq, but ask anyone and they'll quickly express a yearning for a Kurdish state in "Greater Kurdistan," encompassing Kurdish-majority areas across the region.

At the heart of the current fight is oil – what's new? – and the Kurds' use of their natural resources in a tension-filled dispute with Baghdad over revenue, contracts and ultimately, additional autonomy. I filed a nice, colorful story (with photos!) for EnergyWire from a gas field called Khor Mor, giving Zaatari, Jordan, a run for its money for my coolest dateline ever.

Iraqi Kurdistan is also struggling to deal with an influx of Syrian Kurdish refugees as Iraqi Kurdish leaders vie for influence across the Syrian border. I wrote about that geopolitical trend for the International Herald Tribune.