Meron Estefanos, the lifeline

Text by Saran Koly
Photos by Marta Streng
October 14, 2016 All

Her phone number is the last resort for Eritrean refugees, kidnapped, tortured and held for ransom in Sudan and Sinai.


Meron Estefanos was 13 when she moved to Sweden. “I’m a lucky one, my father had been living here for many years and I joined him. I quickly learned the language.” Meron’s mother stayed in Eritrea. “ This was the hardest part, being so far from my mother.”


In 2002, she moves back to Eritrea. “Eritrea has one of the most repressive regimes in the world, where everyone has forced national service from the age of 17 to 50. The regime basically owns your life until you are 50 years old; that’s for women and for men (…) I realized my childhood friends spent years in military service. One of our neighbours had disappeared. I didn’t have to go through this.“ She is quickly reminded of the privilege to be a Swedish citizen. “If I can’t help the Eritrean people while in Eritrea, then maybe I should help the Eritrean people from outside of the country, ” she thought.

“I started with radio in South Africa. They trained me, taught me everything about broadcasting. Then a friend wanted a female voice for another radio and told me I could do a show about human rights.” She thought it was too broad and “narrowed it down to refugee issues Eritreans face inside and outside the country. “ This is how; Voices of Eritrean Refugees was born. “We started getting feedback from people in Eritrea.” But she insists: “I don’t see journalism as my profession, I’m an activist.”


The sound of torture

In 2010,“I received a call from a guy in the UK who told me his brother was kidnapped. He was being asked to pay a ransom. He gave me the number and I decided to call to investigate if this was true. “ She asks if she can broadcast the interview on her show. “Although I had heard about the kidnappings, this was my first contact with a family that had someone who was kidnapped and my first encounter with the kidnappers. They allowed me to talk to the hostages. “ Since then, the calls never stopped. “The hostages saved my number, it circulated in different torture camps, and they would call me to tell their stories.”

Held at locations in North Sinai and in Egypt, the hostages scream of beatings, burnings, women raped repeatedly every hour, and babies deprived of food and water. The phones work as tools for the kidnappers to force the hostages to call their families and ask for ransom as soon as they arrive in Sinai. “The Sinai Bedouins put them in shackles and give them phones. They force them to call their families while they are being tortured. This is a way to apply pressure on their families to pay the ransom. Unless it’s paid, the mutilation and death will not stop.” For the last five years, “this is all that I’ve been doing. I speak to them on a daily basis. We’re talking about hundreds of hostages, and many of them have died,” she insists.


According to Human Rights Watch, “ since 2004, over 200,000 Eritreans have fled repression and destitution at home to remote border camps in eastern Sudan and Ethiopia, dodging Eritrean border guards with shoot to kill orders against people leaving without permission. They have no work prospects in or near the camps and until 2010, tens of thousands paid smugglers who took them through Sinai to Israel.” By 2011, Israel had completed large sections of a 240-kilometer fence along its border with Sinai to keep them out. “Since then, traffickers have continued to kidnap Eritreans in eastern Sudan and sell them to Egyptian traffickers in Sinai ” says the organisation.


“ Since 2010, $600 million dollars have been paid in ransom. The torture is done by the Bedouins and the kidnappings are done by the Sudanese during the Eritreans’ escape into the Sudan,” explains Estafanos, who co-authored The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond.


The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that about 4,000 Eritreans flee the country each month and that as of mid-2014, more than 313,000 Eritrean; over 5 percent of the population; have fled.


“ The whole international community remains silent. The U.S. could stop this kidnapping and torture in a day if they wanted to. They give a aid to Egypt. They could us it to pressure the government” Estefanos wants the world to know and take action. For a year and a half, documentary filmmaker, Keren Shayo followed the activist. They captured the feeble cries of a newborn baby in a torture house, the trauma of a released hostage, the horror, the pain and the daily struggle of asylum seekers in the pursuit of a better life in a documentary: Sound of Torture. Her works takes Estefanos all over the world.

Back in Stockholm, Meron Estefanos keeps receiving calls. “People tell” me I’m leaving in a couple of days or hours” and this usually pisses me off I tell them that this is not the solution and that the radio show is to prevent them from doing so.“ What could stop Eritreans from


1. Egypt/Sudan: Traffickers Who Torture
Egypt Should Use Sinai Security Operations to Suppress Trafficking


2. van Reisen, M; Estefanos, M; & Rijken, C (2013) The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond [Draft], Wolf Legal Publishers, Oisterwijk


fleeing? “The root cause is the regime that is driving people out of the country. In Eritrea, a mafia-like regime exploits its people and makes money in the name of its people.“


The journalist operates from her kitchen. Her phone never stops ringing. “ People call me all the time. My friends are annoyed by these calls because we always get depressing news and when we think we had heard the worst, there is another call and we realize that worse is possible.”


The Mediterranean Sea


In the summer, she gets calls from people in a boat crossing the Mediterranean Sea. “ They tell me they are drowning and ask for my help, they tell me their lives is in my hands, I hear women and children screaming, crying. I try to calm them down, but this is when I feel the most powerless.” GPS coordinates are hard to find, sometimes, their batteries go down. She usually quickly calls the Italian authorities “now it’s a bit better it takes 7 to 8 hours but before it used to take 48 hours (…) I tell them they come by boat not by helicopter but in this 7 or 8 hours, they keep calling every couple of minutes, and I can’t do more it’s terrible.”

The single mother of two is exhausted. “ I’m busy all day with the refugees then my two sons, sometimes I go to bed but I can’t sleep because I’m thinking about one of the calls. I sit and think. And watch movies to change my mind, that’s the only treat I give myself to relax.”
Financially, the situation is hard. “ I struggle to make ends meet. I can’t sustain myself.” Her fourteen-year-old son is supportive but “ he says, “ Mom, we appreciate what you do but you don’t make any money with this job”. After ten years of voluntary work, “I am in complete bankruptcy. “ She has hopes to soon start a new and paid, job as a researcher for refugees’ human rights.


Meron Estefanos is burnt out. “You start being an activist because you think you can make a change, but it’s so hard, so slow, it is frustrating. I would like to be able to do a lot more.” When asked what keeps her going, “I’m humbled and inspired by the people. They are so courageous. I admire their faith in life. In a country like Eritrea, with a shoot-to-kill policy, I would never risk my life. But they do, they take their chance. They are the real heroes.”