The majority of victims in these camps are Eritrean. Human rights groups in Israel as well as the UN Refugee Agency estimate that 7,000 survivors now live in Israel. Kidane shifts uneasily in her chair at hearing these numbers. She stresses that her experience makes her believe that the numbers are much higher. “Everyone who’s come through Sinai has suffered some degree of trauma. All of them have some mental scars.”
Most of the women and younger females were gang raped on a daily basis in these camps and many of the men were raped as well. “It’s not talked about because of the shame factor but the numbers are high among the men too,” explains Kidane. “Everyone in the community can tell of someone else who was raped there but they won’t talk of what they themselves went through. The cruelest time was between 2011 and 2012, during which men and women suffered the harshest torture.”
The idea of writing the book, says Mymin-Kahn, came from “the understanding that there are many asylum seekers who find it difficult to function or who avoid certain activities due to their traumas.” She and Kidane explain that the lives of these asylum seekers in Israel don’t afford them the opportunity of looking after themselves. When one is busy with daily survival, they say, traumas get repressed, along with emotions and problems.
“Even when we met people who wanted to care for themselves they didn’t persist, since Western models of therapy were foreign to them. Coming once a week on a certain day at the same time was too difficult for them, culturally and financially,” says Mymin-Kahn. “We wanted to help them even on the most basic level. The aim was to provide accessible information, basic and simple, on topics such as phobia, anxiety, sleeplessness, depression and sexual assault. They could read it in their spare time at their own pace, whenever they needed an answer.”
The two have been collaborating for six years in assisting the Eritrean community. When Mymin-Kahn hugs Kidane, a nurse by training, the nun affirms that they are like sisters. Together they run the Kuchinate project (the word means ‘crochet’ in Tigrinya), an artistic-social-economic initiative in which participants weave African-style baskets for a living.
Each of them reached the torture and rape saga in their own way. Mymin-Kahn worked for five years as a psycho-social coordinator at the African Refugee Development Center, which runs centers for assisting African asylum seekers in Tel Aviv. Kidane was born in Eritrea and belongs to the Comboni Missionary Sisters convent. As part of her missionary duties she left Eritrea when she was 25 years old and wandered through Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya and Britain. She arrived in Israel in 2010 and started volunteering with Physicians for Human Rights. She collected 1,500 testimonies from victims of these camps in Sinai. Her activity significantly contributed to uncovering these camps and to the raising of awareness in Israel and overseas.
“Asylum seekers told me they were held in the desert until their families and communities paid a large ransom,” recalls Kidane. She says they were held there chained together, in filth and overcrowded conditions. Many told of people dying next to them, remaining tethered to them for days. “They were held for hours under the blazing sun without any food. Abuse was a routine matter. They added diesel fuel to their water, they burned them with red-hot irons and electrocuted them, making them engage in forced labor, always with verbal and physical abuse.”
Mymin-Kahn says these testimonies reflect the cruelty of the Bedouin traffickers. “We clearly see how they gradually cross every boundary of inhumanity in abusing their victims. One could see them ‘perfecting’ their methods, making the abuse a conveyor belt of hellish torture. They totally crossed every boundary during that period.”
Victims’ shame, silence
Kidane describes at length the problematic cultural pattern among these survivors, which she says prevents them from taking care of themselves. “They have no personal or community awareness of psychotherapy. It’s not obvious to them to seek help due to shame, a sense of guilt about what was done to them and a fear of being stigmatized.” In addition, some survivors are ashamed that they had to borrow money to be freed. They focus on their work to return the money.
“They don’t understand the need to deal with these wounds and talk about the trauma,” says Kidane. “There’s an Eritrean woman who suffered terrible abuse and who now lives in Holland. She’s been offered psychotherapy but has refused. She contacted me and asked that I send authorities in Holland a letter relating her story since she can’t talk about it again. Western forms of healing are different than Eritrean ones, which encourage repression and ignoring the trauma.”
Our Prime Minister is sending traumatised Eritrean refugees back to a hell they fought hard to escape & she’s sending them back damaged.