Yonathan: “In the torture camps I couldn’t even kill myself”

Yonathan comes from Eritrea. In his country military service is compulsory, and if you try and get out of it that is a crime punishable with years in prison. Despite the risks, Yonathan, 26 years of age, with a degree in information engineering, decided to leave his country as a ‘deserter’ and try and re-start a new life in another African country.

“My plan was to leave Eritrea as soon as possible. After University I would have had to join the army, but I refused. I went to Asmara, the capital, where I worked illegally and stayed out of sight. When some of my friends started to disappear I thought that I might be the next to go. I had to go, no matter where. I was born in Sudan and I know the language, so I decided to make for there. I knew there was a danger of being kidnapped so I decided not to get involved with the smugglers for my escape and count only on myself and the help of some friends. When we arrived at Kassala, in the eastern region of Sudan, men of the Rashaida ethnic group tried to capture us but there were six of us and we managed to fight them off, then Sudanese soldiers arrived and took us to the Shagarab refugee camp.”

At the refugee camp Yonathan and his friends realized immediately that they hadn’t been saved. The Rashaida came and went every day, checking on new arrivals, while the guards, who were supposed to be in charge of the security of the camp, pocketed banknotes and pretended not to see anything.

“Three weeks had passed since our arrival at Shagarab, it was morning and we were gathering firewood when they burst into the camp. They grabbed me and two other guys, loaded us on to their trucks and beat us up, then took us to somewhere up north of Kassala where we were put together with other Eritreans who had been kidnapped like us. In the following days other co-nationals joined the group, until we were ready to be considered a profitable number.

On the border with Sinai, the group, which had now become more than thirty people, was handed over to some Egyptians who took them in their boats to Aswan on the other bank of the Nile, and then on to Suez. They used a big truck to transport them, one of those that they use for poultry. Where they took them was the market, they were the goods.

“They divided us and handed us over to different traffickers. Me and another thirteen were taken to a torture centre where they asked us for 3.500 dollars for our release. They made us call our family two or three times a day and during the telephone call they beat us so that they could hear our cries on the other end of the line. My family and friends managed to put together the money and paid for me. When the money arrived they loaded us up in a car, we had been sold to another trafficker, he wanted 30,000 dollars, he had paid a lot of money for us, he said, and he had to have a return for his money.”

The second torture camp where Yonathan was taken was hell. The detainees were given a slice of bread a day and the maltreatment and torture was programmed. It was administered in such a way that the pain was greatest at the time of the daily telephone calls with families. There was also three women detained together with Yonathan, of whom one was pregnant, and they received the same treatment as the men.

“They hung us head down tied by the ankles, other times by the wrists and they poured molten plastic over us. After a week, one of the guys who had been kidnapped with me died, and I was in really bad shape. I had a broken wrist and my ankles lacerated by the chains that were too tight, I couldn’t see much and it was hard to stay on my feet. I knew that my family would never be able to pay 30,000 dollars for me so I lost all hope. I tried to commit suicide by slashing my jugular with a cable, but it was too old and rusty and didn’t work so I begged one of the translators who was an Eritrean to procure some poison for me, any poison that would help me to kill myself, but he refused to help me. I couldn’t help thinking of my mother who was receiving these calls, who didn’t have the money and who wouldn’t know what to do.”

It took the family three months to put together the money necessary to free Yonathan who was by now almost dead, almost always unconscious, too weak to walk and with his hands partially gangrenous owing to having been left hanging by his hands for too long. Yonathan does not remember much of his journey towards Israel, he fainted after a few steps and had to be carried by the men who were sharing this last tract guided by their new custodian, this time a Bedouin. The Israeli patrol that came across the group of refugees had Yonathan transferred immediately to a hospital where he remained for several months.

“I contacted my family to tell them that I was alive but I said nothing about the injuries to my hands. I had lost many of my fingers and those that remained I found it difficult to move, so I had practically lost the use of my hands. They told me that everything that was possible has been done, but more could be done with more advanced surgery. I spent more than a year in a refuge at Petah Tikva, east of Tel Aviv, I felt very bad because on the one hand I was happy to have survived, but on the other I thought that perhaps it would have been better if I had died because from now on I would have to depend on others. I had always counted on my own strength and had never had to depend on others. In Israel people like me they consider “infiltrators” and it didn’t matter how many times I repeated what had happened to me. With time I realized that I would not be able to request political asylum and that the law allowed the government to arrest me and detain me for more than three years. This situation was ghastly because after everything that I had been through I was being treated as a criminal. I wanted to leave but I didn’t have a passport, and I couldn’t turn to my Embassy because I was a deserter.

I was telling some journalists about what had happened to me when I met some European activists who invited me to Brussels in December 2013 to tell my story to the European Parliament.”

Today Yonathan is 28 and lives in Sweden where he is completing the procedure that will finally enable him to obtain refugee status. Thanks to a network of German donors he will be able to receive special surgical treatment for his hands as soon as his position has been regularized.