Jerusalem (AsiaNews) - Plastic burned into their skin, electric shocks, sexual violence, daily meals consisting of a piece of bread and a little water mixed with diesel or salt. This is the torture and abuse suffered in Sinai by asylum-seeking migrants in Israel who now risk being expelled described to AsiaNews by Sister Azezet Kidane. The Comboni religious of Eritrean origins and English citizenship, has been active since 2010 among the victims of human trafficking.
She works in Tel Aviv with the NGO Doctors for Human Rights and as co-director of Kuchinate, a project that supports the refugees in Israel through the sale of woven cloth baskets. Her commitment to combatting human trafficking earned her an award in 2012 from the US State Department, delivered by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The official figures of the victims of torture speak of 7 thousand people, but for Sister Kidane there are 60 thousand. "The question is the meaning given to torture. If you ask an Eritrean if he has been tortured he says no. For me and for you certain things are torture: surviving a whole day with a small piece of bread and a glass of water mixed with diesel or salt; being locked up and blindfolded in a cell; being transported in bins. But for them it is not torture. If they get beaten, it’s not a problem for them, it's normal. If they tell them to run and if they do not run, they get beaten, they do not consider torture. They think it's the normal procedure to get to Israel. They only consider the most dramatic things torture, like plastic burned into skin, electric shocks. We know people who have lost their hands, who have their hands and legs destroyed, who have lost their sight".
As of January 1, 2018, the Israeli government has warned the tens of thousands of asylum seekers, mostly Eritreans and Sudanese who arrived through Sinai between 2006 and 2012: they will have to leave the country by April or risk prison. The decision has triggered reactions from the organizations for migrants and UNHCR, which are asking for a step back. Now, the refugees risk falling into the hands of traffickers a second time.
The Israeli government wants to drive out the male migrants first. This is worrying for the Comboni nun. "It's a big problem for the women we follow", since many cannot work, the rents are expensive and for their subsistence they depend on about 50 men who help them. If they leave, the women will face "tragic poverty".
Sr. Kidane speaks of a mother of two who lives with her cousin and a friend of hers. Her husband left her years ago, leaving for Rwanda without warning, tired of her, who "did not want to be touched by him" because of the trauma of rapes. "She had been abused so many times, and she had never talked about it. With the money we give her she pays the children's health costs. Just yesterday she told me if they leave, I'll go and live under the trees and if they leave I'll kill myself, I cannot work. Once she had refused to sleep with one of the traffickers and he beat her with the butt of his gun on her back, causing permanent damage to the vertebrae, so she cannot work. "
At the moment the Comboni nun is interviewing some refugees, hoping to relocate them to America through UNHCR. The interviews are conversations of at least two hours, because "every person is a sea". "The four women I heard yesterday were all sexually abused. And what strikes me is that they still smile. They still believe and say: 'if the Lord had not been with me, I do not know how I would have done'. This strikes me a lot: a person who has gone through hell but who can still can smile, who can still believe".
"Our job is to restore their trust in people, to show them humanity," continues Sr. Kidane. "Because if you lose humanity you lose everything. Those who tortured them are also people. So many of our women get divorced because they lose trust in people. They come to us with suspicion and fear. We need to listen to them again and again, a hundred times, to give them a space of trust ".
In Israel, many have raised their voices in support of refugees: "Us, organizations like Hotline, but not only. Even those who give them work in hotels, restaurants. They are fighting too, but our fear is that the government will not listen to anyone."
It is important for Sr Kidane to remember that the refugee problem is not just about Israel. "Every person, every refugee we meet - not only in Israel - has baggage, suffering. The phenomenon of refugees creates misunderstandings and racism, and they feel unwanted. We must look at the person, how much he paid to get where he is. We must believe that they are not a challenge, but a resource, because they bring so much beauty with them, not just fear. We must be people of hope for the people we meet on the street".
The problem of migrants is also deeply felt by the Church of Jerusalem, which has founded a pastoral center for them "Our Lady of Valour" in Tel Aviv. There as in Jerusalem there is a small parish community of Eritreans who are Catholics of the Ge'ez rite, while the majority are Orthodox.
Fr Rafic Nahra, who is in charge of pastoral care, reiterates that "we need more humane solutions". "What is important is that the Church shows that she is conscious and that she does it with friendship", continues the priest. "It is not a question of condemning Israel, but of saying that this is not human, and that other solutions must be found".
Since the government built a fence in the Sinai in 2012, "the number of asylum seekers is decreasing, not growing. We cannot say that there is a fear of continuous arrivals. It was 65 thousand three to four years ago. And those who are here, their children were born here, they are ready to work ". Even at this moment the migrants of uncertainty, they work to give their children a living.
"The problem is that [the authorities] say that they are not asylum seekers, but economic migrants. What money? Those people who crossed the Sinai were captured, they were hostages, they suffered."