November 2nd, 2011
07:42 AM ET

Death in the desert: Tribesmen exploit battle to reach Israel

In this first part of his report, CNN's Fred Pleitgen investigates the plight of refugees crossing the Sinai Desert. Check out the second part

El Arish, Egypt - "I wanted to build a good future for my family, but I failed," a weak Issam Abdallah Mohammed said in a videotaped statement.

The refugee from the Darfur region of Sudan was trying to illegally cross the border from Egypt to Israel when he was discovered and shot by Egyptian border guards.

Less than an hour after taping the statement, Issam was dead, succumbing to the wounds inflicted by the gunshots.

Every year, thousands of refugees, mostly from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan, attempt the dangerous journey from their war-torn countries to Israel in search of economic prosperity and stability.

Very few make it, and the results of the failed migration can be seen in the morgue of the central hospital in the Egyptian port town of El Arish.

When a CNN crew visited there recently, all the refrigeration units were broken, leaving a biting stench of decaying corpses in the air, which staff members attempted in vain to cover up with chlorine-based cleaner and incense.

On any given day, the morgue will be packed with the bodies of African refugees who died trying to make it to Israel.

Hamdy Al-Azazy spends a lot of time here as head of the New Generation Foundation for Human Rights, which tries to help African refugees in Egypt.

Every week, Al-Azazy combs the desert, searching for corpses, ensuring that they get a dignified burial.

He has spent the past seven years helping the refugees. Many are enslaved and tortured and the women raped by the Bedouin tribes of the Sinai if they are unable to come up with large sums of money the Bedouin try to extort from them and their families, to smuggle the refugees across the border into Israel. As a result, many remain imprisoned in camps on the Sinai Peninsula.

"They are chained and kept in camps in the open with no bathrooms and little water and food and treated worse than animals," Al-Azazy said.

"Some of them are taken to Libya, but 80% of them are smuggled to Israel. Those who escape are shot by the Bedouins, and others who make it to the border are sometimes shot by the Egyptian authorities and transferred to hospitals before spending a year in different prisons in Sinai and deported back home."

The CNN crew found two victims in the hospital in El Arish, handcuffed to their beds and awaiting their transfer to an Egyptian detention center and eventual deportation.

One of them, Mahary Taklay Abraham of Eritrea, says he hit his head falling off a rock while trying to cross the border and was caught by Egyptian border guards. But before making it to the border, Mahary says, he spent about two months with the Bedouins.

"They beat and tortured me continuously and demanded money from my family," Mahary said.

Al-Azazy says this is a common scheme. The refugees will pay Bedouin tribes in the border area between Sudan and Egypt around $2,000 to be smuggled out. The smugglers then sell the refugees to the Sinai Bedouin, who blackmail the refugees and their families back home.

Ibrahim Yehia of Eritrea says he fell prey to the Bedouin.

"When we arrived to Sinai, the Bedouins tied me up with metal chains in the desert. They tortured us. Many of us died," he said, displaying his wounds, including scars that he says came from electroshock torture.

"They wanted me to pay $12,000 and forced us to call our families to transfer the money. My family sold all their lands and even their donkey to collect the money. They transferred $6,000 to the Bedouins."

After his family paid, Yehia says, the Bedouin finally let him go.

"I spent three months tied up in the camp close to the Israeli border. After I paid, the Bedouins drove me to the border crossing and set me free. I was then shot by plainclothes men close to the wired fence at the Israeli-Egyptian border. The military took me to the hospital."

Some of the refugees are forced into slave labor, often working marijuana fields that flourish all over Northern Sinai, Hamdy Al-Azazy says. Refugees who made it across the border into Israel have told harrowing accounts of rape, torture and slave labor.

Women are especially vulnerable. CNN spoke to one victim who made it to Israel and spoke on condition of anonymity. She said she was raped almost daily on a journey that took several months to get to Tel Aviv.

"Every night, they took me separately, and they did whatever they wanted to my body," the Eritrean said.

Al-Azazy hears stories like this all the time. "The women and men are kept in open areas. These Bedouins don't have any morals or conscience. One girl told me that three Bedouins had raped 14 girls in one night," he said.

When CNN confronted a leader of the Sawarka Bedouin tribe, one of the largest in Sinai, the chief said he was aware that people trafficking is going on in Sinai and that in some cases African refugees are held in bonded labor, tortured and women raped.

The Sawarka chief, who did not want to be named for this report, said that only rogue elements of the tribe are involved in people trafficking.

This same chief took CNN to a secret location and allowed them to speak to five African refugees who were hoping to make it to Israel, in an apparent bid to show us that the refugees were being well treated.

But interviews with refugees who have escaped the camps or been released suggest that mistreatment and even murder are commonplace in the Bedouin camps.

One Bedouin leader willing to go on record is called Salem, a powerful chief of the Tarabine tribe.

He acknowledges that people trafficking exists among members of the Tarabine and Sawarka tribes, but he says that it is only a fraction of the members who are involved in the trade and that they are ruthless.

"You can't label the whole tribe or implicate it in this trade. The Bedouins in Sinai are over 150,000. Those working in this business will not exceed more than 50 people."

During an interview by the Red Sea, Salem said he loathes those involved in people trafficking, torture, rape and murder.

But he acknowledges that Bedouin leaders are doing little to stop the illicit business out of fear of stoking tribal infighting.

"These guys are evil. They do not care where to get money. They deal with a middleman in Africa to get those men. These Africans spend months here, sometimes up to six months in Sinai, before crossing - if they cross."

Egypt's government and armed forces seem powerless to stop the Bedouin smugglers.

Police units have been forced out of most areas in North Sinai after the revolution that swept longtime leader Hosni Mubarak from power. A military operation aimed at combating Islamist extremists in the area has done little to stop people trafficking in this lawless region that runs mostly on criminal activity, such as smuggling of goods into Gaza and drug trafficking.

Meanwhile, more bodies turn up in the Sinai desert. In a matter of weeks, several more were buried by Hamdy Al-Azazy close to the grave of Issam Abdallah Mohammed, the refugee from Darfur who recorded a video shortly before his death.

While the bodies of those who can be identified are buried in cemeteries in El Arish, the many corpses that remain nameless - because they carry no identity cards or have decomposed beyond recognition - are laid to rest outside the cemetery walls in an anonymous mass grave under heaps of trash from an adjacent slum.

soundoff (40 Responses)
  1. Simon

    Maybe the world should take a look at why these refugees are trying to get to Israel. Does this article acknowledge the good that Israel does for these people. Israel, a country with many of its own problems, still maintains its humanity towards people in need. Israel a country with a population under 8 million, and little connection to these people still help them and have become the county that they are willing to risk their lives to get to.

    November 2, 2011 at 9:24 am | Reply
  2. Robin

    As anIsraeli, I see the refugees working and living all over Israel. I find it amazing that despite the problems this country has, the refugees struggle to come here despite being closer to so many other countries. Why do they want to come to Israel? I guess they know that they will be safe and will be able to help their families. I was shocked when I read this article. I had no idea they were treated like this by the Beduins in Sinai. I remember the Beduins as proud beautiful people . It is awful that this is happening. I hope the new Egyptian government will put a stop to it. THank you CNN for making this issue public.

    November 2, 2011 at 9:39 am | Reply
  3. BethTX

    I applaud any country trying to keep illegals from flooding their system. The US should take a page out of Egypt's book and shoot to kill at the borders.

    November 2, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Reply
    • elle

      You are an animal.

      November 2, 2011 at 12:22 pm | Reply
      • Steve

        Elle.. To call BethTX an animal is to do injustice to animals. Only humans kill for territory, greed, or "pleasure". Animals kill only for food or to protect their young. We humans could learn a thing or two from the animals on our planet. They seem like the higher life form here.

        November 2, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
      • gatornuts

        Steve, you have obviously never heard of lions. Those are some mean mofos! And guess what, King of the jungle.

        November 6, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • bianca

      i agree with elle. i can hardly believe a woman would think and speak as you do. i pray that it comes from ignorance more than evil.

      November 2, 2011 at 12:35 pm | Reply
    • BethTX

      Bleeding hearts like you are the reason we're giving our country away. And Bianca, sweetie, not all women are weak liberals like yourself.

      November 2, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Reply
      • jonnybgood2nite

        giving "our" country away??? i hope you're an indigenous native american... otherwise you're simply a cold-hearted ignoramus with a startling lack of empathy. your comment makes me pray that some form of karma exists. people like you are the cancer of our planet

        November 6, 2011 at 5:38 am |
    • Jimmy

      Everyone deserves to live not to die like this cruelty. How do you feel when part of your family vanishes in such cruelty. \

      November 3, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Reply
    • BethTX

      INteresting post, Lisa.You whine about me calling someone a bleeding heart and then you turn around and call me a...let me get this right now..."threat to society". It's called hypocrisy. Please look it up. By the way, congrats on being able to pinpoint me from a 2 sentence post. You're good, hon. Keep up the good work in making sure we hand our country to the illegals. I'm sure Paco will thank you.

      November 4, 2011 at 3:51 pm | Reply
    • Michael

      BethTX ,you are immoral. Use your head before vomiting your words! We live in globalization time where every one is trying to integrate each other as a result of d/f reasons. That is why these social medias for you dear. If you have an argument why people cross border illegally, i may answer it that is class difference such that no country wants to open border gates to poor African refuges. All in all i think you miss the point that the current world economy and politics.

      December 18, 2011 at 6:06 pm | Reply
    • Mariam

      You wouldn't have passed this judgement if you or your loved ones were in a situation where they must make desperate decisions, have some compassion before life presents it to you in order so you can understand others.

      April 15, 2013 at 10:42 pm | Reply
  4. Joe

    Beth is from Texas so that tells us all.
    Beth doesn't sound like a native Indian name though does it.
    What country did your ancestors migrate from to Texas Beth?
    You of course forget that YOU too are an immigrant and your ancestors are resonsible for the ethnic cleansing and genocide of the native Red Indians!!!! seems like on a much beiiger scale even that the bedouin of Sinai !!!

    November 3, 2011 at 7:55 am | Reply
    • BethTX

      Ah, I was wondering when the fuzzy thinkers woud come up with that tired BS line. 1) Cheap shot at my state because you have nothing else. Nice job hitting that mark as expected. 2) Your argument that we're all illegals has never held up because the Indianns were scattered tribes with no common laws and certainly no immigration policies. Get over it: they were a group of savaes squatting in tepees, not some great answer to all that ails us. That notion came into play with the hippies.

      November 3, 2011 at 1:44 pm | Reply
      • Lisa

        They have plenty else on you but Texas has a very poor record on integrity and humanity so that's why it was mentioned to explain why you could hold such a view. (What's in the water there in Texas to make so many of you so cruel? Better check on that!) Beth, I was shocked to read your original statement that a person should simply be "shot to kill for trying to cross an international border. And that you go on to defend that view. Calling one poster "weak" or a "bleeding heart" because the do not agree that it's ok to take someone's life so easily. Madness woman! They need to lock you up if you really feel that way. Pls check yourself in and seek treatment if you honestly feel that way because I fear you are a threat to society. I only read the rest of this thread in order to determine what sort of a person would have it in them to say such a thing. I was "floored" to learn you were a fellow American... saddened you are allowed to call yourself an American while holding such a belief!

        November 4, 2011 at 7:07 am |
      • Michael

        Here it sounds you are saying your seniors invade all over the world legally to bring a rule of law. But to me that was an economy challenge and looking better alternative.Here I am not blaming your seniors rather appreciate them for there alternatives.

        December 18, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
  5. CG

    The reason why poor refugees are exploited for the organs is that consensual organ sales are illegal in almost avery country. If consensual organ sales were legal, there would be far less demand for black market organs. Consensual organ sales save lives. These horror stories only make the current ban on such sales even more outrageous.

    November 3, 2011 at 11:52 am | Reply
  6. Ashley

    This is horrible. The United States needs to do something. Opening its doors to the people who are trying to get into Isreal would be a start. Its the right thing to do.

    November 3, 2011 at 1:15 pm | Reply
    • Bayero Ibrahim Gamoji

      It's very compassion to the victims! I pray them for Allah's protection and guidance,and I pray to the Assam Abdullahi Muhammad for eternity who dead as a result of gun shot for simply crossing the boarder.This is apparently violeting human right.

      November 7, 2011 at 6:03 am | Reply
  7. Fritter Critter

    Hey Lisa what about the Mexican army? Should we go give them hugs when they cross the border? How about criminals from across the border who periodically wreak havoc and go home? Need enough of a deterent.

    November 4, 2011 at 12:50 pm | Reply
  8. Js

    Its unbelievable & unthinkable of such extrem Horror for those individual go through' how can a human being behave and do such things " for Organ trafficking it can easily happen to any travels " we just have to thank God and count ourselfs lucky . May God Bless their Souls and heal their family who will not even know where their loved ones disappeared to.

    November 5, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Reply
  9. Enoch

    The new leaders in Libya are exterminating "their Black" population, Egypt, with the help of Billion-US-fund, waging genocide on Copts and Black Africans - and the world is silent, silent and silent!

    November 5, 2011 at 1:17 pm | Reply
  10. ibrahim

    i was a victim of these ruthless bedouins in sinai just two months ago but i managed to escape from their bondage after having stolen all my belongings and pointed gun at me if i try to escape but i still managed to escape.right now am still in egypt i am willing to disclose what i know about these people .if need be i can follow any organisation therefor invesigation i know my captors queit alright and i know their houses and how they operate.they did not kill me because am a muslim but instead of that they chained me down and asking 100,000dollarsfor my freedom .i dont want to reveal too much here but if am needed on this war i ican be contacted on this menu here cause my e mail not working the person that need me can drop his contact no i will call then we can talk so far my safety is guaranteed these people are devils and they need to be dealt with.

    November 5, 2011 at 4:54 pm | Reply
  11. Saifelnasr Mohamed

    Those people responsible of these horrendous acts should be brought to justice. The Egyptian army should be forced to stop killing of these poor people who are trying to escape injustice and poverty in their countries. It is amazing how Muslims are talking endlessly about how humane Islam is, and how merciful Muslims are while some of them are committing the worst crimes without a word of condemnation from other Muslims.

    November 6, 2011 at 4:38 pm | Reply
    • JT

      yes its hard to have symphathy for people like this. And its not nothing new in most less privilage countries Christians get crucified every day by muslim psycho paths like this. Its always the Christian population in Egypt and other countries that trys to manage these devils who make the killing of Christianity an honor.

      November 9, 2011 at 10:14 pm | Reply
  12. Mohammad

    first of all thanks to CNN for showing this hated crime to world peoples there is bigger problem in between Iran and turkey border people crossing to Europe .


    November 8, 2011 at 1:10 pm | Reply
  13. gill

    As a person from a developing country, I am pleased to see that people in the west do have a heart for underdeveloped countries.

    November 9, 2011 at 2:29 pm | Reply
  14. JT

    there is always evil and this tops it all. i wish they can drag, beat, and torture them like the people did to ghadaffi, The Bedouns and Egyptian guard by far the worst evil seen since the days of Hitler, and im sure karma is a b$tch.

    and why do the Egyptian army who should be more civil than the Bedouns kill people fleeing their country. Are they offended taht noone wants to stay in their stincking country, you are killing people who want to get the out not get in, unless their just pure evil.

    November 9, 2011 at 10:03 pm | Reply
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