“Please, Meron, my sister, hurry up, hurry up! Please! Rescue us tonight!” one hostage desperately pleads from captivity in an African desert, in a phone call to Meron Estefanos, an Eritrean activist and journalist in Sweden. “If I get out of this hell, it’ll be like being born again,” another caller says.
Estefanos hosts a weekly radio show on the plight of Eritrean refugees and specifically the thousands who have been kidnapped, tortured and held for ransom in Sudan and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula—the subject of my Washington City Paper article last week.
A new documentary, Sound of Torture, chronicles the hardships faced by two people held captive by Bedouin in the desert whom Estefanos tries to help. Estefanos has spoken to hundreds of Eritreans who have been kidnapped; they and their family members call in to her show, and she works to free them and get their stories out.
The powerful film, which premiered in November, follows the story of an anguished Eritrean man in Israel who struggles to raise the $30,000 kidnappers in Sinai demand for his wife and baby. He speaks regularly with his wife on the phone, between her torture sessions. The hostage-takers in the region, whom activists say have kidnapped tens of thousands of Eritreans over the past five years or so, often allow their victims to speak with their relatives as they torture them.
Another character in the documentary searches for his sister, who was also held captive in Sinai. With Estefanos’s help, he tries to find out whether she made it out alive.
“I felt that our people have to get it,” Estefanos says in Sound of Torture, recounting how the first calls she received pushed her to devote herself to these people. “So then I started broadcasting only Sinai stories. Nothing else.”
The torture the hostages endure ranges from beatings and gang rape to electrocution and dripping molten plastic on their bare skin.
At one point, a man calls Estefanos to tell her two people near him had just been beaten to death and that he was worried he would die, too, after his captors “crushed” his feet.
“Please do something to save our lives,” he says. “I’m also going to die. I’m losing blood now. I’m not sure I’ll be alive tonight.”
Estefanos authored reports with Europe External Policy Advisors, a research center in Brussels, in 2012 and 2013, bringing the topic to the attention of the European Parliament and the United Nations’ Human Rights Council.
Last month, the European law enforcement agency Europol warned that European relatives of those held hostage in Sinai are being extorted for ransom payments.
“I come from a country where animal rights is respected,” Estefanos says in Sound of Torture, which was filmed in 2012 and 2013. “You hit a dog in Sweden, you go to jail for six months, you know? You kill a cat, you go to jail for three-and-a-half years, you know? And here, we listen—I listen to people being tortured every hour. And the whole world is watching, doing nothing.”
The Israeli film, directed by Keren Shayo, has been screened in Europe, where it has won awards at film festivals. It will soon premiere in Israel, too.
An American company has signed up to distribute it in the U.S., but screening dates have not yet been set, according to Shayo. A trailer is available online.
Photo courtesy Meron Estefanos