LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The desperate voice of a 22-year-old Eritrean mother kidnapped in the Sinai desert will haunt Meron Estefanos forever.
“Both her parents had died fighting for Eritrea to gain its independence. This mum and her infant were both tortured for two years. She was mainly worried about what would happen to the child if anything were to happen to her,” said Meron, who runs a radio hotline from her home in Sweden for Eritrean refugees.
“I was not able to save her and she died at the hands of her captors. That is something I could not get over to this day.”
Meron left Eritrea for Sweden at the age of 14, but she stayed closely connected to her country of birth in the hope of one day returning there and making a difference.
That dream became closer than ever when she moved back home in 2002. But she was dismayed by what she found.
“You could see it in people’s eyes that life was hard, but they would not want to speak out for fear of getting in trouble,” Meron told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Eritreans, under the rule of former independence fighter Isaias Afwerki, struggled to afford even basic necessities in the country’s collapsing economy.
His administration is accused by an inquiry commission appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council of using enforced conscription, enslavement, imprisonment, rape and torture to instill fear.
In a bid to escape the climate of fear, thousands of Eritreans each year put themselves at the mercy of people smugglers to make the treacherous journey across the Sinai to Israel and Mediterranean Sea to Europe. Last year alone, nearly 50,000 Eritreans applied for asylum in Europe.
Meron returned to Sweden determined to speak out - using a radio phone-in show to reach Eritreans, especially those on the move and at risk of kidnapping and drowning. She even helps to raise funds of pay off smugglers’ ransoms.
She is a presenter on Radio Erena – a Paris-based Tigrinya-language station which broadcast globally and, most importantly, into Eritrea via satellite and over the internet.
“There are days when I receive up to 50 phone calls a day from inside the country with callers reporting a family member missing,” said Meron ahead of a discussion on the migration crisis at Trust Women, an annual human trafficking and women’s rights conference organized by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
It was through her show that Meron received a devastating call in 2010. An Eritrean migrant – one of 425 Eritreans packed into a listing boat on the Mediterranean Sea, called her using a people smuggler’s satellite phone, pleading for help.
Since then, Meron’s phone number has became a hotline for Eritrean migrants crossing the Mediterranean or victims of kidnapping held for ransom in the Sinai Peninsula.
In 2013, Amnesty International said it was “greatly concerned for the safety and security of refugees and asylum-seekers held captive in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt.”
Many of them are Eritreans, held for ransom by Bedouin smugglers, and tortured and murdered if demands go unpaid.
Calls from the Sinai have been particularly harrowing, said Meron, who heads the Eritrean Initiative on Refugee Rights - a movement working with international refugee agencies and rights groups to draw attention to the plight of Eritrean refugees.
She has heard victims screaming in the background while someone was on the phone talking to her.
“The calls came in any time of the day or night and nothing prepares you for it. You could hear genuine fear and hopelessness in their voices,” Meron said.
“Some were so exhausted from the torture that they said death could not come soon enough,” she said.
At times, Meron was able to negotiate the release of the captives by raising the funds to pay off ransoms. Those who could not pay were murdered by the smugglers.
Meron featured in an award-winning documentary film, “The Sound of Torture” in 2013 which highlights her work in helping refugees kidnapped to the Sinai Desert en route to Israel.
She campaigns for a change of government in her home country in the hope it can stem the flow of refugees out of Eritrea.
“Right now, dictatorship is the root cause of thousands fleeing the country. I believe that an end to dictatorship should also mean an end to these horrible stories and people can go back home,” Meron said.
Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights and climate change. Visit news.trust.org