Transcript

502:

This Call May Be Recorded... To Save Your Life
Transcript

Originally aired 08.09.2013

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/502

Prologue.

Ira Glass

When the phone calls started, Meron Estefanos was leading a quiet, busy life. She was a single mom with two young boys, going to school, holding down a couple jobs, including working as a freelance radio reporter. She'd been born in Eritrea in East Africa, moved to Sweden as a teenager. She was living in a suburb of Stockholm.

She was also a human rights activist, focusing on Eritrea. That's what her radio stories were about, too. And so she was used to people phoning her with tips and leads now and then. But at the end of February 2011 came this phone call--

Meron Estefanos

This guy from UK called me and told me that his brother was kidnapped and that he was being asked $20,000 for the release of his brother.

Ira Glass

The man said his brother was with other people who had been kidnapped, all of them Eritrean, and that they were in the desert, far from Eritrea. They were on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, close to the border with Israel. He said they were being tortured and held for ransom-- $20,000 each, which seemed absurdly high to Meron. Eritrea's a country where the average person makes less than $1,000 a year.

Meron Estefanos

I had a hard time believing that, actually, what he was telling me was true. And he understood that people were hard time believing. So he said, well, if you don't believe me, here. So he gave me two phone numbers. He said you can talk to the hostages yourself.

Ira Glass

Meron wanted it to be a lie. And she couldn't bring herself to try the numbers. But then that night, she couldn't sleep thinking about it. So--

Man

[INAUDIBLE].

Meron Estefanos

Hello?

Man

Hello.

Meron Estefanos

Hello, salaam. Meron Estefanos. [SPEAKING TIGRINYA]

Ira Glass

Meron called the numbers. And remember, she was a radio reporter. She did reporting for two radio stations that broadcast by shortwave and satellite into Eritrea and over the internet to Eritrean emigres around the world. So she recorded these phone calls, hoping she could do a story. This is one of the first calls she made. And yes, someone did pick up, and yes, he said he was being held hostage. He told her his name was Biniam, he was 22 years old, that he'd fled Eritrea in 2010, had been living in a refugee camp in Sudan, working at a farm, when he was kidnapped and taken to Sinai.

He said he was there with other people in a group of 28. There had been 29, he said, but one had died. They were being held by some Bedouins, Biniam said. Meron came to learn that the hostages were allowed access to cell phones so they could beg their families to send money. We have interpreters translating what Biniam and Meron said to each other.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

The place we are held at is an underground facility. They have us chained. And they have taken three people to the outside. We hear cries from the outside. We don't know whether they are being tortured or whether they are dead.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Tell me more. What are they saying to you?

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

The people who are holding us are saying that unless we make good on our investment, there will not be a solution. They tell us they will drink our blood.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Ira Glass

Meron had heard stories of Eritreans being kidnapped and held hostage in the Sinai before this call. People had been fleeing Eritrea for years. Its government is one of the most repressive in the world. And sometimes, people got kidnapped, either on their way out on the road or from refugee camps right across the border.

But it was still this shadowy thing that human rights groups were just starting to report on at that point in 2011. It wasn't clear how many people it was happening to. And the ransom surprised her, like I said-- the size of it, $20,000. Meron had never heard of a ransom that high. It didn't seem like it could be real. And come on, we'll drink your blood? Really? It could even be some kind of hoax, a scam where they trump up how desperate they were, to get money sent.

Meron Estefanos

I kept telling myself, OK. Maybe they are lying. It's just too hard to believe that this many people can get kidnapped and tortured and a lot of money. It's just hard. But at the same time, I kept saying to myself, what if it's true and I did not believe them? Then I'll regret this the rest of my life.

Ira Glass

So Meron calls back. And thanks to caller ID, they call her back. And then, reluctantly, she gets pulled in deeper and deeper into this situation where it is not clear exactly what is true and what isn't, and there are people who are saying their lives are in imminent danger, and it's happening thousands of miles away. But it is also happening right there in her own home, over the telephone. Imagine for a second if hostages started phoning you at your house, while you're at the dinner table, while you're sleeping.

Well, from WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass as you'll hear, Meron ends up making lots of recordings over the phone and gets more and more involved with these people who are claiming to be hostages. And reporter Yowei Shaw; one of our producers, Brian Reed; and an Eritrean journalist, Bealfan Haile went through those recordings.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are now more migrants and displaced people in the world than ever-- over 65 million. This is a story about the severe danger some of them face. A warning to listeners-- this is a story of hostages and people having their lives threatened. There is some content that is violent and probably not right for children to listen to. Here's reporter Yowei Shaw.

Act One.

Yowei Shaw

Meron had a lot of questions for these people on the phone. She started with Biniam, the guy you just heard.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

So tell me, explain to me, from morning till night, what does your day look like?

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

I cannot even begin to describe the situation in here. They come here every hour, and they torture us. They get us up in the morning. We do not get breakfast, but they get breakfast. And they torture us.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

And towards the evening, after they torture us for so many hours, they give us one bread and they give us very small amounts of water.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

We've been tortured so much that we have wounds all over our backs, and we have lost our appetites as a result of that. We spend our days yearning for death.

Yowei Shaw

Meron listened, took notes, finished with Biniam. And then he passed her on to the next hostage, and then the next-- a 21-year-old named Dejen who told her that he and about five of the others were almost completely naked. For 28 days, he'd been wearing just his underwear.

Translator

Do they beat you up?

Dejen

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

We could have actually gotten used to the beating, but they're introducing us to new methods of torture that were unknown to us. They come here every hour after having tea and food, and they start electrocuting us on our heads as one person steps on our legs.

Dejen

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

To them, our lives are much less valuable than a goat or any animal.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

OK, Dejen. I'll contact you and keep checking on you again. I will broadcast all this information and the numbers that you've given me. Just stay strong, that's all I can say, and continue to encourage each other. I will call you again.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Is there anyone else who wants to talk to me?

Dejen

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Yeah, there's one guy here.

Translator

OK, so please pass the phone.

Man

Hello?

Meron Estefanos

Hello.

Man

Hello. [SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

Meron talked to the fourth hostage, the fifth, the six. They were shackled together in groups of five to 10 people. The traffickers would electrocute them, melt plastic bags, and drip the hot liquid on their backs. They said, we own you. You need to bring $20,000. If not, another option we have is we can simply open you up and harvest your kidneys and hearts.

By the time Meron was talking to the eighth hostage, Yohannes, you can hear in the recording that she's at a loss for what to say. She just keeps repeating, stay strong.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Stay strong, and if there's anything new, I will call you and let you know. But right now, all I can say is stay strong and continue to encourage each other.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

I'm sorry. Are we done for now?

Yowei Shaw

Meron had been talking to the hostages for nearly an hour, and she couldn't absorb any more. But another hostage got on, Semereab.

Semereab

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

You're our only hope. We spend our days wondering whether death will come today or tomorrow.

Semereab

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

The next hour or the next minute.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

OK, stay strong.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

I don't even know what else I can do or what else I can say. There is nothing else I can say. There's not much I can do as an individual.

Semereab

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

OK, are we done for now? Or is there anyone else?

Semereab

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Yeah, there are others.

Yowei Shaw

But Meron had heard all she could take. She cut the call short.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Can we stop here for now? And maybe next time when I call, I can talk to the others?

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Semereab

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Say bye to them for me, and tell them to stay strong.

Translator

Please don't disappear on us, and call us every now and then.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

Meron hung up and sat at her desk, staring at a computer screen.

Meron Estefanos

What can you feel? It's just shock. It was hard to accept what I was hearing, the stories they were telling me, the things they were going through. I was just-- from a normal life, it's like going to another world that you never thought existed.

Yowei Shaw

She still wasn't entirely certain whether this call was legit, or if it was, how much of what she was being told was real. But she knew it might be real. She knew it was true that Eritreans were being held in Sinai. And if these 28 people were there, maybe she could help them.

Man

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

Meron began broadcasting her interviews on Tigrinya-language radio stations. These were not carefully-crafted feature stories. She felt she didn't have time for that. They were basically raw, unedited recordings of her phone calls, with hostages describing the torture and begging for help on the air.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Man

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

Meron also reached out to other reporters to try and get them to cover the story.

Meron Estefanos

Oh, it's a very touching story, but it wouldn't sell. That's the kind of reply I would get when I called to some journalists that I knew. Sorry, we can't help you. Oh, it's not connected to Sweden. Sorry. So this is the kind of reply that I was getting.

Yowei Shaw

Meron did manage to get a BBC reporter interested in the hostages' story, but he asked for proof. How could he verify that people were being held and tortured in Sinai? She put him in touch with a group of doctors, Physicians for Human Rights Israel, who'd been helping and interviewing Eritreans coming out of Sinai. They'd photographed people's injuries from beatings, shackles, and burns.

In the end, though, BBC story didn't seem to get any attention. Meron went on a phone and email blitz, trying to publicize the issue but also hoping that something could be done for these 28 people. She contacted governments, NGOs, the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Meron Estefanos

There was a lot of disappointment at the time-- disappointment of all institutions and disappointed at journalists because I thought that within weeks, I would be able to solve it.

Yowei Shaw

Some organizations were taking small steps, like pressuring Egypt to take action. Early 2011 was incredibly bad timing for anyone trying to fix a problem in Sinai. The Arab Spring was going strong. Egypt was going through a revolution. Meron first got in touch with the hostages the same month that Egypt's president, Hosni Mubarak, was forced to step down.

Meron Estefanos

There was no government. That was a problem. They didn't have government, so that was also one of the biggest problems that we had because we didn't know who to talk to because there was no government.

Biniam

Hello.

Meron Estefanos

Hello, hello. Biniam?

Yowei Shaw

The hostages continued to call Meron, and the one she talked to the most was Biniam, the first guy in that phone call she recorded. He became kind of a spokesman for the group, and they developed a good rapport.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

Very soon, Meron was talking to Biniam nearly every day, often multiple times a day. She wanted to move on from the story, but the calls wouldn't stop.

Meron Estefanos

They saved my number, so it was really hard to even avoid it, even if I wanted to. I really wanted to avoid it. I could not just ignore those phone calls.

Yowei Shaw

The way it worked is the hostages would call and hang up before she answered so she could see their number and call back, since they didn't have enough phone credit. And in these conversations, Meron was always trying to figure out what was real in what the hostages were telling her. She knew that some amount of torture and killing needed to be happening to convince hostages' families to pay the insanely high ransoms.

But the traffickers couldn't kill too many people. It would cut into profits. So she figured they forced the hostages to exaggerate or lie sometimes. Still, she felt she could tell real panic when she heard it.

Medhane

Hello, hello? Meron, Meron.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Medhane

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Meron, Meron, two people have died just now.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Oh, my God. Who has died now? Who did they-- what did they do? Tell me what happened.

Yowei Shaw

On March 6, eight days after she first started recording the hostages, Meron called them to check in, and a guy named Medhane picked up. A warning-- this call has explicit violence.

Translator

Even me, my legs are crushed right now. I'm gathering all my strength to speak to you, Meron, my sister.

Medhane

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

We have two hours left. Please help us.

Translator

Just tell me, what is it that has happened? Tell me. What happened?

Translator

They came in to beat us as usual. And they told everyone to raise their legs. When those two couldn't do it anymore and lowered their legs, they killed them.

Medhane

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Please, please do something. I am losing so much blood that I don't think I will make it through the night.

Yowei Shaw

The hostage pleaded with Meron to send money as soon as possible, and then Meron heard a noise in the background.

[CRACKING SOUND]

Medhane

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

[CRACKING SOUND]

Yowei Shaw

He said the traffickers were beating them right then and there.

Translator

The others are being tortured as we speak. Please, it's an emergency.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

Meron is saying, oh, you poor guys, you poor guys. And there was one hostage in particular, Meron told them, she had to speak to-- the only woman in the group, an 18-year-old named Semhar.

Semhar

Hello? Hello?

Meron Estefanos

Hello, Semhar.

Translator

Hello, Semhar? Good morning, Semharina. I'm very sad. They've told me everything that's going on.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Please, Meron, my sister, please. Please help us.

Semhar

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

Semhar had been kidnapped while living in a refugee camp in Sudan, like Biniam and some of the other hostages with her. She had left Eritrea in hopes of finding a job to support her mom, who was very poor and trying to raise four young children she'd taken in. Meron felt especially close to Semhar.

And during this call, Semhar kept telling Meron how terrified she was, how she was on the verge of death, how she just couldn't bear it anymore. Meron started crying.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Semhar

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Meron Estefanos

Her story really touched me, and now I feel like she's my younger sister. I mean, I've heard so many people crying in the Sinai. But she's a very special girl that just, I mean, the way she would beg was really--

Yowei Shaw

How would she beg? How was it different?

Meron Estefanos

I mean, it's just different. Like she would say, my sister, Meron, please, please. I don't know. It's hard. You have to understand Tigrinya to get it. So it was just different.

Yowei Shaw

In fact, as we were interpreting the phone call you just heard, when we got to Semhar, our interpreter, who'd been listening to these recordings for hours, began crying herself and had to stop. She said she'd never heard anyone beg like that.

Semhar

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

And the male hostages who were in captivity with Semhar felt the same way. They told Meron that Semhar had it especially bad, even worse than them. One of the guards was taking her at night, and she came back crying. They didn't know what he was doing with her.

Meron Estefanos

They were saying, we know that you cannot save all of us. We are 28 people. But at least save this girl, and then we'll be happy.

Yowei Shaw

Meron recorded all of these phone calls from the living room of her one-bedroom apartment, surrounded by photographs of her kids and lemon-painted walls in the woods of a quiet suburb of Stockholm. Hostages called at all hours-- during meals or in the middle of the night or early in the morning. She'd have to watch her boys while talking to the hostages. You can sometimes hear her kids in the recordings playing nearby.

And it wasn't the kind of work that ended when she hung up the phone.

Meron Estefanos

I couldn't sleep. All I was doing is just crying. And the first three weeks, I couldn't even take care of my kids because I was just almost going crazy. The screams were just-- I could hear the screams 24 hours in my head. I couldn't breathe. Sometimes when you're tired, you say [EXHALES]. And that feels good, to breathe out. But for three weeks, I couldn't do that. I would be trying-- [EXHALES]-- and still, it doesn't come out.

I remember it was around 11:00 at night. And I had quit smoking for a very long time. And it was, like, five to 11:00. And the store near my house closes at 11:00. And I was rushing to buy cigarettes. And I remember taking the first smoke, and it was like for the first time, I was able to breathe out. I could exhale, and it felt really good.

Yowei Shaw

Things only seemed to be getting worse. The hostages told her that a fifth person had died, and Meron says that's when she reached a turning point.

Meron Estefanos

That's when I decided now, I cannot take this. I cannot just sit by, and the world is not doing anything. At least I have to save one person. And that's when I decided to do fundraising to collect money for the girl, that Semhar will be the one.

Yowei Shaw

Meron knew that paying ransom was a bad idea. She knew it just encouraged more hostage-taking, and she knew it might not work. The traffickers could take her $20,000 and still not let Semhar go. Also, it was so much money. She'd raised money for causes before, but never that much.

Meron Estefanos

At the beginning, I didn't believe that someone should pay. And I thought that if the international community knows about it, they would just send soldiers or something and rescue them. That's the way I was thinking. But then you start realizing that you are on your own. Nobody will save these people. And one by one, they start dying. So I could not take the phone calls that when I called the next day, they would tell me, oh, he just died. And he just died.

So when five people died, that's when I decided, who cares if it's wrong or not? But I want to try, at least, to save one person so that I don't have a guilty feeling that I didn't try.

Yowei Shaw

So Meron began asking for money. She wrote posts on Facebook and used Paltalk, a social media voice chat where a lot of Eritreans hang out. At night, she went into different chat rooms, making her appeal. She got Eritrean ex-pats in the US, Norway, and the UK to collect money from people in their respective countries.

But donations came slowly-- $20 here, $50 there. People were reluctant to give money for a ransom payment, understandably. She also had to contend with the internal politics of the Eritrean diaspora. Meron's pretty well-known as a strong opponent of the Eritrean government, and there are still large groups of Eritreans in the diaspora that support the government. So they didn't trust Meron. Some claimed she and the hostages were making the whole situation up to make the government look bad.

Meron Estefanos

They were saying, it must be a made-up something like for radio, like a drama or something. They thought I made it up. So I said, well, if you don't believe me, here. Here is the number. You can call them yourself. That was really stupid of me.

Yowei Shaw

It was stupid because people did take the hostages' phone number and started calling them, Biniam and the others, but not for the reason Meron had hoped.

Meron Estefanos

They started calling and cursing at them, saying, you think you can play us? You're not going to get anything, a cent out of us, and calling them names, and told the girl that she is a whore trying to make money out of Eritreans.

Yowei Shaw

On the phone afterwards, Biniam told Meron it really upset him.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

They've been calling us all night. They would say we are jihadists. We are swindlers. And they are accusing us of actually trying to get them to send us money.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

For Biniam, the fact that people didn't believe them struck at the one thing that was giving him even a shred of optimism-- the thought that Meron would be able to rally people on the outside to come to their rescue. He was losing faith in Meron.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

We've trusted you, and we've become extremely hopeless when we hear such talk coming from you and the other people.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Biniam, my brother, I believe you. I don't think you're pretending.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

But you're all by yourself in this.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

What can you accomplish all by yourself?

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

We really do not want to trouble you.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

If no one's willing to bail us out, we are all ready to commit suicide here.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Don't say that. Don't say that. There are people all over fighting for you.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

But what are we supposed to do? If you are the only one in this, we understand that you can not do anything. Meron, my sister, one hand cannot clap by itself. It's meaningless.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

I am in such a dire situation. Because of the injuries that I have sustained in my head, my health is deteriorating on a daily basis. I believe that I'm going to die. Well, if you ever give birth to a boy, please name him Biniam after me.

Yowei Shaw

Some hostages, like Biniam, Meron was talking to you nearly every day, sometimes several times a day. But there were always new ones, too. One day early on, Meron got a call. A hostage began talking to her.

Man

Hello.

Meron Estefanos

Hello, hello?

Man

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

And after a few minutes, she realized, wait, this isn't the same group of hostages I've been talking to. This is a whole different group of 31 people in the same situation-- being tortured and extorted for money in Sinai.

Meron Estefanos

Somehow, they found out about me, and they got my number. And then they called, and I started talking to them, interviewing them, broadcasting it on the radio. And then after a week or so, then another group heard of me. So it became-- within a month, it was about six different groups of hostages that I was interviewing, like the group with 28, and then 31.

Man

Hello.

Meron Estefanos

Hello, hello?

And then the third group were 71 people there.

Man

Hello.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

And then the fourth were about 150 people. Then I stopped counting. It became too much. Everybody started calling me.

Yowei Shaw

At first, Meron was reluctant to get involved with other groups. But not surprisingly, she got drawn into their situations, as well. And as she spoke to more people, she was able to piece together a clearer picture of the criminal networks that were doing the trafficking. As best she could tell, a small group of Bedouin bosses in Sinai were at the top, but they had connections with gangs of kidnappers in Sudan, who would bring them truckloads of people. And they seemed to have agents in different cities around the world who would collect ransoms for them.

Meron also learned that there were Eritreans working for the traffickers in the encampments. Some of them were kind of like indentured servants, forced to do construction and cleaning jobs for the traffickers. Others were interpreters, Eritreans who spoke Arabic as well as Tigrinya and served as go-betweens for the Bedouins to help them communicate with the hostages and their families.

And in the first hostage group she was talking to, she learned that there was one interpreter in particular named John. She couldn't figure out his place in the hierarchy, whether he was a hostage forced to translate for the traffickers or if he'd actually joined their ring himself. A former hostage and a hostage's brother warned her that he was shady. But then when she asked Biniam and Semhar if John was working with the Bedouins, they told her he wasn't.

So in early April, when John came bearing good news, she didn't know if she could trust him. She had been asking the traffickers for weeks to lower the ransom, and John brought word that they'd agreed. The new price was $5,000 per person. At this point, Meron had already sent $2,000 for Semhar. So this meant she needed to send just $3,000 more, which was a lot more manageable than the original $20,000 price tag, if the discount was actually for real.

She called Biniam to see if it was.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

So if I pay $3,000 more, he'll let Semhar go, Meron asked Biniam. Yes, Biniam said. If you pay $3,000 more right now, he will let Semhar go. Meron was excited. This was her first break in the whole ordeal. But she soon found out it wasn't that simple.

Ira Glass

Yowei Shaw. Coming up, things get precisely five times more complicated in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

Act Two.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's show, "This Call May Be Recorded to Save Your Life." We've been hearing a story that we first ran in 2013 about Meron Estefanos, a human rights activist and journalist who was trying to save a group of Eritrean hostages who were being held in Sinai.

In the years since we first aired this story, this problem has actually stopped in the Sinai Peninsula because of increased Egyptian military presence there. But it still continues elsewhere. According to Meron and human rights groups, Eritrean migrants are being held in torture camps and other places, particularly Libya. Meron says Libya is an even worse situation than Sinai was a few years ago.

At this point in our story, it's been over a month since her first phone call with the hostages, and she's been offered a discount, a break on the price to save one of them, the only woman in the group of 28. Her name was Semhar. Instead of a $20,000 ransom, it would be $5,000 to release her. Release means, in this case, they would drive her to the Israeli border and tell her to run for it.

Just to repeat the warning that I made at the beginning of the program, this is a story with violence and lives being threatened. And there is some content that is probably not right for younger listeners. Yowei Shaw picks up the story from here.

Yowei Shaw

Meron called John, the Eritrean who was translating for the Bedouin traffickers. She wanted to finalize the deal to get Semhar out, and John said, for sure. He could do this deal. He knew the Bedouins. And as for the hostages, he said he was looking out for them as best as he could in a very difficult situation.

John

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Here's the deal.

John

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

These are your brothers and sisters, and you're actually advocating for them, right? Me here, when they try to kill them, I try to protect them. And after they are tortured, I try to clean and dress their wounds. I try to wash the blood off their backs.

John

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

I've been doing a lot for them.

Yowei Shaw

John said the traffickers would do the deal. They would release Semhar for $5,000, but only if at least four other hostages paid $5,000 each at the same time. In other words, the discount only applied if Meron bought in bulk. A friend of Meron's who was on the call with John tried to push back, but John said, basically, don't tell me how to do my job. Just do yours.

John

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

You just need to focus on sending the money. If you pay for those five people, I will get them to their destination safely.

John

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

Meron was skeptical, but she had no other option. She got in touch with four other families who were willing to pay the discounted ransom. Biniam was not one of these four hostages, by the way. His family was having trouble delivering the money.

The families would pay $5,000 for each of their relatives, and Meron would pay $5,000 for Semhar. Meron put out a frantic call to the people around the world who were helping her collect money for Semhar's ransom. And maybe it was the urgency or maybe it was the fact that $5,000 seemed like a more realistic amount of money to raise than the original $20,000, but people chipped in. Within 48 hours, she had the money she needed.

Meron Estefanos

They asked us to send the money using Western Union, which I did. So I called and asked if they got the money. They said yeah and said, well, I'm rushing right now. We're about to drive them to the border of Israel right now. I'll speak to you tomorrow.

Yowei Shaw

Meron was so nervous she couldn't sleep. She spent the next 24 hours calling her contacts in Sinai and Israel to see if they had any updates. She tried John again and again. Finally, he picked up.

John

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Meron Estefanos

Hello, Johnny. [SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

John, tell me honestly what have you done, she asked him. I've set five people free, he said.

Meron Estefanos

I was really happy. So a friend of mine, she came and slept over in my house. This is a woman that was helping me raising money. And we kind of celebrated. I'm thinking, OK. Everything is over now. $5,000 is paid, and she's out.

Yowei Shaw

And then Meron got a call from the brother of one of the other hostages who was supposed to have been freed to Israel.

Meron Estefanos

He said, you know, their playing with us because my brother just called me. And he told me that he's in Sinai. And now they are asking for $15,000 more. So it was all a game.

Yowei Shaw

Meron phoned John and asked about Semhar.

Meron Estefanos

I called and said, how could you do this to me? I know that she's there. And then he started calling me names. He didn't care.

John

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

I don't give a [BLEEP] about those people.

John

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

I don't care about them. They are mother [BLEEP].

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

You can't say that! You tell us to pay money to have them released, and then when we pay, you won't release them.

John

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

I don't want to harm anyone. But whether those people live or die is none of my business.

John

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA]. Hello?

Yowei Shaw

John hung up on Meron. A few minutes later, Meron got a missed call. She returned it, and it was the hostages. They insisted that the people who had been paid for had been freed, that they'd made it to Israel. They begged Meron to free them now, too.

But she didn't believe them. Her plan had completely failed. It had been five weeks since her first phone call with the hostages, and now she thought John was trying to get more money out of her by forcing the hostages to say these things. Biniam got on the phone.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

How you been?

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

I'm not doing well, Biniam. This is not good.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

This has become a joke. I'm not going to be able to do anything for you going forward, Biniam.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

I'm going to tell the families not to pay. People pay, and no one is being released.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

But they have left.

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

OK, well, once they call me and tell me they've left, that's when I'll call you. But until then, I will not call you.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Meron Estefanos

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

Meron hung up on him. But she couldn't help yourself. It wasn't long before she called Biniam and the other hostages again, but John and the traffickers prohibited them from speaking to her like they used to.

Meron Estefanos

Whenever I called, they would tell them to call me names. They would force them to call me names. And at the beginning, I was really hurt. They were saying the same thing-- don't call us here, you whore. We don't want you. You're just making money out of us.

Yowei Shaw

Eventually, Biniam, Semhar, and the rest of the group stopped talking to Meron completely.

It's been more than two years since that happened. Meron kept talking to other hostages on the phone, dozens of them. And without ever meaning to, she became one of the people Eritrean hostages and their families turned to for help. In those years, she's learned about the different traffickers and the different tricks they use, which traffickers can be relied on to let people go once they've paid, and which ones can't. One former hostage described Meron's phone calls this way-- she said when she talked to her family from the torture camp, all they would do is panic and freak out. Meron, on the other hand, was mostly calm and comforting. She'd give you clear updates and tell you what was being done to help. It was a relief.

Meron isn't sure how many hostages she's helped get free over the years, but one of them is Biniam.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Tomorrow, the 18th of July, it's going to be exactly two years.

Yowei Shaw

Biniam got out of Sinai in 2011. He's showing one of This American Life's producers around his small apartment in Israel, where he lives now.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Here, this is our bedroom. This is the bathroom. And this is our kitchen.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

In all these apartments, we live, like, four people. And we three, we've been together in Sinai.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

This is how my apartment looks like.

Yowei Shaw

My producer Brian Reed and I interviewed Biniam. He sat on his twin bed, next to an interpreter, and described what he remembered from the months he was talking to Meron. From the outside, the place they were held looked like the foundation of a house with a corrugated metal roof placed on top of it.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA]

Translator

We don't see nothing. We are in the darkness. We are underground. Everything is dark. The only time we're going out, it's to use the bathroom, and only in the night time. And when we go out, you smell people smell, like dead body smell because everybody die, and they'd throw 'em out at this place just right outside.

Yowei Shaw

Who was holding you? What did they look like, and how many of them were there?

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

There were eight guards on us.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

There are elder ones, between 40 and 50 or 40 and 55 years old, controlling the torture and everything. And those who are really guarding us are the youngest ones.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

They'd been in the age of 20 or something.

Brian Reed

What was the demeanor of the torturers like--

Yowei Shaw

That's my producer, Brian.

Brian Reed

--when they're doing these things to you?

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Yeah. They need to be stoned to come and torture you. You can see that they took drugs because their eyes changed. They've been so red, and they look so angry, their eyes. And they're acting like they are angry. But they're also playing around while they're beating you up. They're laughing.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

They have to take drugs. They are not that tough.

Brian Reed

How often did you guys exaggerate or lie to Meron because you were being forced to?

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Many times, so many times.

Yowei Shaw

Biniam told us that John, the Eritrean who was working with the traffickers, was constantly standing over them on the calls, telling the hostages to make thing sound as horrible as possible, that the traffickers were going to kill them now, that they'd harvest their organs. The hostages came to understand these were bluffs. And when Biniam told Meron that Semhar and the four other hostages had been freed, in fact, they were sitting right there in the room.

But Biniam and another hostage from this group that we spoke to said the torture they described on the phone to Meron was all real. It would have been hard to exaggerate, Biniam said, because it was so awful. He and the other hostage both remember at least four people who died while in captivity.

Brian Reed

How does the phone work, exactly? Do you guys have a lot of access to it? Or is it totally under the control of the guards and the traffickers?

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

We can't touch the phone. There is this [TIGRINYA]. This is the translator. His name is John. He will put the phone on our ears while we're speaking.

Brian Reed

So wait. You never were-- we've listened to a lot of recordings of you talking to Meron. Through all of those, you were never actually holding the phone yourself?

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Yeah, we're not touching the phone. We're not touching the phone at all 'cause they're afraid we send messages.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

So picture Meron's first phone call from Biniam's perspective. He's lying on the ground, shackled, blindfolded, almost completely in darkness. All of a sudden, John comes up to him and holds a cell phone to his ear. There's a woman's voice on the line saying, hello? She's from Sweden, and she's on the case, telling him to stay strong and not to worry.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

I thought it's a dream, the first call I had with her. And the other way, I was suspicious because I thought, is it maybe a girl from another room being tortured like us, trying to convince us to talk to our family to get the money?

Yowei Shaw

So when Biniam first spoke to Meron, he felt the same way about her that she felt about him. He didn't know if she was trustworthy. But as Meron called more and more, he noticed that it put the traffickers in a better mood. They became encouraged that money was on the way. It seemed genuine. Sometimes they took his blindfold off to let him speak to her. And sometimes, amazingly, after a call from Meron, the traffickers wouldn't torture the hostages.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

We'd been tortured every night. But there were nights when she calls, we'd not been tortured. We'd be sleeping without being tortured because of her call.

Yowei Shaw

And Meron did something else for Biniam.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Before Meron called, I was not calling my family. I'm coming from a very poor family. $20,000, I have never seen that before. So I never thought about asking my family. That's like giving them pain. Asking for $20,000, it means, like, torturing them. The best thing to do was let them think that I'm already dead.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

But then Meron called. She pushed me to call my family. She pushed me. She told me, tell them. Maybe they can do something. She gave me the idea. I would never do that. She gave me hope.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

Biniam listened to Meron. He called his family and asked for the money. And to his utter surprise, they were able to scrounge together more than $10,000, getting money from relatives as far as Germany, Angola, and the United States. Biniam says they sent the money to John, but John told Biniam he never got it.

Biniam was sold to another group of traffickers with Semhar. This was a group that was worse than the first. They raped Semhar in front of him. Other awful things happened until finally, one day, a guard came up to Biniam and took his chains off. He was so weak he could barely walk. So he rested at the camp for five days before the traffickers drove him and some other hostages to an area near the Israeli border. They crawled through a hole in what Biniam hoped was the border fence.

Eventually, some soldiers came up to him and told him he was in Israel. When he got access to a phone, he called Meron.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

She didn't even believe that I'm calling her from Israel. She were like-- we didn't talk. We were crying, both of us.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

Meron is actually everything for me.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

With the voice I hear from her, I feel more than I feel for my mother's voice.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

I owe her my life.

Yowei Shaw

Biniam's name's doing pretty well, considering. He has a job as a housekeeper at a hotel. He's slowly trying to pay his family back the thousands they raised for his ransom. To unwind, he writes poetry and songs, though he hasn't written about Sinai yet.

But life in Israel is hard. Biniam still has injuries. He limps. His eyesight is impaired. He has trouble using his hands because he was chained for so long, which means his job making hotel beds is difficult. He applied for asylum when he arrived in Israel, but he says the government hasn't given him an answer on that. That means he gets no assistance with medical care, no legal work permit.

And he's not alone. This is, in practice, Israel's policy towards migrants. In the most recent figures available from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Israel granted refugee status to less than 1% of people who might qualify, the lowest rate of any developed country. A US State Department report declared in 2012 that the Israeli government doesn't even process asylum applications from Eritreans.

As best as we can tell, of the 29 hostages Biniam was originally held with, at least four died. One disappeared. One went back to Eritrea. And the rest, over 20 of them, are now in Israel. They try to get together when they can. Biniam says most of them are doing OK.

But you don't go through an experience like this and just move on. One last warning-- this next quote gets graphic. Here's Biniam.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

In my mind, I don't really get over it.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

It's like every second, it's walking around with me. I'm living in it. I don't know.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

What comes up always in my mind is about Semhar. I just open my eyes, and I see her, raping her. And I was praying for her to die.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

That's the time she was drived crazy, where she get lost, mental lost.

Biniam

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Translator

And I really see that all the time, again and again.

Yowei Shaw

Biniam says Semhar's the person from his group who is doing the worst. She eventually made it to Israel, but only after an epic ordeal that went on long after Meron paid the $5,000 for her. She told Meron the whole story in an interview afterwards. Once the trafficker cut off Semhar from Meron and demanded $15,000 more, Semhar's mother in Eritrea, who is very poor, scraped together the money by begging people and taking loans. She sent it to the trafficker. Here's Meron.

Meron Estefanos

And then he tried to sell her to another house. And when he took her to another house, they said, call your mom. She said, no. Over my dead body. You can kill me, but she refused to call to her mother. They kept torturing her, torturing her, and she refused. She said, just kill me. I'm not calling anyone begging for more money.

Yowei Shaw

Finally, these new traffickers cut their losses and dropped Semhar near the Israeli border. They told her to climb the fence to get into Israel. Semhar was weak from months at the torture camp, and before she could get across the fence, Egyptian guards spotted her and shot her in the leg.

They took Semhar to a hospital in Egypt, where she got treatment. Eventually, Semhar told her story to a nurse, who felt sorry for her. The nurse brought Semhar home for a while and later paid a smuggler to take her to Israel, where she lives today.

Meron eventually went to visit her. Semhar still has injuries and pain, which make it hard for her to work. Plus, Meron says--

Meron Estefanos

She's now in a very bad situation where it's really hard to communicate. Mentally, she's not well. When we met, we hugged and we started crying, both of us. But suddenly, she just fainted as I was hugging her. And she fainted. And then subconsciously, she would get up and start screaming, you whore! Don't touch me. And she would hit anyone that's near her.

So it took about five, 10 minutes, and then after that, she woke up. And she was like, hi, Meron. How are you? I'm so happy to see you. And so she's talking like a normal thing, like nothing has happened. And she doesn't remember what she just had done.

Yowei Shaw

Meron tried to get Semhar to start seeing a doctor to help her deal with the trauma, but Semhar refused. She was living with a man in Tel Aviv who claimed to be a healer who could help exorcise her demons, and he wouldn't let her seek standard medical help. After Meron's trip to Israel, she pretty much lost touch with Semhar.

In July 2012, on a trip to Israel, Meron did something she'd been waiting to do since she first started talking to the hostages-- meet some of them face-to-face. She sent word to former hostages that anyone who wanted to meet her should come to Levinsky Park, a place in Tel Aviv where a lot of Eritreans go.

Meron got there in the early evening. A filmmaker was with her shooting video. She was excited, anxious.

Meron Estefanos

So we're going to meet them. Yeah.

And far away, I could see a lot of people sitting on the grass. I was expecting about five or six would come to see me. But there were so many of them.

They are here.

Woman

What?

Meron Estefanos

These are the people. Hi. Hi.

Everybody stood up. I remember one of them came first and hugged me. And I just start crying.

Oh.

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Asking who are you, and he was saying, this person. And then the next person, the next person.

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Man

[SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

About 20 people stood in a circle around Meron. She went up to each of them, one by one, and hugged them. There was a man whose cousin Meron had convinced to pay his ransom. I'm so happy you guys made it out safely, Meron said to him as they hugged. I'm so happy that I've seen you alive.

Another was a 14-year-old girl whose ransom Meron had paid with money she raised herself. The girl broke down in tears as soon as Meron got close to her.

Woman

Oh, my God. Oh. [SPEAKING TIGRINYA].

Yowei Shaw

The group headed to a restaurant. Meron bought a round of beers. She seemed giddy. She was talking a lot, way more than the hostages, telling stories about this phone call or that phone call, about the time people thought the hostages were lying and making up a radio drama, or about the time she told John the translator off.

This is Meron's life now. She still covers the torture camps on the radio. She helps other reporters do stories, too, speaks about Sinai at conferences. And she used her recordings to co-author a lengthy report that was submitted to the European Union Parliament. A few months ago, she even went to Sinai for the first time to try and get local sheikhs to address the hostage problem.

And then, of course, she still gets phone calls from hostages and their families all the time.

Meron Estefanos

My life has changed totally. I don't know how to lead a normal life right now because I feel bad if I'm laughing. I feel bad if I'm going out. Sometimes, they would make a missed call while I'm eating my dinner. I tried to talk to them while I'm eating. But I try to chew like as slow as I can so that they don't notice that I'm eating because I would feel bad that I'm eating and they don't have anything to eat.

I mean, that has become my life. This has become my call for life, actually. I just feel that this was meant for me, and this is my call. I see it as part of my life, stopping this. I see them as my family.

Yowei Shaw

When was the last time you talked to a hostage?

Meron Estefanos

Yeah, last night, around midnight.

Ira Glass

Yowei Shaw. Brian Reed produced her story. As I mentioned earlier, since we first reported this story in 2013, the Egyptian military increased its presence in the Sinai, putting a stop to the Bedouin torture camps there. But people are still fleeing Eritrea in large numbers. They're paying smugglers to take them to the Mediterranean for a shot at getting on a boat to Europe.

And just like in the Sinai, these smugglers often take Eritreans hostage and torture them, trying to extort money from their families. Meron says she gets more calls from hostages now than she ever has.

And a new danger has emerged in the last few years. Even if you manage to avoid a bad smuggler, there's a chance that you could get caught by ISIS on your way to Europe. And unlike the smugglers or the Bedouins in Sinai, they're not interested in money. They try to get the hostages to join ISIS. And if they refuse, they kill them.

As for the situation in Israel, according to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which works with migrants there, there are roughly 30,000 Eritrean migrants living in Israel who made it through the Sinai. But as of last year, the state has still only recognized fewer than 1% of Eritrean asylum applicants, according to the UN, leaving thousands of Eritreans in a holding pattern, including Biniam, who's still in Israel. Meron tells us he's now married.

Semhar eventually got out of Israel. She's now living in Sweden, not far from Meron, actually. Meron says she's taking classes. She's doing better mentally. She recently got married. Semhar invited Meron to the wedding. Meron says it was the best day she's had since the calls began.

[MUSIC - "IF YOU CALL" BY SHARON JONES AND THE DAP KINGS]

Well, our program was produced today by Lisa Pollak. Other staff for today's show-- Phia Bennin, Alex Blumberg, Ben Calhoun, Sarah Koenig, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer for today show is Julie Snyder. Production help from Emmanuel Dzotsi. Our technical director is Matt Tierney. Other staff-- Elise Bergerson, Emily Condon, Kimberly Henderson, and Seth Lind. Music help from Damian Graef, from Rob Geddis. Research help from Michelle Harris.

Research and Tigrinya translations by Hanna Haile. Tigrinya interpreters who you heard during this hour-- Bealfan Haile, Helen Ghebreselassie, Ayda Equbay, Gideon Gebreyesus, and Phillipos Tesfai. Thanks also today to Lina Attalah, Jerry Simpson, Shahar Shoham, Claire Beston, Sigal Rozen, John Stauffer, Maya Paley, and Isayas Sium.

Our website-- thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks as always to our program's co-founder Mr. Torey Malatia, who's been getting into-- and, OK, I know how this sounds-- Eritrean stand-up. Seriously, he's been doing comedy bits for me all week around the office. I tell him, Torey, they're not that funny. He says--

Meron Estefanos

I don't know. Like, it's hard. You have to understand Tigrinya to get it.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

[MUSIC - "IF YOU CALL" BY SHARON JONES AND THE DAP KINGS]