Monday January 23, 2023
Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam. DR
For East African migrants, the beginning of the year brought rare good news: the arrest of the famous Eritrean trafficker Kidane Zekarias Habtemariam, on January 5 in Khartoum, Sudan, during an international police operation carried out by the United Arab Emirates with Interpol. Man is “one of the most cruel smugglers in the world”according to the police in the Netherlands, where he was on the list of most wanted criminals.
Within its sprawling network, which stretched from Somalia to Libya and which saw thousands of young Ethiopians, Eritreans and Somalis passing through Europe each year, “Kidane” made life hell for the candidates for exile: torturing, raping, brutalizing young migrants to extort funds from them. “He’s a demon”said of him Meron Estefanos, a defender of the rights of Eritrean migrants.
Recognized in the streets of Addis Ababa by a migrant he himself had tortured, Kidane was arrested for the first time in Ethiopia in 2020. Prosecuted for human trafficking, he managed to escape from court federal government in Addis Ababa a year later. With the complicity of police officers, he had changed his outfit in the courthouse toilets before leaving the building incognito. Months later, Ethiopia will sentence him in absentia to life imprisonment.
For two years, although on the run, the smuggler continued his traffic almost quietly on the smuggling routes that connect the Sudanese and Libyan deserts. “He spent the smuggling season, from April to September, in Libyaexplains Meron Estefanos. The rest of the time he was doing business in the United Arab Emirates,” where he was resident. Kidane Zekarias, 39, was the subject of two Interpol Red Notices – the highest priority for international policing. In his widespread racketeering network, he used the Emirates as a hub, charging exorbitant ransoms from migrant families to a local bank account. The Emirati justice is prosecuting him precisely for acts of embezzlement.
The Netherlands, meanwhile, demanded his extradition for human trafficking between Africa and Europe. “His arrest is a big victory for Dutch and international justice, the kind of breakthrough we’ve been waiting for for years”, assures anonymously a member of the office of the Attorney General of the Netherlands, who is currently deciding on the case of one of his associates. Because the trial of ” Welid” (real name Tewelde Goitom), another Eritrean smuggler, has just started in front of the court of Zwolle, a town located 80 km east of Amsterdam. The man is prosecuted for participation in a criminal organization, human trafficking, hostage taking, extortion and violence, including sexual.
In the Libyan desert, the two men have long reigned terror. In their base in Bani Walid, south of Misrata, Welid and Kidane locked up the migrants to whom they dangled the crossing of the Mediterranean to better extort their families. “Kidane was at the head of a camp in Libya where thousands of migrants transit. Many don’t survive it.” Dutch police said. Epicenter of migrant trafficking in recent years, the Bani Walid camp has sometimes been nicknamed “the ghost town” because of the number of candidates for exile who died there under the rule of smugglers.
Selam* spent two years there, in 2017 and 2018. “Hell on Earth”, she says on the phone from the United States, where she has obtained refugee status. At the age of 15, the teenager wanted to escape military service, compulsory in Eritrea. In Asmara, his family then pays 6,000 dollars against the promise of reaching the Sicilian coast. But once in Libya, the path of the young Selam crosses that of Kidane, her future torturer, who will ask his relatives for an additional 7,000 dollars for the crossing. “I told him that I couldn’t pay, that my mother was dead, that all the family money had gone to the funeral and he replied: ‘If you don’t give the money, you will join soon” she remembers.
“A hyena who gets excited at the sight of blood”
Kidane’s sex slave for six months, Selam is still undergoing reconstructive surgery in the United States. “He raped us daily, tortured us and systematically put out his cigarettes on our skin. » The man showed unlimited cruelty, filming the torture using his phone to better frighten the families and extract ransoms from them. “It’s an animal, a hyena that gets excited at the sight of blood”says Selam.
This kind of trade in human beings from the Horn of Africa has been the subject of a documentary, trip to barbarism (2015 Albert-Londres prize), describing the ordeal of young candidates for exile at the hands of smugglers ready to do anything to ransom them. Kidane, Welid and the network of Eritrean smugglers took advantage of the collapse of post-Gaddafi Libya to establish their platform there. “Today there are 20 detention centers, official and unofficial, and secret prison networks that are allegedly controlled by armed militias », assures Mohamed Auajjar, rapporteur of the fact-finding mission of the UN Human Rights Council in Libya. Last year, Medecins sans frontières (MSF) estimated the number of migrants stranded in Libya at 600,000. Among them, tens of thousands are from the Horn of Africa, where they are trying to escape military service by Eritrea or the threat of Chabab jihadists in Somalia.
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“These two arrests send a strong signal to men who thought they were untouchable”assures Meron Estefanos, hoping that they will put a “stoppage” trafficking in human beings from Eritrea. In Libya, conversely, traffic benefits from the draft created by the civil war. Since last year, new migratory routes have opened up in Cyrenaica.
* The first name has been changed.