Azezet Habtezghi, known to all as Aziza, is a Comboni missionary sister from Eritrea. She is a nurse and has extensive knowledge of languages from the Horn of Africa. Because of that, the NGO Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I) assigned her the responsibility of a ground-breaking research project on the human trafficking in the Sinai Peninsula. The project is based in PHR-I’s Open Clinic in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, a point of reference for immigrants and foreigner workers.
The Clinic is an important observatory to monitor the traffic in the Sinai. Here come the victims of the traffic: those who have been tortured and raped; those who have stories about friends who did not make it; those under shock for what they experienced. These are the people who come with questions no one can answer to.
PHR-I has long suspected of a humanitarian emergency in the Sinai. To gauge the scale of the problem, they decided to interview all new arrivals at the Clinic. Aziza was asked to follow the project. Through the interviews she learnt about the journey through the desert peninsula, she ‘saw’ the camps where people are mistreated, she came to know about the different gangs and their dealings regarding their ‘merchandise’, she heard about the human and financial cost to run away from oppressive regimes and arrive in Israel to rebuild their lives.
“I feel compelled to act. The witness of these people is powerful. Many do not wish to talk. Their past is dramatic, but now they have to face a difficult present. They have to find a job and save. The money must be sent back to their families to pay back the debts incurred to pay their freedom from the hands of traffickers. In Israel we have a new legislation; asylum seeker cannot work. This makes it all the more difficult for them.
Yet, they also realize how important it is to speak up and help others who are suffering the same way they did. They also wish to caution other young people at home who might be tempted to take the same route, a journey into the arms of death.
I am particularly touched by the experience of women. They go from one office to the other, everywhere they have to repeat they story, re-live the sufferings they were subjected to. Some of them asked me “how long we must revisit our wounds without receiving an answer, while they see my pain and shame?” When I feel tired of all this, it is their words that give me courage”, says Aziza.
One case is that of Ghenet. She left Asmara, Eritrea, to look for a job to support her family. In Sudan she met a man who promised to help her, but ended up abusing her. She arrived in Israel pregnant, and desperate. “How will I explain this pregnancy to my husband?” she asked Aziza. Like many other women who are raped in their passage to Israel, she did not want to speak about what happened because of shame and a misplaced feeling of guilt. In the end, she kept the child and now is committed in helping expatriate women who have undergone the same ordeal.
The work of this diminutive Sister has been pivotal in preparing a report that identifies thousands of persons who are kidnapped while in transit in the Sinai, and their ordeals to be freed again. This patient work of putting the puzzle together has brought the traffic in the Sinai under the spot light of international media. The report prepared by PHR-I is today the only one available concerning the traffic between the Horn of Africa and Israel.
This work did not go unnoticed. On June 19, the USA Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, presented Sister Azezet with the prize Trafficking in Persons Report 2012 for “her perseverance, heartfelt concern, and willingness to listen to countless hours of interviews enabled many victims to open up about their experiences of rape, torture, kidnapping, forced labor, and sexual servitude”. Whereas previously little was known of the specific atrocities in Egypt, these documented first-hand accounts have shed light on human trafficking in the region. The State Department has relied on the work of Sister Aziza and PHR-I to promote awareness of this important issue.