In the Sinai Slave Market, Eritreans Fetch the Highest Price

In comparison to the Western world, the history of slavery in the Arab realm has yet to be acknowledged in its true magnitude. The slaves were valued for their labor, and the women had to do some more. The demand for the harems in the first category was for the Circassians, followed by the Abyssinians. Slave trade practice continued in the Middle East, the Maghreb and Abyssinia, long after it was banned in the nineteenth century in Europe and the Americas. However, it has revived again in its worst case in Eritrea, a people that undeservedly prides for having fought for freedom for close to thirty years. Surely, there is no enigma in this statement.

The people fleeing the land to all scattered directions are not “free-men”, in the true sense, looking for a better life, but slaves of the system established by the rebels of the Eritrean rebellion two decades ago. Brutalized, sexually exploited and commoditized under all kinds of nefarious schemes for forced-labor, the fabric of their family institution torn asunder, they flee the land with little care for what awaits them outside the region. According the Human Trafficking Cycle report1:

“The farms in the Teseney and Goluj region are called ‘defense farms’. This means that these are owned by the Ministry of Defense in Eritrea and operated by the military. In the last 20 years the Ministry of Defense in Eritrea has taken over successful agricultural businesses. The operation of these businesses has been associated with trafficking in the region. The conscripts of the Eritrean national service are included in forced labour on these farms”.

Those who refrain from taking such a desperate action are not always left alone. The top brass of the Eritrean regime are involved in not only facilitating the smuggling of people of their own volition, but in forcefully kidnapping people from their homes, not even sparing the underage in Sawa, the “revered” military boot-camp in the country. Clearly, people in Eritrea are in a double jeopardy. The lesson from the past is valuable in this case.

The kingdom of the Congo, located around the area of present day Congo and beyond, was stable and powerful before the arrival of the Portuguese colonialism. Their elite were, however, not a match to the greed and intrigues of the powerful merchants and military personnel of Portugal, who gradually weakened the kingdom with the use of the slavery trade. In multitude, subjects of the kingdom fell victim to the slavery practice, which was joined by the indigenous elite, leaving the people completely vulnerable.

“The transatlantic slave trade transformed the size of Congo’s servile population and the violent process by which such victims were acquired. Mundane trespassing, from minor theft to adultery, could now result in enslavement within one’s own lineage or being sold to some distant land. Worse, yet, the very person of a slave had become so commoditized that it was not unheard of for great chiefs to kill captives arbitrarily either for ritual purposes or as a form of conspicuous display of wealth and power noted Gebrekidan in his study.2 Congo was therefore least organized and united to resist the Scramble for Africa in the nineteenth century led by the Belgians.

In the same manner, the alleged liberators of Eritrea are now modern practitioners of a system not unlike the traditional slave holding systems, as in Congo. Having escaped the country in their tens of thousands, vicious and lawless people with no respect for morality, rule of law, or little loyalty to their nation-states prey on the escapees for ransom, and sell them as commodities. The irony in it is that the Eritrean victims hail from a country whose state of emblem is the camel, the beloved creature of the Bedouins, whose poems for it still memorable.

Hell complaining about hell3

The camel emblem did not serve the victims as a safe pass among the nomadic community; it did not differentiate them from being commodities of the old caravans, except this time the pickup has become the favorite trafficking vehicle of some of the nomads and the regime in Eritrea, who have become partners in illicit business. The State of Eritrea, who had some experience in the contraband trade during its rebel existence, is now very comfortable doing business with the same tribes. Protestations aside about sovereignty and the constant spat with big powers, such as the United States, the State of Eritrea is comfortable doing black market activities with the nomadic Rashaida and Hidareb.

Like the Congo in the nineteenth century, Eritrea, is prostrated and least prepared to face the challenges of globalization in the twenty-first century. The highest ranking accorded to Eritreans among the hierarchy of ransom victims in the Sinai once again defines the nation as “exceptional”; it may be something to be proud of among the nationalists crowd. What an ominous achievement for a journey made in the name of freedom!


[1] van Reisen, M; Estefanos, M; & Rijken, C (2013) The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond, Wolf Legal Publishers, Oisterwijk, p.44.

[2]Gebrekidan, Fikru. Ethiopia and Congo: A Tale of Two Medieval Kingdoms, Callaloo, Volume 33, Number 1, Winter 2010, pp. 223-238.

[3] The writer has borrowed the phrase from the study report, The Human Trafficking Cycle: Sinai and Beyond, used to describe the forbidding nature of the Sinai and the horror in the ransom camps. The hell this time is Eritrea.