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Comboni Nun Works to Help Eritreans Tortured, Raped En Route to Israel

Comboni Sister Azezet Kidane, known as Sister Aziza, hugs a child at the nursery school in the African Refugee Development Center’s shelter in Tel Aviv, Israel, on 24 October. (photo: CNS/Debbie Hill) 

13 Nov 2013 – By Judith Sudilovsky

TEL AVIV, Israel (CNS) — Comboni Sister Azezet Kidane is fluent in Amharic, Tigrit, Arabic and Sudanese dialects, so she was a natural choice when a shelter for African refugees needed help.

It was only after the nun, known as Sister Aziza, began conducting interviews with Eritrean refugees that she realized the people she was talking to had been tortured.

“It is a horror story what is happening,” she told Catholic News Service from the African Refugee Development Center’s shelter for single mothers and pregnant women in a low-income neighborhood of Tel Aviv.

Shahar Shoham, director of migrants and statusless people at Physicians for Human Rights Israel, said the first clue that something was happening in the Sinai Peninsula was the condition in which refugees arrived at their clinic in Tel Aviv.

“They told us of torture and rape and we saw the scars of their torture. People who were shot by the Egyptian forces at the border started coming to our clinic,” said Shoham.

“Sister Aziza is a blessing for us. People feel comfortable opening up to her,” she said. “The torture continues even now. As we are speaking it is happening.”

In two-and-a-half years, Sister Aziza has taken testimony from some 1,500 refugees. As the Eritrean nun taps on the doors of the rooms, women greet her with hugs and kisses; a young girl runs after her to clutch her hand as they walk down the street together.

“I can’t say all of the people I’ve interviewed have been kidnapped and tortured, but most of them have been,” she said as she sat underneath the shade of tree in a dusty lot next to the women’s shelter. “Sometimes (the victims) can’t even (recount) what happened to them and when you know (what happened) you can’t repeat it, it is shameful that a human being could do such a thing.”

Many of the women who arrive at the shelter are pregnant from rape.

Eritreans leave their country to escape poverty and forced military service for the authoritarian regime.

In October, a delegation from the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops’ Committee on Migration visited Egypt and reported that Eritrean refugees were being apprehended by Sudanese enforcement authorities while en route to Egypt. The authorities turn the refugees over to members of the Rashaida tribal clan, who sell them to Bedouin tribesman in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula.

A statement by Kevin Appleby, director of migration policy for the USCCB, said some 700 refugees were in captivity in the Sinai in mid-October. The refugees are subject to systematic rape and torture, he said.

Egyptian and Israeli authorities are aware of the kidnapping rings but still the practice continues, he said. He urged the U.S. government to work with Egypt to identify the “torture houses,” rescue the refugees and consider them for “expedited resettlement.” He also said the U.S. should also encourage Israel to “uphold its responsibility as a signatory of the 1951 refugee convention and halt the practice of denying entry to refugees and deporting them to dangerous situations.”

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Tags: Refugees Israel Sisters Eritrea Comboni Sisters