While searching for Jonas, a refugee from Eritrea, in Sudan, photographer Matthias Ziegler and author Michael Obert came across the quagmire of international human trafficking. Theirs was an apparently hopeless task. Notes on the most lethal escape route in the world.

nomad takes a look at their travel notes and in doing so gains an insight into the fate of individuals on the run   or how far people will go for the chance of a liveable future.

For many days, he and another nine companions were fleeing the military dictatorship ruling neighbouring Eritrea on foot. At the desert border with Sudan, heavily armed men attacked them and forced them into their offroad vehicles at gunpoint with kalashnikovs and took them to their hideout in the wilderness. Jonas recalled: “There was a single tree, some tents and some camels”, pressing our handkerchief to his neck with one hand and holding the toddler photo in the other “…and there were more hostages, more than eighty Eritreans.”

Chained to heavy metal rings, the human traffickers let Jonas kneel and roast in the heat. He was given one beaker of water a day, half a slice of bread in the mornings and he was beaten with a power cable every evening. “They were demanding 15,000 dollars for each of us”, Jonas told us. The picture in his hand seems forgotten now as he goes on: “They shouted at us to ring our families and tell them to pay up!”

When Jonas refused, they put out lighted cigarettes on his arms, wrapped a wire around his neck and throttled him, then they laid plastic bags on his shoulders and lit them. In the café, Jonas pulls his shirt down to show us. His shoulder blade is deeply scarred down to the bone. “At first, they did it for the money, but then, they did it just for fun.”

He remembers the photo. Almost tenderly, he touches the faces of the two boys, dressed in pastel colour sitting demurely on a blanket on the grass.The older boy holds a yellow balloon, while the younger one laughs and screws up his eyes. Jonas whispers: “Brother”, then shakes his head. He is not the boy we are seeking.

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Merhawit doesn’t want to be seen with us. She is afraid that secret agents could be following our tracks. After days of negotiating back and forth, we finally meet in a car. As we drive, the airstream makes the fabric curtains on the windows flutter, while Merhawit describes a shack made of branches and goat leather, which is “hardly bigger than a coffin”. This is where the human traffickers bound the young Eritrean to a stake on the ground.

Merhawit continues: “They stood in a line in the desert”. Her hair is plaited under a headscarf and she has painted tiny pink spots on her fingernails. In the first days, she counted her rapists. “I really thought that when the number had reached 50,000 it would be over.” That thought gave her some inner strength. But as the weeks went by, more and more came and at some point, Merhawit stopped counting. She says she is only telling us her story in the hope that something will change if Europe hears of the gruesome horrors happening on the Khartoum route.

After 13 months being held captive by the rapists, her family finally managed to find the 35,000 dollar ransom money. “But intead of letting me go”, Merhawit tells us in the car, “…they sold me on to the next bunch.” And so the abuse continued until her torturers left her, half dead, in the desert to die. It is a miracle that she survived. A camel train of nomads found her and took her to a Red Crescent tented camp.

Merhawit has suffered torture which is beyond imagination. Yet she does not appear to us as a victim. She sits upright in the car. She does not shrink from looking us in the eye. She does not complain, she does not weep, she is determined to take back control of her life. Like all the refugees we meet en route, Merhawit has concrete plans as to her future. In an unwavering voice, she tells us: “I will work as a nurse in Frankfurt. I will look after and care for human beings, regardless of the colour of their skin.”

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