Dateline investigates the kidnap, torture and murder of refugees in the Egyptian desert and uncovers a disturbing trade in their body parts.
Dateline's Fouad Hady knows all too well about man's inhumanity to man. Over the years, his award-winning work has shown the human tragedy of Iraq, as people struggle to come to terms with war, terror and religious fanatics. Tonight, though, he brings us a story from Egypt, which defies the imagination. It includes claims of murder, and even allegations of a flourishing secret trade in body parts. We should warn you - some of the scenes in his story may be disturbing to viewers. Here's Fouad.
REPORTER: Fouad Hady
In Egypt's northern Sinai, the desert holds many secrets. As this rare phone video shows, in this harsh place, Bedouin people smugglers are a law unto themselves. Thousands of refugees from Eritrea, Ethiopia and Sudan fall to the smugglers as they try to cross into Israel.
I have come here to the town of Al Arish. I want to meet this man, Hamedy Al Azazy. He runs a small organisation called the New Generation Foundation for Human Rights. Rabab Abdb Elghani Seleem is his assistant. He gives food and medicine to the refugees who are caught and end up in prison. These are the lucky ones. He also collects the bodies of those who don't survive the dangerous journey.
HAMEDY AL AZAZY (Translation): How can we distinguish between death by torture and death from hunger and thirst? Like this one here, he had been walking in the desert for a long time - I can tell that this death was due to hunger and thirst. He must have escaped from his kidnappers. This is someone who was tortured from the soles of his feet to the hairs on his head - torture by hot iron.
There are many victims.
REPORTER (Translation): Who did it?
HAMEDY AL AZAZY (Translation): The traders, the Bedouins. The outlaws, the mafia gangs; people who trade in human beings. This was of course to force him to transfer huge sums of money, as ransom, so that he'd be set free. So they made him suffer all kinds of torture
And his amazing story has an even more chilling twist. Hamdy believes the gangs are taking organs from some of the refugees and selling them for profits to wealthy buyers in the Middle East and Europe.
HAMEDY AL AZAZY (Translation): Here in this part is the kidney cavity, and the kidney is not there, in addition to the liver and the lung - because the lung is sold too, either in one piece or as lobes. As I was told by specialists.
It seems almost impossible to believe, but I'm determined to find out more. Hamdy takes me to the cemetery. He says that so many refugees are being killed that burying them has become a major problem. Those without identity papers are buried here, outside the cemetery wall.
HAMEDY AL AZAZY (Translation): In this area there are many burial sites, each holds between six and seven bodies.
I had no reason to doubt Hamdy, but he gave me these photos as proof, including his role in some of the burials.
HAMEDY AL AZAZY (Translation): The bodies are buried close to the surface - not very deep. The local stray dogs sometimes come here and dig.
BOY (Translation): As we were walking here, a child saw a dog digging, a human arm came out and the child got hysterical.
REPORTER (Translation): Were you scared?
BOY (Translation): He got hysterical and we found a human skull.
REPORTER (Translation): What did you do when you saw dogs digging up remains?
BOY (Translation): We got scared; we ran, we ran away.
HAMEDY AL AZAZY (Translation): What is this? It's a vertebra, it could be from the spine. You also find bits of hand bones, bits of leg bones.
The locals are angry and they have turned on the gravediggers.
LOCAL (Translation): Yes, we attacked them and almost killed them, around 20 days ago.
Even the local morgue is full of refugee victims. It may be the place for evidence of missing organs. So I have arranged to sneak in. My camera is in the plastic bag. This is being filmed on a mobile phone. My contact arrives and we head for the morgue. The fridges don't work and the smell is appalling.
REPORTER (Translation): Are there any stitches in the body?
MAN (Translation): No, no, there aren't.
The bodies have been brought in from the desert, but are decomposing as they lie here. We look at more bodies, but it seems they haven't had organs removed, and time is running out. Suddenly, we hear someone coming.
Today we are heading out of town. This is the Rafah, very close to Israel. It is a very sensitive area. I have been told that a Sudanese man has escaped from the Bedouins and is hiding in a mosque. I want to hear his story. We are met by people in this 4-by-4, who will take us to meet him. They don't want to be filmed. Before we get to the mosque, they detour into the desert. They say this well is used to dump bodies.
MAN (Translation): Just to remind you, delete any shots of us. Dozens of bodies used to be thrown down this well. You couldn't stand the smell if there had been a dumping two or three days ago.
REPORTER: Anybody there? Anybody can hear me?!
As we travel to the mosque, the men are very edgy.
MAN (Translation): Mr Fouad, please don't film. Don't film anything inless we say you can.
There are rival Bedouin gangs and these men may well be part of the people smuggling trade. It's impossible to know their motives. And here is the man who escaped. His name is Mohamed Ali Ramadan. He says he was kidnapped in Aswan and driven to a grass hut outside Al Arish, where he was severely tortured by Bedouin gangsters for 40 days. We go inside and he strips off to show me his scars.
REPORTER (Translation): What did they beat you with?
MOHAMED ALI RAMADAN (Translation): They burnt me with fire, these are burns with fire. On my back, it was a whip. This was beating with a stick, it was very swollen.
Mohamed is one of few people to have escaped the gangs. His information gives a rare look into their deadly world. He says the gangsters filmed the torture on their phones and sent the video to the families of their victims. They wanted $30,000 ransom. He says he saw four people killed.
MOHAMED ALI RAMADAN (Translation): Four died, that left seven, I saw it, I carried them and shrouded them myself. I'd wrap them in a blanket.
REPORTER (Translation): Where did they take those who died?
MOHAMED ALI RAMADAN (Translation): They would wrap them in a blanket and take them away. I don't know where they take them and they'd say if you don't pay them, the doctor will remove your kidney.
MAN (Translation): Rest assured, everything will be fine - You will go back to your children and you will pray for us there.
MOHAMED ALI RAMADAN (Translation): God bless you and help you.
Mohamed is safe now. But the threat to remove his organs was a vital piece of information. Back in the office of human-rights investigator Hamedy Al Azazy, he reveals much more.
HAMEDY AL AZAZY (Translation): I found this body opened in this way.
Hamdy believes he has uncovered how corrupt officials arrange to have the bodies buried quickly. He shows me this burial permit.
HAMEDY AL AZAZY (Translation): It states "œcause of death is subject to investigation". Well, you provide me with the burial permit, then that is it, I will bury him. This is me when I was checking; so it is not that I heard it second-hand or I was told what to say, I declare that this person's abdomen has absolutely no organs; so where is the rest of the body? When the doctor writes "œsubject to investigation"? It's unreasonable and totally illogical.
REPORTER (Translation): So has the body been buried?
HAMEDY AL AZAZY (Translation): We took it and buried it.
REPORTER (Translation): So when will you investigate?
He says he was told that a mobile clinic is involved in the horrible trade.
HAMEDY AL AZAZY (Translation): No one would know it is a mobile clinic, they would think it was a vegetable van or; a container carrying frozen goods, for example. It is white and there are company advertisements on it.
There is no way of checking Hamdy's claim of a mobile clinic, but I did take his photos here, to the office of Abd Alwahab Mohamed, a senior doctor from Al Arish Hospital.
ABD ALWAHAB MOHAMED, DOCTOR (Translation): These are clearly the ribs, the thoracic cage - opened by a professional, a surgeon, someone trained. Who was not performing an operation, then dumped him in the desert or wherever he was found. He was being cut for a reason, judging by the photo, they were taking organs from him.
REPORTER (Translation): So you don't get cases like this in the hospital?
ABD ALWAHAB MOHAMED (Translation): No, I personally have not come across this.
REPORTER (Translation): Well, we have this report here, what does it say?
ABD ALWAHAB MOHAMED (Translation): The name and the nationality are unknown, case is subject to investigation. In this case, it should be passed on to prosecution and forensics to establish the cause of death - unless there is a clear cause like a gun shot, then it is clear the cause is a gun shot to the head or chest. But if the body is cut like this; or if it is subject to investigation, you should inform prosecution and forensics will examine the body and establish the cause.
REPORTER (Translation): You don't think anyone examined the body?
ABD ALWAHAB MOHAMED (Translation): Maybe they did but did not write anything.
The trade in human misery has sparked a deadly conflict between rival Bedouin gangs. This remarkable phone video shows a heavily armed gang from the Al Tayaha tribe. They are getting ready to attack. And this is their target - Suliman Abdullah, from Nakalwa tribe. They accused him of taking over their people smuggling routes and trading in body parts. The battle raged for 36 hours until he was killed with his brother.
These are the tribal elders, forced off their land in the attack. They deny the dead man from their tribe harvested organs.
ELDER (Translation): He has never worked in organ trading
Yusuf was wounded in the attack. He says the attackers are the ones dealing in body parts.
YUSUF (Translation): Yes, they trade in body organs, they slaughter people.
The authorities seem powerless to stop the deadly human trade, or the war between the tribes.
ELDER (Translation): The security forces did not help us, not the army, the police, the intelligence, not the border guard, nothing. They did nothing for us, we have no choice. It is either this or we will have to leave Egypt.
Meanwhile, Hamdy Al Azazy and his small team continue to support the living.
HAMEDY AL AZAZY (Translation): This job that I do, comes from within - it is between me and God.
And treat the dead with dignity.
YALDA HAKIM: Fouad Hady in the Sinai Desert on a very dangerous assignment. Of course, we contacted the Egyptian authorities about the claims in that story. They said they weren't able to answer our questions.
Original Music composed by VICKI HANSEN
6th March 2012