Six years ago, a naked, emaciated, 14-year-old boy crawled to a road in the desert of the Sinai Peninsula. Last fall, this same boy—now clothed and sinewy—passed me in the Colorado Springs Marathon, a full lap ahead. He had four miles to go, and I had over a dozen. Soon after that, his body started shutting down. The whole race, he did not stop for water. And though in training he had run over 30 miles without water, his body did not handle it well this time. Had he kept his original pace, he would have finished in two hours and 24 minutes, about 21 minutes shy of the world record. Still, Awet Beraki won the race with a time of two hours and 40 minutes. But Awet failed to break the all-Colorado marathon record for the 19-and-under age group. He had set it the year before.
The next week, at 6:30 a.m., we met for an eight-mile run. In the dark, we started our watches and took off down the red dirt of the Monument Creek Trail. Awet began telling me how he had come to Colorado Springs, speaking with ease, despite the six-something-minute-mile pace his GPS watch showed. I realized I would not be doing much talking. Awet would later tell me that was his “easy run.”
Awet grew up in the village of Bogu in the mountains of Eritrea, where his family lived in a thatched roof house made of stone. In the winter, the Beraki boys all had jobs. One tended the goats, one the cows, one the donkeys and camels, and one helped their parents sell eggs. Awet’s two sisters helped his mom in the house. “Over six years old, you have a job, you have to take care of something,” Awet says. One of his earlier jobs was tending the goats. The village boys and their goats would walk barefoot through the mountains from seven in the morning until six at night, when the stars would torch the sky. “My friends and I would hang out, talking, being distracted. We’d chase rabbits, eat them if we killed them, usually by throwing rocks at them.” Baboons, Awet says, were more elusive. “Baboons try to kill the goats, so we’d have a few of us chase the baboons, but we were never fast enough to catch them and kill them.” One day, the boys got distracted, and the goats strayed. Awet found several of his goats dead, baboons gnawing them to bits. The boys pelted the baboons with rocks and went home defeated. After that, Awet’s father made him work on the farm.
In 2011, Awet was 13 years old. The fall harvest had ended, winter was on its way, and Awet was free from chores. He and his childhood best friend, Ahmed, walked in white jellabiyas to the city of Keren to spend the day. They had been going to Keren on their own for years to eat lunch and watch the bike races. “City people make me laugh. I liked to watch them,” Awet says.
Awet and Ahmed stood in the shade of a building, watching the people walk by in white robes. A man approached the two of them and offered them work in his garden. The boys agreed, thinking of how happy their parents would be to have some extra money. They got in the man’s car and drove to Sawa, a nearby village. The man told them to sit under a tree and wait. He left, and after a long time a truck pulled up. The men in the truck spoke to them in Arabic. Awet could not understand what they were saying. Ahmed had studied the Quran, so he understood enough Arabic to know the men were offering to help them find work. The man who had brought Awet and Ahmed there returned and told them that these men would pay them much more. The boys believed him and nodded. They hopped in the truck.
The bulbous Taka Mountains rose from the horizon as the truck approached Kassala, Sudan. The truck had made it across the Eritrea-Sudan border without a problem. The men in the truck spoke Tigrinya, a language Awet and Ahmed had learned in school but not the one they spoke at home. They told Awet and Ahmed how fortunate they were to be free from the Eritrean military. For decades, Eritreans have streamed into Sudan to escape conscription, risking imprisonment or execution if they are caught. (Awet’s cousin has been in an Eritrean prison since he was caught trying to flee four years ago.)
The men said they would feed the boys and bring them to the refugee camp in Khartoum, where Awet and Ahmed’s friends from Bogu lived. Ahmed also had a brother there. The boys smiled and talked about seeing them all soon. Awet and Ahmed had already forgotten that the men offered them work back in Eritrea. The truck rolled into Kassala, past the open-air markets, the donkeys, and the people standing in white robes. The boys assumed the men meant what they said. Awet had heard of kidnapping before, but he says, “I never believed it until it happened in front of my eyes.”
The truck stopped. The men told the boys to get out and go with those two men parked in a nearby truck. Awet and Ahmed did as they were told. The truck started and sped out of Kassala. “Then we knew something was gonna happen,” Awet told me. “They were acting crazy.” Dust rose from the unpaved road—the truck veered off, past mounds of desiccated earth and a few determined shrubs. They stopped outside of a brown brick house. A pack of men were shouting in Arabic, Kalashnikovs in some hands, knives in others, a handgun in every belt. Awet had never seen people brandishing weapons and yelling like that. He started shaking.
“I got off the truck and had a gun pointed to my head, and they told me to get on my knees,” Awet says. A man holding a knife spoke to the boys in Arabic. But Awet spoke only Blin and Tigrinya, and Ahmed did not know enough Arabic to understand what the man wanted. A translator told him in Tigrinya that the men would take the boys to Israel. Awet was still set on going to Sudan to see his old friends. The man with the knife asked the boys if they wanted to go to Israel, adding that the trip would cost 120,000 Eritrean nakfa (about $8,000 at the time). For Awet and Ahmed, the price was far too high. “We have nothing,” Awet said. Another man stepped closer and pressed the barrel of his gun to Awet’s face. Awet realized that they had been kidnapped. These men were only pretending to offer the boys their freedom. Immediately he replied, “I’ll go!”
“Basically, before you die, yeah—you’re gonna say yes,” Awet later told me with a laugh.
The man gesturing with the knife walked over to another prisoner, a 36-year-old, ex-military Eritrean. He had been caught after crossing the border to escape his military duty. Now he was kneeling in the dirt. All Awet heard was “No.” And then another man holding a Kalashnikov stepped up to the man and bashed his skull with the butt of his rifle. Two more men beat him with their fists and their rifles. Most of their blows landed on the man’s skull. His face fell to the bloody dirt.
The captors slid their rifles over their shoulders, grabbed the fallen man by his shoulders, and pulled him back to his knees. One of them put a handgun to his head. Just before they would have killed him, the man on his knees raised a hand and yelled, “I’ll go.”
The men locked them in a truck and drove to another house 30 minutes away. They dragged the three captives down into the basement of the house. Awet saw 26 other Eritreans, most of them around his age, mostly young students, lying on blankets in a circle. Most of them had their feet tied. One man had his legs free, a privilege, because his Arabic was good enough to translate for the kidnappers. With guns pointed at their backs, Awet and Ahmed gave their wrists to a man who chained them together with padlocks then chained their ankles together. The captors locked them in the basement: two men, 24 boys, and three girls. When Awet needed to pee, two men unchained him and took him outside, holding a knife to him to keep him from running. A day passed like this. Awet was confused because the men had not even tried to make him pay the 120,000 nakfa. Another day passed. The captors gave them flatbread scraps and some water. Awet and Ahmed waited, expecting to be taken to Israel soon.
But no one would go to Israel. No one would go home, either. A week passed with the captives arguing about why they were there, where they were going, and when. Finally, the men herded the 29 starved and dehydrated Eritreans out from the basement and into the sun. A pickup truck was parked in front of them. The men no longer had to point their guns for their captives to obey. The men stripped the white jellabiyas off of Awet and Ahmed and gave them dirty shorts and T-shirts before packing them into the truck bed. “They layered us, several children and a tarp, then more children and a tarp,” Awet said. “We rode in the truck for a week like this.”
There were no roads. The truck bounced over dusty, broken Sudanese soil that still bears ready-to-detonate landmines left over from days of war. The truck stopped only once during the weeklong journey so that the captives could be fed. The men unloaded the captives from the truck and gave them bits of bread. They called the Eritreans animals and told them to eat. Then they put the withering bodies back in the truck.
The truck stopped in the Sinai Peninsula. In a week, they had driven over a thousand miles—about the distance from Los Angeles to Denver—over unpaved terrain. “We were unloaded from the truck. The boys that were on the bottom of the pile were dead,” Awet says. “I suppose they died by being crushed by the weight of all the children laid on top of them.” Awet was convinced that he too would die, that there was no way out.
The men left the shrunken, crushed corpses in the desert sun. They asked the captives to identify as either Christian or Muslim and then separated them into two groups. They shot each Christian in the head. Though Awet was raised Muslim, the men did not believe him because of his Christian name. “I managed to convince them,” he says. “I lived.”
The men brought the remaining Eritreans to a slave auction. “The place looked much like the camel market in Keren,” Awet says. “I have spent much time in the camel market, watching men sell and buy camels. Now I was the one being sold.” Someone bought Awet, Ahmed, and 11 other boys, as a group, for $33,000. Awet was worth $2,538.46.
The buyer and his men dragged the 13 boys away, loaded them into a truck, and drove into the desert. The truck stopped, the buyer and his guards removed the boys, and the boys saw a few scattered houses. The buyer had a gun on his hip and another strapped around his chest. He was known as John Cena, after the American wrestler, although this man was thin and his violence was not staged. The boys were led into a windowless room and chained to six other boys who had been there for six months. Each of the six boys had already paid their previous captors $25,000 for their freedom and transport to Israel. But John Cena, who was supposed to smuggle them to Israel, had kidnapped them instead, ransoming each of them for another $10,000. Their families had no money left to send.
For years, men have smuggled Eritreans to Sudan, Egypt, Israel—really anywhere outside of Eritrea. Some smugglers offer no guarantee that they will refrain from selling their “cargo” to human traffickers before the journey’s end, should the trip’s cost cut into profit or if they just want to make more money.
The men who sold Awet and those who had bought him were part of the Rashaida, a Bedouin tribe known for trafficking humans in Northeast Africa. Traffickers are known to take Eritreans both from refugee camps in Sudan and from smugglers whom refugees pay to take them out of Eritrea.
Between 2012 and 2014, CNN produced two documentaries about refugees in Northeast Africa and the risks they face, including kidnapping and being left to die after having their organs cut out and sold. It was not until 2017 that the Sudanese government launched a plan to combat human trafficking by attempting to reduce the number of refugees who are vulnerable to kidnapping. The year before, the Sudanese government “deported over 300 migrants, most Eritrean, including six registered refugees, back to Eritrea, where they faced abuse,” according to Human Rights Watch. But much of this abuse goes unnoticed. The international aid organization CARE (Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere) ranked Eritrea as having the second most underreported humanitarian crisis in 2017 with only 69 media articles published about it last year.
This November, CNN reported on the slave auctions of migrants in Libya, igniting a protest in front of the Libyan Embassy in Paris. Anes Alazabi, a representative of Libya’s Anti-Illegal Immigration Agency, told CNN that the government plans to convict those who have violated human rights, “but also to identify the location of those who have been sold in order to bring them to safety and return them to their countries of origin.” But returning refugees to their homes often means putting them back in danger. So, the question remains: should Eritreans who were kidnapped and sold return to Eritrea, where the government might imprison and torture them for fleeing conscription? Those who return have good reason to flee again, perpetuating the cycle.
Many Eritrean refugees are kidnapped by human traffickers once they cross the border into Sudan. Awet’s story is unique not only because of where he ended up but also because he was not trying to leave Eritrea. Rather, he accepted an “offer” at gunpoint and ended up imprisoned with people who had been trying to escape Eritrea.
When John Cena said he had five days to contact his family, 13-year-old Awet was so scared that he almost could not remember his father’s cell phone number. Finally, it came to him. Then, morning and night, with John Cena’s phone, he called his father, mother, every family member, really anyone he could think of in the time the man gave him to beg for money. Each time, Awet’s family said they could not pay his ransom but they would try. “I come from mountain people. We have no money!” Awet told him, but John Cena did not listen.
For those five days, John Cena was kind to the 13 new prisoners, giving them three meals a day and enough water. In that windowless room, the prisoners saw no sunlight, and every morning and every night was black. At the end of those five days, not one of the captives had come up with enough money to buy his freedom.
The food and water stopped coming. The prisoners only saw light when John Cena came in with a lamp to torture them. He soaked their bare, chained feet in freezing water and whipped the tops of their feet with a metal rod.
Awet called his family again, but no money came. He remained a prisoner in that dark room for three months. He did not see the sun, and he had no way to keep track of time. He only knew it was night when he heard John Cena and his men talking in the adjacent room.
Awet’s captors continued to beat and whip him. They hung him by his ankles from the ceiling for an hour each week. Awet says that at one point a 300-pound guard, “just came to me and said, ‘Why are you not paying the money?’ I said, ‘My family’s searching for the money.’ Then he just came and punched me in the teeth. Three of them fell out.” Awet called his family again and found out that they had come up with $20,000, enough to satisfy John Cena temporarily. Awet’s uncle in Israel had taken cash to a man in Tel Aviv who worked with Awet’s captors. John Cena insisted that Awet get him the remaining $13,000, but for a couple days, he fed Awet more and stopped beating him. Awet struggled to eat the bread he was given. He had lost three teeth, his gums were swollen, and he swallowed blood with each bite.
John Cena was expecting to buy another group of Eritreans, and he needed to make room for them. He knew another trafficker who had room for prisoners in his own house. He gave Awet, Ahmed, and another three boys to the trafficker to imprison them. The man locked the boys in another room with no source of light.
Again, Awet called his parents to ask for the ransom. This time, they came up with $13,000 from family members who had fled to the United States and Europe. Ahmed had already paid. But instead of freeing them as promised, John Cena decided he wanted more money. He moved Awet, Ahmed, and the rest of the captives to a third house.
By this time the boys’ bones jutted out from their skin. John Cena was feeding them scraps every other day, only becoming more generous when someone’s family member paid. Dehydration forced Awet to drink his own urine. The chains had cut the skin from his ankles to expose the white bone underneath. Once, when Awet was awake, unsure of the time in the dark house, a light came on. John Cena approached Awet with a cup in one hand and a gun in the other. He ordered Awet to stand up, and Awet stood straight against the wall. “If you move,” he paused, balancing the cup on Awet’s head, “I’m gonna shoot you in the forehead.” Awet shook with fear, and the cup fell to the ground. The man grabbed the cup, put it back on Awet’s head, and stepped back, raising his gun. Awet shut his eyes and tried not to tremble. The man shot the cup: target practice.
Awet called his father to ask for his third ransom. Awet’s father and uncles had taken out loans for Awet’s first two. The voice on the phone replied, “Tell them to kill you. I got nothing.” A pause. “I have nothing. I’m not lying to you.”
Months passed. Awet watched the bellies of women who had been raped by their captors swell. The captors beat the women and poured molten plastic on their backs. Awet could no longer walk and was barely breathing. His only consolation was that Ahmed was still with him, and a little bit healthier. Ahmed could stand up, at least.
One night, the captors decided that Awet, Ahmed, and a few other boys were too skinny and too close to death. “No one was going to buy us. We were just bones,” says Awet. The men had starved and tortured them for 11 months. The captors loaded their bodies into a truck and drove through the desert towards Israel. They stopped near the border, left the boys there naked, and sped off. Awet thought he was dead. The boys who could stand, including Ahmed, limped away. They left Awet and, as he later found out, reached the Israeli border. Awet crawled by himself for five minutes until he reached a road. Before long, an Egyptian army patrol truck pulled up next to him. A soldier got out and carefully lifted him into the truck. The boys who had left Awet had already been picked up and sat across from him.
They were brought to a hospital in Arish that held 20 other Eritrean victims of human trafficking. The hospital workers locked the Eritreans in a single room, ostensibly to make it easier to keep track of them. Every two weeks, for five minutes, the hospital attendants let the Eritreans outside to see the sun. The attendants brought them food, and they could shower, sleep, and go to the bathroom as they pleased. Because Awet could not walk, he needed someone to help him take a shower.
In the hospital, Awet met Alganesh Fisseha, an Eritrean humanitarian worker, known among refugees as “Doctor Alganesh.” She cried when she saw Awet struggling to walk and often gave him extra rations.
By his second month in the hospital, Awet could walk again. One month later, he and Ahmed had recovered enough to leave the hospital. Dr. Alganesh gave the boys, and anyone else who agreed not to return to Eritrea, money for food, plane tickets, and a car ride to Mai-Aini Refugee Camp in Ethiopia.
By the time they left the hospital, Awet had barely seen the sun for 14 months. “I was staring at the sun,” says Awet. “Everything was dizzy.” Upon entering the Mai-Aini Refugee Camp, the boys met with Ethiopian government officials to plan their next move. Awet told them in Tigrinya what had happened and showed them his scars. An Eritrean man helped the boys translate some details from Blin to Tigrinya; school had not taught them the words for what they had been through.
The officials asked the boys, “You want to go to America?” Awet replied, “Yeah. I want to go to a better place. I want to get an education.”
The last time Awet had called his parents was five months before, when they had told him that they could not pay to free him. He dialed his mother’s number and said, “Hey, Mom, this is Awet.” She did not believe he was still alive, and tested him on his brothers’ names and where they lived until she was convinced he was her son. Awet’s father told him that his mother had cried every day since he had been kidnapped.
Awet turned 14. Some days he talked with officials from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) who asked him what he had been through. His scars were his testament. Other days he walked to the hospital for treatments and medical exams. One day, playing soccer, a friend accidentally kicked Awet where the chains had cut the skin from his ankle bone. The wound split open an bled. A doctor told him to stop playing soccer until he healed. After six months, Dr. Alganesh visited the camp to give advice to refugees. She did not recognize Awet because his skeleton no longer showed through his skin.
Awet met a number of kids at the refugee camp who were hoping to pass through Sudan to get "to a safe place like Europe or America." Awet says, "I told them not to go to Sudan because they're going to get kidnapped, but they just...nobody believes it. You can see all the scars, but nobody believes."
After the boys had spent a year and eight months in the refugee camp, UNHCR officials posted a list of eight people who would be relocated to the United States. Awet raced to the nearby kitchen to read the list. He and Ahmed would leave together in one week. He ran to the nearest phone to call his uncle in Virginia to tell him he was coming to America.
"The week felt like a month," says Awet. He bought clothes and Ethiopian spices to take with him. (He has now almost run out of the spices.) Awet thought they would go live with Eritrean people, hopefully his uncle in Virginia. Instead, they were moved to Peyton, Colorado, a suburb of Colorado Springs, to live with a white foster mother who spoke neither Blin nor Tigrinya. Neither of the boys spoke English. "I was super uncomfortable," says Awet. "I didn't know what to say when I needed water. They called the translator who speaks Blin. They translated it, and then they said if you need water, ask."
Awet started running in 2014. He was 16, a freshman in high school, and he wanted to play soccer. After Awet had lived with his foster mother for three months, she encouraged him to run cross country because she had watched the New York Marathon on television and saw that all the winners were African. “Do it for me, one year, then you can quit,” she told him. That year he ran cross country at Falcon High School in Peyton. “I was on JV,” Awet says.
Whenever Awet wanted to call his parents back in Eritrea, his foster mother would tell him that he had to earn that right by doing chores. At the end of the school year, they took a vacation to San Diego, where Awet saw the ocean for the first time in his life. Three days after they returned to Colorado, his foster mother told him she wanted to adopt him. He called his uncle, then his parents, to ask for permission, and they all said no. So Awet told his foster mother that she could not adopt him. They argued. That night, he left the house and slept under a bus stop bench next to his high school. The next day he moved in with a new foster family in Colorado Springs.
That summer, Awet worked for the Mile High Youth Corps rebuilding hiking trails. He sent the money to his family back in Eritrea. His dad called and said, “You don’t have to worry about us. Take care of yourself. You’re in high school.”
By late 2016, his junior year and his last cross country season, Awet had dropped his 5K time to 16 minutes and four seconds. He moved out of his foster family’s house to live in an apartment with Ahmed, where they live now. Awet was probably already among the top 100 runners in the country in his age group, but he was hoping to get even faster and run a 5K in the 15:40s. That September, he ran the American Discovery Trail Marathon in two hours, 38 minutes, and 18 seconds. He placed first in the race, setting a new course record for the 19-and-under age group. He still holds the all-Colorado record for the marathon in the 19-and-under age group, according to Colorado Runner Magazine.
In the spring of 2017, Awet got hit by a car and got a concussion. A week later he had a track meet. Despite his injury, he ran the mile in four minutes and 33 seconds, and the two-mile in nine minutes and 35 seconds. His doctor was not happy. Back in 2011, his captors had frequently struck him on the head, and he had suffered what were later diagnosed as multiple concussions. Proceeding to run while concussed, especially with his history, was particularly detrimental to his recovery. He still had frequent headaches. His doctor ordered him to stop running, so he did, but only for a month.
“I want to be a good runner,” Awet says, after explaining that he’s only been taking running seriously since last year. Awet says a year of serious running is nothing; he can only keep up for two miles with the Kenyan-Americans who run for the U.S. Olympic team. Awet tells me that their advantage is that they don’t have to go to school, so they can train twice a day and nap in between. They have it easy. Awet hopes to train like them one day.
“Running was my way to get out of my depression, to stop thinking about what happened,” Awet says. “It makes me super free, happy.” His coach warned him not to run marathons during cross country season, that his body did not need more of a beating. But Awet wants to run long distances. “People say I’m crazy, but I was stuck in one place for 11 months. It’s nothing for me. I’m not scared of dying. I’m not afraid of it,” he says. Then, with a laugh, “People think marathons are hard.”
Awet will graduate this year from Palmer High School. He has a full scholarship to Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas, where he will run cross country on an NCAA Division I team in the fall. Talking to him, it is easy to forget where he has been. He seems like any high school student who watches movies, cracks jokes, and plays cards with friends. If he appears exceptional, it is for his athleticism, not his history.
But Awet’s history is, of course, exceptional. It drives him to run, and it also seems to have given him a kind of gentleness you might not expect in anyone who has lived through what he has. Last fall, we met up for breakfast. A bumblebee landed on my grapefruit half and stuck its face in it. Awet looked at it like, “What are you doing, man,” shook his head, and reached for it with his pointer finger and thumb. He lightly pinched the bee’s wing and placed it down on the other side of the table, with no harm to either of them.
As gentle as he is, Awet runs with abandon and refuses to stop. After college, he wants to run marathons. “I want to go to Kenya to train,” he says. He hopes to see his family, whom he has not seen in over seven years. But he will not return to Eritrea unless he becomes an American citizen first, because otherwise the Eritrean government would arrest him or force him to join the military. He calls his family once a week now. A year ago, his father was forced to join the military. “He has the gun. At night he has to go guard something like property for the government,” Awet says. Awet’s younger brother, now 17, started smuggling people across the Eritrea-Sudan border to make money. “They ask him to take them. He only takes the money they give him,” Awet says, insisting his brother is not a human trafficker. Their father told him not to return because the government would arrest both of them for Awet’s brother’s smuggling operation. Recently Sudan closed its border with Eritrea, and Awet says his brother has not been able to return home. Another one of Awet’s brothers was in the Shagarab refugee camp in Sudan, near Kassala. He has now safely made it to Egypt and waits in a refugee camp to come to the United States. Awet does not know how long that will take. He will probably have to wait for his parents to escape to a safer country before he sees them again. He hopes that running will give him the freedom to travel and see his family sooner.
Awet mentions Meb Keflezighi, an Olympic silver medalist who won the 2009 New York City Marathon at 34 and the 2014 Boston Marathon at 38. Meb was 12 when he and his family came to the United States from Italy, where they had lived for a year after fleeing Eritrea in 1986. “I have years to get there,” Awet tells me. After college, he says, “My job is going to be, ‘Run.’”
On September 4, 2017, he ran the American Discovery Trail Half Marathon. He finished in one hour, 10 minutes, and nine seconds, setting the new overall course record and the all-Colorado record for the half marathon in his age group. About four weeks later, Awet was hanging out with friends on a Friday night and went to bed late. He woke up after five hours of sleep and biked down to Acacia Park to run the Colorado Springs Marathon.
That morning, around 11 a.m., I saw Awet for the second time, now wrapped in a green and yellow windbreaker, leaning against his bike, holding a first place trophy, and talking to Ahmed. I had no idea Awet was mad at himself. “I’m not happy with it,” he would tell me weeks later. “I believe I can run 2:24. I didn’t get enough sleep.” Awet told me that near the finish line his vision blurred and his legs seized up. The finish line photos show the face of someone who is not sure if he can stand. But he stayed on his feet.