African migrants walk on a road after choosing to permanently leave their open detention facility
African migrants walk on a road after choosing to permanently leave their open detention facility, which began operating last week in the southern Israeli desert December 15, 2013. Photo by Reuters
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Eliyahu Hershkovitz
African refugees marching to Jerusalem. December 16, 2013 Photo by Eliyahu Hershkovitz

More than 100 African migrants spent Monday night in the underground shelter of Kibbutz Nahshon. They had marched out of the detention facility in Holot, after many months of imprisonment.

The migrants had walked all the way to Be’er Sheva, and from there to Beit Kama, eventually jumpping on a bus to the kibbutz. Volunteers brought pita bread, hummus, warm clothes and an assortment of pink scarves. The migrants, who had marched dozens of kilometers in the last few days, look shocked. They sit quietly feeling their aching, blistered feet, some of them bandaged. On Tuesday they plan to proceed to the Knesset.

At 9 P.M. Monday night 70 more migrants – the second group to leave the Holot compound - arrived in a bus from the Be’er Sheva bus terminal.

When I arrived, the weary marchers were listening in silence as their leaders addressed them. The leadership was formed on Sunday morning, and a few speakers had been appointed. One can get all worked up about the history being made - the first large civil protest of its kind of African migrants – but, barring a miracle, this story is liable to end in tragedy. In a few hours' time, immigration police are likely to arrive here.

“They’ve been driving after us all day,” activists say, adding that they've seen them back at the Kibbutz, too. I didn’t.

With the arrival of authorities, the migrants, who had 48 hours of relative freedom, will likely be loaded onto buses and taken back to the detention facilities. This time, however, they'll be taken to the closed prisons, where they will be locked up despite having committed no crime, save wishing to be free.

Last year I reported on the migrants who were trapped for several days on the border between Egypt and Israel. There were activists and Knesset members there too, but in the end the migrants were expelled to Egypt, and it’s unclear if they’re alive today.

One of the migrants’ leaders is Abdul Munim, a 24-year-old engineering student from Darfur, Sudan. Munim says he was an anti-government activist and when he realized he was being followed he had to flee.

He's been stuck in the detention facility for 18 months now, since he crossed the border. This march was the first time he got to see Israel: “Very pretty, from what I saw."

“People were depressed, sitting in prison for so many months,” Munim said. “So we decided to go to the Knesset and the Supreme Court so they will understand we are refugees.

"What are we supposed to do? If we agree to be placed in the new prison, we’ll be spending our entire life there. We want to learn Hebrew and the be part of Israeli culture. I just want people to understand that we’re also human beings,” he said.

I asked him if he’s not afraid of being caught the next day and sent back to prison. “When you have no choice, it doesn’t matter what happens. If they take us, we’ll go without violence. It was important for us to walk without shouting near the road. We wanted to send a humane message. I understand it’s the Israelis’ right to accept whomever they want, but they must understand our case is exceptional,” he said.

One of the African migrants’ leaders in south Tel Aviv, who has also come here, wants to have a photo taken with MK Michal Rozin (Meretz), chairman of the Knesset Committee for Foreign Workers.

“Do you know how many Facebook friends I have since this story started," she asked. “Refugees watch the Knesset channel, or read my Facebook posts using Google translate,” she said.

Rozin says she is encouraged by the protest march. “Listen, I have to say it’s amazing. It’s like having our own Mandela,” she says about the African leadership. “What happened with the Holot facility, is like an 'I told you' moment. It was the result of the idea to bypass the High Court of Justice. It's hard to believe. All these people want is to be heard.”

One of the activists who has been marching with the migrants since the morning said he asked some of them, "and they understand what it means to go back to the closed prison. They could also have disappeared on the way, but chose to walk as one. They refuse to be moved like cattle from one cage to the next.”

Honduran Tony Garcia, a senior official in the UN Refugee Agency, also showed up. “We’re concerned, and hope a good solution is found,” he said, as wafers are passed around in plastic plates. “We are now mostly listening to them, and we’ll see what happens.”

I try to write, but an activist beside me is explaining to her husband that she can't return home. She has got to stay with the asylum seekers, even though she can hardly stand after the long walk on Monday. Her worried husband wants her to head back, but in a muted whisper, she explains that she can't. “I can’t leave them, I’m staying here. I promise not to get arrested tomorrow.”