From Sudan to Egypt, to Israel, to Egypt. To Jerusalem
Rita can barely remember the day she lost her home and, for years, her contact with her parents. It happened in 1984 in the southern Sudanese village of Canal, inhabited by Protestants. She was then but five years old, or less. In Canal, there is no genocide like the one in Darfur, but there is a bloodthirsty civil war, part of the same civil war that for 30 years has divided the Muslim majority in the North from the Christian minority in the South.
Members of the Muslim militias attacked the village, destroying the offices of a French construction company and setting fire to the houses. Rita's parents searched for her and when they were unable to find her, fled together with many other villagers. Rita was at the time in the village priest's home, and she fled together with the priest and his family to a neighboring village.
"It was a small tent encampment that was the object of constant attacks, and when it, too, was destroyed, we fled," she said. She spoke this week about her wanderings from villages and tent cities, under attack and set on fire, to her new temporary home in the Rose Garden opposite the Knesset in Jerusalem.
Rita, now 27, is the only single woman in the Rose Garden. She is a kind of aunt to all the children there. Since crossing the border to Israel at the beginning of the week, she feels protected - a new feeling which nothing can spoil. Not the attempts earlier to get rid of the Sudanese refugees in Be'er Sheva and later in Jerusalem, and not even the reports about the intention of putting them up in a tent city near the Ketziot jail. "Just as long as they don't send me away," she says.
Most of her childhood was spent wandering with a small group from her village.
In 2003, the Sudanese government stepped up its persecution of Christians and started searching for those who had escaped from attacked villages.
Families that offered shelter to those fleeing were also suddenly in danger of being arrested. The priest from Canal took what was left of his community and started to move toward the capital of Khartoum. They advanced on foot for months, from village to village. At the end of that year, they reached the town of El Fasher, near Khartoum. "That was the first time I had seen a large town and I liked it very much," she says. "There were shops there and many people in the streets. I liked wandering around the marketplace and I went on trips organized by the church."
This idyllic life came to an end when the church was attacked. "The attackers started to shoot and some of the people fled, but the priest remained in the church and I stayed there with him," she says. The people who had stayed in the church, some 20 of them, were taken prisoner by the attackers. "They tied our hands behind our backs and gagged us. They took us to the prison and there they hit us with sticks, kicked us and whipped us with electric wires. Fortunately one of the officers at the jail was a Christian. During the night, he freed all of us and drove us in a truck to the desert. There, he let us off, gave us water and showed us how to get to Khartoum."
The distance to Khartoum was not great, but it took them a full day to get there because many of the travelers were injured. When they arrived in the capital, they went to the Protestant church where fellow worshipers took them in and gave them shelter. But from the outset, it was clear that this was merely a temporary haven since they were considered fugitives from justice and the police were on their tracks. Since a large number of the people decided to return to their village, the priest went with them. He sent Rita with a small group of people traveling to Egypt. "It was difficult for me to say goodbye to him, because he was my family," she says. "I agreed because he said that perhaps I would find my parents in Egypt. I still hope to see him again because he promised we would meet and he always keeps his promises."
The Protestant church organized the group's escape to Egypt. They were driven to the Sudanese port town of Wadi Halfa where took a ship to cross the border; they then took a train to Aswan and a bus to Cairo. In Cairo, they were again taken under the wing of the Protestant church, which helped them to find accommodation and work. With the help of church members, Rita discovered her parents were alive and managed to trace them back to Sudan. She invested all the money she earned in the first two weeks of her caretaker job in a telephone call to her parents. "My father hardly spoke and my mother told me my father had taken ill from all the worries and that they had not stopped looking for me for all those years," she says.
Attorney Anat Ben-Dor, who heads the refugee rights program at Tel Aviv University's faculty of law, and attorney Yonatan Berman of the Hotline for Migrant Workers, demanded this week that the Sudanese refugees not be forced to return to Egypt. In their statements to Attorney General Menachem Mazuz, they cited the story of a Darfur refugee who was sent back to Egypt and was saved, only at the last minute, from being returned to Sudan. The refugee said he was interrogated with torture the minute he was sent back and locked up in a tiny room with nearly no food or water. He also said the Egyptians used a great deal of violence in attempting to expel him to Sudan; this included beating him with a stick, kicking him and torturing him with electric shocks.
This does not surprise Rita. She says some of her employers in Cairo treated her decently, while others beat her. One of her employers beat her and refused to pay her wages when she left the job. Altogether, she says, "life for the Sudanese in Cairo is difficult. People curse us in the streets, they spit at us and no one comes to our assistance. They hate us there." In December 2005, she joined several hundred Sudanese who held a sit-down strike next to the United Nations offices in Cairo. After two weeks, when the Sudanese began demonstrating, baton-wielding security officers dispersed them, using cannons of water. Rita was arrested and jailed for 18 days. After that, she was released at the request of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cairo. The UNHCR then gave her a document affording her the status of a "person seeking asylum," and her request is currently being processed.
Even though she still felt pain in her back and chest because of the beatings, she once again went to look for work with the intent of saving money so that she could travel to Israel. In May 2006, she had sufficient cash but was too sick and weak to travel and therefore waited another year. This May, she paid $300 to travel to Israel. When she and her group crossed the Egyptian border in Sinai, they spotted Egyptian soldiers. "I had already crossed over to the other side but saw that they had caught a woman who had not yet managed to cross over, and they were trying to grab her son who was also crossing the fence. I went and tried to pull him over to my side and then they began pulling me too. I pushed two soldiers and took one's weapon, but I gave it back to him. He didn't shoot me but he cut me in the leg with his knife."
She was taken to a detention point in Sinai, she doesn't know exactly where, and there they treated her wounds at a clinic. She was held there three days until UN representatives came to free her. The woman who was also caught was sent back to Sudan with her son. Rita had a document proving she was seeking asylum, so she was sent back to Cairo without a cent or even a pair of shoes. "I didn't look for work because my leg was swollen and I couldn't work," she says. "I also was afraid to remain, because I understood from the interrogation in the detention center that they suspected people who tried to flee to Israel, and they don't like the Sudanese in any case."
She contacted one of the people who had traveled with her from Sudan and together they joined a group crossing the border at the beginning of the week. "When we came to the Israeli border after walking the entire night," she says. "I heard people speaking Arabic and I made a sign to the others in the group to stop. I was afraid they were Egyptian soldiers. I had a tape that recorded the behavior of the police during the demonstration, but I destroyed it. I was afraid they would find it on me and who knows what they would accuse me of. When I saw an Israeli jeep, I told everyone they could stop fleeing because we would be protected. And the Israeli soldiers really did treat us well and gave us something to drink, and they asked who was wounded and who was sick."
On Wednesday, friends took her to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City. Rita touched the stones and was overwhelmed with emotion. "Now I know that nothing bad can happen to me any more," she says.
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