Back in Sudan, Family Who Left Israel Faces Tyranny: They Grilled My Wife, Beat My Mom

The future is grim for the Tuto family, who left Israel under a government incentive scheme and is searching for a new home.

Maeve McClenaghan
Maeve McClenaghan

For the past two days thousands of migrants have gathered in protest in Tel Aviv, denouncing open-detention centers and the treatment of refugees in Israel.

Joseph Tuto would have been at the protest, but instead he was thousands of miles away, unsure of where to go next, where to call home.

Tuto (not his real name), is an athlete and originally from the Nuba region of Sudan. But when fighting broke out in his country six years ago he took his young family and traveled to Israel in search of a better life.

"I stayed in Israel for five years and six months and I worked as a cleaner in hotels,” he told the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

“Life in Israel is very hard for refugees. I worked from 6am to 5pm and then I trained [as a runner].”

"My children also faced racism at school. In Israel you are like a machine. You work from day to night and you face racism from the highest ranked [person] to the lowest,” Tuto said.

Soon life for the Tutos became unbearable.

Faced with the prospect of being detained indefinitely, the family opted instead to leave, and try to return home.

Tuto accepted $1,500 from the Israeli government, part of an incentive scheme to motivate African migrants to leave the country.

"Israel sent me and my family back via Egypt,” Tuto explained. He could not be sent directly to Sudan as the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees prevents governments from sending people directly home if they will face persecution. Israel is a signatory to the convention. The family stayed in Cairo’s airport for just two hours and then travelled on to Sudan.

When Tuto returned he told officials at the airport that the family had been in Egypt, as travel to Israel is expressly forbidden in Sudan.

However, the family was an easy target for Sudan’s National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS). Tuto’s children, aged 7 and 5 years old, had lived most of their lives in Israel and so speak Hebrew rather than Arabic.

After three days the NISS visited Tuto’s house in Khartoum. He was out at the time and the officials took his mother into custody for days. There she was questioned about the whereabouts of her son.

“In Sudan, security forces were after me every day. They wanted to put me in jail,” Tuto explained.

“They would beat and intimidate my mother and my siblings,” Tuto added.

Fearing for his life Tuto and his family went into hiding. “I moved from safe house to safe house. I was terrified every day and I moved between more than ten houses, staying with friends and family,” says Tuto.

"There is no security in my country, I couldn't live there.”

“I'd rather die than stay in Sudan,” he added.

Tuto’s fear of the NISS appears justified. In 2011 British citizen Madgy El Bagdady traveled to Sudan and was intercepted by NISS officers. He spent 66 days in detention during which time he was beaten, tortured and subjected to a mock execution.

Bagdady has Polish ancestry and during one interrogation session his captors repeatedly asked him about connections to Israel.

He told the Bureau, “The first thing the NISS accused me of was being an Israeli agent and a spy, that seemed to be a common first accusation as it allowed them to secure the person for more questioning.”

He was finally released and returned to the United Kingdom.

Fearing such treatment Tuto took his family and fled his homeland once again, this time to another African country. “I had my children with me and was dragging all our luggage.”

Now Tuto has a one month permit to stay in a foreign African nation. What little money he has is running out.

“My children don't go to school. We don't leave the house. We don't know anyone. We don't know anything.” he said sadly.

"I regret leaving Israel. At least there I could work. I feel tricked by the Israeli government.”

"I still have $900 left. Our only hope is to be resettled to another country. I don't have any other hope. I can't work and I have no money."

Israel has repatriated around 2,600 migrants out of Israel via a third country. Little is known of their fates. For the Tuto family, the future is unsure.

Amnesty International has been charting the stories of migrants in Israel. Director of Amnesty International Israel, Yonatan Gher explained, “Asylum seekers in Israel, the majority of which are from Eritrea and Sudan, do not get access to fair and transparent asylum proceedings, have no work permits and no access to basic health and welfare services.”

With the introduction of the new Amendments to the Prevention of Infiltration Law on 10 December, those who enter Israel irregularly are put in immediate detention up to a year, after which they are transferred to a newly opened "open" detention center in the remote desert. Some have been transferred there after up to two years imprisonment. The only way for them to be released is by being deported.

“Amnesty International believes that this treatment violates international law. Some people are driven to such acute despair that they sign so-called 'voluntary' return forms. A Sudanese prisoner, driven to sign 'voluntary' return form, told Amnesty International: ‘I would rather die in my own country than be in prison forever in Israel’,” added Gher.

In 2012 the Bureau revealed that the Israeli government was issuing Sudanese migrants with South Sudanese documents and that several Sudanese people had been sent to the new, neighboring country. On arrival they were rejected by South Sudanese border officials and sent back to Tel Aviv. The government argued the removals had been an honest mistake.

A spokesperson from the Israeli government explained: “The Israeli government has always firmly condemned any incitement to racial hatred.

“The marginal incidents are not representative of the Israeli society and are condemned by the government. Israel is multicultural, multi-religious, and multi-lingual and Israelis see cultural diversity as an enriching experience which they are proud to celebrate and cultivate.”

Dr Khalid Al Mubarak, a spokesperson for the Sudanese government, explained that the tensions between the two countries made caution necessary. “Some people go to Israel, some are recruited and trained [to fight the Sudanese government], and then they are sent back to the Sudan.”

However, he refuted the suggestion that the NISS used violence and torture, “Of course our security service would need to screen people [returning],” he said, “but any tales of going to the family and beating them up, that is nonsense.”

Additional reporting by Patrick Galey.

Maeve McClenaghan works for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based not-for-profit organisation that undertakes journalism which is of public benefit.

Refugees who fled violence in South Sudan and crossed the border into Uganda carry their belongings, January 6, 2014.Credit: AP
African migrants protest Israel's expulsion bill in central Tel Aviv on January 5, 2014.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

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