A Penal Colony for Africans in the Heart of Israel

Saharonim is a jail, and Holot, which we visited this week, is an 'open holding facility’- but the differences between them are minimal.

It’s a penal colony built by Israel for migrants and asylum seekers from Africa: A huge and remote complex in the heart of the desert, among waste-disposal sites and both active and abandoned Israel Defense Forces bases, on the Egyptian border. The sea of fences is visible from afar; this week, Arab workers and contractors were busy putting the final touches on the huge entrance plaza here. Stops for buses that have no one to transport, a large parking lot for cars that hardly come here. The landscaping and architecture are those of a detention camp, but everything is spic and span, as though to blur the fact that between the endless barbed-wire fences, thousands of people are due to be imprisoned without trial, for no wrongdoing, by dint of a “High Court of Justice bypass” law and as a consequence of a government policy lacking any compassion or humanity.

Welcome to the Holot detention facility, corner of Saharonim, next to Ketziot Prison. A penal colony of migrants from Africa, next to the penal colony of the Palestinians - a captivating and refreshing oasis of humanity.

A few hundred African migrants already populate Holot. Through the fences of the facility, we saw them this week, wandering around with nothing to do. The facility is spacious, with dozens of “portable structures,” as it says on the website of the Israel Prison Service. The prisoners complain about the food, with meat only once a week and pasta and rice on the other days; there isn’t even tea or coffee at breakfast. But their main complaint concerns what they see as their arbitrary denial of freedom and an inability to work or do anything else. That’s how these detainees spend months on end and even years of their lives.

Saharonim is a prison, for all intents and purposes, while Holot is an “open holding facility” - but the differences between them are minimal. Nobody leaves Saharonim, and there’s no place to go from Holot. Three times a day, the detainees have to show up and report at the open holding facility, and in the evening its gates are closed. So what is so “open” about this “holding facility”?

Driver Kobi Kakun, an employee of the Metropoline bus company, which received the franchise for running the two ghost bus lines (No. 143, between Dimona and Yeruham and Holot, and No. 144, between Be’er Sheva and Holot), says he has been plying the route for about 10 days and not a single African has boarded his bus. Now, he is waiting for his next departure, with only a handful of prison wardens on board.

But Mohammed al-Nur, who has been in detention for a year, actually waited for the bus at the new stop this week, in the shade of an Israeli flag waving in the Negev wind. For four years, he worked in hotels in Eilat - the Hilton, the Meridian, the Fattal chain. He worked everywhere, earning a respectable living and learning to speak broken Hebrew, until one night when the hunters from the Population Immigration and Border Authority of the Interior Ministry knocked on his door. They gave Nur a few minutes to pack up his belongings and his world - and then it was on to detention. Since then, he has been cast away here - first in Saharonim, and now, for the past few days, in Holot.

Nur is 42 or 43 years old, he doesn’t know exactly; his face is wrinkled and reflects profound sadness. His life has been a long series of trials and travails. First the war and the hunger in his homeland, the Darfur region of Sudan, where he was a farmer whose land was taken from him, and who was forced to flee. He entered Egypt in 2004 as a refugee from the war; in 2008, he crossed over to Israel.

This week, Nur wanted to go to Tel Aviv to see a relative who lives in the area of the old central bus station and get some rest. He thought he would take the bus to Be’er Sheva, and from there to Tel Aviv to return to Holot the next day. He said that if he gets back within 24 hours, nothing bad will happen to him.

Barhan’s saga

But apparently something bad could happen to Taidisa Shishai Barhan. We arranged to meet him this week at the bus station in Ashkelon, his temporary city of refuge. He lives here in a friend’s apartment. He came to the meeting with us wearing new jeans and a knit top, a gift from friends. Barhan, who’s very skinny, wouldn’t eat anything in the café where we sat, in the shopping mall in the lower part of the station; he didn’t even touch the cup of tea he had ordered. Barhan had fled from his prison. His story is like that of many of his African friends, a story of desperate flight from a native country followed by many travails.

Barhan is 23 years old, a Christian born in a small village near Asmara, the capital of Eritrea. He attended school for only seven years, and fled to Ethiopia in 2009 after spending about a year in prison for avoiding the draft in Eritrea, fleeing the compulsory, decades-long service in the country’s military. Barhan’s father is a farmer and he has four sisters. His family remained behind in their homeland, and he hasn’t been in contact with them since 2009.

After five months in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, Barhan escaped to Sudan, a seven-day trek. There he was kidnapped by local Bedouin, who brought him to Sinai. His kidnappers abused him and demanded a fantastic ransom of $30,000 from his family. After three unbearable months, his kidnappers agreed to compromise on a sum of $3,500, which a church in Eritrea forwarded in order to gain his release.

On September 12, 2009, Barhan was released. Crossing the border into Israel illegally, he was immediately arrested by the Israel Defense Forces. He was part of a group of 28 “infiltrators,” including three women, one of whom was pregnant. They were all brought to Saharonim; Barhan has been imprisoned there since. A few days ago his sentence was commuted and he was sent to the Holot facility.

The document in his pocket is entitled “Detention regulations for prevention of infiltration and crime.” Its text reads as follows: “This individual must remain in the detention facility starting December 12, 2013. He is not permitted to work. Enforcement procedures will be implemented in the event of any illegal employment. An infiltrator who is subject to a detention order will not receive a visa or a permit to reside in Israel. Place of issue: Ketziot. Signed: Malmud Ortal, in charge of border inspection.”

On December 17, Barhan joined fellow detainees on their “freedom march”: To Jerusalem, on foot. Most of his friends were caught and sent back to the prison, but Barhan succeeded in escaping. He boarded a bus and arrived at his friends’ apartment in Ashkelon.

“Of course, I’m afraid, but I have no choice. I’m young and I want to live a little,” he said, with a weak smile, adding that he just cannot be in prison any longer.

Barhan wanted to approach local legal authorities to ask for assistance and for justice, but he didn’t know where to turn. His life is lost: Israel can’t expel him, there is no country that will agree to take him in, he is not allowed to work and life in prison means total despair. Regarding the possibility of returning to his homeland, he says: “I prefer to die in prison in Israel rather than return to Eritrea.” He came here because he heard that Israel is a democracy, “but I’ve discovered that it’s only for the white people.”

“In Sinai, the Bedouin abused us,” says Barhan, “and here, the government abuses us.”

This week, he was still considering turning himself in, even if that meant going back to prison. “What will they do to me?” he asked fearfully. We offered to take him with us to Holot, but he postponed his return until the next day, to gain one more day of freedom.

As for Nur from Sudan, he actually did have one day of freedom this week. We took him with us in our car, after he missed the bus departing from Holot, and let him off next to his relatives’ home in Tel Aviv. He promised that the next day he would return to Holot, as planned. He was quiet most of the way, casting contemplative glances at the landscape as we drove by.

Alex Levac