Yitzhak arrived at Holot this week. He walked along the road that leads to the vast compound in the Negev desert, where this so-called open detention facility is located, after taking a bus most of the way from Eilat. As he strides along the desert road, Yitzhak looks like an Israeli backpacker in Tierra del Fuego: a knitted hat, a knapsack on his back and two bursting plastic bags – all his worldly goods. He received the order to report to the prison when he requested an extension on his visa. There are many others like him.
But Yitzhak is neither backpacker nor Israeli. He is an asylum seeker from Darfur. He arrived at Holot worn out from the ordeals of his trip. “Are you sure you want to come in?” the guard at the entrance asked him with a smile. Yitzhak said nothing and disappeared into the white arrivals tent behind the fence. Like all the other inmates, Yitzhak has no idea how long he will remain here or what will become of him.
Outside, dozens of other detainees are milling around aimlessly. They are allowed to leave this remote facility, but they have to report for roll call three times a day and have a card stamped, which essentially prevents them from going anywhere. Many of them are wearing fashionable attire, some are holding third-generation cellular phones, but not one has the warm clothing needed to cope with the chilly desert winter.
“I’ve got a cold,” Shisai, one of the leaders of the group of Eritrean inmates told us. “On weekends, there is no hot water. I showered in cold water and now I am sick.” Handsome, with a winning smile and a ponytail, Shisai sports an orange shirt, blue designer jeans, Adidas sneakers and a colorful woven bracelet. His smartphone rings incessantly. He replies to most of the calls in up-to-date Hebrew; his Israeli friends asking how he’s doing. Shisai seems to have integrated well into the Israel that is outside the fence.
Another inmate, Kidara, is sitting on a bench by the side, morose and uncommunicative. Every so often, he pulls out three photographs from deep in his pocket and looks at them wistfully. They are the last images he has of his wife and three children. Here’s his son, 15, wearing a shiny suit and a white tie; here’s his wife in her holiday attire. These studio portraits are Kidara’s last memories of his loved ones. It’s been years since he last saw them, five months since he even spoke to them by phone – he can’t afford the call.
Kidara is a lean man who looks much older than his 38 years. The signs of his ordeal are deeply etched in him: He barely utters a word. In contrast to most of the young people around him, his appearance is heart-rending and his silence is petrifying. He served as an army officer in Eritrea, doing forced labor at starvation wages of 30 to 50 shekels ($8.50 to $14) a month until, no longer able to bear it, he deserted and fled. He’s been imprisoned in Israel for about two years, in the Saharonim and Holot facilities.
Before being arrested, he was a construction worker for a few years in Ashkelon. “He’s a dead man if he returns to Eritrea,” his friend tells us.
Complaints about the conditions in Holot abound. There are 10 people to a cell, with one toilet. There are no means for heating the rooms, and each prisoner has only one blanket. The food is appallingly meager, mostly rice and it’s not even cooked properly, the inmates say. There are no fruits or vegetables, and food is not allowed to be brought inside the facility's gates. However, every Saturday dozens of good Israeli volunteers and their families come with donations of clothing and food, which everyone eats outside the premises.
The only paying job available at Holot is cleaning – for 14 days per month at a salary of 20 shekels (less than $6) for a long day, a wage which few here are willing to work for. They get 160 shekels in pocket money every 10 days, small change that is not enough to pay for anything more than maybe a few phone calls home.
There is no possibility of studying and above all much uncertainty: No one knows how long he will have to stay here or what will become of him. There are presently about 300 inmates in Holot, which is intended to hold 10 times that number. This week, a few dozen arrived from Tel Aviv and Eilat on buses dispatched by the Population, Immigration and Border Authority. According to current procedures, every asylum seeker who requests a visa extension gets a summons to appear at Holot and a free one-way ticket to the facility. Many of those who were ordered to report have not done so, although they know that in the end they will have no other choice.
“I am 22,” Shisai told us. “This is my time to live, not to have a life like this. My brain is tired, my body is tired. The hardest thing is: How long will we be here? They say on the news that we have everything here, it’s a hotel, but people don’t see this place. They call this a shelter? It’s a jail. You wander around in the desert and go back to the bed. In bed all the time. We’re fed up. I worked in restaurants for three years, washing dishes and as a sous chef, and I was friends with Israelis, like family. Now it’s finished.”
Now this charming, energetic young man has this daily schedule: He gets up at 6 A.M. for roll call, then goes back to sleep until 10. Roll call again at 1 P.M., followed by lunch at 1:30. Then into the desert again and back to bed. There is television in the evening, but later on at night, Shisai says, he can’t fall asleep. This week he spoke with a friend at Holot about where they will be in 2020; neither of them has the slightest idea. All of Shisai’s older siblings fled Eritrea; two brothers are in Israel, and there’s a sister in Canada and a brother in Ethiopia. Only the younger ones stayed behind. His 70-year-old father is still serving in the Eritrean army, as a night guard at a water facility.
“I am very angry at the Israelis,” he says. “Anyone who says I am an ‘infiltrator’ or that we came here to find work has no idea what my life there was like. We did not come here to make money. We work only to pay the rent.”
Shisai says his dream is to study (“Only donkeys don’t learn”), to find a safe haven and start to live. “I am a human being,” he asserts.
An Israeli air force plane hurtles across the sky at low altitude and high decibels. “Are they bombing Gaza?” someone asks.
Another group emerges from inside the prison and out into the void outside, until the next roll call. Bahit, who is from Darfur, says he suffers from kidney stones and is not receiving treatment at Holot and has been sent to Soroka Medical Center, in Be’er Sheva, where they are demanding payment for the operation he needs. In the meantime, he’s learning Hebrew from a textbook he bought. He too complains about the cold water in the shower: “My heart doesn’t work in cold water.”
Like the other inmates, Bahit lives from Saturday to Saturday, when the Israelis come with food and other items for them. Life as a picnic. Everyone comes and eats as they don’t eat on any other day.
“They bring us bread and drinks, coffee and sugar, meat and milk, and candies, even ice cream and cakes,” Bahit says. “Beautiful big cakes – chocolate, cheese and vanilla. They also bring us clothes and cigarettes.” As he rattles of the list of Shabbat goodies, Bahit’s eyes light up like those of a little boy. Then, pointing to the guard at the gate, he says, “That man came from Ethiopia. As soon as he arrived he got an ID card. He earns 6,500 shekels [$1,850] a month. Why don’t we get the same rights?”
Israel Prisons Service spokeswoman Sivan Weizman told Haaretz in response:
“The IPS provides the full range of services needed by the Holot inmates for ongoing sustenance, with nothing lacking. Regrettably, these allegations are tendentious and come from group, which does not represent the overall population.
“The inmates at Holot are regularly provided with an abundant diversity of food, as in all IPS facilities ... meat, side dishes, dairy products, fruits and vegetables. Tea and coffee are distributed once a week for the convenience of the inmates, and they can use them at any time by means of the hot-water containers located in the club room. The ban on bringing in food from the outside is due to uncertainty about its quality and fear of poisoning.
“Because the rooms are modular, spiral electric heaters are not allowed in, but the rooms are insulated and blankets are provided. The club rooms in the different wings are equipped with heaters and air conditioners. Because of a breakdown in the water heater one weekend there was no hot water ... [but the] problem has been repaired.
“The issue of payment for the inmates’ maintenance work in the facility is now being finalized by various ministries. Meanwhile, inmates who have chosen to work are receiving only advances, but after the final wage is approved they will receive the difference.”