A tour bus that got bogged down in the mud this week in the parking area of the Holot detention facility in the Negev became an instant allegory for Israeli justice. A bitter wind lashes your face – and this was on the least cold day of the week – and not even the noonday sun can overcome the icy chill. Still, because this was the first clear day after almost a week of storm and rain, hundreds of inmates braved the cold outside to bask in the golden rays.
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The bus had brought friends from Tel Aviv: an Eritrean singing group and a few political activists, living in exile here, who oppose the Eritrean regime. They arrived to give speeches, sing and celebrate, albeit belatedly, the Eastern Orthodox Christmas with the Christian asylum seekers and the new year with everyone.
A rather pathetic holiday atmosphere prevailed in the area outside the facility, which houses some 2,300 migrants and asylum seekers, none of whom have been tried or convicted of any offense: plastic family-size bottles of orangeade, smoke from barbecues, Eritrean delicacies, inmates and guests rubbing shoulders in the traditional Eritrean way of greeting. Not much, but still something.
The hundreds of participants in this sad desert celebration emerged from Holot wrapped in numberless layers of clothes, heads covered with hoods and wool hats, wool gloves on their hands. Each seemed to be wearing all the clothes he owned. This was their only protection against the brutal cold in their rooms, which are unheated; the prison authorities have prohibited them from bringing in heaters from the outside.
One generous Israeli family that offered to buy heaters for all the rooms was turned down by the Israel Prison Service. The latter’s suggestion, instead, was for the inmates to huddle together in the facility’s clubrooms, which have air conditioners that can be used for heating. Alternatively, they were told they could warm themselves with heating pads that were distributed at the end of last week after a public furor erupted over the lack of heat. But only three such pads were distributed to each 100-bed room.
The clubrooms are, of course, too small to accommodate everyone – there are about 50 places to sit for the 280 inmates in each wing – and the heating pads are virtually useless. Inmates say that the guards told them to pass the pads around and rub up against them.
Akiff Tandil Anwar, a colorful Sudanese wearing a gold coat and fashionable glasses, says he has long since lost all feeling in his fingers. Sometimes he runs them through the flame of a lighter to thaw them out, but he feels nothing. “It’s murderous cold. And if you go to the paramedic, he tells you that it’s all right like this.”
The plaza outside Holot, which we have visited several times, has had something of a makeover. There are a few cars in the parking lot that belong to incarcerated asylum seekers. Entrepreneurial types have set up a few small food booths, and at the edges of the plaza there are some quasi-African lean-tos, made of desert shrubbery and plastic sheeting, in which the inmates hang out most of the day and where they cook their meals.
The men all complain about how meager and bad the food is at the detention center. They are critical of the paramedics, who dole out medication without doing tests first, and of the unfulfilled promise of being allowed to study.
But the grievances about prison conditions are not the crux of the matter here: The despair stems above all from the very fact that these people have been dumped here, in this remote site on the border with Egypt, some 70 kilometers from Be’er Sheva, without trial, without prospects, without their status being properly checked by Israel. That desperation is becoming increasingly obvious from visit to visit.
The icy wind makes the eyes tear and the nose run. Almost all the inmates speak Hebrew, and it is also the bridging language between the Sudanese and the Eritreans. Some detainees are extremely suspicious of Israelis, many are affably cordial.
“We got into a mess,” Anwar, who’s from the Nuba mountains of Sudan, tells us. “That’s the long and the short of it. We are waiting to be burned here. That’s all that’s left. This is Israel. This is no life for a human being. You don’t feel like talking. You have no appetite. You have no desire for life.” He’s wearing seven layers of clothing – and is still freezing cold.
Inmates sit around idle on Jewish National Fund benches. They’re allowed to leave Holot during daylight hours, but they have nowhere to go. This week, the state informed the High Court of Justice that in view of the cold, the inmates can request a furlough of up to 72 hours until a solution is found for the heating issue. But where will they go? And when will their rooms be heated?
In response to a High Court petition by human rights groups, the state declared that “at this stage, a number of alternatives for heating the rooms are being examined, taking into account the facility’s electrical infrastructure, and safety and standards requirements.”
According to Anwar Suleiman, from Darfur, one of the inmates’ leaders – who makes do with only three layers of clothing – the situation at Holot makes Israel look bad.
“This place was built to convince us to scram,” he says. “You can’t live here. All you can do from here is walk in the desert. Last week was the hardest, because of the cold. People stayed in their rooms with the cold and their depression. All we want is to live like human beings. But a human being is not just food and a bed. A human being is above all freedom. All the rest is zero. We want the basic right of every person.
“We came here to save ourselves, and look what we got. We are in a warehouse. How can you put people in a warehouse? You don’t put even someone who crossed the border illegally in a warehouse. When we got here we understood: The role of this place is to cause us terrible mental suffering in order to boot us out of Israel. But where will we go?”
A few Israeli activists from aid organizations mingle with the detainees, some of whom they know personally. Asaf Weitzen, a lawyer, and director of the legal department of the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, has come to take part in a hearing for one of the leading figures in the struggle, Mutasim Ali, who ran the refugee organization ARDC.
This charming young man has been incarcerated here since last May. Since 2010, he has been asking the state to consider his status as an asylum seeker, so far in vain. Another hearing is about to be held about his future.
Meanwhile, efforts are underway to pull the bus out of the mud. The inmates walk around with their detainee certificates hanging from their necks.
Suleiman, from Darfur, asks whether I heard how MK Miri Regev (Likud) scored big in the party’s primary at the refugees’ expense. “She rode our backs to get ahead, as though we came from Sudan and Eritrea just to bother people in south Tel Aviv. Will someone who’s afraid go out and disturb others? The politicians know the solution: to examine our status, like in every other country.”
In one lean-to, far from the hubbub, a few men are sitting on the ground and have lit a fire from branches culled from the desert. Under the plastic sheeting and the thorny shrubs they’re making gorraasa, a Sudanese pancake. An Eritrean calls out to the Sudanese inmates to join them. He makes the announcement in Hebrew: “Sudanis, come to eat. There is food for everyone.” The Eritrean version of the pancake, injera, is handed out free.
In Tel Aviv, the authorities are handing out new summonses to asylum seekers in Holot, a process that had been stopped by the High Court for a while.
Fathi Yusuf Zaidan, at 52 one of the older detainees, looks mutely at a photo of his wife and daughter, who are in Egypt. His first wife was murdered in Sudan. He is freezing, but doesn’t complain.
“We are not liked here, but we have nowhere to go,” he says in a quiet, broken voice, encapsulating the whole story here in a few words. “What is there left for us to do? Give up. We have no other choice.”
The political speeches of the Eritrean opposition activists in exile have begun – for a second it feels like Hyde Park. Speaking Tigrigna, speaker after speaker tells the detainees about the situation in their homeland and urges them to enlist in political activity here, because it’s impossible to go on living as asylum seekers. “We have to wake up and replace the government,” they say.
Gideon Levy tweets at @levy_haaretz