How will it all end for you, I asked him after he told me the upsetting story of his life in some detail. Ahmed hid his gaze with the document attesting to his official status as a prisoner who served jail time – the only official Israeli form granted him to date. He wrinkled its plastic envelope with his fingers and did not reply. After a few minutes’ silence, he said laconically, “I think the end will be bad. They will deport me by force.”
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On the basis of the story of his ordeals and his escape, it’s clear that Israel must formally recognize him as a refugee. But based on the authorities’ behavior here, that will not happen. One of masses, he has a story which resembles that of many of the asylum seekers from Africa. One of masses, he has spent most of his time since entering Israel in 2012 in two different detention facilities, and will probably find himself incarcerated again soon. We parted on the street in Tel Aviv with a limp handshake, knowing that we would probably not meet again. Ahmed (Haaretz is in possession of his full name) went out into the street, keenly aware that he could be arrested at any moment.
He’s 31 years old, a native of the Darfur region of Sudan, educated, soft-spoken, with a good command of English. He has 17 brothers and sisters, some of them half-siblings, who live with his parents in a refugee camp in Sudan. Only his older sister lives elsewhere – in Khartoum, with her husband. Ahmed’s 26-year-old wife, Rukiya, and his three children – Shihab, 9, Shams, 5, and Shuruq, 2 – live in the Gaga refugee camp in Chad; he speaks to them every two months or so. As for Ahmed himself, he is living in south Tel Aviv, in a rented apartment shared with six others, after being released from prison in Israel almost half a year ago. His past has been brutal, his present is harrowing, and his future is one of despair.
In 2003, his parents and siblings had to flee from their village of Shataya, in Darfur, after it was burned down by government forces. About half a million people were forced to flee from that area at the time and to find shelter in the Kalama refugee camp.
Ahmed speaks every three months by phone with his father, a tailor by trade, and gets the latest news about the family’s dire plight; they have been living in refugee tents for around a decade. The word from them is that he must on no account return. As for them, leaving the camp means risking one’s life. Many of these displaced persons from Darfur have been murdered or injured, and many women have been raped. That’s what Ahmed keeps hearing from his father. Two of his brothers, university graduates, spend their days in enforced idleness in the camp. His father grows sorghum on a small plot of land and makes a meager living by mending clothes for the camp residents.
Ahmed himself studied education at the University of Khartoum but was forced to leave after two years, when the government started to harass students from Darfur. He was arrested twice, once for two months and the second time for three, for engaging in subversive activity against the government. After being released the second time, he realized his life was in danger and fled Khartoum. First he returned to his native region; afterward he fled to Chad with his wife and their firstborn son. That was in 2005.
At that time, the government of Chad opened its border to the refugees from Sudan. The family hoped to be admitted to the Goz Beida refugee camp in southeastern Chad, like many other Darfuri refugees, but when they arrived they were told that no newcomers were being let in because of the overcrowding. The young family continued to wander for a time, and reached the Gaga camp, which was originally supervised by UNHCR.. They were officially recognized as refugees, following several interviews with UN officials.
Even now, Ahmed has in his pocket a certificate of his refugee status, which he received from the Chadian authorities. More than a quarter-of-a-million people live in the vast Gaga camp, most of them from Sudan, along with some DPs from Chad itself.
Ahmed tried to make a life for himself in Gaga. He taught on a volunteer basis in an elementary school there, and after a time was hired as a reporter by Radio Dabanga, an underground Sudanese station that broadcasts to the Darfuri people, funded by the Dutch government. The station broadcasts in four languages: Ahmed was a correspondent in the Fur language. In 2011, he broadcast daily reports about developments in the battered Darfur region, drawing on information from international reporters on the scene and other sources. The Sudanese government took a dim view of the station, however, and tried to suppress its activities and staff. After the UN forces left the camp, and the Chadian government reached an agreement with Sudan on the establishment of a joint force to be created to police the camp, Sudanese troops arrived and arrested the subversive reporter.
Ahmed was incarcerated with the station’s manager, Bashir Adam. It took UN intervention to bring about their release. Ahmed fled to N’Djamena, the capital of Chad, leaving his wife and children behind in the camp; he stayed in the city for only about two weeks, because he felt his life was endangered. He subsequently decided to try his luck in another refugee camp, Salum, in Egypt, which accommodates mainly Sudanese refugees who have fled Libya, but he was not allowed in.
Ahmed then set his sights on Israel, the next stop in his endless journey of flight and nomadic wandering. On June 8, 2012, he crossed the border into the Negev, together with another dozen or so asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. After a night of trekking in the middle of nowhere, he was arrested at dawn by Israeli soldiers. He did not know a soul in the country.
Ahmed was taken immediately to Saharonim prison in the Negev; about a month later, he was transferred to Ketziot, another detention facility in that area. After being incarcerated for about a year, he was released last August 11. He was provided with just one document, which reads: “Confirmation of prisoner’s time in jail. Prisoner’s number: 1444413. Type of detention order: Deportation order. [Signed:] Etti Zuaretz, master sergeant.”
Before being released from Ketziot, he submitted a request to be recognized as a refugee. He was interviewed for five hours in the prison by a committee and promised an answer. That was many long months ago, but Ahmed, like virtually all the asylum seekers here, has not received any response. “Now,” he says sadly, “I know that it is impossible to be recognized as a refugee in Israel.”
He was released from prison on bail of 3,000 shekels ($860), which was posted by his cell mate, whose brother deposited the funds for him. (Incidentally, that friend afterward returned “voluntarily” to Sudan, after despairing of the possibility that he would be released from prison in Israel. According to Ahmed, after he arrived in Sudan he disappeared without a trace and his fate is unknown.)
Ahmed somehow arrived in Tel Aviv and has been living there since his release, without a visa, without any papers other than the Israeli prisoner’s certificate and the refugee certificate from Chad. Two weeks ago, he requested a visa from the Interior Ministry and was told to come back at the end of the month. He will probably get a summons to report to the Holot detention camp in the Negev. At first, he was instructed to report every Monday to the foreign workers division of the Population and Immigration and Border Authority branch in Holon to have his card stamped, but that procedure was later dropped.
For now, Ahmed is afraid to leave the apartment, as the “hunting season” for asylum seekers is at its height. He ekes out a meager living by doing what he calls “chik-chak jobs,” as the asylum seekers call occasional day work. This week he was taken for a day’s work at a construction site about an hour and a half from Tel Aviv – he has no idea where. “I am in a critical situation,” he says. “I have no visa, and they arrest people without visas. Even those who received a visa for a month are arrested. I am asking to be recognized as a refugee, because my situation is very clear. My whole family is in camps, and that means that my country is burning. I have many great fears about returning to Sudan, because I could be killed there, or detained for many years. I cannot go back there. If Israel does not recognize me as a refugee, I am ready to go to a third country that will recognize me. But absolutely not to Sudan. I am really afraid they will deport me by force to Sudan. My end will not be good.”