Between an Uncertain Future and a Safe Haven

One endured torture at the hands of Sinai Bedouin and has an uncertain future, the other is glad to be living and working in a democratic country like Israel and is even reading Ariel Sharon's biography; two faces among a myriad of African refugees.

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

Eritrean asylum seeker Habos Kahasa was a prisoner for 10 months in the hands of Bedouin abductors in Sinai. Every day he underwent torture, including burning plastic melted on his back and beatings on all parts of his body. For four months he was shackled in a subterranean hiding place. Then he was sold to other abductors and spent about half a year in a crowded room, 5-by-4 meters, together with another 48 captives, with each group of 10 bound to one another with iron chains. Sixteen of them did not survive the horrors of torture. Six are still being held and abused by their captors, since their families have not succeeded in raising the ransom money demanded for their release.

Activists in the Eritrean community in Israel estimate that nearly 1,000 of their compatriots have undergone a similar experience of abduction and torture on their way to Israel; only last week 107 were abducted. For the women among them, the experience has also included cruel rape. All this is happening not far from Israel's southern border, and the government wants to deport the survivors.

Every day Kahasa's captors phoned his family in Eritrea and put the phone next to him so they could hear his cries, in order to ratchet up the pressure on them to assemble the ransom. Only after 10 months was his family able to raise the final agreed-upon amount, $30,000. A month ago Kahasa was released and dumped near the border dividing Egypt and Israel.

We recently went to visit him in a divided apartment on the fourth floor of a shabby building in downtown Petah Tikva. Kahasa is living there with three of his countrymen, in one room, all sharing a single bed, which takes up most of the space; in the room next door are four Palestinian laborers. One cooking pot, one gas ring, one bag of sugar, a few tattered clothes hanging on a railing and a parade of cockroaches.

We sat on the bed and listened to his story. Kahasa speaks in a whisper, his eyes seeming to bulge out from their sockets, his body shrunken and scarred, his face pale. He has difficulty standing up and moving his arms, which are scorched along their entire length. His back is covered in burns.

When Kahasa finally made his way into Israel at the end of last month he was immediately taken to the Soroka Medical Center in Be'er Sheva, where doctors gave him a number of blood transfusions. After about a week he was released, transferred for a day's detention at the Saharonim Prison and then sent, like all asylum seekers, to the central bus station in Tel Aviv.

Now no one is looking after Kahasa, apart from his handful of friends and a dedicated Israeli volunteer, Sigal Rosen, from the Moked: Hotline for Migrant Workers. He is still unable to leave his apartment - if he were to, he wouldn't be able to climb back up the four flights of stairs to his floor. Only the new clothes his Eritrean friends have bought for him afford him any semblance of a human appearance.

Kahasa, 22, says he never even thought of coming to Israel. He fled the horrors of his country, which include endless military service under harsh conditions, and intended to resettle in neighboring Sudan, where he has relatives. However, immediately after he and a friend crossed the border into that country, they were captured by a gang of Bedouin, and taken, bound and blindfolded, into Sinai.

Initially his captors demanded only $5,500, but after he was "sold" to members of a different tribe the amount soared to $30,000, an unimaginable sum in Eritrea. The torture began on the first day of his captivity and did not stop until his release, Kahasa says.

The first four months, held underground, were the most difficult. He often lost consciousness. He says now that he didn't think he would survive captivity.

Eritrean activist Gebrihiwot (Gabriel ) Takala, who was with Kahasa when we met him, related that only thanks to his wonderful capacity for survival did Kahasa emerge from his ordeal in fairly good condition, relative to other captives. Kahasa's friend, who was captured and released along with him, is still hospitalized in serious condition.

The torture included beatings every morning on the soles of the feet and every evening on the palms of the hands, with the scorching of burning plastic in between. The captives received hot food only once a day: a wretched meal of pita and a rice dish. They did their toileting inside the room, chained to one another; washing was not an option. The captors allowed the men to shave their heads twice during the 10 months, after the place became infested with lice and fleas.

Kahasa's family gathered the ransom money in their village and in the Eritrean diaspora abroad. About half of that country's population is said to be living outside it today. The money was transferred to Israeli Bedouin who confirmed the receipt of the ransom by phone to the Bedouin in Sinai. The usual procedure.

Then Kahasa was released and left a few kilometers from the Israeli border. His wounds had already scabbed over but the other nine captives who were released along with him on that day, April 25, were still bleeding. Two died of exhaustion before managing to crawl to the border.

On the other side of the border Israel Defense Forces soldiers immediately took Kahasa to Soroka. In addition to his injuries, he was also swollen from malnutrition. After his release from the hospital and prison, he was given residence papers and a bus ticket to Tel Aviv.

'The Jews are better'

Kahasa's first night in the city was spent as the guest of Gabriel Takala, who gathered him up from Levinsky Park; after three days he moved to Petah Tikva.

Every attempt to talk to him about his future is met with an embarrassed smile and oppressive silence. He is still very much in pain.

A pleasant spring afternoon in Levinsky Park. The people in line to receive a hot meal from the volunteers of Lev Lesharet (Hearts to Serve, a charitable organization based in Jerusalem ) wait patiently. Among those waiting are a number of asylum seekers who arrived only this morning. The volunteers - a Christian woman from Holland, a Muslim woman from East Jerusalem and a British-Israeli Jew who believes in Jesus - serve up a dish of beans and rice, a thick slice of bread, and a Christian religious book in the language of Sudan or Eritrea. Scores of Africans sprawl in the relatively well-tended and clean park. A former Israeli who lives in Los Angeles observes the scene and says the food given out by the Salvation Army in his city looks a lot less tasty. "The Jews are better," he says.

Ziyad, a Palestinian, is also looking on: "What is it, this country? A Jewish state? Do you want the whole world in this little country? Walla, I don't understand you people. I am from Hebron and need a permit to come into this country, whereas they come here freely. And where are they going to take us? To Sinai?"

A copy of the freebie newspaper Israel Hayom is passed around. It quotes the prime minister: "Sixty-thousand infiltrators are liable to become 600,000." The asylum seekers gather around the paper and one of them tears it to shreds.

A police officer is briefing a group of teachers who are touring the park. They hasten to move us away, lest we hear what he says.

Pigeons peck at the remains of the charitable Christian meal, a vehicle belonging to the Braslav Hasids goes by making a racket, a few Israeli passersby call out racist remarks and Muhammad Zakariya, a Sudanese, sits on the lawn and finishes his first meal in Tel Aviv.

The newcomers are easily identified by their plastic flip-flops; they usually cross the border barefoot and receive them in Saharonim. Zakariya, 34, is otherwise well dressed. In Sudan he was a teacher; he left his wife and 9-year-old son to come to work in Israel, together with another 12 of his countrymen. He does not yet have any idea where he will sleep tonight. Two hours ago, he says, he phoned his brothers in Darfur to tell them he had arrived safely.

For his part, Abdul arrived only five days ago. "What we heard in Sudan," he says, "is different from what we have found. We heard that there is a good chance here of finding work suited to our education and training, and that there is an employment bureau - and we haven't found anything. The weather here is also different from what they told us: It's cold at night."

Admirer of Israel

Takala the activist is impressive, educated and business-like. He was a democracy activist in his own country and is an admirer of Israel. He is 31 and married to a woman from his country whom he met here. They live in a large apartment in Ramat Gan and are the parents of Matan, their 8-month-old sabra son, who was given his name by Hamoked's Sigal Rosen. Takala owns a small general store in the Tel Aviv central bus station. His English is fluent and his knowledge is extensive: He is now reading the biography of Ariel Sharon and already knows quite a lot about his temporary country of refuge. The leaders of Zionism also worked outside their land, he says, naming Vladimir Jabotinsky and Theodor Herzl.

This week Takala was busy organizing a demonstration slated for today, opposite the Eritrean Embassy in Tel Aviv, against the tyrannical regime in his country. He studied school administration and history at the University of Asmara, the first university in Eritrea, which has since been shut down by the regime. In the wake of his anti-regime political activity, Takala was arrested and held for two months, before being sent as punishment to a military camp, where he says he was a slave to his commanders; this was after he had already completed his compulsory army service.

He took advantage of a brief furlough, fled and crossed the border into Ethiopia, where he spent a year in a refugee camp. He told his family he had escaped only six months after the fact, lest they come to any harm. In Ethiopia Takala received a refugee certificate from the United Nations. A few weeks before his arrival, several thousand refugees in the camp had received entry visas to the United States, but he was too late.

In 2006 Takala left Ethiopia for Sudan. He dreamed of getting to Europe via Libya, but then an agreement was signed between Silvio Berlusconi's Italy and Muammar Gadhafi's Libya stipulating the return of all African asylum seekers in Italy to Libya and the way to Europe was blocked. Then Takala decided to try his luck in Israel, mainly because he had learned about its War of Independence and heard that it was a democracy. He also knew that former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir had been imprisoned in his country (in 1947, in a British prison camp ), and that in Tigrinya, the Eritrean language - a Semitic tongue - there are many words that resemble Hebrew - those for plow, near, far, heart and sky. All this, he explains, predisposed him to feel an affinity for Israel.

When he arrived five years ago, there were hardly any Eritreans here yet, nor were there abductions and the Bedouin charged only about $2,000 in as smuggling fees, Takala notes. At first he worked sweeping Jabotinsky Street in Ramat Gan . After two weeks, he began working at the Giraffe Restaurant in Tel Aviv, where he stayed for about a year. Takala has many good things to say about his employers there; they treated him well, and also regularly and generously donated food to the Eritreans' shelters. He also has good things to say about many of the Israelis whom he has encountered - even about the government and the Tel Aviv municipality.

"The Israelis don't make me feel like a guest, but rather like one of their own," he says, and hastens to add that he understands what the Israelis are feeling: The country is small and they are afraid of being overrun. Like his Israeli friends he was shocked by the recent rape that was apparently committed by some of his countrymen. He hastens to disassociate himself from this, saying there are also bad Eritreans. He explains that everything those refugees went through in their country and on their way here could have corrupted some of them.

"For me," he says, "I have total freedom here. I can say whatever I want about Netanyahu, and in my country I can't do that."

But still Takala has a dream: to return to an Eritrea that is free and democratic, like Israel.

Migrants waiting for a hot meal in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park this week.Credit: Alex Levac



Automatic approval of subscriber comments.

NOW: 40% OFF
Already signed up? LOG IN


הקלטות מעוז

Jewish Law Above All: Recordings Reveal Far-right MK's Plan to Turn Israel Into Theocracy

איתמר בן גביר

Why I’m Turning My Back on My Jewish Identity

Travelers looking at the Departures board at Ben Gurion Airport. The number of olim who later become yordim is unknown.

Down and Out: Why These New Immigrants Ended Up Leaving Israel

Beatrice Grannò and Simona Tabasco as Mia and Lucia in "The White Lotus."

The Reality Behind ‘The White Lotus’ Sex Work Fantasy

The Mossad hit team in Dubai. Exposed by dozens of security cameras

This ‘Dystopian’ Cyber Firm Could Have Saved Mossad Assassins From Exposure

מליאת הכנסת 28.12.22

Comeback Kid: How Netanyahu Took Back Power After 18 Months in Exile