April 5, 2007
From Darfur to Israel: A Family’s Perilous Exodus
"We left Sudan, took a boat on the Nile to Aswan and went to Cairo to seek protection at the United Nations office," said Ahmed, sitting in Ketziot, a maximum-security Israeli prison near the Egyptian border. |
Some 150 miles away, sitting in the office of a women's crisis center in the western Galilee, Ahmed's wife, Fatima, learns of her husband's whereabouts from this reporter. They had not seen each other since Dec. 29, when they sneaked into Israel with their three children.
"My husband was arrested in Darfur and then in Khartoum," said Fatima, her head wrapped in a blue scarf, with her children beside her. "We had to leave."
Knesset members and the Israeli media have been barred from Ketziot, where dozens of Sudanese are being detained. But JTA was granted an exclusive interview and entrance to the Negev prison.
Together, the husband and wife pieced together their story.
From Darfur, where he was imprisoned and tortured, Ahmed and his family made their way to Khartoum, where he was similarly arrested. Seeing that the Sudanese capital was not safe, they went to Egypt.
Even as he sits in an Israeli prison, Ahmed's fate and the fate of his fellow refugees could still be determined by Egypt. Both the government of Israel and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would prefer to see the deportation of the refugees in Israel back to Egypt, if they were guaranteed not be to be deported back to Sudan.
Ahmed's family was among the tens of thousands of Sudanese who have sought safe haven in Cairo, with the hopes of being recognized as refugees by the United Nations and therefore eligible for asylum in a third country.
Egypt's handling of the current Sudanese refugee crisis can be traced to a 1996 assassination attempt, in which extremist Egyptians had been plotting for months in Sudan to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Although the assassination attempt failed to kill the Egyptian leader, it did lead to a change in policy for Sudanese entering Egypt. For half a century, some 2 million Sudanese had entered Egypt without a visa and had unrestricted access to employment, education and health care.
According to UNHCR's Cairo office, between 1994 and 2005, 58,535 Sudanese nationals sought safe haven in Egypt, with two-thirds coming from either the Darfur region, where some 200,000 to 400,000 people have been killed and another 2.5 million displaced, or the south, where an estimated 1.5 million Sudanese, mostly Christians, were killed in a 21-year civil war.
By the end of 2005, 31,990 Sudanese were granted refugee status in Cairo and obtained the coveted U.N. blue card that certifies their refugee status and qualifies them as candidates for resettlement to third countries, mostly the United States, Canada and Australia. About half of those were actually resettled, but another 13,327 were still in limbo, and they were becoming increasingly frustrated.
"I went to the U.N. office," and was told "to come back in six months for an interview," Ahmed said. "He went back six months later, and they said they had to wait another six months," Fatima said.
On Sept. 29, 2005, at the start of Ramadan, Sudanese refugees moved into Mustafa Mahmoud Park, put up protest banners and received the protection of the Egyptian police.
"We lived in the park with the other families, across from the United Nations office for three months," Fatima said. "It was very hard to find work, to feed my family," recalled Ahmed, who has been transferred to an Israeli prison near Ramle. "I joined the demonstrations."
The demonstrators wanted UNHCR to resume processing applications for asylum, which had been suspended for all Sudanese since June 2004, when a cease-fire was announced in southern Sudan.
At 1 a.m. on Dec. 30, 2005, 4,000 Egyptian security force members surrounded 2,000 Sudanese protesters. First came the water canons, Ahmed and Fatima recalled. They clubbed Fatima, then three months pregnant, in the stomach. Ahmed saw five people, including two children, killed. Fatima's aunt was shot point-blank. The official death toll in front of UNHCR's Cairo headquarters was 27.
"They took us all to jail, each one to a different lockup," Fatima recalled. "There, they tortured me, gave me no food and I learned that they did the same to my husband. Only later did I learn from my children that each of them was alone.
"Only when my 2 1/2-year-old began crying did the police take him around to other jails to see if anyone could identify him. My 8-year-old daughter identified him and told the police that he was her brother. They were allowed to be together, but they weren't given food for long periods.
"After five days, they released me, and I began looking for my children. I went from jail to jail until I found them."
Ahmed said he was freed a week after his wife.
They threatened "that we would be deported to Sudan." That is when "I decided we are going to leave Egypt and go to Israel to seek protection. We were not safe in Egypt."
The UNHCR office in Cairo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Ahmed said he kept his departure plan secret from everyone, including Fatima. Visiting an Internet cafe in Cairo, he was able to find friends from Darfur who were resettled in the United States and Canada. With earphones on, sitting next to the computer, the Darfurian with a seventh-grade education used a computer voice communications program to plead with his friends to send him money, but he didn't say what it was for.
When the money arrived, he told Fatima of his plans to escape with the family to Israel, arranged for the Bedouin smugglers and set out to cross the Sinai Desert.
"The Bedouins said that I was going to be taken to prison, and that Fatima would be taken to a shelter in the north," Ahmed said. "But at least we would be safe.''
Yosef Israel Abramowitz is an award-winning journalist and founder of socialaction.com. Abramowitz, who moved with his family last year to Israel, blogs daily at peoplehood.org. JTA correspondent Dina Kraft in Israel contributed to this piece. The names of the refugees have been changed to protect them from reprisals against family members in Arab countries.