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Jailed in the desert, Israel’s top civil-rights leader keeps fighting

by Simone Wilson

May 30, 2014 | 11:40 am

Mutasim Ali sits at a bus stop within Israel's desert prison compound.

Israel's leading civil-rights activist is a 27-year-old refugee from Darfur.

And in the days leading up to his May 5 report date to Israel’s desert prison for African asylum seekers, the great Darfuri activist Mutasim Ali was still tearing up Tel Aviv.

He was answering the lines per usual at the African Refugee Development Center (ARDC) office in the Central Bus Station, where he serves as the organization’s director, and pulling together a Global Day for Darfur event at nearby Levinsky Park. He was filming an off-to-prison segment with Channel 2, Israel’s main news network. All while tending to those other small life details — bank account, apartment, worldly possessions — that come into question when one has lived somewhere for five years and is about to be locked up in the desert indefinitely.

Ali was in such a flurry that, when a siren blared across Israel to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 28 — exactly one week before his sentence at the Holot prison was set to begin — it took him a moment to remember why.

Distraught, the community leader posted to his popular Facebook page:

“I used to remember and visit Holocaust museums (Yad Vashem & Ghetto Warsaw in the north) every year and share my experience as a Darfurian with the Holocaust survivors and the young generation that wants to learn from the history and act for the present. I felt ashamed and thought about the reasons why did I forget (דווקה) this year?”

So Ali decided to devote the Saturday night before his Monday departure to remembering the Holocaust. His Facebook event read: “I want to stand for a moment and show that even though our situation is very difficult, we are tough enough to commemorate the Holocaust and show that we truly care. This is the only thing I want to do before I go to Holot on Monday.”

The crowd at the event was a who’s-who of staffers and volunteers from various refugee aid organizations; African community leaders; political organizers from Ali’s 2013 run for Tel Aviv City Council; the unstoppable Rami Gudovitch; and other friends and admirers Ali has picked up along the way.

(The reliable anti-African protesters would come, too — but not until later, after Ali's audience had long dispersed. They apparently got the event time wrong.)

On the same stage in South Tel Aviv's Levinsky Park where Ali had spoken through a megaphone countless times before — helping push some 20,000 protesters through long days and weeks of refugee uprisings in December, January and February — he said what he hoped would be a temporary goodbye.

“It’s not a big deal for me. It’s normal. You have almost 3,000 people there [at Holot] — asylum seekers," he said to the crowd of about 50. And even more than that, he added, "I feel inspired standing beside my friends there. Not because we’re normalizing the situation, but because we go and we can keep fighting for our rights."

Ali also passed around “Never Again” signs he had printed on sheets of office paper, taking a moment of silence to honor the Jewish people's darkest day. “Despite the government’s policy, I feel very connected to this country,” he said.

Speaking in front of large groups, Ali still gets a little shy — which in the end only adds to his magnetism. A soft-spoken young man of just 27, the Darfur native is sleek, gazelle-like, with elegant hands that he often doesn’t know exactly how to hold and eyes that can focus directly on you while his mind is in a thousand places.

"He’s so eloquent, and he has such a touching way of telling his story,” Michael Sappir, a young Israeli activist who met Ali during the Tel Aviv City Council campaign, said at the Holocaust memorial event. "It's so weird that they're sending him there."

That was the general sentiment among Ali's Israeli and foreign friends in attendance. Lucy Murtagh, an ARDC volunteer from England, said: “There are so many people coming through our doors who are going to Holot, but when it’s somebody that’s your friend, someone that you work with everyday, it hits more hard.” Another volunteer, Zoe Baker from Colorado, added: “Because he’s tried to fight it, it makes it more bizarre.”

However, there has been some criticism from within his own community — a culture that emphasizes the collective over the individual — that Ali has become too much of a celebrity. A huge fan of Nelson Mandela, his friendly, level-headed approach to telling his people's story has landed him on national TV shows and in rare meetings with Israeli politicians. He's become the go-to interview for foreign reporters with a few days to pump out a piece on Israel’s refugee issue.

Ali, too, is sensitive to the extra attention. After a Haaretz article called him “the leader and the symbol of [the] struggle,” he wrote on his Facebook page: “Following the article in Haaretz newspaper, I am not the only leader of the refugees protest as stated. There are many others who serve and lead behind the curtain, among them our friends in Holot because their basic rights to liberty are denied. Just for clarification!!”

But if an accessible figurehead is what it takes for the Israeli public to see all 55,000 African asylum seekers in their country as fellow humans in need of shelter, Ali said he is happy to play the part.

“My life’s mission is to tell the story — to speak on behalf of the voiceless," he said in an interview. "I’m not saying these people are totally voiceless; however, there are a lot of people that need someone to work on behalf of them, and I’m here for that."

At his Levinsky Park goodbye, a few of Ali's friends from Eritrea, Sudan and the Central African Republic stood up to say some parting words. They all stressed that Holot was a community problem, not just a Mutasim Ali problem. Still, there was no denying the special significance of Israel jailing such a recognizable refugee leader.

Said Eritrean activist Philipos Tesfai: “He's not just thinking for himself; he's thinking for everybody else. ... He has his eyes open to tell us we’re in danger.” 

Ali was part of a roughly 10-member team behind the scenes of the December uprising that pulled undocumented Africans in Israel out of the demoralized, disorganized rut that had plagued them for years prior. In a feature for the Times of Israel, reporter Debra Kamin described the team's almost daily meetings and system of phone chains, text messages, fliers and Facebook events that led to this “stunning, meticulously organized… civilized revolt.” 

On the morning of his Holot report date, Ali showed up in sunglasses and sharp black-and-white business attire to the Nokia Center parking lot in northeast Tel Aviv, where dozens of other asylum seekers gather twice a week to catch their bus to the desert prison. He waved a City Cafeteria cup as he spoke into fluffy news mics, trying to divide his attention between 10-odd reporters crowded around him.

When no bus arrived to pick him up, Ali threw his suitcase in the trunk of a friend’s silver sedan and caught a ride down to jail. Israel’s Channel 2 followed him all the way there.

A few days later, I visited Ali in the parking lot outside his new home.

Holot is the only “open facility” in Israel’s southern desert complex. However, because it is situated about two hours from civilization and inmates must check in three times per day (unless they apply for a day pass well ahead of time), most have resigned themselves to its permanence. This time of year, afternoons are scorching or marked by fierce winds; in winter, nights are ice cold. Each morning, Inmates wake up to the stench of cow poop wafting over from a cattle farm next door, and they fall asleep to it each night.

Yet in a place where time seems to stretch into abyss, Ali was already on a tight, structured schedule when I arrived for our interview. “In less than 30 minutes I will have a meeting,” Ali said when he came out to greet me, apologizing. The refugee leader seemed almost busier than he had been in Tel Aviv. He took about five calls throughout our conversation, switching fluidly between Hebrew, Arabic and English.

“I use one of the classrooms that is open, that no one is using, as an ARDC office,” he explained to a co-worker on the phone. “I have my computer there and everything — now I just need a printer,” he joked.

He told me that right away, he had begun gauging the amount of fight still left in longtime prisoners. “I’m still looking around at everybody, seeing how they are,” he said. “And I see a lot of hope.”

Ali explained: “I don’t see people complaining about the services, the food — a little bit, but that’s not the main thing they complain about. They say, ‘This place isn’t for us. We need to do something about this.’ It shows their strength and their willingness of keeping the struggle alive.”

After our interview, when Ali had returned inside for his meeting, Nouradin Adam, a 26-year-old prisoner and asylum seeker from Darfur, told me: “We feel hungry all the time, but we don’t care about food. We care that they recognize us as refugees. I don’t deserve to be here. Like anyone, I have a dream, and I want to do something with my life.”

Adam said that he has watched many of his fellow inmates become depressed or otherwise psychologically unstable since moving to Holot (pictured above). "This is the kind of thing that makes you stop dreaming about life," he said.

Rallying the troops at Holot will be a tall task, even for an indefatigable civil-rights leader like Ali. Epic rallies with turnouts in the 10s of thousands in at the beginning of the year seemed to have done nothing to skid a government plan to expel every last one of them, and prisoners are painfully aware of this. Morale is dwindling.

Since reporting to prison almost a month ago, though, Ali has already shaken things up. When a group of asylum seekers was transferred to Holot from Saharonim (the closed prison next door) on May 19 and forced to sleep on the cold concrete due to lack of beds, Ali helped rally more than 1,000 prisoners for Holot's first internal protest. And his constant updates on Facebook — along with those of fellow Darfuri activist Anwar Suliman, who runs the Holot Refugee Prisoners in Israel account — have alerted a larger network of activists and journalists to human-rights issues behind bars.

Then, on May 22, working with attorney Asaf Weitzen from Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Ali brought home a court victory for the greater refugee community in Israel.

When Ali was first summoned to Holot, Weitzen had helped him file a petition against his pending imprisonment without trial. And although in the end Ali was still sent to Holot — after a series of frustrating court hearings, partly convoluted by another Supreme Court case on the legality of Holot in general — the Ministry of Interior agreed on May 28, based on Ali's petition, to hold a hearing for each new asylum seeker summoned to Holot from June 6 forward. 

“We are advancing little by little, and there is a hope that things will change,” Ali said after the hearing. (See Israel Social TV's in-court video for his full reaction.)

The proceedings also pressured the Ministry of Interior into scheduling a followup interview for Ali's asylum application — years after he first submitted it.

No matter what ministry officials decide, Ali's case is a slam dunk by United Nations standards. He became a head activist at his university in Sudan after his village was massacred in the infamous Darfur genocide, and was tortured extensively in jail for his anti-government activities. At one point, his torturers injected gas into his fingers.

The activist is now torn between two worlds: He’s a minor celebrity in Israel, one of the most recognized civil-rights leaders in a country that has both taken him in and spat him out; and he’s a genocide survivor and prisoner, part of a population with zero rights and a bleak government sentence.

On May 11, Ali was scheduled to give a TEDx talk at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, themed “Roots.” After traveling the two hours from Holot, he took his seat in a line of Israeli VIPs including Yossi Vardi, considered the founding father of "startup nation," and the university's president, Prof. Rivka Carmi. Ali smiled warmly and chatted with guests — almost as if he hadn’t just been stuck in a pen with 3,000 of Israel’s most downtrodden. Later, in a phone interview, Ali woud tell me: "It was a little bit difficult for me to see people in the crowd. They’re there for fun, while I’m telling a really sad story about people incarcerated" nearby.

After his speech, Ali slipped out quietly, worried he would be punished by Holot authorities for being gone too long.

Said Ali in his haunting TEDx speech to a young Israeli audience:

“Since I came first to Israel, I couldn't get basic rights as a refugee in the country. And I started to think, ‘Why hasn’t the world stopped? Why does life seem so normal? … It was very difficult for me to process that reality when I came first to Israel. Street cleaners getting up in the morning and cleaning up the streets. Children going to schools, parents going to work. People laughing. People traveling. ... I’m asking myself, ‘Why did the world stop inside me?’ Something terrible happened: 500,000 Darfurians were killed; 2.7 million are displaced. And the world seems to be normal — everything is going on normal. And I had to make a choice. Am I going to be distracted, am I going to become depressed? Is my status as an asylum seeker, or the status of African refugees in Israel, going to stop me from moving forward? Am I going to let my nightmares get to me, from the torture? I said, ‘No.’ I’m not going to let it get to me. I owe it to those who sacrificed for me, I owe it to those ones in my village who were murdered, I owe it to my parents who were displaced, I owe it to the 500,000 people who were killed — I owe it to all of them. But today, my ultimate goal is to struggle for us regaining the dignity and humanity for Darfurians. And my goal for now is to fight and struggle for the rights of African asylum seekers in Israel. And this is who I am today. This is who I am.”

But by keeping him in Holot, authorities have erected a barbed-wire fence between Ali and his life's work. In order to attend his most recent court hearing and asylum interview, he spent hours zig-zagging between Holot and Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, applying for the proper paperwork to apply for day passes out of prison.

Then there are the lines inside.

“Lines for the doctor, lines to check in, lines to check out,” Ali said. “Everywhere is lines — lines, lines, lines everywhere. Before I went there [to Holot], I heard about this from my friends. But now I can see for myself, and it’s even worse than I expected. I never thought it could be this bad. It makes you go crazy.”

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Simone Wilson is a 26-year-old journalist from Northern California currently living in Tel Aviv, Israel. She served as editor in chief of UC San Diego’s student newspaper, the...

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