Community leaders from Israel's population of 55,000 African asylum seekers led chants from atop the cab of a pickup truck: "U.N., open your eyes!" "We are not cancer — we are human beings!" "Why Holot for blacks?" "We are black and proud!" "U.N., afo atem [where are you]?" "No more prison!" "Cancel the law!"
The crowd's call-backs were louder and fuller than ever on the empty desert air. Most protesters' voices had gone raw within a couple hours. And the scene only intensified around 4 p.m., when a city bus arrived to the prison carrying a new load of prisoners and their suitcases. The group included Jack Zaidan, a young community organizer from Darfur dressed smartly in a fedora and scarf. Women at the rally flung themselves, sobbing, onto Zaidan's small frame as he walked toward the crowd with his hands to the sky, surrendered.
"For me it is a very bad day to see you all here," Zaidan said from atop the white truck parked at the crowd's epicenter. "Every Shabbat I come to visit [the prisoners], but today is my day to come here. ... I come ready like everyone inside."
That morning, the 1,000 asylum seekers in the crowd — most from Eritrea, and some from Sudan — had paid 60 shekels each for a bus ride from Tel Aviv down to Holot, the newest facility in a growing prison complex near the Sinai. The only sign of life for miles surrounding the prison is a massive, foul-smelling cattle farm across the road from Holot, a sad mirror of Israel's human cage. And on Monday, the cows — along with a pack of Hebrew-language news crews, and dozens of cops and soldiers — were the only witnesses to their shrieks of desperation.
"It's like a zoo here, because they treat us like animals," said Filmon Ghide, 20, a fresh-faced Eritrean organizer at the protest who has been sleeping at Levinsky Park in South Tel Aviv the past few weeks. (Partly as a statement, partly because Israel will not renew his work visa and he's clean out of options.)
Ghide said he thinks Israel is inflicting a special kind of psychological punishment on the asylum seekers, slowly driving them crazy — so crazy that they might accept a $3,500 cash reward to go back to Africa.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has claimed that the tens of thousands of Africans who've entered the country through its southern border since 2006 only made the trek to find work in Israel. He calls them economic migrants and illegal infiltrators. They call themselves refugees. (And global asylum acceptance rates for Eritreans and Sudanese, between about 70 and 80 percent, tend to back their claims.) But voices in the middle say no one will really know either way until each case is given due process.
Instead, Israel has summoned more than 3,000 of them — mostly the men who have been here the longest, some for six or seven years — to live in cramped bunks at the Holot campus. Rows of living containers fit 10 to a room, for a total capacity of 3,360. Prisoners complain of abysmal food options, nothing to keep them busy (except laboring for 20 shekels, or about $6, per day) and no heating or air conditioning to stave off extreme desert temperatures.
"If we complain, [prison staffers] tell us, 'Then why don't you go home?'" said Muhamad Musa, 35, a Darfuri asylum seeker who left behind his self-started jewelry shop in Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station two weeks ago to report to Holot. (The prison's entrance, complete with creepy logo, is pictured below.)
Because Musa deserted the Sudanese army after it turned on its own people in 2004, he said he will be jailed and likely killed if he returns.
The droves of immigration police and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers who responded to the protest outside Holot on Monday made sure to keep prisoners separated from protesters. At first, cops even insisted that the rally be held out of ear- and eyeshot of Holot grounds.
"We put this limit here for them to avoid riots," one border policeman told me — despite the fact that not a single injury has been reported over two months of remarkably peaceful protests.
But activists were persistent. "They say 'No,' but what are we going to do, stay here? We need to fight," said a young Eritrean man named Mirin who preferred not to give his last name.
Fight they did. Mulugeta Tumuzghi, a towering and well-spoken Eritrean at the forefront of the movement, huddled with cops for about 10 minutes before they agreed to bring the police barricade a few hundred meters closer to Holot.
That much nearer to the 600 or so asylum seekers behind bars, the rally took on new life. In a stunning and silent response, as the sun wove through February rainclouds, a couple hundred prisoners lined up along Holot's long, barbed fence, crossing their wrists over their heads to mimic handcuffs. Getty Images had the moment online within the hour.
"It's not life inside," said Sowar Oliver Anacio, a 25-year-old prisoner from Darfur, through the fence. He added of the protest: "I cannot go and see my brothers. I want to but they will not let me."
When the deep chill of dusk set in, the media began to head out, and 1,000 protesters headed over to a flat spread of desert across the road, where they unrolled their blankets on the ground for the night. "They're strong people," said 26-year-old Eritrean asylum seeker Robert Tesfamariam. "They came from the desert, they crossed the Sinai — they can do one more day in the desert."
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