Daniel Angosom was just 18 when he escaped a lifetime of compulsory army service in Eritrea, fleeing to Sudan through his country’s northern border. It was in Sudan, while working as a cattle herder, that Angosom — like thousands of African asylum seekers before him — was kidnapped and sold to Bedouin gangs in the Sinai desert.
“They covered my eyes with a cloth and burned my head and neck with metal rods,” Angosom, now a lanky 21-year-old with a shadow of a mustache, remembered of his time as a Bedouin captive.
After months of torture and near-starvation, his family back in Eritrea was able to scrape together $35,000 for his ransom: “My mother sold her gold, and we sold all our cattle,” he said. So his captors dumped him at the Israeli border fence, where he expected to be taken in as a refugee. (About three-quarters of Eritreans and Sudanese who apply for asylum in countries that signed the United Nations’ 1951 Refugee Convention, like Israel, are approved.)
Instead, Angosom was jailed for entering the country illegally. He is now being held at the Holot detention facility, the newest jail within Israel’s expanding desert prison compound for “illegal infiltrators.” He spoke to the Journal while sitting at a freshly painted red picnic bench just outside prison grounds; the desert stretched for miles in every direction, cold and silent.
“When I first entered inside Israel, I was very happy because it’s a democratic country,” said Filmon Mengstab, 27, Angosom’s closest friend at Holot. Long, spindly scars mark his arms and legs where bandits branded him with red-hot iron and extinguished their cigarettes into his flesh. Mengstab said his Bedouin captors also forced him to have sex with other prisoners and raped Eritrean women in front of him.
When he got to Israel, Mengstab said, “The army told me, ‘You will be free. Welcome.’ ”
Yet, Mengstab and Angosom have been behind bars in Israel’s desolate south for over a year now, alongside thousands of their peers. First, they were held at Saharonim, a closed jail with a capacity of about 3,000 prisoners, including women and children. But under a new Israeli law passed in December, male prisoners are now transferred to Holot after a year of good behavior at Saharonim — and can be held there indefinitely.
The Israel Prison Service has labeled Holot an “open facility” because prisoners can walk freely in- and outside the barbed prison fence. They can’t go far, though, because they must check in with guards three times per day.
“I don’t do anything — I just eat and sleep,” said Haspel Karim Youssef, 22, of Darfur. He’s been in prison for 15 months. “Every day, every hour, the same.”
Migrants living in Tel Aviv can also be sent to the prison complex, without trial, after any run-in with the cops. Micky Rosenfeld, foreign press spokesman for the Israel Police, said that if, during questioning, police find out that an African migrant has no residency papers or refugee status, he will be arrested and “transferred down south to Holot.”
Darfuri theater troupe actor and barbershop worker Babi Ibrahim, for example, was reportedly arrested in July when he couldn’t provide a receipt for a bicycle parked outside his shop. And according to the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, another woman was detained when she reported being raped.
Since December, some 500 to 1,000 asylum seekers living in Israel have been summoned to Holot while trying to reapply for visas, a spokeswoman for the Hotline said. (The Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration did not respond to multiple requests for confirmation of this statistic.)
“Israeli authorities have detained and invited our husbands, fathers and sons to go to Holot,” Sudanese activist Sumaya Nedey said at a recent protest. “They put us in detention in order to break our minds.”
Afraid of running into immigration police, she said, “We fear to go to work and meet with friends. Fear has taken the streets of Tel Aviv.”
The majority of African asylum seekers in Israel come from Eritrea. “Eritrea is known as the North Korea of Africa,” Sweden-based Eritrean activist and journalist Meron Estefanos said. “Every kid knows that you are the property of the state. By the time you’re 17, you know you’re going to go to the military camp … and you will be stuck doing national service for the rest of your life. The only way to get out is by leaving the country.” Temesghen Haile, 34, another prisoner at Holot, confirmed this, saying he served more than 10 years as a guard along the Ethiopian border before escaping Eritrea. Haile was under orders to shoot any Ethiopian on sight.
After helping a group of Eritrean captives round up ransom money to pay their Bedouin kidnappers in 2011, Estefanos became the go-to contact for desperate victims and their families; to this day, she fields innumerable panicked phone calls.
“The torture gets worse and worse and worse,” she said. “[The captors] sit all day and night trying to think what’s the worst thing they could do. They’re sadistic.”
Eritrean asylum seekers in captivity have phoned Estefanos with stories of being chained together in a puddle of cold water, then electrocuted until they pass out. “They will rape you to make you feel ashamed, and force you to rape each other,” she said. “They will call your parents and make them listen while they are burning you. They will hang you and make everyone eat for three or four days with your dead body hanging next to them.”
Estefanos added that if escapees are sent back to Eritrea, they are sure to be imprisoned for life. So even though Israeli authorities have offered $3,500 to any African who returns to his country voluntarily, prisoners at Holot said they would rather remain, holding out hope that Israel will change its mind or the U.N. will intervene.
Now, Estefanos is also taking calls from Eritreans stuck at Israel’s Holot and Saharonim detention centers.
“In Eritrea, it’s a dictatorship, so it’s expected. There’s no way out,” Estefanos said. But, in Israel, “You have convinced yourself that you’re in a democratic country where you have rights. Not knowing [your fate] is what’s worst.”