On May 12, the State of Israel and its 110,000 Ethiopian citizens commemorate the 4,000 Ethiopian Jews who died trying to reach the land of their dreams during Operation Moses in 1984-5.
Thanks to the efforts of Ethiopian activists such as the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), for the past two years, the day has been marked by an official state ceremony at Mt. Herzl.
While the 4,000 mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, brother and sisters, aunts and uncles who did not make it to Israel are remembered and cried over, rarely is another group that did not have the privilege mentioned. The survivors find it too hard to talk about them.
These are the missing.
No one knows how many people disappeared on the way to or in Sudan, where Ethiopian Jews waited for rescue by Israel after walking in the wilderness for weeks. What is known is they haven’t been heard from in 25 years.
Young Ethiopian Israelis in the families of eight of the disappeared talk about those whose fates are unknownin my recently released documentary, These are the Names. I didn’t expect this subject to come up in a film about the richness and depth of Ethiopian Israelis’ original names, but asked to focus on their names, the interviewees remembered other names – names they rarely speak but that are engraved in their hearts.
“Three of my brothers and four of my uncles disappeared in Sudan beginning in 1981,” says David Mihret, Director of the Steering Center For Ethiopian Immigrants in the Education System. Mihret is named for King David.
“When we were in Sudan, my father went to the city where we heard they had been arrested. He didn’t now Arabic, but he picked himself up and went. People there said to him, ‘We don’t know if you can find out anything or if you can save them, but you can at least save yourself. Get away as quickly as you can.’
“From that day, my father, my mother and my uncles have not returned to being who they were,” Mihret says in the film. “You could say they have been in mourning for 29 years.”
Some Ethiopian Israelis have gone back to Ethiopia and Sudan in search of loved ones who disappeared. Asher Rachamim, a social worker who specializes in post trauma, travelled to Ethiopia after his army service in search of Mulu, his older brother. Asher’s original Amharic name is Mequonent, which means Prince.
Says Asher: “Mulu disappeared on his way from Sudan back to Ethiopia in order to bring the family in 1984. Since then, there has been no trace of him.
“The only things we have are his name and his photographs.
”Mulu would call me Mequonent. And I always loved it when he called me Mequonent.
And I miss him.”
It may be even harder to be the brother, father or mother of someone who disappeared than of one who died. While decades have passed, the survivors cannot let the hope that their loved ones are still alive, die. The dead are commemorated in a ceremony. They finally have a moving and dignified monument on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. But for the families of the disappeared—who have only recently began to talk about them publicly—there is no closure.
While there are many Ethiopian civil society organizations in Israel, none of them keeps statistics on the disappeared or works to find them.
Perhaps their strongest presence is in dreams.
Mihret says he sometime dreams that he meets his brothers and uncles and he pinches himself to make sure he is not dreaming. But then he walks up in the morning…
Avi Masfin, Associate Director of the IAEJ, which successfully fought to have the state recognize the Ethiopian Jewish memorial day and to build the memorial site, says state recognition is not enough. His organization would like to see the names of all 4,000 victims – of bandits, hunger, dehydration, disease – appear in the monument.
“Nearly every Ethiopian Jewish family in Israel lost someone on the trek to Sudan or in Sudan,” says Masfin. ‘Many of them are in a state of post traumatic stress disorder but don’t realize that certain of their behaviors stem from this trauma.
“We want the government to inscribe every name of every victim in the memorial site so that the survivors can feel that their loved one, even though he or she may have had no final resting place, has a place here in Israel. It’s important for them to be able to come and see the name, to touch it and to be able to say, This is my son. This is my brother.
“It’s also important for Israelis to realize that 4,000 Ethiopian Jews scarified themselves so their families could reach Israel. Seeing the names will make this tangible to future generations.”
In addition to the state ceremony on Mt. Herzl on May 12, the IAEJ in cooperation with the Begin Center and the Israel Center for Treatment of Pscychotrauma is holding a memorial ceremony in Jerusalem on June 2 that will honor those who died as well as those who disappeared.
Some of those who live on in the hearts and minds of family members who haven’t’ given up hope:
Ruth Mason is Jerusalem based veteran journalist who writes the blog www.thesearemynames.blogspot.com