By Asher Greenberg
Since 2006, tens of thousands of non-Jewish Eritreans and Sudanese have migrated to Israel, crossing what was then a lightly defended border with Egypt’s Sinai desert. Their arrival has upended neighbourhoods, charged Israel’s already polarized political atmosphere, led to the frantic construction of a $400 million fence to keep them out, and to a massive prison complex meant to hold them. Their migration has sparked a Bedouin kidnapping and trafficking industry in the Sinai, which in turn has led to the torture and mutilation of thousands. This is the story of Israel’s African migrants. This is a longer version of an article that appeared in Tablet Magazine.
Johnny Goytiom sits in a crowded hallway in Tel Aviv’s dilapidated Central Bus Station. The interview had been difficult to arrange and Johnny was an hour late.
He looked older than his 27 years, a hunched figure, not very tall, a meek presence. His face was slightly misshapen, as if a bone was not in the right place. He’s the kind of guy you might pass on the street without looking twice. His real name is Tseganes, but he changed it to Johnny to make it easier for Israelis to pronounce.
Between the din of commuting Israeli soldiers, yelling shopkeepers, and loud drunks, Johnny proceeds to recount how he was kidnapped and tortured to within an inch of his life in the Sinai desert. Many times over. For months. And after all of that to arrive there and be labeled an infiltrator.
African migrants – “economic infiltrators,” says the government – started sweeping over Israel’s Sinai border in the mid-2000s. Propelled by wars in the Sudan, misery in Eritrea, and facing closed doors in Europe, some would go east, through Egypt and the Sinai.
Migrants paid traffickers, often Bedouin, to cross the Sinai and hide from Egyptian army patrols. Israeli soldiers would find them sitting in little groups on the highway near the border.
The government simply didn’t know what to do with them. Israel has never had to deal with large numbers of non-Jewish refugees (who weren’t Palestinian) trying to get into the country.
At first, the soldiers were instructed to put them into prisons. But before long, there were far too many. So, the Africans were loaded onto buses and then dropped off in a few city centres, including Tel Aviv, Arad, Eilat, and others.
But the policy proved shortsighted. Soon, a few hundred became a few thousand. By 2010, as many as 15,000 Africans were streaming into the country every year.
In neighbourhoods like South Tel Aviv’s Neve Sha’anan, Shapira, and Hatikva, tensions rose between residents and the newcomers. Stories of rape and theft by the African migrants reverberated through the media and were repeated by politicians. It all boiled over in the summer last year, when anti-African demonstrations descended into violence and looting.
The government vowed to stop the “infiltrators” at the border. But back in the Egyptian Sinai, beginning in 2009, some traffickers realized they could make more money not delivering their human cargo safely to Israel.
In 2007, Johnny was conscripted into his country’s army, the Eritrean Defense Forces. The service is a sort of “open-ended indentured servitude,” according to Dan Connell, a journalist and expert on Eritrea. Subsistence wages are paid to soldiers sent out to work in state-run enterprises. Both men and women are conscripted. In 2009, Johnny deserted to seek a better life abroad. He left behind six brothers and two sisters.
After a month in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, Johnny moved on to Sudan.
There he was taken by a group of armed men in the night from the border town of Kassala. His captors were a group called the Rashaida, a loose network of Bedouin tribes spread across Sudan and Egypt.
Johnny was packed into a group of 30 Eritreans and Ethiopians. Like cattle, they were shipped north through the desert to Egypt. Packed into small trucks, the group wasn’t fed or given protection from the elements.
“I was afraid. If a person fell off the car, that was it, he’d stay in the Sahara. In five minutes he’d die and that’s it,” Johnny says.
Near Cairo, Johnny was sold to Sinai Bedouins. His new captors took him to Ismailla, where he waited with the rest of the ‘cattle’ to be taken into Sinai.
“What did I see?” Johnny continues, in broken Hebrew.
“Two women without anything. I didn’t know them. They were from Ethiopia. They were crying. They were stolen. I saw them and I also cried.
“I said to them, ‘Don’t worry everything will be okay.’ ”
But he’d heard rumours that Sinai was worse, much worse.
Ben lives in North Tel Aviv. If the stereotype of South Tel Aviv is a working class run-down drug-dealing ghetto swamped with immigrants, the North represents the home of the hipster liberal elite. Charming cafes and posh restaurants create a young, energetic atmosphere. It’s what Israelis sometimes refer to as the bubble in an otherwise boiling Middle East. If there’s an African migrant in sight, he’s scurrying to his job in the kitchens of a local organic restaurant.
Ben, in contrast with Johnny, is tall and lanky, with a hard-lined face and a day’s beard. He speaks plainly but with an intense clarity. It’s not the burly North American stereotype of a soldier. Ben’s eyes would water but he never cried.
In two stints over the last two years, Ben was a squad leader (and later, platoon sergeant) stationed along Israel’s barren border with Egypt, between the Sinai desert and the Negev desert. In an army jeep, he led patrols of three to seven soldiers between the army’s bases. Mostly, it was boring work.
“You could be stuck at a watch-point for three days,” he says. “People get crazy from this. It also affects the way they treat the mission.” While stopping smugglers was part of the job – and there remained a remote but very real threat of terrorism – much of the job was really to carry out the government’s mandate to stop African migrants from entering Israel.
Soon Johnny learned the reason for his abduction. At the Bedouin camp in Sinai, he was handed a phone and told to ask his family and friends for $3,600.
Johnny and many others with him were unable to come up with the money.
“After three days, they started to beat me.”
One man’s leg was chopped off. Others were burned or tied up to rot in the sun.
“And it’s impossible to know when I’ll be able to leave. I thought, ‘When am I going to die?’ How many times I prayed. I spoke not with my family, just to God. How did He bring me here, to this … I thought about this a lot.”
Those who came up with the money were fed. The rest, including Johnny, were on a starvation diet: just a little rice or a sip of water.
A month passed. A group of 16 made a break for it, though Johnny did not go with them. Only three were re-captured.
His captors took out their anger on the remaining captives. For two days, they were constantly chained and beaten about the neck and face. Johnny’s face was so swollen that he could not open his eyes for days.
“I was not allowed to even moan, to show that I’m in pain. Because if you were to make a sound, they’d kill you. I was used to the pain and to getting beaten up without moving my lips.”
“They come mostly at night,” Ben says.
In 2011, Israel’s border with Egypt consisted of just a cow fence in many places. “It’s three wires. [Anyone trying to cross] can go above the wires, in between the wires, below the wires.”
Every night, the Israeli army would spot Africans crossing into Israel. Army units like Ben’s would be sent to intercept.
They would be searched, given water and bread, and then brought to cages near the bases. A soldier would “interview” the Africans, but whatever the migrants said, it was understood that certain answers should be filled in the same each time. The individual was not there to claim asylum, but was looking for work.
Women and children were usually admitted into Israel. But the men – who usually traveled without family and made up the vast majority of migrants – were often taken right back into Egypt.
“Now the Egyptians wouldn’t take them. So the idea was to take them somewhere the Egyptians would not see them, drop them off, fire a few shots in the air, and hope the Egyptians would come as fast as they can.”
This process was called a “hot return.” Ben didn’t like it, and not just because he thought it unethical.
“The most absurd part of hot returns is that it didn’t work.” Most of the Africans they dropped off would just try again. It wasn’t long before Ben started recognizing some of the same faces.
The Egyptian soldiers seemed to be under less pressure to operate according to a rulebook.
One night, Ben was sitting at a watch-point. An Israeli camera picked up three Eritreans hiding under an Egyptian guard-tower. The army shared the news with the Egyptian officers.
“I saw it with my own eyes. The camera saw it. Everybody saw it. How [the Egyptian soldier] caught them and just started kicking them, in the ribs, in the head. Maybe he killed one of them, he could have.”
With a touch of sarcasm, he continued. “That was supposed to be a successful night, because we managed to prevent them from invading Israel.”
Finally, Johnny’s luck changed. He was transferred to new Bedouin “owners”. To connect with his captors, Johnny learned some Arabic. And to try to mollify the behaviour of his captors, he talked about his three – fictional as it turns out – kids at home in Eritrea.
They beat him less. He was given food and water. And they took off his chains.
Still there was a strange price to even this level of freedom. One day Johnny was given the ‘honour’ of raping a woman of his choice from among his fellow captives. He didn’t want to rape her, so he told his captor that she had HIV. But the guard either didn’t understand what HIV is or thought Johnny was lying. For having refused the gift, Johnny was beaten in the testicles.
Johnny decided not long after to make a break for it.
“I went a hundred metres from the house, so they’d think I went to do pee. I put the jacket there, so it looks from the moonlight, it could be a person.
“After this, I fled. If they find me, I’m dead.”
With the help of an Egyptian shepherd, Johnny made it to the border. Dodging Egyptian bullets and injuring his leg in the final run, he bumped into an Israeli patrol. The Israeli soldiers gave him water and called for a doctor. Three and a half months had passed since he was captured in Sudan.
When Ben was sent back to the front lines in 2012, everything had changed. The government had nearly completed a new fence between Israel and Egypt, cutting off most of the migrants’ entry points.
Ben and other whistleblowers had anonymously spoken with the Israeli press, leading to a wave of domestic and international criticism.
But, as Ben found out, the army quietly instituted a new policy called “holding hands.”
Anyone who made it into Israel would be allowed to stay. But with the new fence, it was easier to spot the Africans before they crossed the border. Soldiers were now instructed to hold them there, until the Egyptian army arrived to pick up the Africans.
The policy was supposed to avoid the questionable ethics (and poor public image) of returning potential asylum seekers to Egypt.
Instead, with “holding hands, [the idea was that] you’re just helping the Egyptian army to catch them.”
But, “the actual holding hands was way less humane than hot returning. With hot returning at least they’d get water and bread, blankets, some kind of shelter. They had something.”
But, in this case, the Egyptians were not exactly in a rush to pick up the Africans. Often it would take days for the transfer to take place. In the meantime, the migrants were left out in the elements.
“Where you catch them, that’s where you wait. No blankets. Water and bread would come irregularly. They would be cold at night. They wouldn’t have any shade during the day.”
And Ben started to notice that more of the migrants appeared to be in rough shape compared with his first stint.
“[They] looked like people you see in National Geographic. I never saw such skinny people. I saw terrible burns on their backs. I once caught a girl, 17 I think, who was pregnant from being raped.
“What we would do is try to find some medical excuse to bring them in. So, for example, the girl who was raped and was pregnant. So she said she had a stomach ache. I called a doctor. She told the doctor she was peeing blood so he brought her in to Israel.”
Again, Ben likened it to a sick game. If the Africans tried to escape into Israel, there were rarely enough soldiers to stop them. Depending on an individual soldier’s conscience, he might make more or less of an attempt to stop them.
About 20 per cent of the Eritreans who made it to Israel since 2009 went through the “torture camps,” according to the Hotline for Migrant Workers, an Israeli NGO.
Another 4,000 Eritreans have simply disappeared into the Sinai, according to Physicians for Human Rights Israel. How many were tortured to death by traffickers or were shot by the Egyptian army, no one knows.
The Sinai’s kidnapping and ransoming industry continues. The price for freedom has gone up to anywhere between $35,000 and $50,000.
Ben and Johnny have never met. Johnny isn’t even aware of the byzantine and often arbitrary rules that soldiers have to follow.
Johnny is safe in Israel but unhappy. He lives in a one-room apartment near the Central Bus Station with three other adults and two kids.
Like other African migrants, he has to work off the books to survive, since the Israeli government doesn’t legally allow him to work. He also can’t apply for refugee status as the government has delayed processing Eritrean asylum claims for years.
Johnny fears that any day the government could decide to deport him. The irony is that he wants to leave. Like many other migrants, all he wants now is to get to a Western country.
The fence separating Israel and Egypt’s Sinai has now been completed, choking off the last routes over the border. What effect this will have on the kidnapping industry is unclear, but the Hotline says Eritreans in Israel still get calls from hostage relatives in the Sinai.
But the debate over what to do with those who already made it in – 54,000 Eritreans, Sudanese and other Africans – continues.
NOTE: Ben’s name has been changed at his request