A highway for Africans with nothing to lose

As we closed in on the infiltrators, we saw the refugees and another bunch of people rushing toward them.

By SAM SER, ALONG THE ISRAEL-EGYPT BORDER
March 31, 2008 00:31
3 minute read.
A highway for Africans with nothing to lose

Sudanese atBorder 248.88. (photo credit: Channel 10 [file])

They were shivering from the cold, their T-shirts and thin pants no match for the desert's nighttime chill. Their flimsy sandals offered precious little protection from the rocks, and the last of their food and water had run out much earlier, dozens of kilometers before the border. But when we swarmed around them, the 27 Sudanese who had trekked across the Sinai Peninsula sat down and wept for joy. They were in Israel. They were safe. I came upon them with Lt. D., who had burst into my room moments earlier with the order to grab my helmet and battle vest, along with Lt. S. and another of my fellow reservists. The four of us ran westward, toward the border, in the direction where the guards in the watchtower had noticed a large number of silhouettes moving slowly but steadily toward our outpost. During our mad dash to intercept them, we thought warily of who these people might be. The day before, drug smugglers had snuck past a guard detail on the next outpost over. Two days earlier, a patrol unit from our position had caught 15 Sudanese and Ivoirians. Warnings of attempts to kidnap soldiers had come down from higher-ups in Intelligence. As we closed in on the infiltrators, we saw the refugees and another bunch of people rushing toward them. Thin yellow rays from their handheld flashlights darting back and forth: soldiers on patrol were running to contain the group. Visibility was practically zero. The sand dunes all around, which had glowed a bright tan in the noonday sun, by midnight had become waves in a pitch-black sea that stretched for days on end. With a crackle and a burst of light, illumination flares flashed overhead, hanging in the sky long enough for us to regroup and take stock of our catch. They were men, women and three small children. The commanding officer summoned a female soldier from the outpost to check the women and children; an ambulance was dispatched, too, together with food and water. We began security checks by having the men stand off to the side, one at a time, and raise their shirts and lower their pants so we could see they were not carrying explosives (we had been warned of attempts to smuggle terrorists with explosive belts into the country, hidden among groups of African refugees, and ordered to take precautions). Each of us maintained a safe distance from the Sudanese, as well. The Sudanese, apparently, had been told what to expect and took this process in stride. They knew, after all, that had the Egyptian police on the other side of the border caught them, chances were at least a few of them would have bullet holes in their backs. Once in Israel, though, they would be transferred to a holding facility to be questioned about their route through Sinai and the people who made their difficult journey possible. At the very least, they would enjoy free food and shelter in a modest tent encampment; with luck, they would be offered work on a kibbutz somewhere. Back in the sandy ravine, trackers examined the refugees' footprints, following them back to the spots where they had crossed into Israeli territory. Suddenly, one alerted his commander that there were too many prints. Three more men were out there somewhere. Just then, gunshots fired from the west sent our forces into action. Guards back at the outpost, using a thermal-imaging scope, had spotted three men in the distance, ducking and running back and forth. Several soldiers gave chase on foot, while others of us sped off in jeeps and Hummers to investigate. Before long, the three mysterious men crossed back into Egypt, and we all returned to our outpost - fully expecting to see the men, or at least their human cargo, again, and soon. The experience of the men and women guarding Israel's southern border is becoming impossible to ignore: what began with the desperate escape of a few hundred Darfurians has now turned into a veritable highway for Africans with nothing to lose. They advance toward the border, their only obstacle an insignificant coil of barbed wire, in hopes of joining the thousands like them who have already found refuge in the Promised Land. They risk starvation in the desert and murder at the hands of Egyptian police - who are abandoned for months on end in this barren place with hardly enough supplies to survive and who have no motivation to stop this human traffic - all for the prospect of the moment Jewish soldiers will surround them and say, "No one will harm you now." Every night, at various points along this crumbling road, hundreds of them wait in silence for their opportunity to march to safety. Every night, we wait for them to come.


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