TARZAN HAS returned to Africa. This time, in a 300-kilometer trek through the Ethiopian mountains. His passion for long-distance trekking developed while he was on a secret mission 45 years ago, as a Mossad officer helping the Anyanya ‒ the southern Sudanese separatist rebels.
“Tarzan”, now 80 years old, is the nickname of David Ben Uziel, whose book revealing Israeli involvement in the Sudanese civil war from 1969-1971 was recently published in Hebrew.
In “On a Mossad Mission to South Sudan – 1969-1971”, he reports for the first time that Mossad and IDF officers not only assisted the rebels with weapon supplies, training and medical aid, but also participated in sabotage operations blowing up bridges and boats on the Nile, and ambushing and killing Sudanese troops.
“I am proud that I was privileged to contribute to the establishment of the South Sudanese army,” he tells The Jerusalem Report
during an interview at a Tel Aviv café, before he left on his expedition to Ethiopia. Ben Uziel shows me a letter of appreciation from rebel leader Joseph Lago written in 1972: “Whatever will become of Anyanya, you have been the architect. You have raised an army out of nothing. We remember all that you have done to bring about this great change in the history of Anyanya.”
Ben Uziel was born in 1935 in Haifa. He was a teenager during Israel’s War of Independence and joined the ranks of the right-wing Irgun underground.
His nickname Tarzan was given to him after the war, for his courage in rescuing a friend who was drowning in the sea off Tel Aviv. In the early 1950s, he served in the controversial commando Unit 101 led by Colonel Ariel Sharon, which after a few months was integrated with Paratroopers Battalion 890. He finished his military service with the rank of Lt.-Colonel.
After a stint as an emissary in South Africa, in the late ’60s he served as a military instructor to the armed forces of Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie. At that time, Israel and Ethiopia were close allies and were involved in a variety of joint clandestine military and intelligence projects.
After completing his mission in Ethiopia, he returned to Israel in 1969 and was offered the opportunity to join the Mossad intelligence agency.
The offer came from Zvi Zamir who had just been appointed head of the Mossad. Ben Uziel was trained as a case officer, recruiting and running agents. But he didn’t have time to practice his new trade because Zamir called him to his office in central Tel Aviv and assigned him a secret mission.
Ben Uziel was appointed to lead a small Mossad fact-finding delegation to South Sudan.
Why him? Because, at that time, the Mossad knew very little about Sudan and the fact that he already had experience in two African nations was sufficient to make him an “expert” on the continent in the eyes of his Mossad bosses.
Sudan, with the Nile River flowing right through its territory, is one of the largest countries in Africa. For centuries, it was a major hub for the slave trade. Arab merchants captured black Africans, mainly from the southern parts of the country, and sold them as slaves.
The slave trade was an important factor in the county’s economy, culture and state of mind.
In 1955, Sudan gained its independence from a joint custodianship of British colonialism and semi-independent Egypt.
Soon, the ruling Muslim Arab class began the process of Islamizing the south, which was predominantly Christian and animistic, and embarked on a brutal and violent suppression of its inhabitants. Animism is the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena and the universe itself possess souls. Despite their tribal and political rivalries, the people of the south began to mobilize and organized themselves to fight the Khartoum government.
Thus, in 1963, Anyanya (snake venom) came into being. It was a small, decentralized military organization founded and led by Joseph Lago who defected from the Sudanese army and went to help his brethren. After a few years of fighting, the rebellion subsided due to the lack of weapons, food and cohesion among the rebels and brutal attacks by the Sudanese army that included rapes and killing of villagers, and the burning of their crops and huts.
FRUSTRATED AND isolated after their pleas for help from Western and African nations fell on deaf ears, rebel emissaries knocked at the doors of Israeli Embassies in Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda. Prime minister Golda Meir was sympathetic and instructed Zamir to review the request. Zamir sent Ben Uziel and two other Mossad officers, Eli Cohen (no relationship to the Mossad spy who was hanged in Syria in 1965) and Charlie Talmor, to conduct a feasibility study. The three flew to Kenya and Uganda.
There they were assisted by the local Mossad stations and illegally crossed the border into South Sudan via Uganda to contact Lago.
They found him in his headquarters. Ben Uziel introduced himself as “John,” and this is how he is known even today to his South Sudanese friends. Later, Lago was sent to Israel and met with Meir who promised to supply them with weapons and medical aid, and support their struggle for freedom.
Several reasons prompted the decision to aid the rebellion in South Sudan. The main goal was to ensure that the 30,000-strong Sudanese army would be embroiled in the war in the south and, therefore, would be unable to send soldiers to assist the Arab armies in their battles against Israel. Another reason was the doctrine known as “peripheral alliance.” At its core was the old dictum of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend.”
The idea was to break through the siege the Arab states had imposed on Israel with the help of secret contacts with states in the “second tier” – those on the periphery, on the margins of the Middle East. The Mossad was tasked with carrying out this policy. It cultivated relations with Christian Ethiopia, Muslim non-Arab Turkey and Iran, along with other ethnic minorities in Muslim nations, including Kurds in Iraq, and Christians in Lebanon and South Sudan. As part of this policy, Israel also took part in supplying weapons to the monarchists in Yemen’s civil war in the 1960s.
Ben Uziel was the leader of several clandestine Mossad missions that included several doctors – Emanuel Shapira, Ethan Rubenstein, Rafi Walden and Elitzur Hazani – and later a few other Mossad and IDF officers. They entered and exited South Sudan on numerous occasions over the course of those two years.
They trekked through highly dangerous routes spanning hundreds of kilometers, occasionally riding on decrepit bicycles. They crossed roaring rivers, slept in makeshift huts filled with mosquitoes, snakes and rats, ate local food they could barely digest, and trudged for days through the desert without water, quenching their thirst at muddy creeks.
They trained the Anyanya, organized its army into brigades and platoons, and instructed them in guerrilla war tactics. They taught them to assemble roadside bombs and mines, to sabotage bridges, and sink supply boats on the Nile. The physicians treated the battle wounded and immunized local villagers against contagious diseases.
THEY LATER built a landing strip in the heart of the bush, and planes piloted by Israel Air Force airmen dropped tons of weaponry – rifles, machine guns, mines, bazookas, mortars and ammunition. Mossad chief Zamir personally landed there to see how his men were faring.
The Mossad’s disinformation department supervised rebel communiqués and oiled the propaganda machine.
In 1971, the military aid was halted. Anyanya agreed to a cease-fire after reaching a political settlement with the Khartoum government, which granted the south limited autonomy. A decade later, after Khartoum broke its promises, the rebellion resumed, but Israel was no longer involved.
Israeli involvement had been part of the close ties and intelligence cooperation with Kenya and Ethiopia. In years to come, it gave Israel several dividends such as the consent of Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta to allow Israeli planes to refuel in Nairobi on their way back from the daring rescue operation of Air France passengers, taken hostage by a radical Palestinian group, who were held at the Entebbe Airport in Uganda, in 1976.
Following the South Sudan operation, Ben Uziel returned to Mossad headquarters in Tel Aviv and started working in the field for which he was trained – being a case officer. He ran Arab agents in Europe and, later, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, again was sent undercover to Sudan. This time, as part of the Mossad team airlifting Ethiopian Jews to Israel, his experience and knowledge of the country helped him at least once when he was stopped by a Sudanese military roadblock.
In 1996, he retired from the Mossad and got involved in business in China, while devoting his time to his hobby ‒ challenging treks spanning hundreds of kilometers.
In 2011, South Sudan gained independence and Israel quickly recognized the new state.
The two countries established diplomatic relations and appointed non-resident ambassadors.
The Foreign Ministry sent agricultural and health experts to South Sudan. The president of the newly established country, Salva Kiir Mayardit, visited Israel, followed by his country’s generals who asked Israel to provide them with military assistance, once again.
Ben Uziel was invited to the capital, Joba, where he received a hero’s welcome. He met with his old comrades from the battlefield, some of whom now held high positions in the government and military. Mayardit, himself an Anyanya fighter, appointed Ben Uziel as his special representative in Israel. In the president’s eyes, “John” was the architect of the nascent South Sudanese army.
Ben Uziel attempted to help Israeli companies hoping to do business in South Sudan, whose main revenues were generated from oil. However, because of its poverty, economic problems and, above all, the civil war, it was difficult to develop real financial and business ties.
International media have reported that Israeli companies were selling weapons to South Sudan and indeed, Israeli arms dealers were keen to sell. It may well be that here and there some items and equipment were sold; a UN report said four months ago that Israeli weapons had reached South Sudan. The report is based on photos showing local soldiers and police officers carrying Israeli-made Galil rifles.
The Defense Ministry, as a matter of policy, refuses to comment on military exports. Ben Uziel contends that to the best of his knowledge there have been no arms deals between the two countries.
Meanwhile, in December 2013, civil war broke out in South Sudan, centered around the rivalry between Mayardit and his deputy Riek Machar and also rooted in the animosity between the two big tribes, Dinka and Nuer. It is a historical irony that a nation that fought daringly for 50 years to gain its independence and to be liberated from the Khartoum persecution is now locked in a war of its own, no less brutal and violent. So far, all efforts to end the civil war have failed.
At the end of the interview, I asked Ben Uziel, “You were the executor of the Israeli military and medical assistance in South Sudan. You say that it was not just a matter of national interest, but also a moral obligation not to stand idle in view of brutal violence against a freedom-loving people. And now, the same people who fought shoulder to shoulder with you are killing each other.
Do you regret your involvement? “No, I don’t regret it,” Ben Uziel responds.
“It was an important operation, serving our national interest, but also humanitarian in nature. Indeed, before independence was granted, I worried about it. I am very familiar with the tribal tensions, but this time I believe the civil war is primarily a result of the problems between the president and his deputy.
“Machar is a very dangerous person. In the past, he betrayed his southern brethren and joined the north. In 1991, he was involved in the killing of 30,000 Dinkas. Last time I was in Joba, I was told that a great effort was underway to return peace and tranquility to the country. I really believe that this will eventually happen. The South Sudanese people deserve it.”
Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman.