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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
By age five, Yreg Esa was already a "Prisoner of Zion," a Jew imprisoned in a hostile country simply for his desire to reach Israel.
The story of Esa, now in his late 20s, along with those of thousands of other former Prisoners of Zion - some of whom gave their lives to help Jews in enemy countries - will be commemorated Thursday afternoon at the Tel Aviv Fairgrounds in the presence of 800 Prisoners of Zion and Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday, Esa described his experience as a child imprisoned for five years in the Sudanese desert on his way to Israel.
In 1984, Esa's family set out from their village in the Gondar region of Ethiopia for Israel, "walking for seven weeks on foot," Esa recalled. He was five when he made the arduous trek, surviving what he calmly refers to as "the difficulties" - chronic hunger, malaria and dishonest guides who stole the family's money and fled in the middle of the night.
Reaching the Sudan, the family sought out a Red Cross station. "They gave us food and tents. A day or two later, around Yom Kippur, [Sudanese] soldiers in trucks and tanks came. They knew we were Jews," Esa stated matter-of-factly, speculating that they had "intelligence" of the family's Judaism. "They loaded us onto garbage trucks with open roofs, and took us to a prison in the desert," he continued.
At the Sudanese prison, Esa endured three years of hardships at the hands of the soldiers. "I couldn't go to the bathroom without a soldier aiming a gun at me," while "the adults were often interrogated and beaten," he recalled.
After three years, the prison was taken over by the police, and the next two years were slightly better. After five years in Sudan, Esa's family, along with the other Jews in the prison, were released and sent back to Ethiopia.
In Addis Ababa, he relates, "we were put in a closed compound. They asked us if we were Jewish, but we were scared so we said we weren't. They told us there was a plane waiting to take us to Israel, but we were just too scared to sign the papers."
So Ethiopian authorities returned them to their dispossessed lands in Gondar. It was only a few days later when Esa's aunt, living in Hadera, "called to ask where we were. She said they were expecting us. Only then [we realized] there really was a plane to Israel."
So the family set out again from Gondar, and waited in Addis Ababa for nine months until their turn came up again to fly to Israel, which Esa still refers to as "the Holy Land."
Of over 3,000 people who have been recognized by the state of Israel as Prisoners of Zion, some 2,200 live in Israel today. 795 came from Eastern Europe, 714 from Muslim countries, 368 from Ethiopia and 325 served in the Jewish underground movements during the British Mandate.
The event marks the third year of annual recognition ceremonies commemorating the Prisoners of Zion, and is mandated by a law passed in 2003. This year's event will focus on the 85 harugey malchut (those dead in the line of duty) who were killed for their commitment to Jewish life or Zionism.