It was about three in the morning, there was a full moon over the Sinai Desert, and Robert and his two young sons were about 500 meters from the Israeli border when they made their run for it.
"The Egyptian soldiers were chasing us, shooting and shouting, 'Stop, stop,'" recalls Robert, who fled Sudan in 1992 for Egypt, then fled Egypt on April 1 for Israel. "I got the boys over the fence, and my shirt got caught. They were on the other side crying for me. The Egyptians were getting closer, and then I just jumped over that fence. I had no choice. All of us know that if the Egyptians catch you, they kill you, and if they don't kill you, some of them will rape you, they'll treat you real bad."
Mary, also Sudanese, made her middle-of-the-night escape at the beginning of May with her husband John, after spending six years in Egypt. (For fear of endangering family members still in Egypt or Sudan, the Sudanese in Eilat interviewed for this story insisted that their names not be printed nor their faces photographed.) In their ragged sprint to the border, says Mary, a Sudanese friend they'd made the trip with from Cairo was shot to death by Egyptian soldiers.
"Our life in Egypt was no good," she says. "Because we are black, the Arabs there don't like us, the same as in Sudan. Many Sudanese are killed in Egypt. We heard of housekeepers from Sudan who got thrown off balconies. Sometimes if you work for an Egyptian, he doesn't pay you and beats you instead and threatens to send you to the police. The police can deport you back to Sudan, and then your life is over."
Mary shows me the welts on her left arm. She explains: "Once a car pulled up beside me in Cairo and some man got out and slashed me with a knife."
Robert says his children - he has two younger ones still with his wife in Cairo - used to get chased by Egyptian kids throwing stones and eggs at them. "They laugh at you, make fun of you, call you 'black slave.' That's how the Egyptians see us - because we're black, they think we're their slaves."
Robert, 35, John, 36, and Mary, 31, were interviewed last Friday in the Eilat hotels where they've been working for the last month or so, under house arrest in the custody of their employers. (So long as they show up for work, though, they're free to come and go as they please.) They are among the 580 Sudanese refugees who've illegally crossed the border into Israel since late 2004 after enduring years of racist cruelty and brutality in Egypt, where they had first sought refuge from the civil war, genocide and famine in their homeland.
Thus, while they are originally refugees from Sudan, they are in this country as immediate refugees from Egypt. And despite what Israelis commonly think, only a minority are from Darfur, the western Sudanese region where lighter-skinned Janjaweed Arab Muslim militias are committing genocide against black Muslims. Instead, the refugees here are mainly black Christians and Muslims from southern Sudan who fled that region's other lighter-skinned Arab militias, described as "the same sort of characters as the Janjaweed" by George, an Eilat hotel employee from southern Sudan who fled Egypt in April.
On Saturday night, a day after these interviews took place, two more Sudanese refugees racing through the Sinai for the border were shot to death by Egyptian soldiers, says Gal Lousky of Israeli Flying Aid, an NGO that helps foreign refugees.
The last roughly 30-km. leg of the journey through the Sinai, which is guided by local Beduin, involves days of waiting out the passing Egyptian army patrols, and hours of crawling, walking and running in the desert. Many aren't strong enough to survive. "Some refugees told us about places along the route where it was difficult to pass because of the stench from the corpses lying on the sand," says Sigal Rozen of the Hot Line for Migrant Workers.
Last Saturday night, although two Sudanese were shot to death, others made it safely into Israel, notes Lousky. Like their countrymen who preceded them, these survivors waited for IDF soldiers to arrest them. (Soldiers ordinarily make these arrests not only peacefully but helpfully, although once, in March of last year, a soldier killed a refugee, mistakenly believing he presented a threat, says Rozen.)
Chances are pretty good that these newest arrivals won't have to sit in jails like many other Sudanese did and still do, and instead will soon be living in Eilat and working in the hotels as part of their house arrest - which they consider to be paradise compared to the life they'd known.
THE ABSORPTION of many Sudanese as janitors and housekeepers in Eilat hotels marks the biggest improvement yet in the country's handling of the refugees; ever since they started arriving about three years ago, the authorities haven't really known what to do with them.
For the first year after their arrival, all the refugees were held in jails except for mothers with small children, who were placed in women's shelters. The state's argument was that they were all illegal "infiltrators" from an enemy country - Sudan. The Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) argued further that since they came through the Sinai, which is thick with al-Qaida operatives, they also presented a potential terrorist threat - even though not one shred of evidence of involvement in terror was ever found against any of the refugees.
"They're really generous, warm people," says Dina Cohen, social worker at Eilat's Isrotel chain, which employs more than 90 of them while caring for the 16 children they brought with them. "They're very industrious," adds David Blum, Isrotel's head of human resources.
A year or so after the first refugees' arrival, a few teenage boys were released from jail to kibbutzim. However, the refugees' situation only changed substantially for the better after the Supreme Court ruled last year that every one of them was entitled to a hearing before a legal authority to try to win release from prison. A legal authority was appointed and he went to the prisons where the refugees were held - Ketziot, Ma'asiyahu, Ramon, Nafha and Shikma - to hear the appeals. The result is that all of those early refugees who spent a year or more in prison have by now been released and given over to the custody of Eilat hotels - Club, Herod's and the Fattal and Isrotel chains - or to Negev kibbutzim and moshavim.
Of the 580 Sudanese now here, 110 are in prison, with some there for nearly a year, says Michael Bavly, local representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Since April, when the Eilat hotels, with the IDF's consent, began to take custody of the refugees - "for both business and humanitarian reasons," explains Blum - the new refugees crossing the border every month are now usually transferred to the hotels within a few days.
"The ones who come to us straight from the border arrive with nothing," says Blum. "Two days ago we got this man - two meters tall and barefoot." Between the newcomers and the "veteran" refugees released from prison, about 200 Sudanese are now working in Eilat, with more on the way. "We have a terrible shortage of hotel employees in the city," he notes.
Some of those arrested at the border, though, are still being sent to jail. Asked what determines a refugee's destination, Bavly replies: "I can't explain it. I don't see any consistency to the policy." Rozen, however, says a refugee's immediate fate "often depends on whether the jails are full on a particular night or not."
Still, the big question is what to do in the long run about the refugees who've come here from Egypt - and about the unknowable number of others planning to risk the journey in the future.
IT IS a very difficult question. The country's leading Holocaust scholar, Yehuda Bauer, and Yad Vashem director-general Avner Shalev are among those who have called for these refugees from catastrophe to be granted citizenship. Rozen points to the 1977 precedent of Menachem Begin's granting of citizenship to 66 Vietnamese boat people.
But there are an estimated 3.5 million Sudanese refugees in Egypt. Asked how many would like to come here, Lousky of Israeli Flying Aid replies: "All of them. Their life in Egypt is terrible." She notes that a cottage industry has sprung up in Cairo with agencies transporting refugees by van to El Arish in Sinai, where they are picked up by local Beduin who guide them to the border across the sands by night. "The going rate is $300 per refugee," says Lousky.
Blum hopes that at least many of those already here will be allowed to stay, but he agrees that the country has to be very careful about the message it sends to those still in Egypt. "Our workers talk to their families in Cairo on the phone and tell them it's like the Garden of Eden here, and the news travels very fast. If we grant citizenship to whoever wants it, one day we could wake up with a crowd of 3,000 Sudanese waiting at our border. What do we tell our soldiers to do?" he wonders.
Rozen, however, says these fears are exaggerated, insisting that the cost, hardship and danger of crossing the Sinai are prohibitive for all but relatively few refugees.
Since the Sudanese first began arriving, Israel has asked the US, Australia and other Western countries to grant them political asylum - with no success. Led by the US and Australia, Western nations have granted asylum to about 50,000 in recent years, and Rozen says their response to Israel's request is: "We're already giving asylum to tens of thousands, why can't Israel give asylum to a few hundred?"
Israel has promised not to deport the refugees back to Egypt because Egypt has been known to deport them to Sudan, which can be a death sentence. At any rate, says Bavly, Egypt "hasn't shown any interest in taking them." What the refugees want is political asylum - either from Israel or a Western country - so they can start new lives without having to worry about being jailed or deported or otherwise persecuted.
George, who fled to Egypt six years ago at 15, and crossed the border in April, says: "If Israel gives me asylum and allows me to go to school here, then I'd like to stay. Israel is one of the best countries there is. But if I can't stay here and study, then I want to go somewhere else. All of us are young; we want to do something with our lives. How many more years will I have to study?"
This drive for education is common among the refugees mopping floors and making beds at Isrotel, says Blum. When they were invited to choose from the used clothing, household goods, toys and other belongings donated to them by the staff, he says, "The first thing they chose were the books in English."
DURING MY interviews with six refugees in Eilat - five of whom spoke broken English, the other speaking Arabic through a Sudanese translator - only George broke down in sobs while describing scenes from his past. Dina Cohen, the social worker, says that as far as she's seen, "they haven't shown signs of psychological suffering, but I'm sure they will later. For now, they're still caught up in the culture shock of being in Israel."
But whether they show it or not, these people have been battered or traumatized by their experiences - worst by far being what they went through in Sudan, but also what they endured in Egypt.
Recalls Robert: "I had buckets of dirty water thrown on me by Egyptians from their balconies. People called me 'slave,' and I kept it all inside because if you make a scene, they'll call the police on you and then you're in real trouble. I didn't want my children to have to go on living with that, being chased and called names all the time."
Robert says he had to leave his wife and two younger children in Cairo because after borrowing money from a friend in the US and selling what he could, he still only had enough money to take his two older boys across the border. "I don't know what's going to happen to my family back in Cairo."
I asked an official at the Egyptian Embassy if anyone there would explain why Egyptian soldiers shoot refugees trying to flee the country or respond to the accusations of systemic racist abuse of Sudanese in Egypt. He said he would pass the request on, but he doubted there would be a reply because "we are here in Israel, and these matters are handled by the authorities in Egypt."
However bad it was for the refugees in Egypt, their memories from southern Sudan are another matter entirely. Mary, sitting in the functionally furnished room in an Eilat high-rise she shares with her husband, says she "ran with many other people" from her village one day in 1990, "because of the war between the Arabic people and the people from southern Sudan. Everybody saw the Arabs' guns and started running in different directions. There were bombs. There was fire. You know - war."
Her father survived, but she doesn't know what happened to her seven brothers and sisters. "My mother died in the war. We were there." Her ordinarily animated expression becomes slack. I ask if she saw her mother get killed. "Yeah. I saw."
Like other refugees in Cairo who have gone to the UN office for asylum papers - and where, in December 2005, Egyptian police killed at least 27 of them in a crowd protesting the UN's endless delays - Mary has a letter detailing why she fled Sudan. In faulty English (corrected below), it describes what happened to her at the end of 2002, when she was a street vendor in Khartoum, the capital.
"Three men in plain clothes came to my door one night. They searched my room, blindfolded me and accused me of being an informer for the Sudanese People's Liberation Army rebels. I denied these false accusations, but they didn't listen to me. I was taken into another room and tortured. They poured cold water over my body and whipped me all over until I collapsed. They put me in a cell for seven days, giving me little food and water and refusing to let me go to the toilet for hours on end.
"When they released me, they ordered me to report to the police station every Monday morning with names and addresses of rebel spies. I didn't know the rebels, so I knew I couldn't do what they ordered. So on January 2, 2003, I took a train to the Egyptian border, then a ship to Aswan and then a bus to Cairo. I believe that if I go back to my country of citizenship, I will be arrested and killed because I violated the conditions of my release. I don't think the present authorities will protect me because they are part of the same government that was in power when I escaped."
AFTER WHAT they went through in Sudan and Egypt, the refugees are almost glowing with gratitude toward Israel and the way Israelis have treated them, beginning with the soldiers who arrest them after they cross the border.
Recalls Robert, who was arrested with his two sons: "The Israeli soldiers started talking to us in Arabic, and I thought we were dead. But then they smiled at us, and gave us food, water and blankets. They took us to some army base so we could shower and sleep."
Mary says she was shocked that the soldiers didn't point their guns at her. Her husband John, who is very quiet during the interview, grins widely and gives the thumbs-up sign at my mention of Israeli soldiers. "They are good people," he says.
Even George, who sat in jail for 11 months before being released to go to work in Eilat, doesn't seem to hold any grudges. "Look, jail is jail, but I can't say the Israelis there were bad to us. We had no problems, all the police were very nice to us. Ramon [Prison] was the best - Dudu was a very nice guy. They had a very nice social welfare lady, Galit. Really nice people. No one hits you. I've been in different jails, and the ones in Israel are the best."
It's clear they're also being treated extremely well at the Eilat hotels. "Fantastic," is how Sigal Rozen of Hot Line for Migrant Workers describes the arrangement. "I only wish all Israeli employees were getting the salary and benefits they're getting," says Gal Lousky of Israeli Flying Aid.
The salary they get from Isrotel, says Blum, is NIS 4,000 a month for a 40-hour workweek, slightly higher than the minimum wage. "But they're very eager to work, and with overtime and Shabbat they can make NIS 5,000 or NIS 6,000," he says, adding that they also get health insurance and other standard employee's benefits "just like any of our other employees."
Everyone is examined by doctors and treated if necessary; the children are inoculated; each adult gets NIS 300 pocket money and a free monthly bus pass; and everyone receives toiletries, donated clothing, three free meals a day at the hotels and an apartment that costs them about NIS 600 monthly rent. Isrotel has set up a nursery and kindergarten for the children, while the two oldest kids have been enrolled at Eilat's Etzion Gever Elementary School. A Hebrew ulpan is in the works. "The goal is for them to become fully independent," says social worker Dina Cohen.
While they're all working as janitors and house cleaners in this, their first or second month at work, Blum says that as they gain experience, they'll be eligible for higher-paying jobs such as waiters.
"The Israelis have done something good for us. For the rest of our lives, we will not forget this," says Mary.
On Monday, the subject of what to do about the refugees was discussed in a meeting convened by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with people from various government ministries and the IDF. No policy was decided on, but Interior Minister Roni Bar-On was told to report back with proposals for how to ensure decent treatment for the Sudanese here without signaling an open-door policy to those in Egypt.
For them, Israel is the promised land. But it can't be said that getting to Israel is the happy ending to their story.
George is sitting in an office at the King Solomon Hotel, dressed in the hotel janitor's uniform of white polo shirt and khaki slacks. He says the Arab militias invaded his village in southern Sudan about 4 a.m. one day in 1998. He was 13 and living with his parents, four brothers and four sisters.
"They came on horseback, large numbers of them. They killed all the adults and the young children. I saw them come into our house and rape my sister. My mother heard her crying and she came into the room, and they killed my mother and my sister in front of me. I don't know what happened to the rest of my family. They kidnapped the older children in the village to work for Arab farmers. They beat me and blindfolded me and made us walk. I don't know how many days, I had no sense of time.
"We were put on a train and when it stopped, a man told me to get into his car and he drove me to a big house with a farm. The owner's name was Muhammad Suleiman. Later I learned that he was a very powerful man in the government. The first thing he told me was: 'You are a black boy and you are now my slave.' I was there for two years."
To life stories such as these people have to tell, there really is no happy ending.