Breaking the silence

Danny Abebe exposes some ugly truths about Ethiopian aliya, over his community's vehement objections.

Danny Abebe 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Danny Abebe 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Having spent a recent morning with Yediot Aharonot journalist Danny Adino Abebe, I know even before I start watching his 2005 documentary, Code Name Silence, that this film will be somewhat cynical and certainly hard-hitting. The Ethiopian-born Abebe does not waste time with pleasantries, he is all about serious business. In terms of this film, that business is exposing the truth about what he claims happened to many Beta Israel or Ethiopian Jews as they made their way to Israel via Sudan in the 1980s. "We are talking about rape and extortion," states Abebe, who was 10 when he arrived here with his family in 1984. "I don't believe there is an Ethiopian family which arrived here via Sudan that was not affected by these atrocities." Most might believe that the atrocities were perpetrated by the Sudanese, but Abebe says they were committed by people from within the community itself, by some of its own leaders. While his extensive research exposes some of those crimes and even points very specific fingers at those who were responsible, what bothers Abebe - even more than what actually happened in Sudan - is that his community, which he claims "all knew what went on," kept quiet about it for 20 years. "I know this community very well and one of the problems is that it kept all the problems inside, focusing instead on building a new life here," he says. "But now it is time for us to talk about these things and release some of the pain." On August 27, when Code Name Silence, which has had limited exposure on the international film festival circuit, will be aired on prime time national television on Channel 2, the Beta Israel community will have no choice but to discuss Abebe's accusations. "The pain does not go away with time," he emphasizes. "Confronting the pain of what happened in Sudan is part of the healing process that will allow the whole Ethiopian community to move forward." DIRECTED by Yifat Kedar and produced by Ziv Naveh, the film opens with Abebe declaring his mission to "find the truth." Still photographs take us back to 1984, when thousands of Beta Israel were hiding in the refugee camps of Sudan and were rescued by the Mossad and brought here. "[During that time] we in the Ethiopian community had our heroes; they were known as the Committee and they were our saviors," comments Abebe in the 50-minute film's introduction. Made up of Ethiopian Jews handpicked by the Mossad, the Committee's task was to distribute food, medicine and money to those waiting in the camps and facilitate their emigration. Many of the Committee members risked their lives to ensure that the 14,000 or so Jews made it to the Promised Land, but as Abebe reveals through first-hand testimonies, several of the Committee's members abused their powerful positions, raping women and refusing to hand over the resources at their disposal. The film's first, and perhaps most powerful, testimony comes from a woman identified only as Ilana. She tells the cameras that after 20 years, it is time for her to come forward and tell her painful story. "I'll never forget that day," she begins, a straight black wig and large sunglasses obscuring the details of her face. "It was the worst. His strength, that devil." Asked whom she is talking about, and she plainly says, "Worko Abuhai." "He was a Committee man," she continues. "He came to give me the money and told me how pretty I was. When I told him that I was married and had a child, he hit me and accused me of lying." Ilana tells how she was then pushed to the floor. "We wore no panties or trousers back then, so how could I resist him?" she cries. "He raped me on the floor right there and I was just frozen with shock. I had no choice." "They took advantage of the delicate situation, of the fact that we were not in a place where we could complain and they extorted families, asking for their daughters, in return for speedy and safe passage to Israel," Abebe says in the film. ABEBE, who spent more than five years researching the contents of this documentary, knows that his work is contentious, raising some very ugly ghosts and perhaps even causing a rift within an already trouble-ridden community. "Many people have asked me not to show this film, but I don't care," he says defiantly, adding that he has even received some death threats. "This film could cause some serious damage to the Ethiopian community," comments Tsega Melaku, the Israel Broadcasting Authority's Amharic radio presenter. "If it all really did happen, then we have to go to those in charge and question them, but I believe it is too early for us to do an overall assessment on our own activities during that time, especially when the Ethiopian community is in such a weak place right now." However, Abebe responds: "I think it will only be good for the community to discuss this issue. Before we can solve the problems of our community, we must look inside ourselves and note what mistakes we made. We knew about this but kept quiet. If we talk about it and get it all out, only then will we be able to release the pain." Benjamin Aklom, a student activist, whose father worked for the Committee but has not been charged with any of these crimes, believes that Abebe is "forgetting where he has come from." He is not looking at this from an Ethiopian perspective, he points out. "In Ethiopia we have a saying: 'His stomach is bigger than the sea.' This means that in Ethiopian culture it is traditional to keep many things inside. You can't criticize a community for doing something if it is their custom." "I am not sure whether it should be discussed in public," continues Aklom, who agrees that those who committed crimes should face some kind of judgment. "If the women want to come forward and report the crime, that is their right, but if they want to take those experiences with them to the grave, they should be allowed to." IN ONE scene, Abebe bravely confronts two of the accused - Worko Abuhai, who has since moved to Canada, and Gaddam Mengistu, who runs a store in Rehovot. Both refuse to talk, with Mengistu even slamming a door in his face. "Pay me some money and then I will answer all your questions," Abuhai tells Abebe over the phone, and then the line disconnects. With little support or response from his own community, Abebe turns his attention to the Israeli officials - from the Mossad and the Jewish Agency - who, he claims, knew about what was happening but chose to ignore it. "We arrived in Israel, were told to change our names, dance the hora and forget about what happened in Sudan," says Abebe in a powerful scene following a confrontation with then-agency operative Micha Feldman. "I heard about the rapes," confesses Feldman, who has been committed to helping Ethiopian aliya since the early 1980s. "We are talking about dozens of women, maybe hundreds. Some people took advantage of their status to make women do things for them. I saw these things but we could not do anything about it." "You have to keep things in proportion," responded the late Simcha Dinitz, the Jewish Agency's former director, when Abebe's questions him about why those in charge did nothing to stop the crimes or failed to punish those responsible. The Mossad and the Prime Minister's Office refuse to respond to Abebe's claims and the police say 20 years after the event is too late to report a rape. "It's exhausting," says Abebe in his narrative. "Those people were not only left unpunished, they went on to be nurtured by the establishment, which helped them to start good lives in Israel, and our community was much too scared to speak out against them." But Abebe says he is not afraid and is not willing to give up on finding some kind of justice for those who were hurt. "For me, this film was a personal journey to find the truth," he says. "These people caused some serious damage, nothing more and nothing less. And I believe they should be taken to jail."