Ethiopians pay tribute to those who died en route

"We had no choice but to leave; we had collected food and money and bandits were shooting at us, trying to rob us as we left."

ethipian remembrance 298 (photo credit: Channel 1)
ethipian remembrance 298
(photo credit: Channel 1)
Gadi Alemu was only 11 when he left his small village in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia in 1989, but he remembers the day very well. "We had no choice but to leave; we had collected food and money and bandits were shooting at us, trying to rob us as we left," Alemu, 29, told The Jerusalem Post Wednesday during a special government ceremony remembering those Ethiopians who lost their lives making aliya. "I remember the day well because it was the first time I ever rode in a vehicle." Now a student of electrical engineering at Ariel College of Technology, Alemu recalled how he and family members were hustled into a truck and driven in the direction of the Ethiopian-Sudanese border. Before they got there, however, the truck overturned in a horrific accident, killing one woman and three children. "We had no choice but to bury them quickly on the side of the road and carry on with our journey," said Alemu, his voice quavering. It took the group of fleeing refugees another half a day before they found water to wash the blood from their bodies and several more nights of walking before they reached the border. "There were about 1,500 people walking with us, people kept joining us," added Alemu. "We could only walk at night for fear that we would be attacked and robbed by thieves during the day." Even after reaching relative safety in Sudan, Alemu's tragic journey did not improve. While waiting a year to emigrate to Israel, he said his mother, grandmother, uncle, two nieces and two cousins passed away for lack of proper food, water and medicine. "I remember while we were walking noticing that my mother had lost her shoes, but she had no choice but to carry on barefoot," he described. "She wanted to come to Israel so much. Ever since I can remember she always talked about Jerusalem and we would sing songs about it." One of hundreds of Ethiopian Israelis in attendance at Wednesday's ceremony, Alemo said a prayer for the estimated 4,000 men, women and children who perished either in Sudanese refugee camps or while making the trek to the border. This is only the third year that the official government ceremony has taken place at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem and the first time against the backdrop of a special monument erected last year to commemorate those who died. Prior to 2005, Ethiopian Israelis gathered at an unofficial site on Kibbutz Ramat Rahel, on the outskirts of Jerusalem, to remember their loved ones. Former MK Addisu Mesala spoke on behalf of the Ethiopian Israeli community Wednesday, chiding the State of Israel for not recognizing sooner their plight on their journey to Israel. "For 20 years we fought to pay our respects to those people who lost their lives on their way to Jerusalem," he said. "It is just a shame that Israel did not come forward earlier to show its support for this ceremony." He also criticized the Education Ministry for not including more information about the history of Ethiopian Jewry in the national school curriculum. Danny Admasu, director of the Israel Association of Ethiopian Jews (IAEJ), told the Post that he was touched by the ceremony and believed that Mount Herzl was a very important location to mark this event. However, he added: "I believe that this is one piece of recognition that we, as Ethiopian Israelis, truly deserve." Avi Masfin, IAEJ spokesman, explained that the significance of this ceremony taking place on Jerusalem Day was the desire by all Ethiopian Jews to one day make it to the city of Jerusalem. "At that time they did not know Israel existed, and all their prayers to God were focused on Jerusalem," he said. "Remembering the people we lost is not supposed to be a happy event, but it is very important that this takes place among the Jerusalem Day celebrations." Acting President Dalia Itzik, Immigrant Absorption Minister Ze'ev Boim, Jewish Agency Chairman Ze'ev Bielski and Jerusalem Mayor Uri Lupolianski attended the ceremony, which included lighting a torch in memory of those who died and the placing of wreaths in their honor.