Death in the desert

Egyptians have been using new method of border control: shooting refugees.

Sudanese refugees 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Sudanese refugees 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In the photograph his mother keeps of him, Skinder Germay, born in Sudan, is smiling widely, unguardedly. His mother thinks he was 20 when he was killed, but she's not sure of his exact age. The yellow slip of paper she received when she and her four other children were released from Ketziot prison says Skinder was buried on March 26 in the cemetery at Kibbutz Hatzor. During her time in prison, the mother was taken to see his grave. She fell on it sobbing and wailing. "Anonymous" read the marker. The mother, Yirgalem Beyene, who thinks she is 40, now lives with her four children in a typically, horribly overcrowded hostel for some 50 African refugees, roughly half adults and half children, in a South Tel Aviv slum. Speaking in Arabic through a translator, she says that since her husband wasn't with them, Skinder, her oldest child, was the family's protector on their way across the Sinai desert to the Israeli border. "He was very strong," she recalls. Guided by their Beduin smugglers, the family was in Sinai for about 10 days, moving at night, hiding in the day from Egyptian soldiers who are under orders to stop people from crossing into Israel. On the night of about March 23, the family got within a few hundred meters of the border. It was only a low fence. With Skinder cradling his two-year-old sister Rosa, they ran as fast as they could over the sand. The Egyptian border guards heard or saw them and began shooting. "Right after he climbed over the fence, he got shot in the back," says Beyene. A bullet or bullets also struck Rosa; she has a scar on her buttock and one of her fingers is permanently bent. "My boy was laying on the ground," Beyene remembers. "He said to me, 'We're in Israel, mother. Don't worry, we're in Israel. We're safe.'" Soon soldiers arrived. They called a helicopter to take Skinder to Soroka Hospital in Beersheba, where he died a few days later. Beyene and her four other children were taken to Ketziot, where they stayed in tents for two months until the prison became too overcrowded with refugees, and they were driven to Tel Aviv's Central Bus Station to be picked up and cared for by the country's network of refugee aid workers. Volunteers at the hostel, run by the nationwide African Refugees Development Center, say Beyene, a round-faced woman in a long, faded orange dress, does little now but talk obsessively of her son. She still hasn't received his belongings - a cellphone, some documents, some money - so she isn't absolutely sure it's him who's buried in that anonymous grave. "I dream about him," she says. "I can't find any peace." SKINDER GERMAY was one of at least 18 refugees, nearly all from Sudan and Eritrea, who were killed this year by Egyptian soldiers as they tried to dash across the border, says Amnesty International. Three of the dead were younger than 18. In late June, Egyptian border troops shot to death a seven-year-old Eritrean girl and arrested her mother. Refugees caught in Sinai trying to sneak into Israel receive automatic one-year prison sentences in Egypt, says local Amnesty official Ilan Lonai. These shootings have been on the increase since February, Lonai says, when Prime Minister Ehud Olmert asked Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm e-Sheikh to do more to stem the flow of African asylum-seekers coming over the border. They've been coming this route for four years, in flight from Egyptian racial discrimination, brutality and deportations back to their hostile homelands. During these four years, says Lonai, "the first real increase in shootings, the first time we've seen more than sporadic cases, has been since the Sharm e-Sheikh meeting." Compared to the 18 killings in the first seven months of this year, there were only six in all of last year, said Lonai. The shootings plainly have had a deterrent effect. The monthly number of African refugees reaching the country peaked in February at 1,600, prompting Olmert's request to Mubarak. The result: By May, the monthly total had dropped to 400, according to border control officials who briefed a Knesset hearing on the refugee situation last month. During the hour-long hearing, the shootings on the Egyptian side of the border did not come up. Asked afterward what he thought of the practice, MK Zevulun Orlev, co-chairman of the hearing, said, "Oh, I don't know anything about that." Mark Regev, a spokesman for Olmert, acknowledged that the prime minister "did talk to Egypt about improving control of the border." But he wouldn't address the shootings, focusing instead on "real security concerns" about people "just wandering into Israel illegally without any [security] checks. I don't think any country would tolerate that." When I pressed Regev for a response to the shootings, he replied: "There is a good relationship between Jerusalem and Cairo, and when we want to raise issues with the Egyptians, we do it directly." The Egyptian Embassy had no comment whatsoever. With about 10,000 African refugees now in this country and a great many more languishing in Cairo, there's no debate that Israel has to get control of its border. Unfortunately, there's no debate, either, over how this is being achieved - by Egyptians shooting at the refugees and Israel apparently turning a blind eye. Aside from at least 18 refugees getting killed this year, there's no telling how many have been wounded, captured and left to the mercy of Egyptian border troops. IDF soldiers, who are seen by the refugees as angels of mercy, have told how they watched and listened helplessly as Africans unlucky enough to be captured by the Egyptians on the other side of the border were beaten, at times to death. Government officials do not refer to the Africans as refugees, rather as "infiltrators" or "job-seekers." Whatever one wants to call them, they risk their lives - and, if they take their children, their children's lives, too - to escape Egypt for this country. 'THERE WERE 30 of us. When we were crossing the border, the Egyptians were shooting at us," said "J.S.," a 22-year-old man from the Ivory Coast, in an interview with Amnesty International last month. "I had to leave everything behind. We had to make three attempts to cross the border. First, the police found us and started to shoot, so we had to come back. Second, we were in the pickup and a police car was chasing us. One guy was shot in the leg. The third time two people were killed. Some were captured and are in prison. Some are in prison here in Israel." The danger to the refugees, though, comes not only from Egyptian troops - it also comes from the Beduin smugglers they contact and pay off in various parts of Africa, and to whom they entrust their lives. "I was alone with Beduin smugglers who took me from Eritrea to Sudan. When we started walking it was dark, almost midnight. They threatened me with a knife when I crossed. Two raped me," said "H.," a 25-year-old Eritrean woman, in a May interview with Amnesty. In Sinai, she rode with 16 African men and another woman in the back of a smuggler's pickup truck covered with tarpaulin and wood to hide the human cargo. Running across the border ahead of Egyptian bullets, she eventually made it to a Tel Aviv refugee hostel, but she was pregnant by one of the rapists. She tried to hang herself, but was rescued by a countryman who arranged for an abortion. "H." is cleaning houses in Tel Aviv now. In the refugees' saga, there is one seeming contradiction: Egypt does not want them, yet Egyptian border guards shoot at them when they try to flee the country. The explanation for this, according to an Israeli refugee aid worker, is that the Egyptian guards will look the other way when a group of refugees crosses the border only if the group's Beduin smugglers have paid them the requisite baksheesh. If the smugglers haven't paid, the Egyptian guards will teach them a lesson for next time. "I've heard this from refugees and from Israeli soldiers on the border, especially from Israeli Beduin soldiers," says the worker. The most recent killing near the border was of an Eritrean man two weeks ago. This new method of border control is making no waves here, and certainly not in Egypt. Amnesty International doesn't even have representatives in Cairo because of the vagaries of Egypt's dealings with NGOs. "Our headquarters in London has been trying to create some sort of dialogue with the Egyptian Interior Ministry, to tell them that this must stop," says Lonai. Nothing has come of this though. Amnesty has also tried to raise the issue with Israel's Interior Ministry, the Knesset Interior Committee, the attorney-general and the prime minister. Nothing has come of that either. IN THE SOUTH Tel Aviv hostel run by the African Refugees Development Center, there is one survivor's story after another. "On the last night, we went through a valley. We had to climb over steep rocks, and we couldn't see because there was no moon," recalls Rim, 16, who made the trek with her mother and five brothers and sisters. She remembers the sound of gunfire and the sight of dead bodies in the sand. "A lot of people died on the way," she says. I ask what happened to her father. "We tried to call him in Sudan," she says, "but there was no answer." The youngest kids in the hostel are playful and outgoing, but the older ones are quiet. Inside the rooms is the familiar jumble of refugee hostels around the Central Bus Station - bags of clothing and other belongings are piled in every available space, the trash stays a step or two ahead of the broom and the windowless bedrooms with their unmade bunk beds are suffocating. "The rent here is NIS 12,000 a month," says ARDC director Johannes Beyn, adding that it's paid by heiress Shari Arison. On one of the bunk beds sits a pretty, pregnant Eritrean woman, Mulu Brahan. Her two barefoot sons, Natnael, nine, and Johannes, five, are playing on the other beds. Her daughter, Melat, 11, moves in and out of the room without a word. Mulu, 31, made the journey here with Johannes a few months ago. Her husband, Michael Tustaselassie, 39, set out a few weeks later with the two older children. He didn't make it. "They were in the Sahara Desert for 50 days," says Mulu. "The Beduin kept the children with them in the front of the pickup truck, and they packed all the adults in the back. There wasn't nearly enough water for everyone, and they kept the water containers in the back, away from the children. They put a little gasoline in the water so people wouldn't be able to drink too much and it wouldn't run out so fast." Along the way the smugglers would stop to rest or search for water, which isn't easy to find in the Sahara. "Whenever the stopped and people got out, Michael would take water from the containers when no one was looking and give it to Natnael and Melat," continues their mother. Along the way Michael became ill. He stopped eating. On the last leg of the journey, when the smugglers let the refugees out of the truck to make the rest of the way on foot, Michael gave his son and daughter a container of water he'd hidden. He told them to go on ahead. "He died somewhere in the sand," says Mulu. Melat and Natnael kept walking with the other refugees, and when they got near the border, the Egyptian guards began shooting. The brother and sister hid in the sand for three hours. When the shooting stopped and the troops were gone, they ran to the border fence, climbed over and soon were picked up by Israeli soldiers. Later they were reunited with their mother. Says Mulu: "They saw their father die." There is no happy ending to the family's story, and the five-year-old, Johannes, is the only one who doesn't know it yet. "When we first got here, Michael used to call from Sudan and tell Johannes that he would be in Israel soon," says Mulu. "Now the boy sees me crying, and I tell him his father won't be coming anymore. But he doesn't understand. He's still waiting for him."