Sudanese had walked across its border with Egypt
MAASIYAHU PRISON: Militiamen burned down his village, killing his father, uncle and cousin. He was imprisoned in Sudan and hunted down in Egypt. The Sudanese architect believed Israel could put an end to his misery.
Instead, one year later, the 30-year-old man is in a cell at the Maasiyahu Prison in the working class Israeli city of Ramle. He is one of about 220 Sudanese – some from the war-torn Darfur region, others from southern Sudan, where civil strife has raged for more than two decades – who walked across the Egypt-Israel border seeking political asylum.
They are victims of an Israeli law denying asylum to anyone from an enemy state, such as Arab League member Sudan, and have wound up in jail while U.N. officials look for a third country to grant the Sudanese asylum.
But their plight has resonated in Israel, a nation founded in large part by refugees fleeing the Holocaust. The decision to jail them rather than find them temporary housing has angered some Israelis, with the head of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial calling for the Sudanese to be given asylum.
Penniless and traumatized by the atrocities they say they witnessed in Sudan, they first sought sanctuary in neighboring Egypt.
But Egypt can barely provide jobs and social services to its own 72 million people. On Dec. 30, riot police violently cleared a refugee encampment in central Cairo, killing nearly 30 people.
After that violence, the trickle of Sudanese entering Israel turned into a steady flow, UN and Israeli officials said. The number of Sudanese in Israeli prisons has risen from 30 to 220 since December, and the government estimates hundreds of others entered undetected.
Standing behind the jail s metal bars, the refugees chant freedom, freedom in English. Behind them are walls covered by black smudges – dead mosquitoes they swatted.
Among those caught a year ago is the 30-year-old Muslim architect from northern Darfur, who said Sudanese militiamen burned down his village, killing his father, uncle and cousin. He said he moved to the country s capital, Khartoum, was imprisoned there and then fled to Egypt.
I felt that my life in Egypt is in danger, he said. So he paid a Bedouin tracker $50 and some spare clothes to lead him to Israel.
He believed Israelis knew about Darfur s troubles and would give him refuge, but it did not work that way.
Staff of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees insisted that he and others interviewed remain anonymous with their faces obscured in photos. As a further precaution, the more than 30 Sudanese Muslims are segregated from their Christian countrymen in case the religious currents of their nation s wars erupt in Maasiyahu.
But the detainees have something in common: a fear of being returned to Sudan, whose Islamic government has in the past executed citizens for entering Israel.
Israel has offered assurances they will not be sent to Sudan and 20 inmates, special cases such as a woman with three young children, have been let out of prison and confined to collective farms and other places in Israel, said Michael Bavly, the UNHCR representative here.
But some prominent Israelis have come out in favor of freeing them outright and giving them asylum.
The Yad Vashem director, Avner Shalev, wrote to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that before World War II, some governments used security as a pretext for turning away Jewish refugees.
The Holocaust is etched in Jewish memory, he wrote, and we cannot ignore refugees of the Darfur genocide when they knock on our door.
Another Yad Vashem historian joined an appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court to set the Sudanese free.
Amnon Rubinstein, a former justice minister and prominent jurist, said they should be put in hotels and made to report to police daily while the government finds them a refuge.
I am opposed to the imprisonment of people whose only crime is that they escaped a country where genocide is being committed, Rubinstein said. We, as a Jewish country, have to be extra-sensitive to refugees.
Three years of fighting in Darfur have taken more than 180,000 lives, while in southern Sudan a 22-year conflict and related famine and disease left 2.5 million people dead. The UN calls Darfur the world s worst humanitarian crisis. Khartoum has denied being behind the Arab militias perpetrating the Darfur killings against ethnic Africans.
For one 21-year-old from southern Sudan, 11 months in Israeli detention has provided some relief. Captured at age 11 when Arab militias attacked his town and burned his family alive, he said he spent seven years as a slave in northern Sudan.
The tall, thin man escaped to Khartoum when he was 18, but said life in the overwhelmingly Muslim capital was hard for a Christian of the Dinka tribe. So he spent four months in Egypt before paying a Bedouin $800 to take him to the Israeli border. Even if I m in prison, it s better than before, he said.
A 31-year-old farmer said that after a year in prison, he was willing to go anywhere, just not to Sudan or Egypt.
We are not murderers. We are not rapists, he said. We want freedom … Freedom is the most important thing. AP