Yerga Finds the Promised Land

[This article was first published in Ha’aretz Magazine on January 19, 2001]

In the hope of reaching Israel, Yerga Ayesse and his family spent two months on an arduous trek to Sudan and endured five years of imprisonment and abuse in a refugee camp – only to be sent back to Ethiopia. When they finally reached Jerusalem in 1990, a whole new struggle began.

When the new members of the unit first met last March, each soldier got up in turn and briefly introduced himself. In this elite paratroop unit, which attracts highly motivated young men, the biographies were more or less as expected — until it was Yerga Ayesse’s turn to tell about his life. One day, he’ll publish a book about it; before he enlisted, he had already written 50 pages and hadn’t even reached the end of the first chapter. He thought he would continue to work on it during his army service, but the pressures of basic training impeded the flow of writing. Today, 10 years after his family made aliyah from Ethiopia, he relates the events with an endearing smile. But then, when it all was happening, their lives were in constant danger. To the people involved, it wasn’t an adventure; it was a struggle for survival. “Yerga, or Yigal,” is how he introduces himself to this interviewer at his home in Be’er Sheva’s Shekhuna Tet neighborhood. The area outside the Amidar public housing project is green and well-tended; inside, eight people share three small rooms. Four hours from now, his leave will be over and he’ll be returning to his base. Last week, he completed a communications course and now he is well on his way to a future officer’s course and more.

He was born in 1981 in the village of Ogra near the district capital of Gundar, the fourth of five siblings. His father Damalio was well off, an important person in the community. In Ogra, status was determined by the amount of land, and especially cattle, a person owned. “We had 12 horses. The saddles on them weren’t just plain saddles. They were elaborately decorated. We had about 40 cows and hundreds of sheep. When my father sees the large flocks that the Bedouin here in the Rahat region have, he always says, ‘That’s nothing compared to what we had in Ethiopia.’”

The family also owned plots of land where they grew wheat and corn, and their house was one of the grandest in the village. His two brothers, Yedeg and Abrash, who are just slightly older than he, tended the flocks. The eldest brother, Pantai, who went to school, walked two hours there and back every day — and that was considered close by.

“In Ogra, Jews and gentiles lived apart. Occasionally, there was a little harassment and cursing, but, in general, relations were fine. No one gave our family any trouble because my father and his three brothers were highly respected.”

They lived happily until the rumor about Jerusalem of Gold suddenly spread. The year was 1986; Yerga was just five. He asked his parents to explain to him what all the talk was about and they told him about a land that was only for Jews, a land that was filled with synagogues and where one could pray without any fear of disturbance. From that moment on, their whole lives changed. Despite the fact that Yerga was very young at the time, he remembers it all vividly, in minute detail. In fact, he has often astounded other family members with recollections of images they had long forgotten.

“My father organized a group that was made up of the extended family. We numbered 54 people when we left Ogra. He left his property to several relatives who remained in the village and only took enough money for the travel expenses. Of course, we couldn’t let anyone know about our plan. Everything was done in secret.” Anyone who declined to undertake the journey was implored to keep the secret. And, indeed, word did not leak out.

Under Cover of Darkness

They slipped out of the village at night, carrying only waterskins and light bundles. They loaded food onto two donkeys. Yerga’s 70-year-old grandmother and his little brother Eshete rode on a horse. “We took only the minimum — no blankets, sleeping bag or clothes to change into.” They filled their pockets with survival rations — flat cakes made of corn flour, called dabo-kalo in Amharic. The convoy of men, women and children was led by a guide whom Yerga’s father had hired. In the daytime, they hid wherever they could — in caves or woods — and kept walking by night. Yerga says that, during field training with his unit, he frequently applies the principles he learned on that journey: selecting a route of advancement, camouflage, night discipline, silent movement, observation. He became acquainted with all of these things as a young boy as he trekked with his family toward the Sudan, toward the city of Gadrif, 360 kilometers from Gondar.

Rumor had it that across the border, emissaries from Israel were waiting in the refugee camps to take them to the Promised Land; it was only years later that they learned that this was Operation Moses. The Jews were not the only ones trying to flee to Sudan at the time. A civil war was raging in Ethiopia, a country that had also been struck by a severe drought and was languishing under Mengistu’s despotic rule. Compared to all this, Sudan was perceived as a desert oasis, and two million Ethiopians were streaming toward it.

When Yerga’s group was just two days out of the village, their guide already began trying to extort money from them. He demanded that they pay him the entire sum right away and not when the mission was completed, as they had agreed before setting out. He threatened to abandon them if they didn’t give in to his demands, so they did as he asked. Two weeks later, he suddenly vanished and they were left all alone, at a loss as to which way to go and what to do. They eventually decided to head directly westward, come what may. Now that they had no guide, the initial predictions that the journey would take a month were proved wrong. It lasted twice as long. When the provisions they’d brought with them ran out, they ate bananas and oranges that were found in abundance along the mountainous route. “You eat and then dig a hole in the ground to bury the peels. Then you wipe away all the signs. We were very careful not to leave traces.”

Whenever they noticed any suspicious movement, they climbed trees and held themselves perfectly still until the danger passed. “We also ran into animals. We heard lions and tigers, we saw a lot of monkeys and, once, a bear came within one meter of me.” As if that were not enough, they were also set upon by armed robbers who ambushed the people in the convoy as they stood on the banks of a river, preparing to cross. “If you don’t give us your money, we’ll kill you,” the robbers threatened, cocking their guns. On another occasion, they came across a village where they happened to have some relatives and were given a warm welcome.

Five Years in Prison

They were even happier when they finally reached Sudanese territory. When they tried to find out where exactly they were, they were told they were in Amarkoba. They were nowhere near Gadrif, the place they’d hoped to reach. They entered the refugee camp and joined the tens of thousands who’d already found shelter there. Like the rest of the refugees, they were cared for by the international aid organizations operating in the camp.

Heeding their advice, they were careful to conceal their Judaism. But the secret was revealed, perhaps due to an informer. “One morning, I was awakened by a terrible noise,” says Yerga. “I looked around and saw tanks and soldiers surrounding our group. They loaded us onto filthy trucks. We rode for about 20 minutes and then they yelled at us to get off in a place that was surrounded by a fence. They divided us among several huts and started interrogating the adults. They wanted us to admit that we were Jews. They were very cruel to us and abused us. My father was crippled by the blows he received there.”

The soldiers could not extract any confessions from them. They insisted that they were not Jews. “When they captured us, by mistake they also took two non-Jewish Ethiopians who happened to be nearby. Their cries were of no help to them. They suffered in the camp just as we did.”

Still, the people in Yerga’s group never imagined that the experience would be more than a passing nightmare. But they were kept prisoner for five whole years. Looking back, Yerga Ayesse slyly refers to this period of his life as “basic training”: “The soldiers took us little ones for an Arabic lesson every day. If one of the children didn’t know the material, they punished him by flogging him on the palms of his hands with a leather strap, Takh!,” he says, recreating the sound. “Or else, they made him stand barefoot on the hot sand until his feet really burned.”

“I remember a three-and-a-half year-old boy who answered a question wrong. The teacher tore off the chalkboard and threw it at him. Out of fear, I instinctively jumped and was slapped for it.” Aside from the brief time set aside for lessons, the family members were kept shut inside the huts and were forbidden to go out except to perform chores for the soldiers.

“Once, they found my brother sleeping outside. They held a gun to his head and almost shot him.” Three times a day, always at different hours, the prisoners were summoned for roll call and inspection. In the time in between, Yerga’s oldest brother organized an English class and another young man from the group taught mathematics. They were careful to obscure any sign that might give away the fact that they were not of the same religion as all the other Ethiopians in the refugee camps.

“There were moments when I was sure that people were about to realize that we were Jews,” says Yerga. In the camp, their jailers set up traps to catch birds and cooked the ones that they caught. Occasionally, in uncharacteristic moments of kindness, they would offer to let the prisoners partake of the feast.

“We declined, of course, for reasons of kashrut, but we told them that it was because we were vegetarians. How could they not have suspected? We were very lucky. For five years, we ate no meat. The main thing we ate was injara, a kind of pita we prepared from a sack of flour we received. And we had some food that was supplied by the Red Cross.”

Three members of the group, including two baby girls born in the prison, died in the camp.

Back to the Starting Point

A dramatic change in the atmosphere occurred three years into their imprisonment, when the police took over for the army. The tight siege that had been imposed on them was eased and they began to have a small sense of freedom. They took the adults to see the nearby town. That was where they heard the words “Operation Moses” for the first time. “We sold the clothing we’d received from the Red Cross for fruit in the market. We were already freer, but they always warned us that if anyone escaped, they’d kill all of us.” Despite everything, seven people did make successful escapes and, as a result, the heads of the families were severely tortured.

Throughout their time in the camp, their guardian angels were a pair of representatives from an American aid organization who regularly visited the prisoners. Yerga remembers that the woman’s name was Ingrid. They were the ones who informed them that their liberation was nearing, but even when the trucks came to take them out of the prison camp, they didn’t believe that their ordeal was really over.

“They took us to Gadrif. I’d never seen such a big city with so many lights. The adults told us it was nothing compared to Jerusalem.” For Yerga, Gadrif was also the place where he ate his first egg in five years. “At this point, they weren’t interested in the fact that we were Jews. The charges against us were that we’d crossed the border.

“The truth is that, in Ethiopia, we didn’t lack for anything. But when we arrived, we’d become poor because of the famine.” But their wanderings didn’t end there. Accompanied by Ingrid and her husband, “who treated us as if we were their own children,” they were put on a train that took them to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. To young Yerga, standing on the platform, the train’s arrival was a thrilling sight.

“That’s not a bus,” he murmured to himself as more and more of the carriages passed until the train finally came to a stop. As they approached Khartoum, the adults once again instructed the children not to say a word about Israel or Jerusalem. They continued to identify themselves solely as Ethiopians.

Two days later, they were taken to the airport, expelled to Addis Ababa and, from there, returned to Gondar — very close to the place where their journey had begun years before. Yerga’s father was not ready to give up. This time, he took his family to the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa. As if five years had not already passed, they were put on the end of the waiting list and ended up having to wait another nine months.

“I came to the embassy every morning to get food. I didn’t go to Hebrew lessons,” says Yerga. Having missed out on Operation Moses in 1985, their turn to make aliyah finally came in February 1991. As soon as they landed in Israel, they were handed a gift: gas masks. The Gulf War had just started. When Yerga describes how he kissed the ground upon leaving the plane, a tear glistens in his eye. “We’d reached Jerusalem. For us, all of Israel is holy, it doesn’t matter where. The dream had come true even if Jerusalem wasn’t really paved with gold like we’d thought.”

Disappointment in the Reconnaissance Company

The family was sent to an absorption center in Arad, and Yerga was placed in the fifth grade. English and math were easy for him, “because of the lessons we had in jail in the Sudan.” Within four months, he’d mastered Hebrew, and had established himself among his peers thanks to his skill at soccer and long-distance running. After two years in Arad, the family moved to Be’er Sheva, where Yerga’s teachers encouraged him to keep up his athletics. He preferred to concentrate on his studies, however. He still hears derisive comments about his background from time to time. “I don’t let it bother me,” he says offhandedly. He completed his bagrut matriculation exams with an average score of 84.

On the face of it, his would appear to be a model story of a successful absorption. But that’s not quite true. “My father was an important man in Ethiopia. Everyone used to come to him with requests. Now he’s the one who has to ask for help. He doesn’t know Hebrew. Because of back pain, a direct result of the blows he received in prison, he’s unemployed. My mother doesn’t work. There were times when I was the one bringing money into the house. But even when we didn’t have so much as a loaf of bread, my father was not disappointed that we’d come to Israel.”

Though he lost his past honor, Yerga’s father did receive a “Prisoner of Zion” certificate signed by the President of the State of Israel, a status that entitles him to certain benefits. “My grandmother, my father, my mother and my oldest brother were recognized as eligible. But the rest of us — the other four children — haven’t been recognized yet.”

In addition to all the hardships they endured as children, now they have to fight the country’s bureaucracy. As his enlistment time approached, Yerga went to the religious pre-military academy in Yatir. He tried to get accepted into Sayeret Matkal (the General Staff’s elite special operations force) and even though he felt he did extremely well on the assessment exercises, he was rejected. He can’t help feeling that the rejection was unwarranted, and it remains a painful episode.

“When they read out the names, everyone was shocked that I wasn’t on the list.” After this tremendous letdown, Yerga experienced a crisis. He abruptly left the academy and thought about dropping all his dreams of joining one of the elite units. “Ever since the whole thing with the blood donations [which were rejected by the Health Ministry], the Ethiopians have not been volunteering for combat units in the numbers they used to. There’s been a significant decrease,” he remarks. He subsequently reconsidered his decision and was eventually accepted into another elite paratroop unit.

When he told his comrades about what he had experienced as a boy on his journey to Israel, they were dumbfounded. He has ambitions of finding a leadership role in society, once he finishes his army service. Though diminutive in stature, he has big, long-term plans. “There always has to be a forward goal. I have a lot of things to say, not just to my community, but to the entire Israeli public.”