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The Brutal Regime Across the Red Sea

Eritreans in Israel claim they are refugees from a murderous regime. In their thousands, they have braved Sudan and the Sinai desert in order to make it to Israel. What is their story and the story of their country?

The New Bus Station rises like the body of a huge beached whale from the streets of South Tel Aviv; giant billboards advertising cheap call packages to Nepal, Thailand and the Philippines adorn its red ceramic outer walls, a reminder that the bus station area is still the territory of the foreign workers, the capital of globalized labor in Israel, where money transfer bastot are more numerous than falafel stands in Tiberias and every other storefront is an Internet café or a market selling Chinese comfort foods.

Despite their still highly visible presence, over the past few years the foreign workers have ceased to be the dominant group in the neighborhood that lies between the New Bus Station and the old one, whose crumbling ruins can still be seen several blocks away. Restaurants serving Ethiopian food, internet cafes with names like Red Sea Chat and beauty shops whose windows boast hair styles for African men and women, are signs that something has changed. To the casual observer this might seem to be an indication that Ethiopian Israelis, who have frequented the bus station area since the early 1990’s, have begun to find their niche in the small business world. But that’s not the case, at least not here. These are Eritrean shops, serving Eritreans whose home country lies between Ethiopians northern border and the western coast of the Red Sea.

The Eritreans are now the largest single group in the bus station neighborhood. Since the Eritreans came the whorehouses, masquerading as “health spas—the area used to house dozens of them—have closed down. Although organizations serving African refugees in Israel—there are also some 7000 refugees from Sudan here—estimate the number of Eritreans in Israel at about 20,000, an Israeli government official told me the number was now 40,000. Seven hundred arrived in Israel last month alone. The State of Israel has so far refused refugee status to all but a handful of the Eritreans, insisting that they are work migrants, who have come here in order to earn a monthly check to send back to their families. The Eritreans insist that they are here because they are running away from an exceptionally brutal regime. Israel is now the only Western country—or even para-Western- that Eritreans can reach by land, and the government fears that granting Eritreans refugee status—which would allow them a permanent residency rights in Israel-- would create a flood of infiltrators that could soon reach into the hundreds of thousands. Surrounded by countries hostile in varying degrees to their existence in the region, embroiled in a 100 year struggle with the Palestinians, Israelis are used to seeing the country as sealed hermetically within the geography and politics of the Middle East. But Israel, it turns out, is also, in global terms, just a hair’s breadth distance from the Horn of Africa. In fact Israel is the only country in the world with a land border with Africa. The victims of that region’s harsh politics, despite the many obstacles they face in getting here, have now found a route into the very center of our land, presenting Israel with ethical dilemmas and strategic challenges that nobody predicted or foresaw.

The Eritireans in Israel are a close-knit community, obsessed with their homeland and fully immersed, despite their presence here, in their culture of origins and its politics. On a steamy Saturday night in South Tel Aviv, I follow a pair of young women wearing long skirts, their heads wrapped in long scarves, who emerge from a tiny apartment whose doors have been left open because of the heat—a quick peek in reveals that its single room serves as a bedroom, salon and kitchen. After a few blocks, they reach their destination—a makeshift Eritrean church, housed down a flight of stairs in a basement decorated with reproductions of ornate paintings of Jesus, Mary and various saints and apostles. The women run swiftly down the stairs and then back up, graciously offering my female companion the necessary scarf and gesturing to us that we are welcome. About 100 Eritreans sit on benches and on the floor, men on the left and women on the right, the women with their heads covered, the men in their Sunday best. At the front of the room a man and woman each hold a giant cone-shaped drum. Suspended by a rope swung over their necks so that the drum rests against their body, they beat the instrument rapidly, skillfully, and chant in the ancient language of Geez, as the crowd swings and claps in ecstasy. A slight man in his thirties, dressed in white, stands at a podium facing the crowd; in between the drumming and chanting he preaches, his voice rapturous and musical, his sermon itself a kind of chant. Outside, afterwards, I see a tall Eritrean man in a monk’s robe, a black tunic covering his bearded head, his brown eyes large and warm, looking like an apparition from another universe. Is it only my imagination, or does he seem as surprised to be here, on the streets of South Tel Aviv, as I am to see him here?


The elected leader of the Eritrean community in Israel, or at least of its largest communal organization, is Haile Mengistab, a tall, slim, elegant young man who arrived here 9 months ago, crossing Israel’s border from the Sinai Peninsuila as his Bedouin guides fired their rifles in the air in order to intimidate Egyptian soldiers with shoot to kill orders. When Mengistab, who was a political activist in Eritrea, and fled the country after being tipped off about his oncoming arrest, arrived in Tel Aviv, he found the community rudderless. Two previous organizations of refugees had stopped functioning, “There was no organization or leader,” Mengistab told me, “that could serve as the community’s voice, could articulate its needs.” Mengistab went to work, and within a few short weeks had arranged a meeting in Levinsky Park—the open-air center of the refugee and foreign workers community. “Thousands of people came, there was nowhere left to stand.” But so did the police. “Everyone was scared. An illegal gathering is a crime here, but I did not know it. Then I went to the police station and they advised me on how to hold the elections, Mengistab told me. “ More than 3000 people voted at the elections, by the raising of hands. I was elected to head a committee of eight.”

Mengistab and the committee work out of a small airless room at an NGO founded by xxx, an Ethiopian asylum seeker who in 2004 went on a hunger strike in order to gain refugee status in Israel—he is still one of a handful of refugees who were granted this status. The vast majority of the Eritreans, Mengistab included, have not been recognized as refugees. After crossing the border, some of the refugees have been turned back by soldiers carrying out the policy of “hot return”, in which the army is allowed to send infiltrators back across the border to Egypt if they are caught and arrested immediately—some refugees have subsequently been tortured and killed by the Egyptians. But most are taken into custody, and released after signing a statement that says that they are here in order to work. “I told the translator that I am a refugee, that I did not come here in order to work. They told me that that was the wrong thing to say. That if I want to be released I needed to sign the statement saying I was here to work.” Eventually, the authorities simply ignored Mengistab’s statement, registered him as an employment seeker, and released him. Although no Eritreans have so far been deported back to Eritrea, Israel’s approach leaves them in limbo. Their right to work here is unclear—there are contradictory laws and ordinances both forbidding and allowing Israelis to employ them, although for the most part, they have been allowed to work. They must renew their temporary visa every three months, and Israel reserves the right to deport them if it so chooses. Kidane Isaac, a bright eyed 24 year old who has been here since December, summed his life up in Israel this way: “Compared to Libya, Sudan Ethiopia, Egypt and Eritria, Israel is fine. We have freedom of travel within the country, nobody intimidates you. You can sense the freedom that the country has. But at some point you don’t see any future. You always get scared what is going to happen to me in five months from now, in a year, in two years. . “It’s a slow death,” says Haile Mengistab. “Death by stagnation.”


To understand the true situation of the Eritrean immigrants, as well as Israel’s dilemma, it’s necessary to know something about Eritrea, and especially to face what is happening in Eritrea today. In 1890, the far north of Ethiopia, including a 1000 kilometer piece of the Red Sea coastline as well as large swathes of mountains and deserts, became an Italian colony. The Italians hoped to conquer the rest of Ethiopia, but were defeated by Ethiopia’s army at the battle of Adwa in 1896—the first time that an African army thwarted European colonial aims. After Mussolini’s defeat by the British, in 1941, Eritrea remained in a state of limbo, until eventually, eleven years later, the UN mandated reuniting Eritrea and Ethiopia, but under a federal system in which Eritrean autonomy and separate identity would also be maintained. But Haile Sellasie had other ideas—he was determined to fully incorporate Eritrea, which had already tasted democracy during the time of British rule, into the Ethiopian kingdom, going so far as to make Amharic, the language of central Ethiopia’s dominant ethnic group, the official language of Tigrian speaking Eritrea. By 1958, Eritreans were fighting a guerrilla war against what they now saw as their Ethiopian occupiers. The war intensified during the 1970’s and 80’s, during the rule of communist dictator

Mengistu Haile Mariam. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, led by Isayas Afeworki, fought side by side with the Tigrean People’s Liberation Front, headed by Meles Zenawi, until they eventually defeated Mengistu and the TPLF marched into Addis Ababa. I was actually in Addis Ababa the day the TPLF forces conquered Ethiopia’s capital city and was nearly lynched by a mob of Amhara, angry because the Tigreans, a rival ethnic group, had taken power and because they understood that Eritrea would now be free to secede. Luckily, I knew the reason for their rage. “Ethiopia must remain united,” I shouted desperately, “I am a journalist, I must bring this message to the world.” The crowd began to talk to me instead of threatening to kill me, but just then the Tigrean conquerors shot over our heads and we scattered and dove for cover into the dust.

The two rebel leaders took hold of the reins of power and never let go. Melis Zenawe, the head of the TPLF, became the President of Ethiopia, a position he still retains today, and his Eritrean comrade in arms, Isayas Afeworke became President of Eritrea. At first, Afeworke was the unquestioned hero of nearly every Eritrean. He had defeated Mengistu, a murderous dictator who was feared and hated, and had led Eritrea to independence.

Within the next few years it became apparent that Aferworki had no intention of instituting democracy in Eritrea. During the first elections, in 1994, Aferworki was the only candidate allowed to run for President. Free, multi-party elections were promised in 1998. But just when election campaigning was set to begin, Aferworke began a war with Ethiopia, ostensibly over a border dispute. The two former comrades—Zenawe and Aferworki are also said to be cousins, not unusual as Tigreans from Northern Ethiopia and many Eritreans are from the same ethnic group—became bitter enemies. Tens of thousands of Eritreans died in the border clashes, and elections were indefinitely postponed.

From 1998 onwards, Aferworke began to tighten his hold on all of Eritrea’s institutions, creating a militarized society whose every aspect was controlled by the army. Colleges and universities were militarized. The church too, which Aferworke perceived as challenging his authority—church leaders had opposed the war—was tightly controlled. The government drafted young Eritrean men at the age of 17 for an open-ended period of time—if they survived, their release from the army was insured only at the age of 40. All independent media—including print, radio and television—were shut down. The judiciary was also subsumed under the military command. A high level Western diplomat I spoke to, who served in Eritrea, chillingly described the current regime and its methods: “Eritrea? Think North Korea. Aferworke’s control over the society is total. Opponents are regularly driven into the desert and abandoned—they die of heat and exposure within hours. Families of young people who flee the country to escape prolonged army service were hit with heavy fines, and were sometimes themselves tortured and killed.”

Although Afeworke is Christian born, and militantly secular in his outlook, his closest regional ally, for some years already has been Libya’s Muamar Khadafi. Eritrea’s relationship with the United States has steadily deteriorated after the war with Ethiopia—a staunch US ally in the war on terror. In 2009, the UN Security Council voted to implement severe economic sanctions on Eritrea because of the hospitality it has given to the Islamic fundamentalist “Shabbab” militias who are fighting for control over Somalia—Afeworke and the Shabbab have a common enemy: Ethiopia. Recently, Afeworke has also nourished a bourgeoning alliance with Iran—visiting Ahminijad in Teheran, and allowing Iran to post soldiers and a large number of long range ballistic missiles in the Eritrean port of Assab. Ahmadinejad, at a news conference, declared that the two countries share common views on regional issues and on ways to resist hegemony.

This two alliances make Eritrea’s close relationship with its other regional ally—Israel--even more unusual. Aferworke admires and identifies with Israel—in his eyes, Eritrea and Israel are both small, scrappy countries surrounded by enemies. Aferworke has received medical treatment in Israel, as well as various kinds of aid, and has a strong relationship with Israel. From Israel’s point of view, friendship with Eritrea is almost a must. 30% of Israeli shipping exports travel through the Red Sea, and Missawa is the only reliably friendly port between Eilat and Mumbai.

The refugees from Eritrea who I spoke to had fled the country because of the interminable army service, which they described as little better—and sometimes worse—than being in a forced labor camp, because they had been targeted for arrest for speaking out against the government, or for a combination of both. Most had wandered for several years—from Ethiopia to Sudan to Libya—before discovering that Israel was the only safe refuge they could reach. Kidane Isaac spent 2 and a half years in Libya trying to reach Europe by boat. “Several times I paid off traffickers to take me across the sea—and they disappeared. I wanted to reach England, to get an education. But in 2009, after the Italians paid him billions of dollars, Khadafi blocked the sea. I heard about the route to Israel, and this time, it was the only choice I had.”

In the Sudan, Kidane, Mengistab and others I spoke too told me that they lived in constant fear that Eritrean government agents would kidnap them, and bring them back to imprisonment or worse in Eritrea. “Sudan is the most corrupt place in the world,” Mengistab told me. “The police and army are all happy to take some money and turn a blind eye to Eritrean spies there to kidnap dissidents and deserters.” The trip through Sinai to the border—the going rate paid to the traffickers is 5000$ per person--is also fraught with danger. If you fall into the hands of the wrong Bedouin traffickers, you may be kidnapped and held for a ransom of 15 or 20 thousand dollars, which the Eritreans must raise from their family back home or from relatives in Europe. The money is paid in Eritrea, to the partners of the kidnappers. According to Human Rights Watch, hundreds of Eritreans are being held in the Sinai, in makeshift desert prisons by Bedouin traffickers, with the Egyptian government turning a blind eye. Some of the Eritreans have been there for months, and some will never leave. “If you are held for ransom and you don’t have a home to sell, or relatives in Europe to pay, they cut your breasts, your penis,” says Mengistab. “They rape women, who then are rejected by their husbands. Some of the Eritreans have been killed so that the Beduoin can sell their kidneys. The sister of a friend of mine told the traffickers she was HIV positive in order to discourage them from raping her. They poured gasoline over her and lit her on fire. My friend has been nearly insane with grief since then.” The Eritreans are convinced that the traffickers are in cahoots with the Eritrean government, who arms them, and allows them to collect ransom money from families in Eritrea with impunity.

Not all of the Eritreans are hoping that Israel grants them refugee status. In the shadow of the New Bus Station, at an Eritrean restaurant, I meet two of the founders of a group they call Eritrean Youth for Democracy and Revolution. Their goal is to foment violent revolution in Eritrea. “It’s the only possible solution,” says K. who is 24 years old and crossed into Israel 9 months ago. “There is no political solution.” K. was enrolled in a college, which like all colleges, was run by the military, and was so focused on nationalism that religious services of any kind were forbidden.When student informants told the government about his outspoken political views, K. was arrested. Luckily for him, inmates in the prison to which he was taken had already planned a break, bribing prison guards who turned the other way. He escaped first to Libya, which called “The most terrible place I’ve ever been, but not as bad as Eritrea,” then to Sudan, and finally to Israel. A short order chef in a restaurant in the evening and night, K. spends his days planning the revolution. “We have a little freedom here; we want to use it to organize people.” K. hopes both to eventually send guerillas into Eritrea; in the meantime he is attempting to sway mid-level army officers in Eritrea to prepare for revolt. K. does not put much faith in the Eritrean opposition groups headquartered in Addis Ababa. “They are ex-members of the government, because of that they are easily penetrated by government spies. What makes our group different is that we are young, and not beholden to anyone. It will be very hard to penetrate us.”

Z. 35, fled Eritrea after years of service in the army, including during the war with Ethiopia. Unlike K. he thinks it is of utmost importance to create a network of militant opposition groups. “We have to connect the forces in Ethiopia, Sudan, Europe, Israel, and inside Eritrea.” Both K. and Z. argue that Israel’s real interest is in supporting regime change in Eritrea, even if clandestinely. Haile Mengistab agrees: “Most of the refugees are Christians, those who remain are Moslems, and Eritrea will swing towards Islam and away from Israel unless the situation is changed. The only way to do that is by changing the regime. You can’t stop the refugees. They are burned, raped, killed, and they still keep coming. We need to work together with the Israeli government, even if in a hidden way, in order to change the situation. Mengistab sees gaining refugee status as a step in the battle to create a stable opposition to Afeworke. “Israel is for the Israelis, I recognize that, I know about Zionism, but at the same time we need political protection to stop the regime in Eritrea.” But both K. and Z. disagree: “We don’t want refugee status,” says K. The best thing would be to deport us. We’re embarrassed by the Eritreans in Europe who are trying to integrate into European society. We’re against all the NGO’s trying to get us refugee status. We have been in Eritrea for 2000 years. That where we belong.

In a small room in the offices of the African Refugee Development Center, I meet Abune (Father) Pewaras, the monk I had seen when leaving the makeshift church. Pewares entered the famous Debra Zinn monastery when he was 15 years old. Debra Zinn is located at the top of a steep hill, which women are not allowed to climb. In the heat of a Tel Aviv afternoon, Pewares is dressed in heavy black robes with a fake fur trim. A black scarf is wrapped around his head and tied beneath his chin and a high black cap, like those worn by old fashioned Chazanim, adorns his head. Now 33, Pewares fled Eritrea after government intervention in the monastery became unbearable. Lands held by the monastery were confiscated, and acolytes who had come to the monastery for refuge were drafted into the army. Here in Israel, Pewares still gets up at 3 in the morning to pray; when I ask him what he does, he says that basically a monk is supposed to pray all the time, although his special duties here often interrupt his prayer regimen. Pewares finds himself tending to a flock in which many members have been traumatized and are in need of healing. “I advise people, give them holy water, bring them to Jerusalem or to Bethlehem. “One man who became a drug addict, I took him to Ein Karem and sprinkled water on him from John the Baptist’s spring. Such techniques at the right time and with the right purpose can bring people to a better life.”

Pewares, whose sermons sometimes attract hundreds of people at a time, is fighting for souls against Pentecostal Evangelists—a battle that is taking place in Ethiopia and Eritrea as well. Unlike Eritrean Youth for Democracy and Revolution, Pewares is adamant in demanding that Israel give the Eritreans refuge. “In Europe Eritreans are recognized as refugees. Why is it different here?” He asks me. “We are living under critical condition here. Israel must recognize us as refugees.”

As it continues to face an influx of Eritrean refugees, and Eritrea, under UN sanctions, tightens its cooperation with Iran, Israel faces tough dilemmas. Israel needs Eritrea perhaps even more than Eritrea needs Israel. Yet Israel is learning the hard way that supporting a ruthless totalitarian dictator whose policies are creating an army of refugees has its own long term risks.

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