Aug 2008 Journal

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Darfur refugees find safety in Israel

A group of AJR members recently spent an excellent week in Israel. One evening we heard a moving account by two Darfuri refugees who had found safety in Israel.

The two refugees had been persecuted by the Sudanese government, which had strongly supported the Janjaweed, an Arab militia of nomads, in committing genocide. Arab Muslims deny that black African Muslims are fellow Muslims. Villages are burnt; men, women and children are raped and murdered. Escape is hazardous, as we heard from these two members of the self-aid organisation Beit Darfur.

In 2002 our first speaker, Ismail, a big, strong man, saw his father burnt alive in his hut with most of his fellow villagers. He fled with his wife and young children to the mountains and managed to get his eight-year-old daughter, who was shot in the head, to a hospital in the Sudanese capital Khartoum. There he was accused of being a rebel, imprisoned and tortured. A friend bribed the prison staff, smuggled him out, and changed his passport, enabling him to get to Egypt. He taught English in a Union of Churches African learning centre. The Red Cross found his family in Darfur - they joined him in 2005. They applied to the UN for ‘refugee status’. A group of Darfuri refugees outside the UN building in Cairo was attacked by Egyptian government forces. Many fled to Chad or the Central African Republic. Ismail heard there was a possibility of seeking refuge in Israel, though Muslim refugees thought of Israel as ‘the devil’s hell’.

In June 2005 Ismail, his wife and four children walked from Sinai to the Israeli border, where the Israeli army gave them water and blankets. After they had stayed five days in a refugee camp, student volunteers supplied food and medicine and found hosts for 53 refugees, including accommodation for Ismail’s family. Two hundred and seventy Darfuris formed the B’nai Darfur self-help organisation. Communication was a problem. At present, there are over 800 Darfuri refugees in Israel. They have permission to work for one year.

The second refugee, Ali Malit, a tall man with dreadlocks, was from the Massaleit tribe. He too told us of the slaughter perpetrated by Arab Bedouins in black Muslim villages, including 40 members of his family killed in one day. Ali managed to escape and hide with his children, including a baby. He was caught, accused of opposing the government, jailed and tortured. Eventually, he reached Khartoum and Egypt, applied to the UN for ‘refugee status’, waited 18 months, and was deported back to Sudan. Hearing of Israel as an asylum, he too walked for three days to the border and was received by ‘the kind and gentle army’. Asked why he, a Muslim, had come to Israel, he replied that ‘after the Holocaust the Israeli can understand - Arab Muslims cannot.’ A kibbutz received him and his family. It is now his third year working with the B’nei Darfur organisation.

In the discussion afterwards, we heard more about the atrocious Darfur situation. The population of Darfur comprises 15 per cent Arab nomads, 85 per cent black Africans. The government has an Arab majority. Following a draught and consequent famine, the government rejected international aid. The war began in 2003 with a rebellion; ethnic and tribal conflict escalated. The government jailed and murdered witnesses, arrested journalists, and refused the UN peace-keeping force entry. The African Union is not strong enough, and the rest of the world not united enough, to deal with this crisis. In 1956 the British colonial administration created artificial borders which helped cause later political problems. China and Russia are interested in the oil reserves and support the Sudanese government, which displaces populations to develop the oil fields. Amnesty International drew attention to the Darfur conflict as early as July 2003. The 2007 documentary film The Devil Came on Horseback graphically describes the situation in Darfur, as does Instant Karma: The Amnesty International Campaign to Save Darfur (also 2007). Can people of goodwill be effective? We all hope for peace in the world.

Elizabeth Rosenthal

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