Text by: Rami Gudovitch
All photos by: Activestills.org
“Do you know, Rami, that I was in ‘Mustafa Mahmoud?’” Regina, a 12-year-old South Sudanese girl, asked me after she and her family were released from 27 days in an Israeli prison. Her father, a tall man with noticeable facial scars from the torture he underwent in Khartoum, affirms her words, handing me an old newspaper clipping from Egypt, dated 2005. I cannot read Arabic, but I can see her mother, laying on the ground, surrounded by police officers in one photo, and the little body of a child covered by a white sheet in another. “This was my cousin. He was killed by the police there,” adds Regina.
“Mustafa Mahmoud” refers to a massacre committed by the Cairo police during a peaceful demonstration by South Sudanese refugees near the UNHCR offices. The massacre sparked the first wave of African refugees fleeing to Israel, crossing the Sinai desert and reaching the promised land.
For many of the members of the community, the years in Israel were the only calm years in their lives. For many of the children, these years were happy childhood years, spent living in multicultural neighborhoods, going to schools, learning a new language, meeting school teachers and staff who care for the well-being of any child regardless of gender, color, or nationality.
In recent years, I found myself lucky enough to be part of a small multicultural community in south Tel Aviv, and some of my closest friends were members of the small South Sudanese community. I heard so many life stories that reminded me of tales often told to me as a child by old family members, who escaped Europe in the 30s—now told by children who fled to gain peaceful years in a country where they were beginning to feel at home in. Now, this little universe has been destroyed.
The government’s deportation order, following the referendum in South Sudan that led to the independence of the country, caught us all unprepared. It is not that the South Sudanese did not wish to return to their country. In fact, at the peak in 2009, there were around 1,900 members of community residing in Israel. By in July 2011, when the county’s independence was declared, only some 900 members remained in Israel. Most of the single young men returned to South Sudan, wishing to help build the new country.
The ones who remained in Israel were mostly families with children. News from South Sudan portrayed a harsh picture of a land unprepared to offer a future for children or for other weak groups in society. It has the highest mortality rate for newborn babies and nursing mothers in the world. A girl of 14 has a higher probability of dying while giving birth than of attending school. One million people suffer from food shortages, and the World Food Organization has warned that the country will continue to suffer major disasters in coming years.
With this dreadful reality in mind, we—a small group of representatives from different human rights organizations—opened a public campaign against the deportation to South Sudan. We were successful in getting the facts to the media, and for awhile we were convinced that we could stop it. But after attorney Anat Ben-Dor’s appeal to the district court against the deportation order was rejected, nothing could stop it besides the good will of the government. And that was the last thing we could expect.
Indeed, the deportation order went into effect. On the very next day, after a public statement by Interior Minister Eli Yishai requiring all South Sudanese to register for a “voluntary return” within a week, the Oz Unit of immigration officers began arresting South Sudanese in the streets of major cities in Israel.
For us, the Israeli friends, teachers, and neighbors of the community, these days are beyond comprehension. The streets are being emptied out, racist Israelis commit daily attacks against refugees, more and more of our beloved friends are sent to a country with very low chances of survival.
Walking down the streets of the neighborhood these days I can see only voids—circles of missing people, people who were sent like animals, hunted by immigration police, forced to sign that they “want to leave” or else, then detained and pushed out.
In recent few weeks, I have experienced some of the most horrifying moments of my life. Among the refugees arrested was Regina’s family. Upon their release, while waiting for their deportation, Regina’s 7-year-old sister Mer described to me how “the guards were at first good, at least some of them. But as we asked more questions and they lacked answers, they become more and more evil.”
After failing at all fronts to stop the deportation, what we are left with are the voices of the recent deportees in South Sudan. Presently, dozens of children and adults from among the deportees suffer from malaria. Dozens of others suffer from typhoid. Many have been robbed—the property they gathered in Israel did not arrive. Many children are hungry, and every week we send, with the new deportees, pita bread, chocolate, and cereal to the families and children, at their request. The returnees have no water or electricity in their huts. The money they collected or received when they were deported is running out. There are no jobs, and schools are extremely expensive. In general, many just don’t see any future opportunities ahead of them.
The question many of us are left with is why did they—or rather we—have to do it? I witness the brutal pressure Israel is presently putting on the few families that still remain, mostly for serious humanitarian, medical or social needs involving many life threatening conditions. To me it seems like the State of Israel decided to carry out an ethnic cleansing campaign. Like a Passover house-cleaning, they decided not to allow a single South Sudanese to remain. The associations that this act brings to mind are dreadful. But that is the only explanation I can find for the systematic and obsessive persecution—carried out in seven well-planned deportations—of the South Sudanese community.
And if this is accurate, then I deeply feel that the people involved, actively, or by simply closing their eyes, will be punished. In fact, they are already being punished by not being able to look in the mirror and see a human figure. I cannot imagine a worse punishment than that.
Dr. Rami Gudovitch is a social activist working with migrant communities in southern Tel Aviv and a philosophy instructor at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya.
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