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Marching toward freedom in a fictional plot of land

Nearly 1,000 African asylum seekers walked out of Israel’s ‘open’ detention facility last week, saying they were headed to a strip of UN-controlled territory along the Egyptian border. This is the story of their march — full of hopes, determination and desperation.

Encampment air hangs hot and still. Under a dry canopy of Eucalyptus it swaddles the crowds of Sudnese and Eritrean asylum seekers who make temporary beds here, some 300 meters from the Israeli-Egyptian border.

Hassan Abdaiiah Adam, a 30-year-old asylum seeker from Darfur, passes thick fingers over the yellow whistle that he wears around his neck. He has the worn aspect of someone who hasn’t been getting enough sleep, his brow permanently furrowed over dark eyes. He came here with almost a thousand others in a march from the Holot “open” detention center on June 27, protesting their indefinite detention by Israeli authorities.

The asylum seekers spent two days in a dusty outcropping near the Nitzana border crossing, languishing under hastily pitched fortresses of bright cloth, and stuffing tobacco into the white shafts of cigarette tubes. Here they stayed for 48 hours, until Israeli police arrested hundreds on Sunday evening, taking them to back to Saharonim, a “closed” prison where, according to a statement sent to journalists late Sunday night, they have launched a hunger strike.

The arrests came after nearly two weeks of protests within the Holot compound, during which thousands of the detainees refrained from signing mandatory roll-sheets and refused to take up work within the facility. Israeli authorities consequently transferred around 50 detainees, known leaders the asylum seeker community among them, to Saharonim on June 23.

“We are not fighting anymore,” Adam says. “We are tired. Enough. We are going back. We have no choice.”

The refrain is common among the asylum seekers I meet at the camp: no option remains, nothing to lose, a brand of existentialism that appears to have become the very fabric of the asylum seekers’ recent protests. It rings through the language in the camp, occupies a tangible space between the trees.

The asylum seekers’ protests are not aimed at temporary changes to the Holot system — the release, for example, of a few jailed leaders — but at dismantling of the entire operation and the transfer of responsibility over their asylum requests to the UN Refugee Agency. The UN, they hope, will resettle them in third countries. They...

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