GABRIEL KUOL CUTS A STRIKING FIGURE as he walks amid a group of Hasidic Jews in downtown Jerusalem. He has the compact, muscular build of an athlete. A thin, chinstrap beard frames his angular face, and a scar in the shape of a river delta marks his ebony forehead. As we sit in an upscale café, Kuol’s presence invites the scrutiny of onlookers: Most people here are unaccustomed to seeing an African asylum-seeker sipping a cappuccino.
The Israeli government has labeled Kuol – and thousands of other Africans – an “infiltrator” and a “demographic threat” to the Jewish character of the state. In a few weeks he will likely be deported.
Kuol’s amicable personality and easy way of talking are at odds with his extraordinary life of hardship and misfortune. He was born in 1983, just as his own father and uncle were plotting a rebellion in South Sudan – as part of a cadre of military officers – that would last more than 22 years and leave millions dead or displaced.
Today, South Sudan is the world’s newest country – it became an independent state last July – and Kuol is one of hundreds of South Sudanese asylum-seekers living in exile in Israel.
Kuol was born in the city of Juba – now South Sudan’s capital – to a family from the prominent Dinga tribe. At the age of five he moved to his ancestral village of Bor. In 1989, Omar Al Bashir – then a colonel in the military and now Sudan’s president – took over the central government in a bloodless coup. He broke a ceasefire with the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and by 1991 the civil war that Kuol’s paternal uncle John Garang De Mabior (the leader of the SPLA) launched had escalated dramatically. The government went to devastating lengths to crush the insurrection.
“We were chased away from our villages. We were always running from place to place,” says Kuol. “After we left Bor we were in the forest every day. We would hear the bombs. Our camps would be attacked. At night they would go on attacks and just kill.”
When Kuol was 16, his father was killed in a helicopter crash and the teenager decided it was time to pick up a gun of his own. “At the time there was always a hole in my shirt right here,” Kuol says, pointing to a spot just above his right hip, “from the Kalashnikov that never left my side.”
This ‘second’ Sudanese civil war – which pitted Sudan’s largely Christian and Animalist south against a Muslim Arab north – was, in all but name, a continuation of a conflict that first began in the Fifties as a result of a lethal mix of religious, ethnic, territorial and post-colonial strife.
After nearly three years on the run, Kuol and his comrades were captured in a military raid. Many were executed on the spot, according to Kuol. He was eventually taken to a prison camp in Khartoum, where he was routinely beaten and tortured.
“It was one of the most dangerous prisons in Khartoum. It was the prison where, if they put you there, your family forgets about you,” he says. “They beat me a lot. With sticks, with their hands.” He struggles to articulate the words. “Most of the time I was in prison, I didn’t think I would survive. But where I come from, you die hard. You don’t give up.”
In addition to the beatings, Kuol says he was often hog-tied and left on the dirt floor for an entire day. At one point, he says, he was put into solitary confinement – a hole in the ground – for three months, without seeing the sun.
Kuol has been told that – at the time – it seemed as though the abuse had had no effect on him; that he remained the same person. That is no longer true. “At the time I was very strong – physically I was weak, but my spirit was strong,” he says, stuttering over the words. He winces as he takes a sip of water, as if the memory causes him physical pain. “Now, these things are killing me.”
Kuol says that, nowadays, he is prone to sudden emotional breakdown. A lot of people who were in prison with him died – most as a result of torture. And outside the prison the war raged on, causing further death. Kuol’s mother and sister were both killed by a landmine explosion while he was locked up. The trauma that he was once able to block out in order to survive now torments him. “Anything small that goes wrong in my life makes me upset,” he says. “And it’s because of what I saw.”
In 2004, Kuol was shot while being tortured. He was taken to hospital. “I’m not sure why I was kept alive,” he says. Kuol told his story to a nurse who secretly tried to find him help. Eventually, a pastor at a local church convinced the authorities to allow Kuol to attend mass. When he arrived, the pastor gave Kuol 50 Sudanese dinars, a loaf of bread and some water. And Kuol ran.
Alone and on foot, Kuol fled north along the Nile for seven days until he reached the Egyptian city of Aswan. There he boarded a steamship to Cairo. He was a free man
HIS RELIEF WAS SHORT-LIVED, though. Kuol arrived in the Egyptian capital without any official papers. He was taken away for interrogation. He knew the chances of being sent back to Khartoum were very high.
Egypt is the access point for most African refugees that make it into Israel. Many have no intention of moving on, but conditions in Cairo are often so severe – Egypt has no formal asylum laws – that they are compelled to seek refuge elsewhere. The situation during Kuol’s time in Egypt was made even worse in June 2004 when the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Cairo made a decision to stop registering Sudanese refugees and refused to relocate them to Europe or the United States. Without rights or protection from the UN or Egyptian government, they became subject to exploitation and abuse. Human trafficking and prostitution were prevalent among Sudanese women in Egypt. Men were exploited for cheap labor and abuse went unchecked. Some were killed if they protested their treatment.
This was the threat that faced Kuol on his arrival in Cairo. “The only thing that has kept me alive until today is being honest,” he says proudly. “I didn’t tell any lies to protect myself.”
He told the interrogating officer everything – from the fact that John Garang was his uncle to the tale of his imprisonment in Khartoum. The latter, in particular, was a risky admission. The officer, however, was sympathetic. He gave Kuol some money and arranged transport to the UNHCR. “He is a good friend of mine until now,” says Kuol of the officer. He smiles. “He is not happy that I ended up [in Israel].”
Thanks to his language skills (he speaks English, Arabic and Sudanese), Kuol was able to find work as a translator between different Egypt-based agencies and his fellow refugees. He made invaluable connections along the way. “Slowly, slowly in Egypt I became very active. Speaking out about what was happening; the abuse, the murders,” he says. “Even though I wasn’t succeeding in handling these problems, I was at least bringing information to the UN, to the American embassy, anyone who would want to know.”
This made his life difficult. The Embassy of Sudan in Cairo saw Kuol and those like him as enemies because they were openly critical of Sudan’s government. Egypt’s own security forces also began to target him for his activities. On several occasions he was picked up and interrogated. But the relationships he had developed with international agencies and diplomats meant he was no longer a ‘faceless’ refugee, which made the security service more cautious than they were with other Africans.
Back in Sudan, John Garang and Omar Al Bashir had signed an historic peace treaty in January of 2005, bringing open hostilities to an end (Garang died shortly after in a helicopter crash, the details of which remain a mystery). Most refugees, however, were unable or unwilling to return. For some the trauma was too great. Others feared the violence would soon erupt again.
By the end of 2005, Sudanese refugees had staged a months-long sit-in on the streets of Cairo to protest their treatment by UNHCR and to call for protection or for resettlement in other countries. On December 30th of that year, a large force of Egyptian riot police violently broke up the demonstration, resulting in the deaths of 27 refugees, according to the Egyptian government. Sudanese protesters put the number at more than 200.
“After that, life in the Southern Sudanese community was in chaos,” says Kuol. “They made life impossible. People began looking for a place to go that was safe.”
Fearing for his life, he gave a few hundred dollars (and his mobile phone) to Bedouin smugglers to get him across the Sinai Peninsula, the natural geographic border between Africa and Asia.
THE STARK, LAWLESS DESERT LANDSCAPE OF THE SINAI is rife with activity connected to everything from drugs to prostitution. Over the past year, the smuggling trade in the Sinai has come under increasing scrutiny amid reports of severe abuse on the part of Bedouin smugglers against African refugees. The victims’ testimonies have been nightmarish. Rape of both men and women is widespread. So is torture, often used to extort thousands of dollars from the families of the refugees. On my own journeys into the Sinai, Bedouin smugglers told me stories of African refugees being taken into short-term slavery and used for various crimes, including carjacking.
Even if you make it across the Sinai unharmed, the Egyptian military, which – along with Israel – is responsible for border security, has reportedly instituted a shoot-on-sight policy that led to the killing of at least 60 people between the summer of 2007 and 2011. When Kuol reached the border, after three days with the Sinai Bedouins, he was shot in the leg by Egyptian soldiers but still managed to cross into Israel. Others with him were not so lucky, he says.
Nearly everyone that makes it over the border is detained by the Israeli military while their status is determined. Sudanese and Eritreans – who comprise the vast majority of African migrants in Israel – are not put through the Refugee Status Determination (RSD) process. (Sudan is considered an ‘enemy state’ and Israel has so far avoided even beginning the process with the many Eritrean asylum seekers for fear of opening itself up to a torrent of refugees from a country whose exiles have an extremely high qualification rate for refugee status worldwide.) Instead, they are usually ‘conditionally released’ pending a deportation order that cannot be executed because they are under ‘group protection,’ owing to the life-threatening conditions in their home countries.
Kuol spent three days in a military base before he was dropped off in the city of Be’er Sheeva. He eventually made his way to Eilat, a popular beach resort where many asylum-seekers find work illegally in the hotel industry. Kuol only spent 28 days in Eilat, but it was his first harsh lesson in what life would be like in Israel.
“In Eilat, I worked from six in the morning until seven in the evening every day,” he says. “When I asked to get paid at the end, I was given only 800 shekels [approximately $213]. There was nothing I could do. The manager
threatened to call the police if I complained.”
Kuol decided to head north to Jerusalem, but conditions were little better. Israel’s opaque policies make it difficult for asylum seekers to attain any ‘official’ foundations with which to make a life – because they are not recognized as refugees, they are not legally allowed to work – and many Israelis resent the African exiles, largely because the government has instituted a latent policy of determent to encourage asylum seekers to leave of their own accord and to discourage others from coming in the first place. A report published by the UNHCR in March 2011 states: “Behind the ostensible chaos or unruliness lies an ordering principle that aims to deliver a clear and unwelcoming message.”
Kuol is familiar with this ‘ordering principle.’ “When we came here the treatment we got is something I will never forget,” he says, angrily. He describes how the Israeli government tarnished refugees’ reputation, presenting them as terrorists, carriers of disease, infiltrators, and worse. “Since the moment we stepped foot in this country the government has created an image of us aimed at producing public distrust,” he adds.
It seems to be working. Just last month, in the Shapira neighborhood of Tel Aviv, home to a number of African asylum seekers, Molotov cocktails were thrown into four houses and a kindergarten early one morning. This time, no one was hurt. But the reaction of one Israeli resident (whose house is next door to one that was fire-bombed) was telling. “Whoever is doing this is right,” he told reporters.
According to Israeli authorities there are nearly 50,000 illegal Africans now living within its borders, a number that experts say has been inflated in order to stoke public concern. Israel’s plan to build a fence along its southern border was described by its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, as a “strategic decision to secure Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.”
Israeli society is particularly sensitive to the issue of demographics because of the ethnocentric foundations of the state and because of the Palestinian conflict. When African refugees began to arrive in the country in large numbers, they became part of the debate in which non-Jews are viewed as a threat to maintaining a Jewish majority. The right-wing government in Israel has played into these fears by using the media and the Knesset (the legislative branch of the Israeli government) to constantly misrepresent African asylum seekers as ‘labor infiltrators’ – people seeking work rather than fleeing conflict.
“Israel’s treatment of African refugees suggests that it’s not the Palestinians, per se, that the Jewish state takes issue with – it’s non-Jews in general,” says Mya Guarnieri, an American-Israeli journalist currently writing a book on Israel’s handling of immigrants. “And while Israel has security claims against Palestinians – which are an excuse for racism and collective punishment – it has no such claims against Africans.”
WHEN I MEET KUOL FOR THE SECOND TIME, he has just returned from a trip to Eilat where a close friend of his had been beaten to death by unknown assailants. Abuse has become widespread, according to refugees. They complain of a general lack of security and say they are singled out for harassment by police. A recent article in Israeli daily Haaretz revealed that police had posed as drunks and prostitutes to entrap refugees.
“Do you think in this world I still thought I would be seeing these things? In a country we think is democratic? In a country that is free?” Kuol asks, despairingly. “No. No, I can’t accept it.” In 2008, Kuol decided to make his plight – and that of the wider refugee community – public. In 2010, he completed Gabriel’s Story, a biographical documentary about his time in Israel. The project put him into contact with Israel’s film industry and his network has grown immensely. He finished a second documentary, Sudan War, in 2011 and is currently working on several other projects with Israeli and international film directors, including a feature film that will document the life of a refugee who flees from Sudan to Egypt to Israel. He is working on the script with the Academy Award-winning producer of Ajami, Moshe Danon. But despite this support from both inside and outside of Israel, Kuol, like thousands of other Africans, remains in official limbo.
From 2009 to 2011, only nine asylum seekers were recognized as refugees by Israel, according to Sigal Rozen, the policy director of the Hotline for Migrant Workers – a leading Israeli NGO working with African asylum seekers, many of whom have been driven to sleeping out in the open in places like Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park.
“First of all they don’t have work permits,” says Rozen. “As a result, more and more of them find it hard to find work, and when they do find work, employers are taking advantage of their vulnerable situation and paying them far below the minimum wage.”
According to Mark Regev – the spokesman for Israel’s prime minister – the government has instituted a four-tier policy for asylum seekers: the fence, the detention center, ensuring they cannot work, and, eventually, deportation. Regev describes Israel as an economic magnet for the rest of the region and Africa. “According to our own investigation only a fraction of one per cent of these people qualify as bona fide refugees – and then of course they have the right to stay here indefinitely until they can go to a third country,” he claims. “But the overwhelming majority are illegal economic migrants.”
SINCE SOUTH SUDAN’S DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE in July 2011, the Israeli government has determined that there is no longer any danger for Southern Sudanese exiles. They were due to begin executing deportation orders in April, but on March 29th – after a number of Israeli NGOs filed a petition demanding a reprieve to assess the worsening situation in Sudan – an Israeli court put a temporary injunction on the deportation order that could last from a few weeks to a few months. Meanwhile, it seems Sudan is inching closer and closer to a return to war. Not only have cross-border military strikes become more frequent, but the economic situation in the South has deteriorated horribly. The UN has issued a report warning that 5 million people – half the country – are in danger from a shortage of food in the near future. The UN Security Council recently issued a statement “[demanding] that all parties cease military operations in the border areas and put an end to the cycle of violence.” Over 140,000 people have been displaced by the fighting since February, according to The Christian Science Monitor.
On his recent state visit to Israel, Salva Kiir Mayardit, the president of South Sudan, met Kuol at an official dinner. Kuol appealed to him on behalf of the Southern Sudanese asylum seekers in Israel. He says the president suggested that, if they are forced to leave, the relationship that Israel is working to build with the oil-rich country will suffer. It remains to be seen if that threat will carry much weight.
I talk to Rozen outside of the Knesset building in Jerusalem, where she has just finished speaking to a committee on the migrant situation and the threat posed to those who are deported back to Sudan.
“The guy from the immigration authority said it very clearly: ‘We made a decision, now they have to obey this decision,’” she says. “He refused to even hear that there is new data since the decision was made.”
Ignoring the long, perilous journey these refugees have undergone and the unstable situation in their home countries, Israel’s government appears set to move forward with its plans as soon as possible. “The deportation order has been a mystery to me and the rest of the Southern Sudanese in Israel,” says Kuol. “We find it hard to understand why we are being treated like this. We are not claiming any land, we just need time to see how things develop back home.” At present, all Kuol can do is continue to tell the refugees’ story. And wait.
“I want the world to see what they are doing,” Kuol says, during our last meeting in Jerusalem. “I have been speaking to the media daily. I want [the authorities] to handcuff me. Let them do it.
“If they kick me out, I will be a witness to what I saw here,” he continues. “I want to show the world what happened.”