I have a new article up at the Hadassah Magazine site on African refugees in Israel:
When he was 13, Akon told us, the government-backed militia came to his village in southern Sudan.
“They started killing people and burning their houses,” Akon said, speaking so quietly that I had to lean over our coffee cups to hear his voice amid the music in the Jerusalem café. “They killed my mother. My sister, they raped her, and she died.” The militiamen took Akon to northern Sudan, where they sold him as a slave.
So began the nine-year odyssey that brought him to Jerusalem.
Looking across the table, I saw lines in a dark face. He looked much older than 22 years. The family that bought him, he said, put him to work taking care of their cattle and camels. He was the first to rise each day, the last to sleep. He was beaten and insulted. Because he would not convert from Christianity to Islam, he said, “I was a devil in their eyes.”
Slavery was something I had read about in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and history textbooks. Now a former slave sat across from me. I thought of inviting him to my Pesah Seder, then wondered what he would think of the words. My son, who had come with me, is almost Akon’s age. Afterward he said he felt as if he had listened to testimony from the Holocaust, without the distance of decades to soften it.
Eventually Akon was bought and freed by a Christian aid group. He tried returning to his village in the south, but it was cut off by civil war. So he traveled to Khartoum, then fled onward to Egypt, where he joined the refugee community in Cairo. Telling his story, he mentions his activism among the south Sudanese. Repeatedly he was arrested. In prison, the Egyptian authorities let Sudanese intelligence agents question and torture him.
He feared that if he were arrested again, he would be sent back to northern Sudan and “be disappeared.” He and a friend decided to escape to Israel. The friend’s mother sold jewelry to pay the Bedouin smugglers who guided them on foot from El-Arish across the Sinai Desert. When they crossed the border into Israel one night in June 2006, they were found by an Israel Defense Forces patrol and sent to Ketziot prison in the Negev. Under Israeli law, they were told, they had come from an enemy country. “We explained that we are not enemies to Israel,” he said, and that “after the Jews were in genocide, in Sudan the government is committing genocide.”
Read the rest here, and come back to South Jerusalem to comment.