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Features | Real Stories

Out of Ethiopia

By Christian Womanmag

The Operations of the Israelis to bring Ethopian Jews home represent the only time in human history that a first world nation took a large black community out of Africa, not in order to enslave or exploit it, but in order to set it free. Judie Oron has adopted two of these Jewish girls and tells her story

Cry of the Giraffe is a story that I was sure I’d never be able to tell. It’s written in the voice of an Ethiopian Jewish girl who tried to reach Israel via a clandestine airlift from neighbouring Sudan in the late 1980s. Instead, she was separated from her family and, over time, endured violence, abuse and slavery. In short, it has all the elements for a good read, but it’s not the kind of story you want to tell about your own daughter.

Almost from the moment I found the girl and paid for her freedom, I was aware as a journalist that this was a very big story!  But then love came into it. I’d already taken the girl’s younger sister into our family and it didn’t take long before she became a part of us too. She was emotionally scarred and she was ill and she very quickly captured our hearts and made us all her defenders. But defending her meant keeping silent about what she’d endured. She belongs to a religious community and we worried about how they would react if her experiences were revealed. So, we kept her story a secret and I got on with the process of becoming her mother.

Then, three years ago, she decided that she wanted her story told. Shocked, at first I refused.  But after listening to her reasons, I was persuaded to do her bidding. Cry of the Giraffe was her way of demonstrating what it means to be trapped in slavery in modern-day Ethiopia.

Her name is Wuditu. In her language, Amharic, that means ‘little treasure’. Cheerful, loving and pretty, and with a much-envied long, elegant neck, people watched over her as she strode confidently back and forth, on her way to gather water. Sometimes, they’d call out to one another, “There goes the girl with the neck of a giraffe!” No one watched over her more zealously than her own parents. Even so, when the time came, all their watchfulness couldn’t prevent her from being torn from her family.

There are approximately 120,000 black Jews of Ethiopian origin living in Israel today. Many were airlifted in the 1980s and 1990s by Israeli commandos in secret operations from Sudan, a state that was a declared enemy of Israel, and from Ethiopia during the rule of the former Marxist dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam, known for his cruelty as ‘the butcher of Addis’.

The Operations represent the only time in human history that a first world nation took a large black community out of Africa, not in order to enslave or exploit it, but in order to set it free. They are a tribute to the courage of the Israelis who rescued these starving and desperate Jews and to the brave Ethiopians themselves who followed their dream, hoping to get to the land they knew only as Yerusalem, knowing full well that many would die. 

Today we know that one out of three Jews who walked to Sudan died, either on the trek or in the pestilential refugee camps, waiting to be rescued.

Wuditu’s story began in 1989, when her father led his family eight hundred kilometres from their village in Gonder Province to Sufuwa refugee camp in Sudan. Several months later, Wuditu (aged 13) and Lewteh (aged 10) were separated from their family in a violent incident. While the rest of their family was being airlifted to Israel, the two girls were forced by Sudanese soldiers to walk back to Ethiopia. On that trek, Lewteh became desperately ill.

Wuditu managed to get Lewteh to a village where they had elderly relatives. She’d heard that there was a faranj (a foreigner) in a nearby town and that he was transporting Jews to the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa. From there, people were flying to Israel. Lewteh couldn’t walk any further, so Wuditu left her sister and went to look for this faranj. Apart from wanting to get the two of them to Israel, she thought this might be Lewteh’s only chance for medical treatment.

Alone for the first time in her life and unfamiliar with town ways, Wuditu looked for work as a servant. But there was a brutal war being waged in the area and people were afraid to take strangers into their homes. With no other means of support, Wuditu began to carry water for people in the town. She earned barely enough for a few pieces of injera bread and at night she rented a pallet in a tela beit – a local beer hall. It wasn’t safe for a young girl to sleep in a place like that, but it was all she could afford. She suffered several incidents of abuse there and one night she was raped. Wuditu came from a religious community that carefully guarded the purity of their females. Now, she believed that her life had been changed forever. No one would ever marry her, she’d never have children and what would she tell her parents if she ever managed to find them?

Then, Wuditu discovered that all the Jews had been taken from the nearby villages, Lewteh along with them. Now she was truly alone. She prayed that Lewteh had survived, that she’d reach Yerusalem and that she’d tell someone to come and find her.

During the next few months, Wuditu continued to carry water for people in the town. It was hard work and she was getting tired. Often, she was offered so-called ‘easy’ work as a prostitute, but she refused such offers and continued to search for a place where she could be safe from further incidents of abuse.

One morning, desperate to change her circumstances, she left the tela beit. But instead of buying her morning injera or carrying water, she decided to keep looking until she found a job as a servant. If by doing so she starved, so be it. She walked the back alleys of town all day until she was told about a meloxie, a religious woman whose granddaughter Yelemwork badly needed a servant. Wuditu was relieved to be hired, certain that in a household headed by a meloxie, she’d be safe from abuse.

Her first few weeks in the meloxie’s household were difficult. Yelemwork was a hard mistress. But she did manage to sleep undisturbed – except for the family cow that often urinated on her in the night. As far as she was concerned, it was a small price to pay for sleeping in relative safety.  Wuditu now had a home base and a plan. She was determined to save her wages, buy a bus ticket to the capital and find her way to the Israeli Embassy.

At the end of the first month, she waited to be paid the five birr a month she’d been promised, but instead she was told that, rather than earning wages, she’d incurred a debt. At the end of every month, another debt was added to her account. Eventually, Wuditu realized that, rather than being a servant, she’d been tricked into slavery.

Over the next two years, Wuditu became weak and thin to the point of emaciation. She lived in fear, because she’d been hiding the fact that she was a Jew. The local people believed that those who worked with fire were evil. Ethiopian Jews used fire for their pottery and their metalworking. The townspeople believed that the Jews could harm them just by looking at them, that they could turn into hyenas at night and ‘eat’ Christian children. Wuditu was terrified of what would happen if they found out that she was one of those hated Jews.

One day, a former schoolmate in Wuditu’s village came to town. “What’s that girl doing here?” she asked. “I thought all the Jews had gone to Israel.”  Wuditu’s secret was out and that night she was beaten and forced to listen to a debate about whether it would be better to kill her outright or to mutilate her – if so, her evil powers would be weakened but she’d still be able to work for her owners. “It’s dangerous to have a Jew in the house,” Yelemwork insisted, but the meloxie persuaded everyone to wait until morning before deciding what action to take.  To Wuditu, she whispered, “Run, save your life!”  But, after nearly three years of slavery, Wuditu was exhausted. She had no money and nowhere to run to and that night all she could do was lie on her pallet and pray.

You might be wondering how a Canadian/Israeli woman wound up in the middle of this story. I’d been working as a journalist for the Jerusalem Post newspaper, and in 1985, I was asked to take over as Director of the newspaper’s charitable funds. I opened another fund on behalf of Ethiopian Jews and traveled with absorption personnel to boarding schools and absorption centres, trying to determine the community’s needs. I wrote about them in my weekly column and money poured in from all over the world. I set up a committee and together we began our funding.

Eventually, I left the newspaper and organized an informal group of professionals who assisted individual families in Ethiopia and in Israel. Most of our cases involved raising money to send people to Ethiopia to look for relatives who were in trouble or who had gone missing during the trek to Sudan. When there was no one in the family who could go to Ethiopia, one of us went instead.

I was in Ethiopia in 1989, when an Israeli Embassy worker asked me to watch over a child named Lewteh, whose parents were in Israel. She’d been separated from her family in Sudan but they weren’t sure how. When we got back to Israel, her father told me that another daughter had also gone missing in Sudan. He was very ill, so he paid a man to look for her but the man returned saying that Wuditu was dead. ‘Now, I’m nearly blind from crying for my lost child,” he wailed, then begged me to take Lewteh into our family since he was too ill to care for her. We decided that Lewteh would continue to spend the week in boarding school and come to us on weekends and holidays. She was the same age as my younger son and the two seemed to get along quite well.

I woke up one night to find Lewteh crying over a letter she was writing.  “Who are you writing to? I asked. “To my sister, Wuditu,” she answered. When I asked, as kindly as I could, why she was writing to a dead person, she answered, “I would know if Wuditu was dead. I can still feel her breathing!”  She suspected that the man had taken her father’s money and never looked for her sister.

So, in February, 1992, I went to Ethiopia to look for Wuditu.  I found her and I paid for her, in spite of an angry crowd’s determined effort to prevent that from happening!

Wuditu and I, we have a ritual. For nearly twenty years now, every February 21, she asks me, “Why are we still alive?” And the answer I give relates to the part of the story you’ll have to read for yourselves –

“Because there was a wind.”

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Judie Oron Canadian/Israeli Journalist[/author_info] [/author]