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Out of Africa

Kessaye tells her tale-a Jewish woman's modern-day exodus

Kessaye Tevajieh is a thirty-year-old Ethiopian woman who in 1984 walked from her home in Addis Ababa to the Sudan, with her husband, Addis, to begin their journey to Israel (they were eventually airlifted in “Operation Moses”). Tall and slender, with fine features, she holds herself like cm aristocrat, proud of the fact that she had finished high school and was headed for a degree in chemist}y when she decided to risk the dangerous journey to Israel. “Before I was born,” Kessaye told me, “my mother had two miscarriages and then I came. Like a gift from God. So they called me ‘Kessaye,’ which means ‘gift from God’.

I met Kessaye in October, 1992, in Be’ersheva, Israel. A community worker who teaches, counsels, and mentors recent Ethiopian immigrants, she was working at the agency where I volunteered as a social worker during my sabbatical year in Israel.

For several months, Kessaye and I drove to work together (half an hour each way), conversing in the car; we conducted two or three one-hour home visits together in the immigrant absorption center, and we visited each other’s homes on our day off. Finally, when I felt I knew Kessaye well enough, I asked her to tell me the story of how she came to Israel.

We took advantage of a slow day at work in early spring, and drove to a nearby orange orchard. Sitting in the car, the windows open, I turned on my tape recorder and asked her one question: “How did you make the decision to leave Ethiopia?” From her answer flowed the entire story of her journey.

[The following story is Penina Adelman’s translation from Kessaye Tevajieh’s Hebrew. Supplemental information has been inserted in brackets, and Penina’s comments are italicized.]

TO GO OR NOT TO GO

Deciding to leave was very difficult, truly very difficult. Especially since I had to leave my parents in order to go out on the road [Kessaye was 21 at the time].

But things were getting worse. Every day [in Addis Ababa] you would see people with their donkeys or on horseback. Our street was all Jews and they were all leaving. All day long and all night long too you would see people taking all their things and leaving. It was truly sad.

You would see houses destroyed by the non-Jews. People were already living off the gardens that had belonged to my relatives. People took all the things that were left behind. Money. Things. I’m telling you, it was really like a war.

I had already heard that most of the family on one side, on my mother’s side, really close relatives. . . had died on the road. This was really hard, to hear this and to think about leaving my family. Still, in spite of all this I finally made the decision to go.

How could I stay with my parents? My husband and I could not make a living there. There was absolutely nothing for me to do there [Kessaye had already finished school]. So we said, “We’ll go and see what will be.” Zionism also played a part.

And then my husband said, “Look, we don’t have children yet. We might as well go.”

At the time. Kessaye was living in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital, with her parents, her brothers and sisters, their spouses, and her grandmother. Because Kessaye’s grandmother was a wealthy woman, they were able to move to the capital from their village in Gondar province, enabling Kessaye to attend high school. (The village had no such school.) During the family’s stay in Addis Ababa, the atmosphere in the city grew increasingly violent. Jews had often been targeted during times of unrest in Ethiopia and some of Kessaye’s high school friends got in trouble with the regime in power because of their involvement in anti-government demonstrations. Some were tortured, others imprisoned. Kessaye described how she “passed as a Christian” by removing the Jewish star pendant from around her neck. Like many Jews in urban settings, she relied on this practice during most of her life in the city.

THE TREK

So that was it. After that we started on the road. We didn’t have any family to help us and it was very hard. Everyone was going with groups of family and friends. I went alone—with my husband, of course. But there was no one else I knew.

When we had already been walking for two days, the guides we had hired took us to their house. There they told us, “You are only two people. From you we will not receive enough money. We need at least one hundred people, so you have to wait here.” We waited a month and two more weeks. That wait was the hardest time of my life so far. They didn’t give us any food, and I was pregnant in my fourth month with Aliza. They didn’t give us anything to drink because they knew we were Jewish. Ethiopians believe that Jews are witches, that they possess the evil eye, that they can ruin crops just by looking at them or walking by a field.

My husband would get up early and go out all day to look for work. If he found anything, he worked until late at night like a donkey. All day long I would cry. What can I tell you? No one from my family knew where I had gone, if I had met my end in the Sudan or not. . . .

There was nobody to take care of me. There was no place to sleep. I cried all night long. I was lying on the floor in the mud. I was already suffering from pains in my feet, it was so cold. Even so, with all the problems, there was no way we were going to go back. “No,” I told him, “I’m not going back. I can die on the road but I’m not going back.” My husband said, “Come on, let’s go back home.” I said, “No. I can’t go back anymore. End of story. . . . ” It was the hardest decision I ever made in my life—to leave that place and go on.

About a week later we left. I never could really see the young men who were our guides; they were always way ahead. You know, there are all kinds of things on the road. Lions. High mountains which you have to go up and then come down. And then you have to go up again. There are wide places where you have to jump across. What can I tell you? It was very hard. I hardly knew what I was doing or where I was going after a while. I was like somebody dead, only I was moving.

A PLEASANT SURPRISE

When there was only a day and a half left to our journey, we met up with a hundred or so people. They were Jews. When I found them, I said, “Todah la ‘El [thank God]” because I wasn’t dead.

After a day and a half, we arrived in Sudan. When we arrived, we had absolutely nothing—no money, nothing. They packed us into the lorry. Children were riding on top of grownups. We were packed in very tight. It was still nighttime when we arrived. The first lorry had broken down because there were so many people on it.

INSIDE

We finally reached with transit camp [one of many established by international relief organizations to accommodate the many Ethiopian refugees—both non-Jewish and Jewish—fleeing famine and political unrest, streaming into the Sudan] political unrest, streaming into the Sudan], and what can I tell you? It’s shocking, people so thin, sick. There were people I hadn’t seen in two or three months and I found them—how can this be? —looking as if they had had nothing to eat in all that time. I recognized them. They were from my own family but what can I tell you? They were eating—I can’t even describe it. There were flies everywhere. There’s a smell coming from it, impossible to eat. There’s spoiled milk.

I had to get along without any sheets or blankets. I slept on the floor. You don’t even have anything to put underneath you when you sleep. So I used to take off my clothes and put them under me. There was heat that, I don’t know, what can I tell you, that kind of heat. Sudan has the most severe climate possible. In the middle of rain, you have burning hot sun and wind. Often when you eat, you get sand in.”

Between 1983 and 1984, it is estimated that several thousand people died in Sudanese transit camps due to malnutrition, dehydration, and such illnesses as dysentery, malaria, and typhoid. According to survivors of these camps, Jews were treated especially badly by the authorities and by other refugees. The Sudan is, after all, an Arab country. Anti- Semitism was rampant. Thieves colluding with the camp officials would routinely rob Jews of their meager supplies.

BURIALS

When I woke up in the morning, I found that many had died in the night. Five maybe. Then a few hours later, they’re burying more. At this point I thought, “Toda la ‘El that my parents did not come with me. People are dying here every day.”

I went to bury someone who was a relative of my family. When I came to the burial place, I said, “How can this be? Every second there’s someone else dying here.” We sat and sat and sat at the funeral and on that day, twenty-one people were buried. In fact, that day we buried four people I had known before. When I came back home that day, I said to my husband, “That’s it. Whoever dies, dies. I’m not going to bury any more people while I’m here. It’s enough. I can’t do it.”

There weren’t any stones, not even sand to place on the bodies. They prayed and said things, but it didn’t help. It just didn’t help.

There was no food, no this, no that. Whoever had money would buy some food. Even water to wash with. Sometimes you’d have to stand a whole day in line just to get some water to wash with. Who had the strength to do such a thing?

Problems began in the camp. Dysentery. I was sick with it. Then after the dysentery, I became anemic. I had such bad headaches I could not get up. . . . At this time, I got to know some people who really helped us once they found out we were also Jews. [Jews in the camps could identify each other by their names and villages.] They took us to the hospital. There were some doctors there, but the line. . . . You would have had to wait from morning until evening in order to be seen by somebody.

MAKING A LIVING

With all these problems, we decided to work, [because] the food they gave us there was impossible to eat. I said to my husband, “This is how we can get out of here alive. If we don’t work, we’re going to die.” So we started to work. [On the outskirts of the transit camps were concession stands, selling such foods as melons and tea; these were small businesses whereby locals made money off of the refugees.] I worked for somebody who sold tea to the people in the camp. At least now I had something to eat and drink. But my husband couldn’t find any work. And after two weeks or so, they found out I was Jewish and they let me go. They didn’t want me to work anymore.

Then I found another job. They needed somebody who could read and write. It was actually enjoyable. At least there was enough to eat and drink. I worked there a month and a half. This was decent work, accounts. Then my husband also went to work.

Now, when it was time for me to give birth, I stopped working because I had all kinds of problems. I was so sick, I really couldn’t move. My husband couldn’t help. We had no money, so he had to work. For a week or so I lay in bed. I said, “Whatever will be, will be. There’s nothing to do about it.”

Finally I went to the clinic and it turned out I had malaria with a veiy high fever. It was mazal [luck] I got to the clinic. I said to my husband, ”Adoni [my lord—Kessaye used this very formal title to inject a note of irony into the role reversal here, where she gave the command], I am sick. You are not going to work.” So I took my medicines. And then I gave birth to Aliza (long exhalation of breath).

She was seven hundred grams [1.6 lbs.]. I could hold her in one hand. She just had the signs of feet and hands and a head. That was all you could see. The next day I was planning to make the blessings for my new child. If she lived, mazal shela [her good fortune], she lived. If not. . . nothing. There’s nothing to do about it.

The next day I wrapped her up inside the dress I was wearing. For twenty-four hours I didn’t sleep. What can I tell you? I said, “She’s going to die. Any second she’s going to die. She doesn’t cry. She isn’t eating. All she does is sleep.” Every two or three hours, I tried to wake her up to nurse her. She doesn’t want me. She just sleeps and sleeps and doesn’t cry. For two months she didn’t cry. . . . Not for water. Not for anything. I said to my husband, “If she dies in the middle of the day, what will I do? Don’t go to work.” I was so afraid. I held her all the time, next to my belly, day and night. Already she was becoming a real person, after two months. She was beginning to look like a real baby should look after it’s born.

Then I remember that there was blood in her eyes. And I said, “That’s it. She’s going to die.” I took her to the hospital. They said, “There’s no point even in examining her. There’s nothing at all we can do for her. Take her home.” That’s what the doctor said. So that was it. I took her home and waited for her to die.

She was born at seven months. Nobody could help her. In the two months since she had been born, she had not grown at all, not one bit. That’s why the doctor didn’t even want to touch her. He was sure she was going to die. But she didn’t die.

A NOTHER GHETTO

[In the following segment of her story, Kessaye speaks of an unspecified “they.” Probably, she is referring either to members of international relief organizations, or to workers from Israel. Israel financed the Ethiopian Jews’ flights from the Sudan to Israel— in Kessaye’s case via Germany—and apparently also paid Sudanese public officials on the roads and in the airports to look the other way. However, Israelis working with Ethiopians in the Sudan never identified themselves as such, because Israel and the Sudan have no diplomatic relations.]

We finally made it out of the camp [after about two months there] to Khartoum [Sudan’s capital]. They took us straight to the central bus station there and then to some house that they had rented beforehand. There were seven or eight of us in one room. It was forbidden to leave, forbidden to listen to music in Amharic, forbidden for anybody to hear us make any noise at all, for anybody outside to know that we had arrived. [Essentially, Kessaye was in hiding. If anyone had heard Amharic, the Ethiopian language, being spoken, s/he would have known that illegal Ethiopian refugees were living there.]

This lasted for six months. It was terribly hard. We didn’t get much to eat or drink. My husband was very sick. He had diarrhea and vomiting. I couldn’t get any help for him. It was forbidden for any Sudanese to see him at all. I didn’t know what to do. It became hotter and hotter. The two of us, my husband and I, were shut up in that house all day long. We became really despairing. Sometimes we thought of . . I don’t know, what can I tell you?

We had no information. We had no idea if we would be allowed to leave or if they were going to bury us here, kill us. We knew already that some people in the regime were receiving money for taking Jews from Gedari [another Sudanese city] through Khartoum.

Things continued in this way for some time. They told us, “You’ll have to manage somehow. Go inside the embassy of Sudan and get tickets for Germany.” They took us to some office of the Sudanese government in Khartoum. They told us, “Go in. Tell them that you want to leave Sudan, that you have someone waiting for you in Germany. Do what you have to do. Just get out of here and that will be that.”

So, we entered this office. The entire police force was there to scare people. There were all kinds of offices we had to go through. We don’t know what to tell them. We went into a room. We didn’t know what to think. They are making a picture for us, some kind of identity card. There were those among us who had been living in Sudan already for several years. We looked at each other’s pictures. Here we were, Jews from Ethiopia who had survived the transit camp and now we were about to go to Germany.

A night or two after we received our I.D. cards in the office in Khartoum, we were told, “You’re going to fly to Germany. Everything is all set.” That’s it. That’s what they told us. Then one night, in the middle of the night, while we were sleeping. . . a young man came and said to us, “Get up!”

Where are we going? We didn’t know what this was. Maybe he was going to help us. We didn’t know. He said that because of our little girl, we could go first. There were the three of us and two other young men. That was it.

They told us, “We’re going to the airport [where] you’ll manage once again for yourselves.” As we were driving to the airport in a cab, I remember there was somebody in the middle of the road who flagged us down. We picked him up. We couldn’t even see his face. The driver just kept looking ahead as he drove. Do you know why? Because the driver didn’t want to know the people he was transporting. That way he could not claim any responsibility for us. We were responsible for ourselves and that was it.

Inside the airport, once again, what examinations and checks! Because we were Ethiopian, everything was hard for us. It was the middle of the night while all this checking was going on. And this was just to be able to enter the plane. We went through all that and finally we arrived at the plane itself.

TO FREEDOM

We climbed up into the plane (she’s laughing now). It is the first time in my life I am climbing onto a plane. And you know the conditions—I was carrying a little girl who was sick, very sick, painfully thin. She was still having a lot of diarrhea. I needed diapers. Somebody gave me a diaper and said something to me in a language I did not understand.

After this, the entire day we were flying to Germany. There was somebody to meet us there who was Ethiopian—not Jewish— but he spoke Amharic. We asked him about the kashrut at the hotel [the refugees were taken to a hotel two hours from the airport]. Apparently, there are some difficulties there. But first of all we are Jews. Kashrut is important. Even more important, though, we want to get on the road to Eretz Yisrael to be true Jews in Eretz Yisrael. At this time, we are still in transit, we don’t know exactly what we are doing.

[A few days later] they said to us, “Today you are going to Eretz Yisrael” (she takes in a deep breath, laughing, smiling). This was a very moving moment.

TO THE PROMISED LAND

We spent the day in the hotel putting things in order. Then they took us to the plane. There were four of us. Four blacks (laughs). After we took off, it quickly became night, darkness. We wondered how we would see Eretz Yisrael. It was really dark when the plane began to land. In another few minutes it would be landing. We could hear people speaking in all kinds of languages, English, for one. They said we would be landing soon.

I looked outside. I saw the lights on the landing gear. It was really something. We saw the magen David [star of David], emblem of Israel. So that’s all. We were done. It was over. We didn’t look back. What can I tell you? To feel that you’re in a Jewish land, the land of Israel. It was a proud feeling. We forgot what we had been through, what we had suffered, everything we had gone through, how hard it was.

When we landed, there was a translator waiting for us. He said, “You’ll be studying here and living here. There are places to learn Hebrew, different places to live.” We told him we had been studying in Ethiopia and that we wanted to continue here. . . . He told us there were all kinds of learning opportunities there. “You’ll manage in Be ‘ersheva,” he told us.

On that same night, they sent us in a small car someplace. There was a house. . . . They said, “This is it. This is Eretz Yisrael. This is your home.”

The next morning I got up from the bed. I want to see already what there is and what I see is nothing. When I went out to see the place, I said, “How can this be Eretz Yisrael?.” It was so bare and dry. I saw some of the same people that I know now. One relative of mine, a woman, wept and cried out and kissed me.

Then, at last, I really began to be like an olah hadasha [new immigrant], to understand both the good and the bad. It’s not that you have milk and honey but at least it is possible to see the good things and also the things that are not so nice.

Kessaye tells me this story a week before Passover, when we read the story of the Exodus from Egypt. “How fitting for all we were talking about,” she notes. In fact, the only precedent in Jewish history for such a large scale emigration as Operation Moses is the Exodus itself, 3000 years earlier. The Passover Haggadah tells us: In every generation, a person must see herfhimself as one coming out of Egypt.

Kessaye Tevajieh now lives in Be’ersheva with Addis, a strong and healthy Aliza, and daughter Leora and son Rakhamim, both born in Israel. She currently works as an interpreter and conselor for Ethiopian mothers in labor and delivery at Ben Gurion Hospital. Penina V. Adelman is a writer and social worker in Massachussetts. She is the author of Miriam’s Well and of a forthcoming children’s Bible.