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Victims of a Broken Promise


Micha Odenheimer Gondar, The Jerusalem Report, July 5, 1999
A year after Israel pledged to rescue them, Quara's Jews wait

HUNGRY, CROWDED into tin-roofed shan-ties, their children dying of malnutrition and measles, 1,500 Jews from the isolated Quara region are waiting in this impoverished town in northern Ethiopia for the deliverance that Israel promised and has yet to provide. Last summer, after The Jerusalem Report's expos_ of the abandonment of Quara's Jews, Prime Minister Benjamin Ne-tanyahu proclaimed that they would finally be brought to Israel. Responding to that promise, Quaran Jews have been trekking to Gondar since last winter, hoping to emigrate. Hundreds have come in the past two months alone, hurrying to leave their homes in the lowlands near the Sudanese border before the advent of the rainy season in June, when Quara is cut off from Gondar by impassable rivers.


In Gondar, they've joined about 900 other Quaran Jews who have been waiting in the town -- some for years -- for Israel to rescue them. And 4,000 Falas Mora -- converts to Christianity who want to return to Judaism -- have also poured into the town, awaiting emigration to Israel. All are living in shanties in the Chichilla neighborhood, close to the Israeli consulate established after 1991's Operation Solomon. A measles epidemic is now sweeping through the Quaran Jews, and has taken the lives of at least 10 children in the past two weeks. And while organizations such as the Jewish Agency and the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) claim they are providing both financial and medical aid to Quaran Jews in Gondar, The Report has learned that so far medical aid has been woefully inadequate, and financial help non-existent. Finally, in mid-June -- following The Report's queries about conditions in Gondar -- officials of the Interior, Absorption and Foreign Ministries and the Jewish Agency met in Israel. In response to Interior Ministry claims that it lacks funds for processing aliyah from Ethiopia, the Agency said it would foot the bill. The officials decided that the Quarans would be brought to Israel at the rate of 400-600 a month -- meaning all will make aliyah within six months. The question is whether that promise to the Jews of Quara -- unlike earlier ones -- will be kept.

Saga of a Stalled Exodus

The story of Quaran Jewry's efforts to reach Israel began just after Operation Solomon, the daring airlift that brought out 14,000 Jews. Quara's Jews never heard of the operation -- their region was controlled by a renegade rebel group and had been cut off from the rest of Ethiopia.

The summer after the airlift, the Jewish Agency sent messengers to Kes Tayen, spiritual and political leader of most of Quara's Jews, asking him to prepare a list of Jews eligible for aliyah. Tayen listed only those Jews who lived under his jurisdiction in the highlands of Upper Quara, leaving off the immigration list a clan of some 2,000 Jews who'd moved to Lower Quara following years of conflict with the kes; they accused him of misappropriating public funds and other misdeeds. Yet the Agency accepted Tayen's list as final. In the months to come, 3,500 Upper Quara Jews managed to make aliyah, coming through Gondar, the traditional center of Jewish life in Ethiopia.

The next year, though, the Interior Ministry took over the Jewish Agency's role of approving immigrants from Ethiopia -- the only country where the ministry is directly involved in that task. The ministry (see box, page 36) stopped immigration from Gondar until Israel could solve the problem of thousands of Falas Mora who'd gathered in Addis Ababa, seeking to come to Israel. The Interior Ministry's decision left hundreds of Upper Quara Jews stranded in Gondar, even though they'd been on Kes Tayen's original list.

Then, after The Report revealed the community's plight last year, word reached Quara that the flow of aliyah was to begin again. The Interior Ministry reversed its earlier decision, announcing it would interview aliyah applicants in Gondar. At first, following instructions from Israel, the Lower Quara Jews stayed in their villages. But the new opening to aliyah quickly brought some 4,000 Falas Mora pouring into Gondar city from their highland homes. With the help of Israeli and American pro-Falas Mora groups, a compound was opened in Gondar, where religious instruction was provided, along with Hebrew lessons and food aid. The JDC paid for a clinic to provide essential medical services for the Falas Mora, for the Quara Jews who'd been waiting in Gondar for the past six years, and for the Lower Quara Jews who were soon to arrive. By last November, after the sorghum harvest, the first wave of Lower Quara's Jews began to sell their livestock and tools and travel by tractor and truck across the arid acacia forests toward Gondar, after receiving word they'd be allowed to emigrate. Amara Eyov, leader of Lower Quara's Jews, left for Gondar in March, prompting another wave of migration. And in the past few weeks, hundreds more Lower Quara Jews have arrived in Gondar. And here, along with the other uprooted Jews, they wait.

Many of the latecomers are descendants of the Gumez, hunter-gatherers who were often captured as slaves by the dominant Amhara tribe. Bought by Quara Jews several generations ago, they were converted to Judaism. Now free, the Gumez are an integral part of the Jewish community. Though still distinguishable by their ebony skin and tall stature, most Gumez Jews now carry Jewish genes as well. "They are our brothers, not through official marriage, but through seed," the Quaran Jews testify, hinting at the common Ethiopian practice of taking slave women as concubines. The Gumez Jews are still the poorest Quarans. In the past year, a mere 100 so Quaran Jews have actually made the journey to Addis Ababa and onward to Israel. The others wait and suffer.

The Death of Children

The Quaran Jews did not foresee that their time in Gondar would test them sorely. The influx of Falas Mora and Quarans pushed up housing costs near the Israeli consulate. Quarans crowded as many people as they could into the mud-floored shanties -- an average of seven to a room.

Any money they'd made by selling their livestock quickly ran out. In Quara, they'd eaten milk, chicken, meat, and yoghurt; here their diet was reduced to injera --a pancake textured bread -- beans, and lentils. Even water cost money in Gondar.

To make matters worse, most of the Quarans refuse to enter the Falas Mora compound, not wanting to raise questions about their status as full-fledged Jews. The result has been that they've received less aid from Jewish organizations. Children are the worst-hit victims of malnutrition. The measles epidemic, infecting hundreds of hunger-weakened children has killed at least 10 -- and perhaps as many as 30. In recent days, there have also been two reported deaths from meningitis, prompting fears of a new epidemic. The measles epidemic raises crucial questions about the efficacy of the Jewish organizations that have taken responsibility for the welfare of Quara's Jews, particularly the JDC.

In early June, JDC's Ethiopia country director Manlio Dell'Aricca told The Jerusalem Report that until fighting between Ethiopia and Eritrea interrupted air service to Gondar three months ago, the JDC was funneling money through Ayeno Almanah, the Ethiopian-born Israeli consul in Ethiopia, to the most needy of Quara's Jews. Air service has since been renewed. But Almanah says that he last distributed JDC money to Quara Jews over a year ago -- well before the Jews of Lower Quara began to arrive in Gondar. Disturbing testimony also comes from a physician who has worked at the JDC clinic in Gondar for the past five months. He says he warned the clinic's administrators that their feeding program for malnourished children aged 1-4 was inadequate -- that milk needed to be added to the diet of injera, egg and potato that was being given. (Older children are receiving nothing from the clinic.) He claims he was told that costs did not permit adding milk. The same doctor, as well as other JDC medical personnel, charge that antibiotics and other drugs are being given for shorter duration than called for medically in order to cut costs, and that JDC medical protocol in Ethiopia orders doctors not to treat pain. JDC officials deny these charges. However, the JDC has responded quickly to the most recent reports of the dire state of the Quara community. JDC Executive Vice President Michael Schneider gave an immediate order to upgrade medical services for both the Falas Mora and Quara Jews, and to renew material support for impoverished Quara families. On June 13, the JDC clinic in Gondar belatedly began measles innoculation for Quara Jews.

Disengagement Crisis Poverty and the hope of deliverance have given birth to new problems, complicating Quaran Jews' prospects for quick emigration to Israel -- even as the gates finally seem to be opening.

Take Imbabet Liko, a woman in her early 20s, whose father immigrated to Israel last November. In early June, she was about to board a bus to Addis Ababa to get her flight to Israel -- when she was arrested and imprisoned. The charge: Her father had received 30,000 birr (about $ 3,800) from a close non-Jewish friend, in exchange for a promise to marry Imbabet to his son -- making him eligible for aliyah. Imbabet's case isn't an isolated one. Word has traveled that Quara's Jews are next in line for emigration. And both Christian Ethiopians and Falas Mora who want to join the group are putting pressure on them. Marriage isn't the only means. Non-Jews offer the Quarans money to adopt one of their children and take him to a better life -- both for the child's sake, and as an investment for the family's eventual reunion in Israel. Poverty has tempted some of the Quarans to consider such offers; when they renege, accusations follow. "Almost every family has one member in some kind of legal trouble," says community leader, Amara Eyov, shaking his head. "I don't know how we are ever going to leave." Yet despite it all, Quarans have reason for hope. Their mood was lifted by Israeli press reports that reached them that outgoing Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon has called for an airlift of Quara Jews. In early June, more Quara Jews -- 80 -- left Gondar for Addis Ababa in one week than had gone in the previous six.

At a mourning ceremony at the home of Beyota Adgo, whose 10-year-old son died three days before of meningitis, Eyov tells of a dream he had years ago -- and of one he dreamed the night before: "Six years ago I saw Kes Tayen in my dream, running from us. He had a slaughtering knife, the symbol of religious authority, stuck in his belt. He was shirtless, which means that he had left something important behind, part of himself. I said to him, 'How could you abandon us?' "Last night, I saw him again in my dream. I kissed his feet. That's the ceremonial greeting of a younger person to a respected elder. It means that after all, we are on our way."