Arrest, interrogations, rape, torture and anguish: In 1986 the Mossad embarked on a secret mission to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel, but things went terribly wrong. Decades later, Israel still refuses to accept responsibility
By Roni Singer
Summer 1986. The Gondar district, Ethiopia. An older man visits villages in the district, looking for young Jews, male and female, even before bar-mitzvah age (13), to take part in a secret operation. The goal is clear, he tells the parents: to get to Israel. The route: on foot to neighboring Djibouti where, once their papers are arranged, they will be flown to Paris and from there to Israel. The Ethiopians and the Mossad knew there was no other way. A route through Sudan that had been used to smuggle out Ethiopian Jews in Operation Moses, had been discovered some time before. During that secret operation, about a year earlier, some 8,000 Jews were brought to Israel (and an additional 15,000 or so were airlifted during Operation Solomon, in 1991). But now, in mid-1986, the Mossad needed to find a new clandestine route. The first group of young people would be the vanguard force that would launch it.
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The Mossad man, who will be called Z. here, had a wealth of experience in getting Ethiopian Jews to Israel, particularly via Sudan. The plan he presented to the families helped him collect a group of 27 people who would embark on a course that would change their lives – and not only, or necessarily, for the better. In the end, only 23 of them reached Israel. But the ordeals they underwent along the way – brutal violence, sexual abuse, in some cases abandonment in prison – left them scarred to this day.
The operation, which was kept a secret and in which only a few people in Israel’s defense establishment and the political hierarchy were involved (not even the Foreign Ministry knew about it), quickly slid from promise to failure. Its details, which are being revealed here for the first time, show how it became increasingly snarled, until finally it was decided not to make any further attempts to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel via Djibouti.
The “Djibouti group” was actually three small groups, which set out from Gondar at intervals of a few weeks. The first consisted of seven people, two of them women. One of them was Yeshiwork Dawit, who was 13 at the time, one of eight siblings. Her mother urged her to embark on the odyssey, despite her age.
“It was explained to me that the route was supposed to be easy and last four days,” Dawit tells Haaretz. “First to the city of Wollo, then the city of Kombolcha, from there by bus, cross into Djibouti and afterward by plane to Paris, and from Paris to Israel.”
They reached Wollo, a province in northeastern Ethiopia, relatively quickly on foot and were housed there under the guise of a group of tourists. Then they waited. A guide who had been recruited by the Mossad and was supposed to meet them, didn’t show up. They waited for three months, during which they began to arouse the suspicion of local residents. Four of them subsequently left and returned to their villages. Three remained, Dawit among them.
The guide eventually arrived; he was from a large, well-known tribe of nomads living in the Ethiopia-Djibouti border region and was very knowledgeable about the area. “We were told that he would accompany us until we met with another man, who would accompany us in Djibouti,” Dawit recalls. They were on the road – crossing large desert expanses in broiling-hot August weather – for about a week, forced to cope with thirst, illness and encounters with dangerous animals and robbers.
At the end of the route lay the sea, the port of Djibouti. “Next to the ships someone was waiting especially for our group,” Dawit says. “He took us to a hut with mattresses, and that was the first night we could rest.” But it was also the first night she was raped.
“The guide accompanying us had held back until then,” she says. “But in the night when we slept together in the hut he did it. I screamed and cried, and in the morning I told the man who had met us in the port that if he didn’t separate me from the guide, I would commit suicide.”
Dawit and the two other young men from the original group were moved to a spacious house on the outskirts of Djibouti City, the capital. In the villa she met an older man from Ethiopia who said he had come from Israel to organize passports for them. “But if you get caught, heaven forbid,” he said, “I don’t know you and you don’t know me.” He added, partly as an order, partly as a warning, “Under no circumstances are you to mention the word ‘Israel,’ and whoever gets caught dies alone.” It was a warning Dawit was to hear many times. Another period of waiting began, this time for the other groups from Ethiopia.
Mamo Biro was in his teens when he joined one of the two remaining groups. Until today he doesn’t know his exact age; no one does. He estimates that he’s about 50. He was born in a small village in the Gondar district, one of 12 siblings. Until sometime in his mid-teens, he says, he helped his parents herd sheep, and was then forcibly recruited, not to say kidnapped, into the army during the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam (who ruled the country in one way or another between 1977 and 1991). He kept the fact that he was Jewish a secret, even from his army friends.
One day Biro received a letter from his parents, telling him about neighbors who were embarking on a journey to Jerusalem. The letter fired him with a powerful desire to join them. He deserted from the army and returned home. Shortly afterward, Z. arrived in the village; the family already knew who he was. “He organized groups and sent them from Gondar,” Biro told Haaretz. “He would get money and pay for the bus tickets and for food. It was known that some people had already succeeded in reaching Jerusalem.”
The upshot was that Biro joined “Operation Djibouti” in August, 1986. His group numbered eight young people, all males, who ranged in age between 13 and 20. Three guides accompanied them. “The whole journey was organized by people who, I later learned, worked for the Mossad,” Biro says. “They went to Addis Ababa and every time came back with money and arranged for guides.” Like Dawit’s group, the trek took place under grim conditions. And the heat and thirst were the easy part.
On the road to Djibouti, they were joined by a non-Jewish family – a mother, a father and a daughter of 12 – Biro recalls now, crying. The three guides beat the father on the head, raped the mother in front of their daughter and then raped the girl as well. “I went to people to try to help me erase the memories,” he says, referring to the therapists who treated him later, in Israel. “I can’t get it out of my head.”
The guides finally went off and the girl called for help. Biro hesitated to come to her aid, fearing retribution from the guides. He remembers how he pretended to be asleep and she crawled under his long clothes and clung to him, hoping the three would not find her. To no avail. They came back, seized her and kept brutalizing her that whole night. He never saw the family again. “I don’t know what happened to them,” he says. “It could be that in the end they killed them.”
Not long afterward, they arrived at the house in Djibouti, where they met Dawit and her friends and also the members of the third and last group. “Altogether, there were 23 of us in the house,” Biro relates. “Afterward two people showed up, whom today I can say were Mossad men, one local and one from Israel. One of them knew I had been in the army and so he appointed me commander of the group: I would be the person who would get money from him. He showed me where to buy food, explained how to travel on the bus and how to cover my tracks, so as not to reveal the villa’s location. He taught me how to behave so I would not arouse suspicion.” The cover story, Biro says, was that they had come from Ethiopia to look for work.
They remained there for many weeks, apparently waiting for more people to join them; one of the Mossad agents came every few days to bring them money. One day, they all went together to have their photographs taken for passports – but they never got to use them. Their prolonged presence in the house had made the neighbors suspicious, and one morning they were awakened by loud knocking. They tried to hide but were all caught and herded by local police into a van. Destination: the city jail.
Choosing the route
Why was Djibouti chosen? “They tried all kinds of routes,” says Gad Shimron, a writer and former Mossad officer who heard only after the fact about the events. The choices, he explains, were dictated by the circumstances.
“The period between Operation Moses and Operation Solomon was a very difficult one in Ethiopia and for the Jews of Ethiopia,” says Dr. Irit Beck, an expert on modern Africa who teaches in the Department of Middle Eastern and African History at Tel Aviv University. “It was a period that came after long years of the ‘Red Terror,’ with many victims, wars with Eritrea and a series of internal wars, the decline of Soviet support on the one hand, and feeble Western support on the other hand – and on top of it all, harsh famine.”
In light of these conditions, Jerusalem was increasingly concerned about the fate of the Jews who remained behind, and the Mossad worked to find solutions. Djibouti was part of “diverse and diversified efforts to bring Jews to Israel by any route possible,” says Aharon (Ahrele) Scherf, a longtime Mossad officer, who headed both the organization’s Tevel and Bitzur divisions. The former liaises with foreign governments; the latter is involved in bringing Jews to Israel from other countries. Even now, says Scherf, he is not at liberty to discuss the details. A few other options were revealed by Shimron, who notes that “Kenya was also a possibility.” In fact, that option was tried some time later.
But at the time it was decided to go with Djibouti, a small country bordering Ethiopia, Somalia and Eritrea, with a mostly Muslim population.
Shabtai Shavit, who became director general of the Mossad in 1989, three years after the operation, and who learned the details only afterward, tells Haaretz, “Djibouti had been a French territory, and the assessment was that in a region like that, which was [formerly] under liberal, democratic European rule, the chances of success would be greater.” Asked whether the smuggling route from Ethiopia through Djibouti had been arranged in coordination with the French government, he replies, “There were a few Frenchmen who were in on the secret.” It turned out later, as Scherf also acknowledges, that relying on the French to help in the event of complications was a wise move.
Indeed, complications soon arose. They began when the soldiers invaded the villa, and got worse. For one reason or another, the authorities were convinced that the group had been plotting a coup, and no means were spared to extract confessions from those arrested – meaning torture. Biro relates that from the first instant and for the following two weeks he was interrogated around the clock, while being bound and beaten. Who sent you? Who paid for your stay? For your food? For renting the house? What is your true purpose? The questions kept coming. But despite the relentlessness of the interrogators, the answer remained constant. “We are here to look for work,” Biro says he told them, time and again.
At some point after the interrogation, they were told that they would be leaving the prison, but not to freedom. Instead, they were sent back to Ethiopia, to a prison in the Harari Region. There they were assailed with more questions and suffered harsher abuse. “If I could have taken my soul and thrown it into the garbage can, I would have done it. It could no longer take what I went through there,” Biro says, explaining that he and the others underwent different forms of violence, including sexual abuse of both the men and the women, and whipping. At one point a whip struck Biro in the eye, and his vision has been blurred since. His right leg was also injured, as is still apparent.
The group’s members were incarcerated there for four months, without being charged, not knowing if and when they would be released and without any information from the organizers of the operation: the Mossad and the State of Israel. Then, one day, they were moved again, this time to a prison in Addis Ababa popularly referred to as the “End of the World.” They were fearful their lives would end there. For half a year they were subjected to serious violence and mental anguish. “There were ropes hanging in the center of the prison for executions,” Biro recalls. “We slept below them, and occasionally people were hanged. To this day, when I see a dangling rope, I remember that.”
The period of incarceration in Ethiopia ended as it had begun, by surprise. “One day I and the rest of the group were told that we were being released,” Biro says. “The person who got us out was the same Mossad man who had been our handler in Djibouti.” Already at that stage the man told Biro that they were embarking on the journey again. “We’ll collect a [new] group and try to escape again, this time through Sudan.”
By that time, the route via Sudan had been shut down, at least formally, after being exposed in the media. In practice, though, says Biro, the well-greased network that helped to get Ethiopian Jews to Israel during Operation Moses was still operating, but at a much smaller scale. The formula worked well in his case and for his friends. They were taken in a shipping container to the middle of the desert, where a Hercules transport plane awaited them. All the members of the group made the journey to Israel through Sudan, with one exception: Yeshiwork Dawit wasn’t there. Biro says he supposed she had died at some point along the way.
The French connection
He was wrong. On the day the Djibouti troops stormed the house, Dawit wasn’t there. The 13-year-old girl had been hospitalized a few days earlier with a serious case of pneumonia, and now she was wondering why no one was taking an interest in her. “When a few days went by and no one from the group came to visit me, I got frightened,” she recalls. Despite her condition, she left the hospital and went to the villa. As she approached the house she heard someone shouting to her. It was the woman who had rented the house to them. “They left, they all left,” she told Dawit. “You go, too, and don’t make any more trouble for me.”
The teenager didn’t get far: She was soon arrested by the police and imprisoned, without charges, for what ended up to be more than a year. “My children, my mother – no one has ever heard what I went through there in the jail,” she says now, weeping. “All the help I’ve received until now hasn’t succeeded in letting me forget what they did to me there.”
Dawit was the youngest girl in the facility, overseen by male warders. “They turned me into their sex slave,” she says. “Everyone could do with me whatever he wanted, and they did things all the time. They beat me and raped me.”
She spent 15 months there, and in all that time no one told her why she had been imprisoned, where the other members of her group were, and when she might be freed. And in her case, too, incarceration ended without prior notification. “One day the doors opened and they released a group of women, and I was one of them,” Dawit recalls.
Now she began a life on the streets of Djibouti City, sleeping in the open on cartons. She was also occasionally assaulted sexually. “At any given moment, I didn’t know where the next rape would come from.”
At one stage she found a job as a housemaid. There too she was abused and raped, until she escaped, back to the street. This time she decided to return to the hospital in Djibouti where she had been treated for pneumonia; there she found a job as a cleaner and a bed to sleep in. “I also found someone there who said he was going to Addis Ababa,” she says. “I sent a letter with him to be forwarded to my mother, so she would know I was alive.”
The letter came as a complete surprise to the family, as they had been told that Dawit had died. They lost no time and a few days after her letter was sent, the phone rang in the hospital where Dawit was working at the time, in the summer of 1987. On the line was a man who spoke Amharic and who was calling from Paris. From what he intimated, she understood that he had been in touch with her family.
“Yeshiwork,” he said to her, “we know that you are alive and we are working to get you out of there fast, but you must do exactly as I say.”
The voice on the phone instructed her to go to a certain place in town and get a passport photo taken. Afterward, he told her how to obtain the passport quickly in the Ethiopian embassy. A visa awaited her in the French embassy and at the Air France branch in the city she was given a ticket to Paris. The whole process took just a few weeks.
“I boarded the plane, and in Paris, a French-speaking white woman and the man who had spoken to me on the phone were waiting for me,” she recalls. “I understood that they were representatives of Israel, and that very night they put me on a flight to Israel. When I got off the plane I couldn’t believe I was here. Across the way I saw my uncle, who was already living in Israel, and next to him a man who I know today is from the Mossad, who said to me, ‘Well, the one we spent such a long time looking for is here.’”
Dawit was debriefed, as were the others in the group who arrived in 1987 via different routes, by people who said they were from the Mossad, about their incarceration and interrogations, and generally what they had undergone in Djibouti. The one thing Dawit could not bring herself to talk about was the sexual brutality she had suffered.
“I didn’t tell them anything, I don’t want to remember anything, if I could erase what’s in my head I would,” she explains. “I feel shame and guilt.”
Know nothing, remember nothing
The Mossad had plenty of questions for the group’s members when they finally got to Israel, but over the years the agency’s role in the failure of the operation and the reasons for the prolonged incarceration and torture undergone by the newcomers have also raised questions.
“The main reason they were caught [en route] is that they stayed in one place far longer than planned, because of a desire to keep making the group bigger,” Shabtai Shavit says. “During a long and complicated process, not planned according to the rules of an operation, you are exposed. And when you are exposed, the problems begin, and the more time that passes, the fewer the chances of resolving them.”
Indeed, the length of time that passed until the rescue – about a year – also raises questions about the conduct of the State of Israel, which sent the Ethiopian Jews on this journey in the first place. “There were attempts to get the group out of prison, and the fact is that in the end they were rescued,” says Scherf, the former Mossad agent, though he volunteers few details. “The French naturally had an influence [in Djibouti], and they helped get them out.”
Does he think the operation was unnecessary? “In retrospect it was one short-term attempt that failed, it turned out to be impractical,” he replies, but adds that during that period, when the economic and political situation in Ethiopia was deteriorating, a variety of attempts were made to bring Jews to Israel by every possible route. “You have to remember, if you don’t try, you don’t know [how things will turn out], and that’s how it was here.”
The words “don’t know” resonate in this connection. Haaretz approached a number of former officials in the Mossad, the Foreign Ministry and the Israeli government in the hope of getting answers on this subject, but many replied that they hadn’t been aware of the operation. For example, Yossi Beilin, director general of the Foreign Ministry at the time, wasn’t privy to the secret.
“I heard about the episode only in retrospect – it was solely the Mossad’s responsibility,” he says. “I remember being very surprised to hear about it, because I was a member of the subcommittee for intelligence and secret services, yet I was only told about the operation afterward.”
The Defense Ministry during those years was also not exactly a gold mine of information, since people working there and in other government capacities were not informed about the whole affair. For his part, Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. (res.) Shimon Hefetz, who served as military adjutant to Yitzhak Rabin, the defense minister at the time, can’t remember whether he heard about the case in real time, but mentions the fact that someone had to give approval for it to go ahead.
“Events like this require the authorization of the prime minister,” he says. “Perhaps the approval given by the security cabinet was general in nature – to bring the Jews of Ethiopia to Israel, without any more details – but it’s inconceivable that Yitzhak Shamir, Shimon Peres or Rabin didn’t know about the operation.”
Brig. Gen. (res.) Azriel Nevo was the military secretary of Prime Minister Shamir in that period. “I heard about the group that was imprisoned, I don’t know the whole story,” he tells me. Did Shamir know? “I don’t suppose that if something like this happened, he didn’t know about it, but it doesn’t sound familiar to me, and I can’t remember,” he says. He had little new to add about the rescue, either. “I was the person who dealt with Mossad issues, and I don’t remember, so there you are.”
The list of those who don’t remember the operation is embellished by yet another name: Nahum Admoni, who was director general of the Mossad from 1982 to 1989. He said he remembers nothing about it and refused to be interviewed.
One person whose memory remains sharp is Z., the man who was identified as an Ethiopian-born Mossad official and who was active in the events. But he too sheds no new light on the affair.
“It’s a clandestine matter that hasn’t yet been made public, it is very sensitive and I don’t want to ruin anything,” he said this week. “I am certainly not the person who will publicize it.”
A formal Haaretz request to the Mossad for comment also produced few answers. The official response of the Prime Minister’s Office, on behalf of the Mossad, was that it would not comment due to the fact that lawsuits submitted by some members of the Djibouti group are now under debate in the courts. Moreover, it ignored all questions concerning the lax efforts to rescue the members of the group, the fact that the Foreign Ministry was not in the picture and the apparent concealment of the failure of the operation.
Not James Bond
In contrast to all the politicians, security people and spooks, the members of the group want everyone to know what happened, and above all to have the state acknowledge their suffering and the posttraumatic stress disorder they’ve been diagnosed with. In the five lawsuits now being addressed by the courts, they are asking the State of Israel – or, more precisely, the Mossad – to recognize them as having operated in its service and with its financing, and to receive appropriate compensation.
In the 1990s, the group’s members were in fact recognized as “Prisoners of Zion.” “The state recognized that I was imprisoned and that I was a central activist working to encourage aliyah, but they don’t want to recognize the trauma I’ve been carrying around as a result,” says Mamo Biro, who is now a father of three and lives in Nes Tziona, where he is the custodian of a community center.
“Our case is different from every other aliyah journey,” he continues. “We were gathered together and sent into the fire. They told us to go and be the trailblazers; they gave us money, guided us and activated us. We were an experiment in a primitive, cruel country. They made a mistake with us and we were harmed – and no one is helping us cope with that.”
Recollecting the events of that period makes him angry: “I wasn’t exactly James Bond – tell me that I am not important, the last link in the chain and I’ll accept that, but at least recognize that I was in the service of the Mossad. [As commander on the ground] I didn’t save only myself but endangered myself for the sake of everyone, I was the ‘ground-breaker’ together with the Mossad people on behalf of other Jews. I am not in a competition over who suffered more, but our suffering was terrible, and the most terrible part of it is that no one recognizes what we had to endure.”
Biro’s feelings are echoed by Dawit, who eventually married and has three children of her own. She lives in Kiryat Malakhi and works as an assistant in a preschool.
“The path they took me on is something they didn’t think about – they placed a girl in too much danger,” she asserts. “They concentrated a group of more than 20 people in one house and thought we would not be exposed. They made mistakes and we paid the price.”
Over the years members of the group have been in contact with representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office. In private conversations, the latter displayed empathy, even understanding. But in the courtroom, the state is waging an aggressive battle against the claim that the affair should be treated as a case involving employee-employer relations.
The group’s principal argument is that in accordance with the conclusions of a state-appointed committee chaired by a former army general, Yigal Pressler (which in 2000 examined the status of all the aliyah activists, as opposed to just regular immigrants, from Ethiopia), its members received a one-time grant of 30,000 shekels in the early 1990s, in return for promising not to demand future payments. However, the psychological damage only surfaced later.
“No one knew that the posttraumatic stress would appear 25 years later,” says attorney Oron Schwartz, who is representing the claimants together with his colleagues Yogev Narkis and Ofira Sambal.
“They were given money the way Indians were given beads and had their land taken away from them,” Schwartz adds. “These people are not Prisoners of Zion who went to jail of their own volition because they wanted to immigrate to Israel – they were taken captive after serving the state. They were activated by the state, sent to endanger themselves, and then discovered that they had no backing and had been betrayed.”
Former Mossad head Shavit seethes when he hears about the legal battle that’s being waged.
“I cannot countenance the fact that an entire, large group claims they should be granted the status of posttraumatic stress victims – there is no place for their request,” he tells Haaretz. “If the Mossad had to pay fines for operations it carried out over the years that failed, the state treasury would collapse. No one promised success at the time, and no agreements were entered into.”
In the meantime, Schwartz is focusing his team’s legal efforts on proving the existence of employee-employer relations. “All the criteria were there,” he maintains. “They [the Mossad] used them and then threw them a bone of recognition as aliyah activists. But no one considered that years later they would develop posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of the journey on which they were sent.”
Among the many names that appear as plaintiffs in the lawsuits is that of one of the men who recruited the young people in Gondar for the journey, and who arrived with the group. He declined to be interviewed for the article, but his wife relates that “he was in contact with a ‘civil servant’ who instructed him about who it was worth collecting” for the mission. She adds, “When the group was arrested, everyone kept silent during their interrogations in Djibouti, but in the Harari prison [in Ethiopia], they cracked and said that he [her husband] had organized the operation. Because of that he was tortured far more than the others.”
Surprisingly, the torture he endured led to his recognition as a disabled IDF veteran, due to his physical injury – even without his requesting it. But no one has acknowledged the mental anguish he has continued to suffer ever since the operation. “He submitted a request for the trauma to be formally recognized,” says his wife. “I also wanted to submit a request for myself as well, but it costs a lot of money and I don’t have it.”
Even now, she adds, her husband feels a deep sense of commitment to Israel’s defense establishment. After the Djibouti episode, he worked with the Mossad again and “paved a way for hundreds of Jews through Kenya,” according to his wife. Despite the injuries he sustained (“He suffered serious hand and leg injuries because he was shackled for a lengthy period and was beaten at the prison in Harari”) and the fact that he has now been summoned for a hearing in the Defense Ministry with the aim of revoking his status as a disabled veteran, he continues to believe even now that Operation Djibouti must be kept a secret.
The Prime Minister’s Office would acknowledge only that a number of lawsuits are currently being addressed involving aliyah activists from Ethiopia who are mentioned in this article, and noted that, “within the framework of these procedures various allegations are being made against the state. In the light of this, every allegation will be responded to within the framework of these procedures, to the extent that it will be relevant to the procedures.”