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In Israel, Sudan refugees seek asylum

Detainment stirs a moral quandary

MAASIYAHU PRISON, Israel -- Standing behind bars and begging to tell of families murdered and homes destroyed, the Sudanese in Maasiyahu Prison are confronting their Israeli jailers with a quandary that taps deep into the trauma of the Holocaust.

The Sudanese, some 220 men and women, say they fled massacres and religious persecution in the war-torn Darfur region and in southern Sudan. But they are not eligible for asylum here because Israel considers their country, an Arab League member, to be an ``enemy state."

The United Nations is documenting their stories and trying with Israeli help to find them refuge in a third country. In the meantime, their imprisonment has angered some Israelis, including the director of Yad Vashem, the national Holocaust memorial. They say the Jews, having suffered genocide, have a moral duty to help the Sudanese.

The prisoners languish in the cells of Maasiyahu, a low-security prison in the central Israeli city of Ramle, where The Associated Press was taken on a visit by the Prisons Authority. Most have been picked up in recent months, while a few have been here about a year.

Penniless and traumatized by the atrocities they say they witnessed in Sudan, they first sought sanctuary in neighboring Egypt.

But Egypt can barely provide jobs and social services to its own 72 million people. On Dec. 30, riot police violently cleared a refugee encampment in central Cairo, killing nearly 30 people.

After that the number of Sudanese in Israeli custody swelled from 30 to 220. Hundreds more are believed to have entered undetected.

Among those caught a year ago is a 30-year-old Muslim architect from northern Darfur who said Sudanese militiamen burned down his village, killing his father, uncle, and cousin. He said he moved to the country's capital, Khartoum; was imprisoned there; and then fled to Egypt.

``I felt that my life in Egypt is in danger," he said. So he paid a Bedouin tracker $50 and gave him some spare clothes to lead him to Israel.

He believed Israelis knew about Darfur's troubles and would give him refuge. Instead, he wound up in prison.

Staff of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees insisted that he and others interviewed remain anonymous with their faces obscured in photos. As a further precaution, the more than 30 Sudanese Muslims are segregated from their Christian countrymen in case the religious currents of their nation's wars erupt in Maasiyahu.

But the detainees have something in common: a fear of being returned to Sudan, whose Islamic government has executed citizens for entering Israel.

Israel has offered assurances the detainees will not be sent to Sudan, and 20 inmates -- special cases such as a woman with three young children -- have been let out of prison and confined to collective farms and other places in the Jewish state, said Michael Bavly, the UNHCR representative here.

But some prominent Israelis have come out in favor of freeing them outright and giving them asylum.

The Yad Vashem director, Avner Shalev, wrote to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that before World War II, some governments used security as a pretext for turning away Jewish refugees.

The Holocaust is etched in Jewish memory, he wrote, and ``we cannot ignore refugees of the Darfur genocide when they knock on our door."

Another Yad Vashem historian joined an appeal to the Israeli Supreme Court to set the Sudanese free.

Amnon Rubinstein, a former justice minister and prominent jurist, said they should be put in hotels and made to report to police daily while the government finds them a refuge. ``I am opposed to the imprisonment of people whose only crime is that they escaped a country where genocide is being committed," Rubinstein said. ``We, as a Jewish country, have to be extra-sensitive to refugees."

Three years of fighting in Darfur have taken more than 180,000 lives, while in southern Sudan a 22-year conflict and related famine and disease left 2.5 million people dead. The UN calls Darfur the world's worst humanitarian crisis. Khartoum has denied being behind the militias perpetrating the Darfur killings.

For one 21-year-old from southern Sudan, 11 months in Israeli detention has provided some relief. Captured at age 11 when Arab militias attacked his town and burned his family alive, he said he spent seven years as a slave in northern Sudan.

He escaped to Khartoum when he was 18 but said life in the overwhelmingly Muslim capital was difficult for a Christian of the Dinka tribe. So he spent four months in Egypt before paying a Bedouin $800 to take him to the Israeli border. ``Even if I'm in prison, it's better than before," he said.

A 31-year-old farmer said that after a year in prison, he was willing to go anywhere, ``just not to Sudan or Egypt."

``We are not murderers. We are not rapists," he said. ``We want freedom."

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