by Osman Mohamed Ali
This post is part of our project, Holot: Crossroads of Global Violence.
I am one of the victims and survivors of the Darfur genocide in Sudan.
I was born in a small village around Zalingei in Western Darfur. Growing up in Sudan, education has always been something that helped me to overcome obstacles in my life, but obstacles have now arisen that stop me from even obtaining an education. My primary school was far from my village, and it took me more than two hours to get to school on foot every day. Despite all the difficulties and instances of interruption, I have never lost faith in the power of education.
The war started in Darfur a long time ago, but it reached its height in 2000. However, it did not receive attention from the global community until 2003. Before the international media and human rights organizations made their way into Darfur, no one knew what had happened to the Darfurian people during those years before 2003: systematic murder of civilians, raping, arbitrary detentions of intellectuals, killing of political dissidents, compulsory conscription, and harassment.
I was in my secondary school in 2003 when the genocide in Darfur was made known to the world, and the situation only got worse. Unable to continue my study under these circumstances, I decided to go around Darfur to see if there were safer places. I went to Al -Genina, a western state of Darfur, where the situation turned out to be even worse. I went back to my family, but by the time I arrived, my village was completely burned down by the militia and the Janjaweed forces. They destroyed everything, some of my closest family members were killed, and some had to go to IDP (internally displaced people) camps. I could not go to the camp because it was very dangerous; the Janjaweed were attacking everyone, especially young men of my age.
In 2004, I left for Nyala in southern Darfur. During my time there, I received training courses with the Sudanese Red Crescent society (a social organization that helps humanitarian cases with first aid in active war zones). I knew that there was an IDP camp called “Kalma” and some organizations were helping displaced people. I went there and I started working with community relief organizations. That was my first experience of working on humanitarian issues.
Later, I started to work with an organization called “Child Development Foundation” that operated to secure proper child development in conflict zones. Specifically, I learned how to help children of ethnic minorities. Then, I moved to work with an organization called “Haiat for Woman and Child Development” that operated in different camps, raising awareness and trying to convince women and children that they could feel safe in the camps. In 2005, I applied to work officially with the Sudanese Red Crescent Society, and I received more trainings in the protection of children and in providing first aid during armed conflicts, continuing my earlier experience. I worked in cooperating with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). We helped reunify families, missing people and children due to the war from different IDP camps. Though the documentation and certificates of this work were confiscated by the dictatorial regime in Darfur, the experiences and knowledge will never leave me. Despite how important and rewarding this work was, I was harassed many times and it caused me to be arrested for the first time. Because of that, I decided to leave the camp after I was released from detention. I came to realize that my life was endangered. I went back to my family in Zalingei.
Nonetheless, I was determined to go to school again. In 2008, I passed the high school exam. I was lucky to succeed on the exam in spite of the tragic situation in my country. I was admitted to the University of Juba, which is now in South Sudan. Before going to the university, I was forced to complete a compulsory army service. I was recruited and sent to fight against the “rebel forces.” My own tribe was indicated by the government as being one such group.
I refused to fight my own tribe, my own people, and was arrested by the military police, along with two friends. I was transferred between several prisons, jails and oubliettes. I faced all kinds of torture, including electric shocks. After six months, I managed to escape from one of the jails with the help of other inmates, and through secret smuggling, I went to southern Sudan.
Unfortunately, I missed the enrollment period of my university. I ended up starting in 2009 instead of 2008. When South Sudan was separated from (north) Sudan in 2011, the government announced that all the staff and students who are originally from (north) Sudan, even though they were now living in the relatively freer south, must now return back to the capital, Khartoum, in the north. We went to Khartoum and the administration told us that there would no longer be any University of Juba, the entire educational system that we had studied in was now erased from existence. The new name of the university would be Bahary, and we must start from year one. Even the language of instruction was shifted from English to Arabic. We decided to protest. The administration called police forces to discharge the protest and arrested us. Due to my previous arrest and activism, I decided to go away from this regime.
I traveled to Egypt to look for opportunities to study there. I arrived in Egypt, but unfortunately, the situation was unstable. I learned from my friends that informers of the Sudanese regime were arresting people. They had deported some to Sudan, and were looking for activists who escaped from Sudan in order to denounce them also send them back. For that reason, I felt insecure in Egypt, and I learned that 29 Sudanese people had been killed during protests by the Egyptian police force. I started to look for different opportunities. I was told that the only country in the region that would be free of the Sudanese regime’s ‘hands’ is Israel, and that I could cross the Sinai Peninsula with the help of Bedouin smugglers to get there.
I paid the Bedouins the money that I kept for my studies and decided to leave. It turned out that I was not the only Sudanese who wanted to flee Egypt. Once approaching the border, the Bedouins abandoned us and left us to ourselves. As it later turned out, the Egypt-Israeli border control was randomly shooting at anyone approaching the border. Some of us got killed and injured on the spot and I thought that I would not make it alive through this either. Finally, the Israeli armed forces captured me and placed me in the Saharonim Detention Center, along with others, where I spent one month. Then, I was released to Tel Aviv without knowing anything about Israel. The day was January 15th, 2012, and I did not know anyone there. The weather was very cold, and it was raining all day. I spent the next 15 days, homeless, sleeping outside in Levinsky Park, a park in South Tel Aviv central to many in the refugee and migrant community. In the morning, some Israeli people would come to pick up homeless asylum seekers to work. They knew we were desperately hungry and cold, and would work for any money or just for food.
One morning, I was picked by someone to work. I worked for him for five days. At his place, I was lucky to meet a former friend from Sudan. He took me to his home where I felt warm and safe. Yet, the people I met in the Levinsky Park were still there. Later, I decided to do something to help them and became active with various non-governmental organizations in Tel Aviv, such as Amnesty International, a group that I regularly volunteered and cooperated with. To this day, I work closely with Amnesty International, as a translator and a community organizer, to raise awareness about refugees’ rights amongst the Sudanese and Eritrean community in Israel and help secure dignity for Sudanese asylum seekers. Due to my effort, I am honored to serve as the director of the Sudanese Refugees Organization in Israel. However, despite all our efforts, the Israeli authorities have thus far only recognized 1 asylum seeker (this occurred on June 23rd 2016). This was after over 10 years of our struggle for recognition. The voices of asylum seekers go unheard and instead, we are being persecuted, discriminated against, incarcerated indefinitely, and forced to go back to our unsafe places of origin where for many of us, the only things awaiting were maltreatment or death.
Despite the challenges posed by the Israeli authorities, I have been working hard to educate myself and help others. I took several courses in human rights and refugee rights organized by local NGOs and the UNHCR. I have documentation, certification, and recommendations that attest to the work and trainings that I have successfully completed. These experiences and skills inspired me to pursue further education in the field. Therefore, I applied for a master program in international human rights and humanitarian law in Germany. Fortunately, I was accepted to the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany.
My ideal job is working with international organizations that work in the field of promoting human rights in Africa. With my skills from working with Amnesty International and my knowledge on international human rights and humanitarian law cases, I believe that I will be a great asset to these international organizations. I am fully proficient in Arabic, English, Hebrew, and local Darfuri dialects, and this has allowed and will allow me to work on important projects as director, facilitator, and spokesperson.
However, my German student visa application was rejected on the grounds that my status in Israel was not clear at the time that I applied. I am under the so-called “conditional release visa,” a kind of visa the Israeli authorities issue to all African asylum seekers, which has to be renewed every two months, and makes them not eligible for study and employment. This type of visa, issued by the Israeli government, opens a legal lacuna where the authorities do not have to comply with obligations under the 1951 Refugee Convention and can forcefully deport the asylum seeker to the country of origin.
The fact that I am unable to study in Germany because of my status in Israel means not only that my chance of being educated and fulfilling my dreams to study international human rights and humanitarian law is taken away, but also that Germany is refraining from aiding me because of the uncertain status that I have in Israel. I have not been easily beaten under the Israeli government’s racist and discriminatory policy, and instead, I educated myself to be a human rights activist. However, I can be even better. My contribution would be much larger if I could continue my education at Viadrina.
I, as a survivor and witness of human rights abuses, am denied the opportunity to study about human rights law not because I am not qualified intellectually, but because of who I am. I am denied the opportunity by the developed world, which advocates strongly for promoting human rights in the developing world, solely on discriminatory immigration policies. Educating people who are already in the developed world about human rights law is important. But if this same opportunity is not extended to people like me, who are from war-torn areas and the developing world, then it will only perpetuate the paternalistic and colonial model, where the developed world will just continue sending “experts” to the developing world without empowering the local people themselves. People who are survivors of human rights abuses know best what their communities need and how they can change the status quo.
It is not my fault to be a refugee. I should not be punished because of who I am. Education is the solution to a better world and a key to a better life. This formula holds true for everyone. It equally applies to me.
I was summoned to the Holot Detention Center on October 21, 2015. Since I started living in Holot, life has been very difficult. I have to sign 3 times to get out of the triple-fence layered “cage” each time I am able to take a brief leave. I also have to sign with my fingerprint every night between 8:00pm to 10:00pm, or otherwise I will be counted as absent and will be punished in the Saharonim prison for a month. Even if I am in Holot and simply forget to sign, the penalty still applies to me. The food is terrible indeed. Although I am not in Israel for food, I am here for safety, peace and education, but if I do not eat, I will die, right? In terms of accommodation, we live in small rooms, each room for ten adult men with bunk beds. The ten people in each room share one bathroom. We are supposed to be here for 12 months. But I am in doubt of this, because the people who were here before had been held for 20 months.
I am not sure what the future will bring, yet after all of these experiences, I am sure that I will never lose my zest for education and faith to continue my dreams in positive!