June 22, 1998
The Abandoned Jews of Quara
From Gondar in north-central Ethiopia, turn west and travel 200-plus kilometers on a dirt road through rugged hills, over rickety bridges, and you'll get to Shedi, a village on the edge of nowhere with one last telephone that works some of the time. From here the road gets rough - impassable during the rainy season, difficult for all but the best jeeps or tractors during the dry months. Push through the forest another 160 kilometers until, just before the Sudanese border, you arrive in Lower Quara, where the last community of Ethiopian Jews farms, herds its cattle - and waits for salvation in the form of visas to Israel.
The isolated region of Quara, where according to their tradition the Beta Yisrael first settled in Ethiopia, is the scene of the latest mysterious chapter in the tortuous story of Ethiopian Jewish aliyah.
It's a tale of a community fractured geographically and spiritually, forgotten by its religious leaders, and left to die by the representatives of the Israeli government. It includes a double killing on Rosh Hashanah, a struggle over an ancient Torah - and the abandonment of at least 2,500 Jews when their relatives were brought to Israel in a 1992 follow-up to Operation Solomon. Until now, the whole story has never been told.
I'd heard of the Quara Jews from a lone Israeli backpacker who'd penetrated the region a year ago, the first white person the Jews had ever met. He'd brought back a desperate message, begging Israel to bring them out.
What I managed to learn before I went to Quara was that most of the Jews still there had been left off a rescue list drawn up for the Jewish Agency by their religious leaders. The mystery was why. Had they converted to Christianity, as some Israelis told me before I left? Or was this the latest act in a bitter quarrel over religious authority that had ripped apart the community - in which Israel, perhaps unwittingly, had taken sides?
My companion on the sometimes dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish quest to reach Quara and make sense of the story was Yohannes Malaku, a young Ethiopian doctor of Jewish descent. He came to help interpret for me, but as it turned out, his profession made a fateful difference.
We began by flying from Addis Ababa to Bahar-Dar, 500 km north of the capital, on the shore of Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile. There we rented an ancient Toyota Landcruiser 4-wheel drive, complete with driver and mechanic. Every hour or so along the dirt road to Gondar it broke down. We'd wait as the mechanic fiddled with the engine and chewed khat, an intoxicating leaf that filled his mouth with a bright green paste while making him progressively more loquacious.
In Gondar, we spent the night in a hotel that, like all such roadside inns, doubled as a brothel. From there, the road grew rougher, winding along the edge of a jagged mountain range; baboons scurried off as we passed. Every few kilometers, the car overheated; we cooled the radiator with stream water.
Meanwhile, I filled Yohannes in on some of what I had learned about the interrupted aliyah from Quara. The Jews had been cut off from the main centers of the Ethiopian Jewish community since the late 1970s, in part because the area had been the last bastion of the Ethiopian Peoples Revolutionary Party - a Maoist guerilla group whose university-student supporters had been slaughtered by dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam in the Red Terror of 1977-78. The remnants of the EPRP had fled to Quara, and set up a provisional government, receiving arms from the Sudanese government across the border.
The region is so isolated that, although it was well known as an area of Jewish settlement, a survey of Ethiopian Jewry conducted in the late 1970s by the Joint Distribution Committee and ORT had failed to produce a list of Quara's Jews; the estimate then was that there were 6,000.
In 1991, Operation Solomon brought 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel in two days. Contrary to press reports of the time, that wasn't all the country's Jews - and the Jewish Agency knew it. The isolated Jews of Quara had not been included. Several months later, the Agency sent messengers to Quara's kessoch, the religious leaders, headed by Kes Tayyen, asking for a list of Jews so their aliyah to Israel could be organized.
Kes Tayyen, then a spry 82, Kes Mellesse, in his early 40s, and other leaders provided some 3,500 names of Jews who lived in Upper Quara. Omitted were the 2,500 Jews of Lower Quara. Our mission, I told Yohannes, was to find out the reason. One version had been provided by Baruch Elias, a Quara Jew who had crossed into Sudan in 1979, and worked for the Mossad's secret Ethiopian aliyah operation until 1982, when he escaped to Israel, a step ahead of Sudanese police. Elias, whom I'd met in Israel, told me the kessoch left the Lower Quara Jews off the list because of a dispute over the inheritance of a Torah scroll, symbol of religious authority.
Jews had settled in malaria-infested Lower Quara - 18 hours down a steep path from the ancient Jewish community in Upper Quara - only in the 1980s. Their move away from their home villages, we suspected, may have been triggered by tensions with the kessoch.
The leaders of the Lower Quara group were from one wing of the central clan of Quara's Jews, the descendants of Kes Negose. At his death 50 years ago, they claimed, Negose bequeathed the Torah scroll and other ritual objects equally to both sides of the family. The kessoch argued, however, that the Torah automatically passed to them. In 1984, Kes Mellesse attempted to leave for Israel via Sudan, taking the Torah with him. The Jews from the rival wing asked the EPRP guerrillas to stop him and judge between them - and the rebels forbade him to leave with the Torah in hand.
Mellesse stayed in Quara, but seven years later, before he finally came to Israel in 1992, he exacted his vengeance, according to Baruch Elias: The kes left all the Lower Quara Jews off the life-giving immigration list.
Israel, charges Elias, took advantage of the rift within the community, and shut the gates even tighter. Even some of Upper Quara's Jews, including hundreds who had been on the kessoch's list, were affected. While most Upper Quara Jews made it to Israel, hundreds more, who took many months to liquidate their possessions and travel to Gondar, arrived there to find that their right of return had been suspended, their immigration indefinitely delayed. Only a handful of these people have been brought to Israel in the six years since the main exodus. For some, being left behind was being left to die: More than 200 of the Jews abandoned in Gondar and Quara have died of illnesses that could have been treated in Israel.
On the third day of our journey, as night fell, our jeep broke down for good. We'd started our descent into the lowlands, and even at night, the heat and humidity were oppressive. Desperately thirsty and out of water, we walked for an hour, befor we heard the bark of dogs, saw the flames of a campfire and, at last, reached a mud-walled, straw-thatched hut. The family quickly brought us water, which I gulped down, too thirsty to worry about purification. Graciously, our hosts began to spread straw on the earth for us to sleep on. Just then, we saw the lights of a truck snaking its way down the mountain. Running through the brush just in time to flag it down, we climbed onto the top of the cab and rode into Shedi, 160 kilometers east of our destination.
Shedi is a frontier town, with the last telephone and clinic for hundreds of kilometers. There the rules of civilization don't reach. Slavery was outlawed in Ethiopia 24 years ago, but in Shedi we heard the elegantly dressed land-owner Teodros, a member of the dominant Amhara ethnic group, refer to the much darker Kiros as a slave. We slept in a dollar-a-night hotel, and showered - from a barrel of water with a hole cut in it, balanced on a rafter. The next morning, we found the driver of a tractor pulling a wagon, who agreed to take us into Lower Quara the next afternoon.
That night, by candlelight, I explained to Yohannes what I'd heard from Israeli officials about the Jews left behind: According to Doron Tashteet, a former JDC field worker, the kessoch claimed they'd lost touch with those clans a decade before, and knew nothing of them. But Micha Feldman, the Jewish Agency operative who masterminded Operation Solomon's logistics, told me the kessoch testified that the group had converted to Christianity. Two years after he came to Israel, the aging Kes Tayyen regretted leaving them off the list, and wrote to the absorption minister to ask that the people left behind be considered Jews. But the government refused to act on his request - despite urgent appeals of family members in Israel.
In Shedi, we decided on tactics: When we made it to Gulago, the largest of the five Lower Quara villages where Jews live, we'd split up. I would speak to the Jews, while Yohannes would head for the Christian part of the village. The Christians' testimony was crucial for answering our most important question: Had the Jews converted?
The tractor made about 15 kilometers an hour on the rough track through the vast, silent forest. Every few kilometers, we veered down the steep bank of a near-dry riverbed and up the other side. Within two weeks, when the rains began, these gulches would become raging torrents, cutting off Quara's access to the rest of Ethiopia for the next four months.
It was already nightfall when we reached Shinfa, our last overnight stop before Gulago. The heat, the unfiltered water and the unfamiliar microbes in the food began to take their toll on my stomach.
When we left Shinfa at dawn, exhausted and weak, we found that a dozen locals with their merchandise - lambs with their legs tied up, brightly colored fabric, a crate of Coca Cola - had managed to climb aboard our tractor bed and were riding with us through the acacia forest, watching the bright green, blue and gold tropical birds flash by. "This one," Yohannes told me, pointing to a young woman of about 17 who was clinging to my arm as the tractor knocked about, "told me she's going to work with the soldiers in Gulago. There's an army base there, and she's the local prostitute."
After two days, we rode into Gulago. Just a year ago, the still-active EPRP killed eight soldiers near here. Yohannes slipped from the wagon and set off for the Christian side of the village, a tape recorder hidden in his pocket. I headed for a small collection of thatched dwellings where some of Lower Quara's Jewish families lived, along with their goats, chickens and donkeys. When I told them I was from Israel, the Jews greeted me with kisses and complaints: "We thought that by this time we'd be in Israel," said Tefato, wife of one of our hosts. Matters had gotten worse since they'd sent their message with the Israeli backpacker: "We're afraid to send our daughters to the river, because they may get captured by Christians and taken as wives."
After a meal of maize porridge and injera, the flat sourdough bread that is Ethiopia's staple, I sat in a mud hut on seats of wood and hide, with the elders facing me in a half circle, their eyes bright. The main speaker was Amara Eyov, the community's leader. Aged about 60, thin, with expressive hands and a delicate smile, he looked like an Oriental sage. "Jews have lived in Quara since ancient times," he said softly. "But down here, in Lower Quara, there was nothing, only the Gumez tribe who live on rats and snakes. In the 80s, we moved down. By that time, the EPRP was in control, and we were cut off from the rest of Ethiopia. We traveled to Sudan twice a year to market our goods.
"We've had no kes for a long time, so we hardly remember the holidays - we only keep the Sabbath, Passover, kashrut and circumcision. Our dead? If they were in the Shedi hospital, the government takes the body. Children we bury in the fields. When adults die, we carry them to the Jewish cemetery in a neighboring village. Marriages? We have no one for our daughters when they reach puberty."
Amara slaughtered a chicken, blessing the God of Israel and burying the blood as the Bible and Ethiopian Jewish custom dictate. As the women prepared food, Amara disappeared into one of the huts, and emerged with a small piece of paper, folded neatly into triangles. It was a letter from the Jewish Agency, handwritten in Amharic, dated March 12, 1992: "To the Beta Yisrael of the Lower Quara region. Please do not leave your homes. Wait patiently, we will send for you in 2_ months." "We did what they said. We didn't travel to Gondar like some of our relatives. We listened - and were left behind."
"But why?" I asked, anxious to hear his side of the rift with the kessoch. The elders looked at each other, hesitating, seeming fearful that mentioning the dispute might further hurt their relationship with the kessoch and destroy their chance of ever reaching Israel.
"I heard there was an argument," I said.
"Yes. Kes Negose, our great-grandfather, had two wives," Amara began slowly. In a hypnotic voice, he recited the history of his clan, eventually reaching the case of the disputed Torah scroll - substantiating the story I'd heard in Israel about how the Lower Quara Jews had appealed to the EPRP.
"Why didn't Kes Tayyen protect you and put you on the list?" I pressed. They glanced at each other, but didn't answer.
Toward evening, the children guided me to the river, 15 minutes away. While we bathed in the muddy water, a young woman squatted by the bank, voluntarily scrubbing my dirty clothes. Camels roamed freely, eating from the tall, leafy trees by the riverbed.
Sleep did not come easily. The bed, a wood frame strung with crisscrossed strips of cowhide, was six inches too short; the heat, even at night and outside, was stifling. But good news came in the morning, when Yohannes reappeared. "I spoke to some of the Christians while I was examining them," he said. "I even spoke to the priest."
Yohannes played his tape, and translated the raspy voice of the priest and the quieter speech of a layman. "Did the Yisrael people convert to Christianity?" he asked.
"No, not at all," came the priest's response. "They are with themselves, and we with ourselves, although we love them. If they come to our weddings, they are given a goat or chicken to slaughter. They do not eat our meat. They bury in their own place, not with us. We sometimes come to the burial, because we are friends, not to lead the service."
The voice of the priest was compassionate. "I am sorry for them, that they were left here because of their leader, Kes Tayyen."
"Yes, Kes Tayyen was wealthy - he even had a tin roof on his house. The Jews sent people to investigate if he was getting money that was supposed to go to the poor, money from Israel. He bought guns, too. The people came down here to Gulago because of their quarrel with him. He acted like a king, like a government. Because of this friction they were left behind. But they have not changed their religion."
"How do you know all their secrets?" asked the doctor.
"We're like family. I grew up with them in Upper Quara. I drank from the same well as Kes Tayyen when I was growing up."
And the story of the Torah scroll and the EPRP came up, too - this time with Tayyen involved. "Someone from his side was put in prison," the priest said.
We were anxious to ask our hosts about the quarrel with Kes Tayyen. But Yohannes - the first physician ever to visit Gulago - had to examine the Jewish sick. Sabbath was to begin that evening, and on Sunday afternoon we were to leave. Yohannes turned a hut into his clinic. Most people were thin from chronic illness; almost everyone had malarial attacks once or twice a year. Onchocerciasis, a river-borne parasite, was endemic. One boy with a particularly severe case told us he was 16; he looked no more than 11. A 6-month-old was suffering from meningitis; Yohannes mixed up a syrup of antibiotics, and said he hoped the baby would survive the next 24 hours.
More patients kept materializing; word was out. In the next few hours, Yohannes diagnosed 48 people. On his recommendation, we would evacuate two of them with us to Gondar: Delal Antikot, nine months' pregnant, severely anemic, and probably in need of a Cesarean section; and Kiment, a 14-year-old girl, blind in one eye and in danger of losing the other.
The main Shabbat observances were baking special bread on Friday, which was blessed and distributed on Sabbath morning, and dousing all fires. Ethiopian Judaism prohibits sexual intercourse on the Sabbath; we asked Tefato, an outspoken woman in her 40s, with a sculpted face and fiery eyes, whether the Gulago Jews observe this injunction. "I can't tell you what other people do," she said, with an air of mock displeasure. "I don't walk around looking under their blankets at night."
On Saturday night, we talked to the elders about Kes Tayyen, asking them directly about the stories of corruption. Amara was reluctant to reply. "It's true, we did send messengers to Tedda," he sighed, referring to a village near Gondar where the JDC had an office during the 80s. "After that, Tayyen started to give out a little of the money to people in need."
"Did he leave you behind because you challenged his authority?" I asked.
"There was also something else," Amara said quietly. "He was in a hurry to leave Ethiopia because of the killing. But the Israelis told him he couldn't leave for Israel unless all the Jews were gone or he signed that there were none left."
"Yes. Kes Tayyen's son, Tessfay, killed two people on Rosh Hashanah, the year he and his father left."
"On purpose or by accident?" I asked.
Amara didn't witness the killing; but we heard the story from three eyewitnesses, all substantially agreeing: The Jews had begun to assemble outside the synagogue in Upper Quara for Rosh Hashanah. Somone fired a rifle in the air, as is done sometimes on special occasions. Tessfay came running from the nearby fields. "I want to shoot too," he said, and began firing in the air. Then the barrel of his gun dropped, and two men - one a close cousin of his - fell dead.
Everyone we spoke to insisted that the killing was an accident. But parts of the narrative raised questions. One witness told us that the first victim was hit by a single bullet - but the second one was struck by "many." Right after their deaths, according to all the witnesses, a bitter argument broke out over whether to bury the bodies - an indication, I was told, that part of the group believed the killings were intentional. In the uproar, Tessfay dropped his gun and ran into the forest, while his father, Kes Tayyen, accompanied by several armed men, "escaped" to the JDC compound. The victims' mothers urged revenge, and two attempts by elders to engineer a reconciliation failed.
On Sunday, as everyone gathered to say goodbye, Amara stood before our video camera to deliver a message to the Israeli government and Kes Tayyen. "Kes Tayyen, didn't you say I would come to Israel before I die?" Amara pleaded. "All our relatives have gone, how can you leave us here, our father? Children have gone and their parents are here, sisters and brothers are divided."
As we left the village, we had a tense argument: The parents of pregnant Delal were afraid to let her leave with us. "She'll die if she stays," I told her father. He waved his hand in consent. "If she dies because of this," her mother threatened, "I'll kill you."
In Addis Ababa, we met a Jewish Agency delegation that had just arrived from Israel, en route to Gondar - and gained more clues about the abandonment of Quara's Jews. Israeli officials knew about the Rosh Hashana killings, and had even helped Tayyen bring his son Tessfay out from hiding in Quara and on to Israel. At the Addis airport, an Agency representative was almost arrested along with Tessfay when a knife was discovered strapped to Tessfay's leg.
But I also got encouraging news from Gondar: Delal had received four units of blood, and had given birth by Cesarean section. Her life, at least, had been saved.
Back in Israel, I visited Kes Tayyen, now 88, his memory, charm and self-confidence still intact. But the power he wielded in Quara is of no use here:
Why did he leave the Jews of Lower Quara off his list? "It was a two-day walk down the cliffs. I couldn't go count them. But, of course, they are Jews, strong Jews." He acknowledged the conflicts over the Torah and money, but defended his role: "The Gulago Jews wanted to help manage the money contributed for religious purposes. But I insisted that only the kessoch have that right."
And the Rosh Hashanah killings in 1992? "There were a lot of young men with weapons there," Tayyen said mildly. "No one knows whose gun went off."
The kes insisted that none of these issues played a part in drawing up the list, and noted that even some of his closest relatives have been left behind in Gondar. "In 1992, I told the people to come to Gondar right away, but they didn't believe me. The children of Israel are a hard people; even Moses had trouble with them. Those who waited to sell their belongings got left behind. I have written letters saying they should be brought over.
"Now," he said, "it's in Israel's hands."
Since 1992-3, when 3,500 Quara Jews were brought to Israel, Israel has virtually ignored the plight of those still there or stranded in Gondar. The government has been focusing instead on emptying the pre-aliyah compound in Addis Ababa of the thousands of Falas Mora, converts to Christianity, most of whom have now been brought to Israel, where they undergo a process called "return to Judaism."
"The Israeli government wanted the compound closed," an Israeli official said in Addis Ababa. "They saw it as a magnet for more Falas Mora and as a responsibility Israel didn't need. The terrible irony is that the decision to move quicker on the Falas Mora was used by the Interior Ministry as an excuse not to process fully legitimate Jews. The Ministry allowed their representative in Ethiopia to travel to Gondar only once or twice a year." Certainly, no Israeli or Jewish official has ever been to Quara.
Mike Rosenberg, head of the Jewish Agency's Immigration and Absorption Department, says he is fully aware that there are Quara Jews eligible for immigration who have been waiting in Gondar for five years, aside from those remaining in Quara. Rosenberg notes that Ethiopia is the only place in the world where the Interior Ministry does not "farm out" the job of determining eligibility for immigration to the Jewish Agency, but decides itself.
Rosenberg, while careful not to assign blame, says that the Agency has warned the Israeli government that the Quara Jews waiting in Gondar are living in dire conditions. Whereas the Falas Mora in Addis Ababa have been provided with food and medical care, no one has helped the Quara Jews except their families, who send some money from Israel. The Agency and the JDC say they are eager to help, but cannot act unless Israel recognizes their Jewishness.
The obstacles and delays in the government's processing of Ethiopian Jews fully eligible for immigration under the Law of Return have resulted in numerous deaths, and not only among Jews from Quara.
Sources in the Israeli Embassy showed me the file of Almaz, a Jewish woman with four children whose parents and siblings all lived in Israel. The Agency had marked Almaz's 1996 application for aliyah as most urgent: She was suffering from complications of malaria which could not be treated in Ethiopia. The Interior Ministry delayed answering her request for months, until they were informed that she had died. The next day a permission form for the family was faxed through by the ministry, addressed to "Almaz of blessed memory, and her children." The orphans are now in Israel.
All this may change when the Falas Mora compound closes down for good, as it is expected to in July 1998. "We will start sending our representative to Gondar for two weeks every month," says Michal Yosefov, the ministry official supervising the Ethiopian immigration.