A highway for Africans with nothing to lose

ALONG THE EGYPTIAN BORDER – They were shivering from the cold, their T-shirts and thin pants no match for the desert’s nighttime chill. Their flimsy sandals offered precious little protection from the rocks, and the last of their food and water had run out much earlier, dozens of kilometers before the border. But when we swarmed around them, the 27 Sudanese who had trekked across the Sinai Peninsula sat down and wept for joy. They were in Israel. They were safe.

I came upon them with Lt. D., who had burst into my room moments earlier with the order to grab my helmet and battle vest, along with Lt. S. and another of my fellow reservists. The four of us ran westward, toward the border, in the direction where the guards in the watchtower had noticed a large number of silhouettes moving slowly but steadily toward our outpost.

During our mad dash to intercept them, we thought
warily of who these people might be. The day before,
drug smugglers had snuck past a guard detail on the
next outpost over. Two days earlier, a patrol unit
from our position had caught 15 Sudanese and
Ivoirians. Warnings of attempts to kidnap soldiers had
come down from higher-ups in Intelligence.

As we closed in on the infiltrators, we saw the
refugees and another bunch of people rushing toward
them. Thin yellow rays from their handheld flashlights
darting back and forth: soldiers on patrol were
running to contain the group.

Visibility was practically zero. The sand dunes all
around, which had glowed a bright tan in the noonday
sun, by midnight had become waves in a pitch-black sea
that stretched for days on end. With a crackle and a
burst of light, illumination flares flashed overhead,
hanging in the sky long enough for us to regroup and
take stock of our catch.

They were men, women and three small children. The
commanding officer summoned a female soldier from the
outpost to check the women and children; an ambulance
was dispatched, too, together with food and water.

We began security checks by having the men stand off
to the side, one at a time, and raise their shirts and
lower their pants so we could see they were not
carrying explosives (we had been warned of attempts to
smuggle terrorists with explosive belts into the
country, hidden among groups of African refugees, and
ordered to take precautions). Each of us maintained a
safe distance from the Sudanese, as well.

The Sudanese, apparently, had been told what to expect
and took this process in stride. They knew, after all,
that had the Egyptian police on the other side of the
border caught them, chances were at least a few of
them would have bullet holes in their backs. Once in
Israel, though, they would be transferred to a holding
facility to be questioned about their route through
Sinai and the people who made their difficult journey
possible. At the very least, they would enjoy free
food and shelter in a modest tent encampment; with
luck, they would be offered work on a kibbutz
somewhere.

Back in the sandy ravine, trackers examined the
refugees’ footprints, following them back to the spots
where they had crossed into Israeli territory.
Suddenly, one alerted his commander that there were
too many prints. Three more men were out there
somewhere.

Just then, gunshots fired from the west sent our
forces into action. Guards back at the outpost, using
a thermal-imaging scope, had spotted three men in the
distance, ducking and running back and forth. Several
soldiers gave chase on foot, while others of us sped
off in jeeps and Hummers to investigate. Before long,
the three mysterious men crossed back into Egypt, and
we all returned to our outpost – fully expecting to
see the men, or at least their human cargo, again, and
soon.

The experience of the men and women guarding Israel’s
southern border is becoming impossible to ignore: what
began with the desperate escape of a few hundred
Darfurians has now turned into a veritable highway for
Africans with nothing to lose. They advance toward the
border, their only obstacle an insignificant coil of
barbed wire, in hopes of joining the thousands like
them who have already found refuge in the Promised
Land. They risk starvation in the desert and murder at
the hands of Egyptian police – who are abandoned for
months on end in this barren place with hardly enough
supplies to survive and who have no motivation to stop
this human traffic – all for the prospect of the
moment Jewish soldiers will surround them and say, ‘No
one will harm you now.’

Every night, at various points along this crumbling
road, hundreds of them wait in silence for their
opportunity to march to safety. Every night, we wait
for them to come.

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