Abducted from Sudan, tortured in Sinai: Mother and child languish in Israeli jail

After facing brutal treatment at the hands of Sinai smugglers, an Eritrean mother and her baby daughter – who did not intend to go to Israel – have found themselves victim to Israeli policy, despite not having done a thing to deserve such a fate.

By Anat Ben-Dor

There are things one can do only when no one else is looking. Detaining a baby girl a year and three months old for a period of three years, for instance. We met Ambat* yesterday in Saharonim prison – an active child, she was dressed in red and was held in her mother’s arms. We sat in the oppressive 30 degree heat for an hour, and while we interviewed her mother, little Ambat attempted to entertain herself. She hopped around gleefully, laid down on her stomach in order to peek under the caravan, scanning the floor in the hopes of finding some new form of entertainment.

The two of them have been in this prison, surrounded by fences, security towers and barbed wire for over three months. Trapped in a tent with 12 others – six women and six children. It is doubtful whether Ambat’s mother, who is only 23, knows that she and her daughter will spend the next three years in this place.

Ambat and her mother Zabib* have been jailed for “infiltration into Israel.” This past January, the law was amended to to allow placing “infiltrators” under administrative detention for a period of three years, in order to deter future “infiltrators” from entering Israel. However, Zabib never intended to go to Israel. She was born in a small village in Eritrea, where she was married. Her husband was drafted into the military, leaving Zabib in the village, where she could barely support herself through selling food. She saw her husband just once every half year. When she was six months pregnant, her husband defected to Sudan, where he lives today. After the birth of her daughter, Zabib and Ambat left Eritrea in an attempt to reunite with her husband in Sudan. Shortly after crossing the border, the two were kidnapped at gunpoint by smugglers. That is where their long and painful journey began.

Zabib and Ambat were transferred from one person to another on their way to Sinai. Sometimes, they would lay down in the trunks of vehicles, and sometimes inside boats. The elderly people that were with them during the journeys often fainted due to the trying conditions. It is still unclear how little Ambat managed to survive. In the end, they were brought to a smugglers’ camp in Sinai. There, Zabib’s legs were cuffed, while the smugglers demanded a ransom of $25,000 in exchange for her release. This is when the baby turned into her mother’s protector. While other women were raped and sexually abused, Zabib was only the victim of beatings and lashings. The smugglers often dangled Ambat out a window, threatening to throw her in front of her mother. They also slapped her when she cried. Zabib says that Ambat learned from the smugglers: she gently strokes her mother’s cheek before suddenly slapping her, in much the same way as the smuggler slapped Ambat.

They stayed at the camp for five long months. Some of the other detainees died after being tortured, or from the harsh conditions. In the end, however, after her family sold all of their belongings, Zabib and Ambat were released. After crossing the border with Israel, Ambat was brought to Soroka Hospital due to fatigue and malnourishment. She is currently in Saharonim Prison, and the future that she faces is especially frightening: this is a baby that will never taste freedom – will never take a walk in the park or along the beach. In the next few years, she will sit with her mother behind bars, victim to Israel’s policy, despite the two not having done a thing to deserve such a fate. It is doubtful that she will meet her father in Sudan, or whether she will ever be able to reunite with him. It will be interesting to see what kind of behavior she will adopt from Israeli prison.

When we said goodbye, Ambat blew us kisses. Luckily, she is too young to know what awaits her.

*All names used in this piece are fake

Anat Ben-Dor is the clinical instructor of the Tel Aviv University Refugee Rights Clinic. This piece was originally published in Laissez Passer.

Read more here on seeking asylum in Israel.

Asylum seekers can now face years in prison over false accusation
A scorching desert jail for asylum seekers, with no way out