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
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