Ethiopians fly to Israel-- confused, tired, grateful

May 26, 1991|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- A few hours earlier, Oudi Avraham had been in Ethiopia. Then for the first time in her life she was on an airplane, and then, to her surprise, in an Israeli hotel and exhausted by the effort of transplanting her life overnight.

Almost nothing yesterday was the familiar or the expected for her or for any of the other 14,400 Ethiopian Jews brought to Israel in an emergency airlift. The Jews crowded into the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, had not been told their destination when buses took them to the airport for a trip across political and cultural borders.

"I didn't think we were being taken to Israel, maybe just to a safe place," said Ms. Avraham, standing in the room commandeered by immigration authorities to be her temporary home. "Better to go anywhere than to die in Ethiopia."

Ms. Avraham, dressed in a long gray skirt and a white blouse with lacy sleeves, was profoundly tired. Three other new immigrants, sharing the same room, were asleep on the double bed.

In what Israel described as its largest human rescue operation, a whole society was moved en masse. It was done so fast that Ms. Avraham managed to bring along one change of clothes but nothing else to call her own.

Her arrival in Israel was the goal of what Israeli officials called Operation Solomon, the air shuttle that began Friday morning and ended yesterday afternoon after 40 flights.

With crucial diplomatic help from the United States, Israel organized the operation to evacuate most of Ethiopia's remaining Jews as Addis Ababa began to be in danger of becoming an active battleground in that country's long-running civil war.

Israel negotiated with the Ethiopian government for years to agree on terms for allowing the Jews to leave, talks that reached a satisfactory conclusion only as the central government in Addis Ababa appeared near collapse.

Aircraft delivered all 14,400 passengers to Israel in slightly more than 33 hours, thereby completing a large-scale evacuation that began in 1984. Israel's state radio reported that about 1,000 Jews were believed left in Ethiopia, trapped in areas controlled by rebels.

The planes included Israeli air force transports, converted cargo planes and two passenger jets lent by Ethiopia. Each flight included crew members able to speak to the passengers in their native Amharic, as well as medics, who delivered seven babies -- two of them in aircraft that were aloft.

Israel launched the operation after months of detailed planning. When Operation Solomon finally began, it mixed great secrecy with expert timing.

Israeli authorities took the first steps more than a year ago by encouraging Jews in Ethiopia to move from their villages to the capital. In Addis Ababa, they could be within easy contact with the Israeli Embassy, which was anxious to keep people together to facilitate moving them quickly if and when the opportunity arose.

Thousands of Ethiopian Jews complied, moving to apartments and shantytowns rented by Israel. Israeli authorities organized a system to give each neighborhood a local leader and made lists of everyone wanting to emigrate.

The embassy established clinics and schools, provided food and paid stipends. While the Ethiopian government allowed an average of 300 Jews to emigrate each month, Israeli authorities refined plans for moving the remaining thousands in the shortest possible period of time.

Events accelerated last week after the Ethiopian leader, Mengistu Haile Mariam, fled. Rebel forces moved within a few miles of Addis Ababa and became a potential threat to people's safety.

According to Israeli officials, the U.S. Embassy stayed in contact with rebel groups nearing the capital and informed them of the impending operation. The embassy then secured a pledge that the rebels would not attack the airport while an evacuation was under way.

By Thursday, the Jewish Agency, the quasi-governmental organization that handles immigration to Israel, began bringing more staff members into Ethiopia.

Ethiopian Jews were brought closer to the Israeli Embassy and then into the embassy courtyard. Their names were checked off on lists. While the rest of the city was under curfew, the Jews were sent by bus to the airport.

Authorities intentionally refrained from telling the Ethiopians why they had been summoned to the embassy. As a result, they came without their belongings, allowing the Israelis to quickly pack more people into each plane.

The first plane, an Israeli air force jet, flew the 1,600 miles from Addis Ababa to Ben-Gurion Airport outside Tel Aviv in 3 1/2 hours, landing at midday Friday.

Simcha Dinitz, chairman of the Jewish Agency, said the operation had begun at the earliest possible moment. "Any day, it could be too late," he said. "When you have an upset of regime, everybody is in danger."

The Ethiopians arrived in a startlingly different world. Most were leaving a life of subsistence farming. Few had ever seen an airplane up close, and virtually none had ever been inside one.

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