What happened to Tesfai Kidane?

The Eritrean migrant came to a tragic end in Libya at the hands of the Islamic State, but his family isn't sure what path he took to get there or exactly where he was headed. At a time when unstable states are creating floods of refugees in the Middle East and North Africa, Kidane's tale is just one of many filled with random twists and turns and unexpected outcomes.

Kidane's journey began when he left his native Eritrea in 2007 and arrived in Israel, where he had family members.

"My mother knew him. We met him and he was one of the family," says Mesi Fisahaie, who was Kidane's cousin.

Kidane had been drafted into Eritrea's army when he was a teenager a few years earlier. He did not want to go because, among other reasons, there's no time limit on military service there. Soldiers arrested Kidane, his cousin says, when he left barracks to attend his brother's wedding.

Soldiers "came to the house and caught his brother," Fisahaie says. "They told him if Tesfai will not come, his brother will not get married."

Kidane came, and he was carted off to military prison. Once out, Fisahie says, he ran away from his military post in Assab, a Red Sea port in southern Eritrea, and crossed into Ethiopia.

"From Ethiopia to Sudan, from Sudan to Egypt and Sinai," she says. "And he came to Israel."

This was a well-trod path at the time. Some 40,000 migrants, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan, drove through Egypt's Sinai Peninsula desert with smugglers, jumped the low barbed wire fence and arrived in Israel. Some came to escape persecution. Some to earn money. Some both.

Israel has largely put a stop to this with a high-tech barrier along its border with Egypt in the Sinai, which was completed in 2013.

Like many migrants, Kidane worked menial jobs in Israel. But sometime last year, he left.


For a number of years, people from Eritrea were allowed to stay in Israel. No Western country returns Eritreans to their homeland because of the harsh regime that is accused of widespread human rights violations. But the Eritreans in Israel lived with unclear documentation, working semi-legally, with asylum claims rarely processed.

Israeli policy now is to encourage Eritreans to go somewhere else. As a first step, 2,000 were moved to a detention center in the remote desert where they have to stay every night.

If someone skips out on detention, or has an asylum claim denied, the next step is prison. But Israel also offers an alternative: $3,500 in cash and an international plane ticket. Israel won't confirm where those planes go, but it is widely believed to be Uganda or Rwanda.

It's a controversial policy that has been in and out of Israeli courts.

Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's government, emphasizes that no one is forced to leave. He also says the detention center should be acceptable to asylum seekers.

"If someone was a bona fide refugee, fleeing persecution, they would have no problem whatsoever being in a detention facility, where there are health services, accommodation obviously food and all that," Regev says. "Where they'll be safe."

But it apparently didn't suit Kidane.

His cousion Fisahaie says Kidane was notified to report to Holot, the detention center in the desert, when he went to renew his temporary visa, a routine he'd done for seven years. At some point he did not return to Holot on time, so he was jailed in the Saharonim Penitentiary next door. That was too much for him, Fisahaie says.

"He came to me and said he wanted to go," she says.

That was last year. He was thinking of taking the deal Israel was offering — a safe haven in a third country.

"I told him I was upset. Why was he thinking to go after all these years in Israel? And he told me he cannot stay in the prison. It's better to try to fix his life instead of sitting in a prison," she recalls her cousin saying.

Kidane's story gets murky after that. Fisahaie said he promised he wouldn't leave. But soon after, friends told her he'd gone, passing his goodbyes through them.

Fisahaie believes he first landed in Rwanda or Uganda. According to research done by her employer, Israel's Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Eritreans arriving in Rwanda or Uganda are not provided the support — including proper papers — to stay in either country.

Fisahaie says he left for Sudan, calling a brother in Norway to tell him he would try to go to Europe.

It's not clear what happened next. However, many refugees trying to get to Europe from Africa are going via Libya. The country is convulsed by fighting, but the chaos means the Libyan coast is not patrolled. As a result, there has been a surge in the number of migrants piling into rickety boats headed for Europe.

The next news Fisahaie heard was terrible: Friends had recognized Kidane in a video of "Ethiopian Christians" killed in Libya by an affiliate of the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

Fisahaie forced herself to watch. She saw her cousin held down, and others killed, but says he was not murdered on camera.

"I prefer not to see," she says. "But Tesfai. ... I felt I must see this."

Now, she says, she urges any other migrants considering the journey to think again.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.



That gives us an idea of the bigger picture there. Let's zoom in now on a single story, a single migrant, in search of a safe place. He left the African nation of Eritrea to escape persecution or earn money or maybe both. Many Eritreans take boats to Europe, but this man went to Israel, and that's where things went wrong. From Israel, NPR's Emily Harris retraces his journey.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: Tesfai Kidane came to Israel in 2007. He was about 22 years old. His cousin Mesi Fisahaie met him here.

MESI FISAHAIE: He was very nice man. He was very quiet man. He didn't disturb anybody. You cannot feel that he's there.

HARRIS: She says Kidane was drafted unwillingly into the Eritrean army when he was 14 or 15 years old. Soldiers arrested him when he left barracks to attend his brother's wedding.

FISAHAIE: After the time that he spent in the prison, from there he ran away to Ethiopia, from Ethiopia to Sudan, from Sudan to Egypt and Sinai and Israel, and he came to Israel.

HARRIS: Some 40,000 Africans took that route before Israel built a high-tech fence along its border with Sinai. Like many of them, Kidane worked menial jobs. He made friends, but missed his family, his cousin says.

FISAHAIE: He really loved his family, and he missed his mother a lot.

HARRIS: Fisahaie talks about her cousin in the past tense because he's dead. He was killed by an ISIS affiliate in Libya a few weeks ago. The group posted a video showing militants shooting or beheading some two dozen people who they called Ethiopian Christians. Friends recognized Kidane in the video and at least two other Eritreans who left Israel sometime last year. Why did Kidane leave the stability of Israel?

MARK REGEV: No one is forcing anyone to go.

HARRIS: Mark Regev is spokesperson for Israel's government. For a number of years, people from Eritrea were allowed to stay. But Israeli policy now is to encourage them to go somewhere else. Two-thousand were moved to a detention center in the remote desert, where they have to stay every night.

REGEV: If someone was a bona fide refugee fleeing persecution, they would have no problem whatsoever in being in a detention facility where there are health services, accommodation - obviously food and all that - where they'll be safe.

HARRIS: If someone skips out on detention or has an asylum claim denied, the next step is prison. But Israel offers an alternative - $3,500 cash and an international plane ticket. Israel won't confirm where those planes go, but it seems to be Uganda or Rwanda.

AMAN BEYENE: We have every single story - what happened to our brothers - left to Uganda and Rwanda.

HARRIS: Aman Beyene sits in the hot, dry parking lot outside the detention center. He was sent here 14 months ago after six years in Tel Aviv. He has a letter from Israel's Interior Ministry promising Eritreans who leave Israel will get everything they need, including documents to stay where they are sent. Beyene says it's not true. Academic and advocacy research support what he has heard.

BEYENE: Nothing - they will give you nothing. You have no status and no papers because when they find themselves without nothing there, they give up. They're depressed. And they decide to try their way through Europe.

HARRIS: That, he thinks, is what his friend Tesfai Kidane did after a stint in the Israeli detention center, then the prison, then taking the cash and the one-way ticket. But the ISIS affiliate found him along the way. Beyene blames Eritrea, ISIS and also Israel for Kidane's death. Refugee law expert Ruvi Ziegler with the Israel Democracy Institute says blame is not clear-cut.

RUVI ZIEGLER: Israel is not directly responsible for them being beheaded by ISIS nor is for that matter Uganda or Rwanda. But Israel has facilitated this by not ensuring that it's sending somebody to a place where they may have to be what's referred to in the literature as refugees in orbit. They may have to continue seeking refuge.

HARRIS: Beyene may face the choice his friend did soon. Israel recently rejected his asylum claim.

BEYENE: I'm preparing to go to jail, to be locked up in the prison because what am I going to do, especially after we heard what happened to Tesfai?

HARRIS: Most everyone in Israel's Eritrean community, it seems, knows Tesfai Kidane's journey ended at the hands of ISIS. Emily Harris, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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