Monday, October 24, 2005

Jewish cemeteries desecrated in Ethiopia

Ayanawu Farada Sanbetu:

Warteo Shai Sisa returned about a year ago for a visit to Belobokha, the village where his family is buried, and was informed by locals that the Jewish cemetery had been vandalized once again. It had recently been restored at a cost of some NIS 200,000, but now some bones of the deceased were scattered and the land was being used for agricultural purposes.

Sisa has made several such visits to Ethiopia in the course of his 18 months as chair of the forum of Ethiopian Jews for cemetery preservation - one of the most delicate positions in Israel's Ethiopian community today.

When he got to the graveyard, Sisa had trouble identifying his grandfather's grave, because the tree that had sheltered the grave had been burned and the tombstone shattered. Broken bones were scattered in every direction.

"The local residents believe that Jews' bones can heal medical ailments and bring good luck, so they even trade them," he said. "I asked the residents why they dig, but they did not answer. This isn't a cemetery, it looks like a garbage dump."

The newly-built fence was also destroyed. "The Christians told me that the people who built the fence were threatened that unless they destroyed it, they wouldn't be allowed into church," Sisa said.

The grave of the Ethiopian chief rabbi, Kes Meherat Tayim, was also desecrated.

Sisa documented the scene with video and stills cameras, adding to the growing collection of findings. "The community weeps when it sees the tapes. My parents feel like their parents were murdered, instead of dying of natural causes," he said.

Ethiopia has more than 200 Jewish cemeteries in various provinces. Over the past six years, 32 of these cemeteries (some 2,000 graves) have been desecrated by locals, especially in the north of the country (Tigray, Gondar and Welo). Israeli and Ethiopian officials say that the desecration is perpetrated for agricultural purposes, not out of anti-Semitism.

In recent years, Israel's Ethiopian community has managed to raise more than $9 million from its members. Each donated between NIS 250 and NIS 500. "We received no help from any institutional body. We went to every Ethiopian home in Israel and raised money," Sisa said.

The money paid for hiring local workers, building walls around the cemeteries, gathering bones, reinterring remains and covering expenses for a delegation of six to eight people. However, the recurrent desecrations led activists to approach Israeli officials about making the Ethiopian government responsible for preserving the graves. Israel's ambassador to Ethiopia, Yaacov Amitai, submitted an official protest, and the Ethiopian ambassador to Israel will be summoned to the Foreign Ministry next month to offer clarifications on the matter.

Haaretz has obtained three videotapes that attest to the tremendous damage done to three cemeteries. The first tape documents the gathering and reinterment of bones in the village of Boyat Ras six years ago. The second shows the ruins of the wall that was built three years ago to protect the cemetery in the village of Ewa from vandalism.

The third tape, which documents restoration work on tombstones and the construction of a wall, was filmed by Melkmo Tchena. The Ethiopian embassy in Israel assured Tchena three years ago that he would have the local authorities' cooperation and provided him with the necessary permits. But things worked out differently in reality.

"The locals demanded a large sum from us so that we could build the walls," Tchena said. "We told them that we don't have enough money, so they ran us off with gunfire, despite our previously excellent relations with them. We
complained to the official in charge of Gondar province and he sent us back to the village with soldiers and policemen, whose wages we paid. At the end, we donated gifts to the church so that it would help protect the cemetery. Recently, I received a letter from a villager warning me not to return to Ewa unguarded because people who did not get presents are disgruntled."

Zega Sabhet had a similar experience in July, when he paid a visit disguised as a local villager for his own protection to five Jewish cemeteries in the village of Aberwark in the Balesa region. He found that locals had scattered the tombstones and flattened the ground for farming. "They did away with every last sign of it being a cemetery. In the winter, the floods wash over the graves and conceal them," he said.

Interesting country Ethiopia, huh?


At 5:31 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Interesting country Ethiopia, huh?"

Well, yes, it seems to be, and perhaps soon you will not have so far to go in order to experience it for yourself.

At 3:40 PM, Blogger Adam Lawson said...

Thanks for the link. Interesting to see that the wishes of the Ethiopian immigrants conflict with those of the African-American population.


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