‘Hamas has taken my brother and the world is silent'

Ilan, brother of captured Israeli Avera Mengistu, says human rights organisations have ignored their plight


Eight-and-a-half years ago, Avera Mengistu, a young Israeli citizen in his 20s, left his home in Ashkelon with nothing other than a prayer book and a few personal belongings.

Avera, a civilian with Ethiopian roots and mental health problems, then somehow scaled the Gaza border fence and was abducted by terror organisation Hamas, interrogated and kept hostage.

Now for the first time since his capture in 2014, the family have been given hope after Hamas’ military wing released an undated proof-of-life video featuring what appears to be the young man. In the video, the man wearing a blue shirt says in Hebrew:

“I am the prisoner, Avera Mengistu. How long will I be here?”

The clip also contained text which translated as “the failure of outgoing chief of staff Kohavi and his lies to the people and government with imaginary and delusional achievements”, in reference to the former IDF chief of staff, Aviv Kohavi.

The video also had a photo of Kohavi with the text: “I am very sorry that I wasn’t able to solve the issue of returning the soldiers during my time [as chief of staff].”

As the Israeli security agencies continue to analyse the video to confirm its authenticity, Avera’s brother Ilan tells the JC that the family believes it is the missing man.

“Even though the video is only 10 seconds long, It’s clear to us that it’s him from his mannerisms, the way he folds his arms, the way he tilts his head. When he used to come to my house that’s how he used to sit. The facial expression… his aura is Avera.”

Ilan says he first heard about the video two days ago from a colleague at work. “It caught me completely by surprise, I was in shock. I immediately thought of my mother and called her to let her know it’s OK and that I am on the way home.

“Our family still isn’t fully digesting the video, but we are slowly realising it’s him. The mind knows it’s Avera but the heart can’t digest it yet.”

He adds: “We have been living in the dark for eight years and it’s the worst feeling not knowing what is happening to your dear person. We always knew he was alive. No doubt this video gives us some feeling of hope that we will see my brother again back in his home.”

The experience was “a tragedy that fell on our family suddenly with no prior warning,” Ilan says. “Avera had been suffering an emotional breakdown when we heard he had crossed the Gaza border following the untimely death of our brother two years before in 2012.” Avera is the fourth child of ten siblings.

The day Avera entered Gaza in September 2014 was a day Ilan says he will never forget. “The Shabak called me at work and told me there was a security event and they wanted to talk to me. At first I thought it was about me and I started wracking my brain for past events. They arrived at my place of work and assured me at first this wasn’t about me. They asked me when was the last time I saw Avera. I answered it was two weeks ago, on a visit to my mother.

“Then they said, ‘we don’t know how to break this to you, but your brother crossed the border to Gaza’. At that moment I saw darkness over my eyes. My first frustrated thought was ‘you couldn’t think of a better place to go to than Gaza?’.

“Now I understand he wasn’t aware of how dangerous it was to cross that border and can’t judge him. We learned about the state of his health from documents we received from the Red Cross.”

When he thinks about his brother, Ilan recalls positivity. “Avera’s name in Amharic means ‘light’,” he says. “He always radiated happiness. He had that joy of life in him. He is very intelligent with a very positive outlook on life. He enjoyed strolling on the beach. But he lost some spark after the death of our brother in 20012. He was very attached to him and his death really affected him.”

As well as Avera, Hamas holds another Israeli, Hisham al-Sayed, and the bodies of two soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin, killed during 2014’s Operation Protective Edge. Last month, the government initiated a meeting between the four families of captives with the Pope in Rome. “It was a very positive meeting,” Ilan says. “The Pope was very attentive and emphatic to our plight.

“He promised to activate whatever means possible. I hope when he sees the film, he will try to get something moving.”

Folowing the release of the video, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Israel has not ceased its efforts to bring back Avera Mengistu and our other captives and MIAs. Yesterday we received additional confirmation of what we have known all along, that Avera is alive. He is a young man, not in the best of health, and Hamas is entirely responsible for his fate.”

But though Ilan agrees that Hamas is primarily responsible, “every country has a moral responsibility to take care of its citizens,” he points out. “And every soldier and citizen should live in the safety of his home and country.

“The government should take a very active part in bringing him home.”

Ilan questions why human rights groups have remained silent.

“They should employ whatever means and involve the relevant international bodies such as the Red Cross to unite actions to ensure his safety and wellbeing and push to bring him home,” he insists.

“Since the release of the video, we haven’t as yet heard any reaction from human rights bodies. Unfortunately, even the case of a prisoner with blood on his hands who goes on a hunger strike spurs the reaction and outcry of the media and international human rights groups. Sadly, when it comes to an innocent Israeli citizen who is a hostage, the reaction is silence.”

Above the mixture of grief, worry and hope for the future is a profound sense of bewilderment that continues to trouble Ilan, even after Avera’s eight-and-a-half years of captivity. “I don’t understand how Hamas can hold a completely innocent person against all human ethics and international law,” he says.

“They have brought such pain to the family. Sadly, not only is Avera in captivity but our family too is in captivity. Our family has been torn apart. Our lives, even those of my little kids, revolve around Avera. Life has been hard. But what keeps us going is the hope that Avera will return to us healthy.”

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