Whatever happened later in his life, Mutasim Ali was always able to look back and say: “This is not the worst that has happened to me.”
That was what he told himself when he attempted to seek asylum in Israel, and was repeatedly thrown into detention centres.
“The way the guards spoke to people in Holot detention centre – it was humiliating,” he says. “A lot of people suffered mental, psychological distress because they were there. But I’ve been in worse situations than that, experienced worse than that. So, for me, it was nothing.”
The worst happened very early on. He was a teenager, living in Darfur. His family was middle-class: they had a decent house and servants, and were able to send Ali to boarding school.
Like all the families in his village, his parents were farmers. Each autumn – the rainy season – Ali would return home to help his parents with the harvest.
He was home for the harvest in 2003 when news came that government-backed militia groups were planning to attack his village. Militia had been raiding villages throughout Darfur that year, seizing land and killing villagers.
So the family decided to escape to safety: Ali’s parents retreated to a nearby village, while 16-year-old Ali was sent elsewhere in Darfur. That was the last time he saw them.
“I just left my village,” he says. “I didn’t know where I was going.”
In fact, the militia did not come that day. But Ali had already left, and so he continued onwards to the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, where he enrolled in a geology course at university.
Two years later, his village was destroyed. Tens of people were killed; his family and many others were sent to displaced-persons’ camps.
Ali, however, was still at university in Khartoum. Alongside his studies, he began speaking out against the regime in Darfur, and advocating on behalf of his people. Then, one day as he walked home from university, security services arrested him and threw him into prison. This, then, was the beginning of the worst.
“I don’t want to talk about the details of prison,” Ali says, his voice soft. “I had really to experience a lot of physical and mental torture. That’s all I can speak of.
“You’d be alone in a small room. Nobody cares about your food and water. And, on top of that, there’s torture.
“It’s about humiliating and dehumanising you – that’s the main purpose. You just can’t really stand being there. Any day, it’s hell for you.”
He was released 17 days later, and returned to his studies and his advocacy work. Not long afterwards, he was arrested again and thrown back into jail.
Again, he was released after a few days; again, it was not long before he was imprisoned, this time for three weeks.
“The same thing happened over and over again,” he says, “The same experience, the same techniques, the same everything.
“In the end, how bad it is really depends on how many days you spend there. The last time was one of the worst experiences of my life, because it was three weeks, and I experienced torture every day.
“They said, ‘If you don’t oppose the regime, then you’ll have a nicer life.’ They said, ‘Then you’ll be able to go school and support your family.’” He pauses. “I was tempted.”
Ultimately, however, his resolve remained unbroken: “Because I’m not doing it for myself. I’m doing it for other people who can’t speak, and don’t have the opportunity to speak. I didn’t have any other choice.
“Imagine you have a home, and it’s taken. The friends and relatives who you grew up with are killed. There’s no way you can say everything is OK. You need to speak about what’s happening.
“I could have stayed silent and not said anything, and maybe stayed in the country and still been there today. But that’s not the person I am.”
When he was released this time, he realised that the only way to continue his advocacy work was to leave the country. So he decided to flee to neighbouring Egypt.
“The difficult feeling was leaving your country, not because you choose to, but because you have to,” he says. “And you don’t tell the closest friends of yours, you don’t tell your family where you’re going.
“I wasn’t sure what my future will be. That was a difficult feeling. But I had to make that choice.”
On arrival in Egypt, however, he discovered that he would not be safe there, either. Many of Ali’s activist friends there had been deported back to Sudan, or killed in Egyptian prisons.
“I really didn’t feel safe in Egypt, unless I kept silent,” he says. “And, if that was my choice, I wouldn’t have left my country.”
So he reviewed his options. He could travel to Libya, but that too had diplomatic ties with Sudan. He could cross the Mediterranean to Europe, but he was reluctant to make the long journey. And then he remembered a third option.
“Israel didn’t have any diplomatic relationship with Sudan,” he says. “And, when the genocide began in Darfur, when we felt really lonely and nobody spoke up for the people of Darfur, Jews were advocating for us. Jews marched on Washington, DC. Jewish youth movements were advocating for us. It was fantastic to see. I thought it would be safe to be among Jews, until I could go back home.”
He did not, however, feel safe enough to go to the Israeli embassy in Egypt and seek permission to enter Israel. “If you’re fleeing and worrying for your life, you’ve got no time to think of waiting and receiving legal permission.
“Crossing the border illegally was one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made in my life: it was possible Egyptian guards would shoot me. And I wasn’t sure that Israel would let me in.
“I was 90 per cent sure I wouldn’t make it. But, if I remain in Egypt, I don’t have even that 10 per cent. So the only option – the best option I’ve got – is to take the risk. I’d experienced worse. I didn’t really have much to lose – I wasn’t that nervous.”
Ali walked across mountainous terrain in order to reach the border with Israel. “It wasn’t easy,” he says. “But the difficult thing I was thinking about was that it was possible I’d be shot, it was possible I’d be arrested.”
At the border, he saw the Egyptian guards, positioned every 50 metres or so. “I didn’t hesitate. I just walked between two of them. But the minute I put my foot on the road, there was a wire that sounded an alarm.
“They started shooting from all directions. Luckily, they didn’t shoot me. I had nothing to lose, so I kept running.”
He jumped over the fence; five minutes later, an Israeli defence force jeep approached. Speaking in Arabic, the soldiers said to Ali: “You have nothing to fear. No one will shoot you here.”
“I’d come from a country where people in the army are trained to shoot and kill civilians,” Ali says. “So that was an amazing thing to hear.
“But, because they were speaking Arabic, I thought maybe I’d made a mistake and was in the wrong country. Maybe I was in Jordan by mistake. Then they will send me back to Sudan.”
Reassured that he was indeed in Israel, he spent one night on the army base, before being sent to the Saharonim detention centre for illegal immigrants. “I wouldn’t call it a prison,” he says. “If I compare it to the prison in Sudan, it was like a hotel room.”
He was there for four and a half months. He asked whether he could apply for asylum, and was told that, unless refugees were Jewish, there was no real process by which they could seek asylum in Israel.
Then, one day, he was told that he had been released, and was handed a bus ticket to Tel Aviv. He had no money, and nowhere to go. “I was by myself; I didn’t have anybody,” he says. “But I was happy, because I was out of prison.”
In Tel Aviv, he approached an African man he saw on the street; the man happened to be from Darfur, and took Ali home with him.
Eventually, Ali found a job in a plastics plant in Tiberias, and he rented a flat. He began managing a community-based organisation, providing services for African refugees. And, working together with a lawyer from an organisation funded by the New Israel Fund, he petitioned for refugee status.
He had been in Tiberias for a couple of months when he returned to Tel Aviv to renew his visa. At the Interior Ministry, however, he was told that his visa had expired, as of that moment. He was taken immediately to the Holot detention centre, in the desert close to the Egyptian border.
“The conditions in Holot – basically, they make life miserable for asylum seekers,” he says. “They break the spirit of asylum seekers, so they will leave Israel.
“You just eat and sleep, and there’s nothing to do. There was no education. There was nothing to fill the gap in the daily routine. We were in the middle of nowhere, so there was nowhere we could go.”
Repeatedly, the Israeli government told the Holot inmates that it would give them $3,500 to leave Israel. That offer would not always be there, the officials added: best take it up while you can. Many inmates took the money and returned to Africa: of the 36,000-40,000 asylum seekers who were in Tel Aviv until recently, most have now left. Many of those were subsequently imprisoned or killed.
Ali, meanwhile, stayed in Holot, and began organising language classes and sports programmes for the other inmates. “If I’m given the option to go back to Khartoum right now, or to stay in Holot, I’d definitely stay in Holot,” he says.
“I still remember when I was in solitary confinement in Khartoum. I have flashbacks sometimes about that. It wasn’t an easy experience.”
Eventually, working together with his NIF lawyer, he was released from Holot and granted refugee status. He is now pursuing a law degree in Ramat Gan. He intends to use this legal knowledge to advocate for the people of Darfur, and to fight on behalf of asylum seekers in Israel.
“Life in Israel is completely difficult and hard. Super tough,” he says. “You never know what you’ll do next – the government can decide at any time to put you in prison and give you a deportation order.
“But I hope my case sets a precedent for other people’s claims. Because my story isn’t that different from thousands who are still in prison.”