JERUSALEM (AP) — Tesfay Kidane’s troubles began with a simple request: He wanted to go to his brother’s wedding.
Doing mandatory national service in the east African country of Eritrea, Kidane asked his commander for permission for a leave to attend the wedding. The request was denied, starting a chain of events that friends say sent Kidane on a desperate trek across the Egyptian desert, into an Israeli detention center, and then back to Africa, culminating with his apparent death at the hands of Islamic State captors in Libya.
His tale reflects the deep sense of desperation that has driven hundreds of thousands of Africans to risk their lives as they flee war, poverty and hardship, and the struggle that Israel and European countries face as they cope with an unwanted and overwhelming influx of new arrivals.
Kidane, who was about 30, is believed to have been among dozens of Christian Africans who were shot or beheaded on a Libyan beach in a video released by the Islamic State group this week.
“We are really sorry. We are very sad,” said Aman Beyene, an Eritrean migrant who said he was friends with Kidane. “He was a very kind person. He was a hard worker.”
While the identities of the dead have not been officially confirmed, Beyene, speaking from the Israeli detention center where he knew Kidane, said he and other members of Israel’s Eritrean migrant community instantly recognized their compatriot in the video.
Beyene said the community had spoken to someone in Libya who saw the incident, and the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, an Israeli advocacy group that helps African migrants, said Kidane was a relative of one of its workers. The hotline said it believed that two other people seen in the video had also spent time in Israeli detention.
Kidane’s story mirrors those of tens of thousands of Africans who have made their way to Israel in recent years. Most of these migrants came from Eritrea — a nation with one of the world’s most dismal human rights records. Among the many abuses that citizens face is years of forced military conscription.
Beyene, himself a former Eritrean conscript, said “national service” is grueling and boring work. He said that after being barred from going to his brother’s wedding, Kidane made plans to sneak away but was arrested three days before the ceremony. “He immediately decided to leave the country,” Beyene said.
Kidane took a perilous land route through war-torn Sudan, and with the help of smugglers, through Egypt’s Sinai desert into Israel.
At first, the Africans were welcomed into Israel — a country with a long history of serving as a refuge for Jews fleeing persecution and hardship — and found menial jobs in hotels and restaurants. Kidane worked as a dishwasher in a Tel Aviv restaurant, Beyene said.
But as their numbers grew, Israel began to take a hard line, saying the swelling numbers of Africans were threatening the country’s Jewish character.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu built a fence along the Egyptian border that has all but halted the influx. Authorities, meanwhile, began cracking down on the migrants, making it harder for them to work, and sending some of them, including Kidane and Beyene, to a newly built detention center in the isolated Negev desert.
Those who were placed in the Holot center were given a difficult choice: Stay in detention or accept a one-way ticket back to an undisclosed third African country. While the Supreme Court has struck down some policies, hundreds of migrants remain in detention, with more than 40,000 others living in uncertainty inside the country.
Kidane was living in Holot — a facility that allows residents to leave during the day but not hold jobs — when he came home late one day. After breaking curfew, he was ordered last summer to be transferred to the nearby Saharonim prison, where conditions are even more severe. That was the breaking point, Beyene said.
“He gave up and decided to try another country, maybe Europe. That’s why he was in Libya,” he said. It was the last time they would speak, though Beyene kept tabs on him through other friends.
Elizabeth Tsurkov, a worker at the hotline center, said such stories are typical. She said that Israeli authorities almost never grant migrants’ asylum requests — and are now putting pressure on them to leave the country voluntarily, with threats of detention and false promises of opportunities in African countries.
“The idea is, ‘We have these people here. Let’s see how we can reduce the number,'” she said.
Israel’s Interior Ministry, which oversees policy toward the migrants, declined comment.
Since the migrants could face harm if they return to their homeland, Israel has arranged to send them to third countries — with Rwanda and Uganda believed to be the most common destinations. Despite promises they will be welcome, migrants have been arrested or had their identification papers confiscated, according to the hotline. Many, like Kidane, quickly move on.
Kidane is believed to have gone from Rwanda to Uganda, Sudan and then Libya. He was apparently arrested by Islamic State militants on his way to Tripoli, where he hope to make the harrowing trip by sea to Europe. Beyene said Kidane had a brother in Norway.
There may have been more Eritreans and Ethiopians seized and killed by the Islamic State group in Libya beyond those shown beheaded or shot in the video that apparently included Kidane.
Jalal Tag-Eddin, a Sudanese refugee in Tripoli, told The Associated Press he managed to free five Eritrean and Ethiopian minors from IS custody. He said the young men told him a total of 200 were seized by the militants after entering Libya about three months ago and were held at an IS camp near the city of Sirte.
The Islamic militants singled out the Christians and began to kill them, the minors said, according to Tag-Eddin. First a group of 54 were killed, then a second group of 30, apparently those shown in the video.
Islamic State militants are just the latest challenge for African migrants seeking opportunity in Europe.
On Saturday, more than 800 people drowned when a boat packed with migrants trying to reach Europe sank in the Mediterranean Sea, making it the worst such incident of its kind, according to the U.N. refugee agency.
Facing the new threat of Islamic State militants, Beyene said that Holot detainees are terrified and prefer to stay locked up than leave to an uncertain fate in Africa. “It’s better to stay in prison,” he said.
He said he hoped the death of his friend would draw attention to the plight of the Eritreans.
“The whole world knows what’s going on in Eritrea,” he said. “People are dying.
“I hope the government will solve the problem and give us a chance until our country becomes free and we can go back to our country,” he said.
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