Hassan survived the death of his closest family members, government torture, and three years of slavery before escaping to Israel to seek safety. Ten years later, it still isn’t safe to return home.
For most of Hassan’s childhood, life was quiet in Samasim, a village nestled in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. He worked alongside his parents and his three siblings, growing vegetables and tending to the family cows.
When Hassan was seventeen, the Sudanese army attacked and destroyed his village. Many villagers died in the raid; Hassan lost both his father and mother, as well as his brother and one of his sisters.
“They burned my village and killed my family in front of my eyes,” Hassan recalls.
Arrested by the Sudanese Intelligence, Hassan was investigated for belonging to Sudan People’s Liberation Army, a militia considered an enemy of the government. He had no affiliation with the group, but was nevertheless severely tortured for several months. Beaten with guns, he was kept in a hole – one meter wide and three meters deep – until his muscles became paralyzed. Today, he still bares the deep scars on his head from the abuse inflicted during his imprisonment.
Upon his release, he was handed over to an officer of the Sudanese army. The officer brought him to the North Kordofan state, but instead of being released, he was forced into slavery. For three years, he spent his days working for his captor; scrubbing kitchens, hauling water, and cleaning laundry. He was never fed, but left to find scraps of food from the garbage. His nights were spent chained on the floor.
Almost three years into his captivity, a man approached Hassan in the market, as he was gathering food for his captor. He had been watching him for a while and asked him to tell his story. Once Hassan was finished, the man asked why Hassan had not tried to run away.
“Everyone here knows me,” Hassan answered. If he had escaped, he would not have made it far; all the neighbors knew his captor and would have swiftly returned him. Upon being returned, Hassan would most likely have suffered an extremely abusive punishment.
The man offered to help Hassan escape and took him into his home. There, Hassan met an unexpected visitor: his only remaining relative – his sister.
“The army had taken me to one place and my sister to another one. I had run around looking for her, but no one was telling me anything. Then, after several years, one day, I met my sister again. I couldn’t believe it. I thought the army has killed her,” Hassan adds, his eyes lighting up at the joy of this precious memory.
Although he had found his sister, life remained very difficult in Sudan.
“You don’t know who your friend is or who security is,” Hassan sadly explains.
The government refused to issue him proper documentation because of his ethnicity, which directly impacted his inability to find work. He was briefly jailed once more, due to his refusal to support the government or join the Popular Defense Forces.
These events led Hassan to decide that he had to escape Sudan.
“I had two equally risky choices…. ‘return’ meant death for sure, and ‘go’ meant stepping into the unknown.”
He said goodbye to his sister and walked for days to reach Egypt. There, in Cairo, he discovered thousands of Sudanese asylum-seekers. Some were demonstrating in front of the UNHCR office, which prevented him from submitting an asylum claim. Fearing for his life and terrified of being sent back home by the Egyptian government – as had happened with other Sudanese asylum-seekers – he decided to make the long and dangerous journey across the Sinai to seek safety and protection in Israel.
“I had two equally risky choices,” he recounts. “The first one was to step back immediately into the furnace behind me. This meant that I could be killed at any moment as I walk back to Egypt. The second was to continue to cross the border, although my life ahead would be unknown. So I was caught in the dilemma of ‘return or go’: ‘return’ meant death for sure, and ‘go’ meant stepping into the unknown.”
That ‘unknown’ of crossing into Israel turned into a series of detentions in Ketziot, Tzohar, and Maasiyahu prisons, and, most recently, a year-long stay in the Holot facility. During his time in the prisons, Hassan became quite ill, sustaining complications from which he still suffers to this day.
It is his work with the Sudanese Refugees Organization for Israel that brings meaning to his life. As the Chairman of the Board of Directors, he can reach out to other asylum-seekers who might need support with gaining their refugee status, finding work, or acquiring healthcare. Through the community, he is able to provide support to his fellow Sudanese – support he himself had so desperately needed but never received.
Now, over ten years after arriving in Israel, Hassan still lives with uncertainty about his future. It is unsafe for him to return to his home in the Nuba Mountains, which is under constant attack. With no word from his sister, he cannot reunite with his surviving family members to restart their lives together.
“This is our life. This is happening since 2005 and it is still happening now. We just have to wait.”