At night, the villages in the Semien Mountains of Ethiopia fall silent early, for no electric light burns to keep the people awake. The cooking fires smolder to white powder ash, and the darkness seals down like a locked box.
Mulu Abebe, 36, lay awake on the night of Feb. 8, 1984, his mind uneasy in the enveloping stillness.
"Our grandmothers and our grandfathers used to tell us that one day we would go to the Holy Land," Abebe, an Ethiopian Jew, recalled recently. "All of us grew up hearing that, and our people had always heard that. It was a part of our religion."
In preparation for such a move, he said, "I had sold my cows. I had sold my crops. I sold a cow . . . for 250 birr ($125) that should have brought 600. I was leaving behind my house. It was a good house. It was made of tin and the wood from a eucalyptus tree which I bought myself. It was not because of hunger I was doing these things. I was taking my family because we thought--we had been told--it was the time to go."
In Abebe's village of Miliko, the talk of leaving had begun months earlier, and as he and others were soon to find out, it had penetrated the entire area of Gondar province in northwestern Ethiopia, where virtually all the Jews left in Ethiopia lived.
Their villages were widely scattered, but the word spread, marketplace to marketplace, and Mulu Abebe heard what everyone else heard: If the Jews could make it out of Ethiopia and into Sudan, people there would help, would see to it that they were taken to Jerusalem. Just how this was to occur remained a mystery, but it was told as truth by members of their community--mostly young men--who had gone to the Sudanese border, and had come back to tell the people, "Now is the time."
Coffee and Discussion
The people considered. In the mornings, Abebe recalled, men gathered in front of his house to drink coffee and "discuss and discuss."
"When the people told us these things, we talk and . . . we think that now is the time. . . . When God tells the people to go to the Holy Land and one does not heed, he will suffer if he stays behind. So I sold some sheep and an ox and my cows. I sold the crops. And when we are ready to go, we are seven families and 45 people. We are frightened, because they tell us there will be death along the way."
And indeed they found death along the way. More than 2,000-- perhaps as many as 3,000--would die in the ordeal that Abebe and his family were about to undertake. But no one realized what the toll would in time be, or understood that what had begun was one of the epic migrations in modern African history, literally the exodus of an entire tribe.
The Times has pieced together the story of this yearlong movement from diplomatic, military and relief agency sources in Sudan, Kenya, Israel and the United States, as well as from the Ethiopian Jews themselves.
Their movement was expedited by a remarkable evacuation known as "Operation Moses." That operation, devised and organized by a single American in Sudan, ran from Nov. 21, 1984, to Jan. 6 of this year--a period of 47 days in which 36 clandestine flights carried more than 7,800 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. The airlift was halted two days after Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres announced it to the world, a halt that had the effect of stranding a then-unknown number of the Jews still waiting to be removed from refugee camps in Sudan.
Then, under orders from the White House, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency was called on to finish the job. On March 22--more than a year after Mulu Abebe began his trek--the CIA directed a secret airlift to remove the last of the Jews--about 500, as it turned out--from Sudan.
They were picked up on a remote gravel airstrip by U.S. Air Force C-130 transport planes and flown directly to Israel, where with the earlier arrivals, they are now immersed in the slow and sometimes painful process of absorption into modern Israeli life.
The members of this tribe are frequently called Falasha, although they consider that term (its root in Geez, the ancient Ethiopic language, meant exile) to be derogatory. They call themselves Beta Israel (the house of Israel).
Tight security still cloaks major aspects of the airlift operations, but it has been learned that schemes to spirit Ethiopian Jews out of Sudan were in effect even before Operation Moses; that the Israeli government had paid agents operating in Sudan and Ethiopia, and on at least three occasions in late 1983 and early 1984, Israelis landed transport planes in remote areas of Sudan to take out loads of Ethiopian Jews.
These small, piecemeal successes brought about the conditions leading to Operation Moses--an emergency response, painfully arrived at, to a situation that had spun out of control when about 12,000 Ethiopian Jews marched unexpectedly out of their homelands, determined to go to the Holy Land.
Almost Total Secrecy