ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The villagers where Abebe Yalu lived had long since forced him into a life of sharecropping by burning his farm.
The atmosphere of hostility in town had never abated. So when word began to circulate that those who could make their way to Addis Ababa might be able to emigrate to Israel, he packed up his family, spent $75 on bus passage to the capital, 400 miles south, and departed to the taunts of the local people who coveted his meager possessions and who celebrated the family's departure with gunshots.
That was three months ago, and today Yalu and his family (his name is a pseudonym) are among 12,500 Ethiopian Jews living in limbo in the capital, waiting for a logjam of emigration to break. The delivery of these people to Israel has become one of the most explosive issues in both countries since Israel and Ethiopia reestablished diplomatic relations in November.
The affair has embroiled the United States too, in part because of the immense interest among influential American Jews.
At a meeting last month in New York, U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III reaffirmed to Ethiopian Foreign Minister Tesfaye Dinka "our strong support for free emigration and family reunification"--diplomatic code phrases for Jewish emigration from Ethiopia--and said the United States hoped that the rate of emigration to Israel, which has recently slowed to a trickle, would increase.
American interests are also involved because stories have been circulating in this rumor-prone capital for months that the Israelis have promised Ethiopia arms in return for the guarantees of continued emigration so far extracted from the Ethiopian government. U.S. officials have continually warned the Israelis that to pass on any materiel of U.S. origin to the Marxist government would violate American laws.
So far, according to diplomatic and other sources here, there is no hard evidence that Israel has provided even token military assistance to the tottering government of Mengistu Haile Mariam. But stories persist that Israel has provided arms ranging from bolt-action rifles and Uzi submachine guns to cluster bombs. There may also be 30 and 100 Israeli military advisers in the country, said one Western diplomat.
In any event, it is clear that Mengistu's most pressing need is for military aid to replace what is being withdrawn by the Soviet Union, Ethiopia's main supplier for about 15 years.
Israel denies that it has given any military aid to Ethiopia or that there is anything like an arms-for-Jews deal.
"I've heard this, that we're going to replace the Russians (as suppliers)," said Haim Divon, charge d'affaires at the Israeli Embassy in Addis Ababa. "But even if we wanted to, we don't have the capacity to do so. The immigration of the Falashas is not linked to anything else."
To most Ethiopians and much of the world, the black Jews are known as Falashas. But they reject that name, since the word is usually translated as "stranger" or "outsider," a label that reflects their low station in Ethiopia. Most prefer to call themselves "Beta-Israel," or "House of Israel."
The atmosphere around a secluded compound at the center of the informal Ethiopian Jewish settlement in Addis Ababa leaves no doubt that the emigration operation is one of the most sensitive programs in Ethiopia today.
A high wall hides what is the unofficial emigration headquarters from view, and its solid metal gate is heavily guarded. Cars from the Israeli Embassy silently pull up throughout the day to discharge official passengers.
Outside the wall, hundreds of people dressed in the same flowing shawls in which they made their way from remote villages stand silently. Within the compound two wide green tents shelter Jews undergoing processing. An air of open suspicion and hostility greets any outsider who manages to get inside.
Over the summer, even as Ethiopian leaders were giving the State Department assurances of continued cooperation, officials here stepped up their harassment of people involved in the emigration project.
At least two Americans working with the Israeli Embassy to facilitate the emigration, including Susan Pollack, an activist on behalf of Ethiopian Jews who has been in and out of this country for six years, were questioned about their activities by security officers.
The officers ordered the Americans to move out of their rented private quarters and back into hotels. The rationale was that as holders of tourist visas, they are not permitted to lodge in private homes, but it is clear that the government intended to better monitor their activities.
People working with the Ethiopian Jews are also concerned that some earlier emigrants who returned to Addis Ababa over the past few weeks to help those left behind will lose their tourist visas, forcing them to return to Israel.