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My Treacherous Journey across the Ethiopian Desert

August 2, 2015 | by Rachel Darar Lebowitz

A 4-year-old girl and her family risk their lives fleeing Ethiopia to reach the land of Israel.

As a four-year-old, Mitzlall, now known as Rachel Darar Lebowitz, journeyed all the way from the backlands of Ethiopia, across raging rivers and arid deserts, over craggy mountains and narrow cliffs, until she finally reached her longed-for destination: the land of Israel. The grueling two-year trek turned out to be only the first part of Mitzllal's personal journey... and perhaps the easiest part.

Mitzllal’s story is a soul-stirring one, filled with physical hardship, inner turmoil, and eventual triumph. Her personal journey serves as an inspiration to all those in search of their own true selves.

The following excerpt from Mitzllal: Stranger among Sisters (Israel Bookshop Publications) highlights some of the difficult conditions Mitzllal and her family had to endure while travelling across the Ethiopian desert.

The First Leg of the Journey

Mitzllal family membersMy mother with her older brother David Kechsai holding her nephew Issachar

We walked in the forest for close to three hours until we came to the desert. It was two o’clock in the morning, still dark outside, and we pushed our way through rocks, thorns, and dry grass. We walked group by group, with the strongest ones at the head of each group. In our group, Uncle Legeseh’s wife, children, and three sons-in-law walked out in front, and Uncle Legeseh followed behind with all the sheep, as he was responsible for shepherding the sheep of all the families. Uncle Mitzamihret, Uncle Birhaneh, and my family came next, since we had small children who walked slowly and had to stop more frequently. Even though we were walking in separate groups, we didn’t lose contact with each other. The first group would stop periodically and wait for the other groups to catch up before continuing.

At four o’clock in the morning, we could hear helicopters and shooting off in the distance. At that time, there was a war going on between the Democrats and the Communists, and we could hear the war all the way from where we were, but we kept moving in spite of our fear, our silence surrounding us like a cloak. The only sign of our presence was our footprints in the sand, and we soldiered on even though we were unprepared for the unexpected.

After five straight hours of walking, we found ourselves surrounded by a pack of wolves

After five straight hours of walking, we were forced to stop. We found ourselves surrounded by a pack of wolves, and the sound of their howling was terrifying. The children, silent up until then, could not contain their cries as they clung to their parents’ legs, pulling on their clothing and searching for a place to hide. The children riding on their fathers’ shoulders breathed more easily since they were up high and away from the danger. We huddled together, frightened and trembling, until one of the men gathered his courage and threw a lit match into a pile of dried grass. A big fire broke out, scaring the wolves and sending them running for safety.

Before we started moving again, we realized that two donkeys belonging to two families with small children, one of which was ourselves, had disappeared. All of our supplies were loaded on the donkeys, from flour to candies for the children. Without these essential supplies, there was no way we could survive in the desert. They decided to split up: Abba and Uncle Mitzamihret would turn back and look for the donkeys, and the rest of us would continue onward.

We continued walking until the sun came up and we could finally see where we were going. We were alone in the desert—we could neither see the first group ahead of us nor see those who had turned back to find the donkeys—but there was no time to stop because we were in the middle of a war zone.

Later in the morning, Aunt Avishai’s labor pains, which she had been enduring for the past ten hours, began to overwhelm her. We knew that we had to stop, but we needed to find a shady spot. Luckily, there was a mountain up ahead that was covered with trees. When we got there, Uncle Birhaneh cleared away stones and branches and starting breaking branches off trees, with my mother helping as much as she could. We laid the branches on the ground and spread blankets over them. We tied three of the blankets to four trees surrounding the clearing to set up a partition of sorts where Avishai, after giving birth, would be able to rest with her baby. The children were exhausted and fell asleep right away. Aunt Avishai approached the partition from the other side with Aunt Yejevnesh accompanying. Aunt Yejevnesh was carrying Avishai’s toddler on her back and holding Avishai’s hand, trying to comfort her.

Aunt Avishai went inside the partition, and everyone waited to hear good news. Avishai was in tremendous pain, and Aunt Yejevnesh was telling her what she could do to minimize the pain. After a few long and nerve-wracking minutes, we could hear a baby’s cry.

Mazal tov!” said Aunt Yejevnesh. “It’s an adorable baby girl.” It was also a ray of light in the gathering gloom.

We started walking only two hours after the birth, with Avishai holding her new baby.

The new mother did not have much time to rest and recover. We started walking only two hours after the birth, with Avishai holding her new baby and her midwife carrying the baby’s two-year-old sister.

We continued walking for a few more hours, and while we were walking, we saw two of Uncle Legeseh’s sons-in-law who had turned back to find out what had happened to us. We filled them in on the reason for our delay, and it was decided, following a brief discussion, that we would wait for my father and Uncle Mitzamihret to return from their search for the donkeys. Meanwhile, we realized that Uncle Legeseh had vanished along with the sheep. Twelve hours had passed with no word of his whereabouts, and his family, who had already crossed the Tekezeh River, turned back and waited for their father to appear.

Ethiopian houseOur house in Ethiopia

While we were waiting, we heard cows lowing, and a little while later, Uncle Legeseh’s third son-in-law appeared, followed shortly by my father and Uncle Mitzamihret, whole and unharmed. They told us they were caught by armed soldiers who called themselves “Machber Minasai.” Describing themselves as “affiliated with the Democrats,” they interrogated my father and uncle for hours, from morning until four o’clock in the afternoon. Only after explaining that they were wandering farmers looking to find work did the soldiers let them go. Uncle Legeseh had also been caught by the soldiers, and they let him go after he convinced them that he was a simple shepherd.

Just after breathing a sigh of relief, we realized that Abba and Uncle Mitzamihret had come back empty-handed—without donkeys, flour, or water. The families with small children were left without food and water, but we told my father and Uncle Mitzamihret the good news about Avishai’s baby, and they were consoled.

We tried to see the good in the situation—we were all together, everyone had returned in one piece, and a new baby had joined our group. We continued our journey. Uncle Legeseh joined up with his family, and we all followed the two young men who had waited for us to come, because they already knew the way. When we came to the great Tekezeh River, however, we had no idea how to cross it with little children in our care.

Uncle Mitzamihret held a long stick in his hand and stood close to the mouth of the river. Everyone was frozen in place, wondering whether it was feasible to achieve this seemingly impossible task. This particular scenario of a man waving his hand over the water was well known to those among us who learned Torah.

One hundred and twenty years earlier, a large group of people attempted to travel from Ethiopia to Jerusalem. At their head was Abba Mahari, a man in pursuit of a dream he’d had. In this dream, God revealed to him that it was time for him to go up to Jerusalem. He abandoned his homeland, and many others joined the expedition. When they got to the river, he spread his staff over it, expecting the same miracle as that that occurred by the Yam Suf. Unfortunately, the river did not split, and Abba Mahari and his retinue were forced to return home. Many of them never reached home, having fallen on the way from sickness and plagues. This failed attempt ended in bitter disappointment.

Ethiopian ovenOur oven in Ethiopia

With the water coming up to his chest, he crossed the river with his staff in one hand and a child in the other.

This time, Uncle Mitzamihret did not put his faith in miracles and expect the river to split. With the water coming up to his chest, he crossed the river with his staff in one hand and a child in the other. Each man did the same, and before they knew it, all the children were safely on the other side. Then they held the women by their hands and crossed them over, as well. We were soaked to the marrow of our bones but thrilled with our success.

Still soaking wet, we had to pass through tall grass that was nearly a meter high. After a few hours, the grassy part ended, and we came upon a clearing where we met up with the first group. They had spread out blankets and had already fallen asleep. We were happy that we, too, could finally rest, and we started to unload our things and get ready to sleep. It was one o’clock on a Friday morning.

Abba lowered Alofo from his shoulders, and like all the other fathers, spread a blanket on the ground. My brother and I were awake but exhausted. Ima changed us into the dry clothing she had carried on her shoulder along with the machzel that held my baby sister. She spread the wet clothing out to dry, and then she put the four of us to sleep on the blanket spread out on the ground and covered us with another blanket. Ima looked at us and started to cry. It pained her to see us sleeping on a blanket on the ground like that, but it hurt even more when she considered our situation.

I’ll never forget it as long as I live,” my mother later told me. “I lifted my hands up to the Heavens and prayed from the bottom of my heart: ‘Master of the World,’ I cried. ‘You know that my mother is ill, that she has been paralyzed for the past nine years, and that my brother Kakhsai has been sitting in prison for months and I have no idea what will happen to him. I didn’t want to leave my mother and my brother behind, but the people in our village convinced us that the time had come to go to Jerusalem. We got up and left, leaving behind my mother and brother so that I could fulfill the dream of thousands of years, and here is my sacrifice!’

What will I give my children to eat and drink? We have no flour! We have no water!

I pointed my finger at you children lying so helplessly before me and said, ‘Master of the World, look at these children, walking for hours at a time without making a cry or complaint. The last meal they ate was the night before we left, and it’s been a whole day since they’ve eaten. It’s one o’clock in the morning now, and another day is dawning. What will I give my children to eat and drink? We have no flour! We have no water! Their last meal satisfied them until now, but what about the next day? I can’t even think about it, but in spite of it all, I still want to go to Jerusalem with my children.’” My mother placed her hands over her eyes, wiped her tears with them, and kissed them, as was her custom when she finished praying.

Aunt Yejevnesh, sitting a short distance away with Aunt Avishai, overheard my mother’s prayer and rebuked her soundly. “Why are you crying that you have no flour or water? Why are you worrying? We are all here together. We’ll eat whatever there is, and if we’ll finish it all, we’ll all fast together. Here, take this flour and water from us, and make bread for everyone.” Ima cried again, only this time from joy.

Ima set out her supplies and quickly prepared the dough while Abba broke up some branches into kindling. Ima hesitated for a moment, regretting the absence of her baking pan, when she remembered that she had tied a pot cover onto one of the straps of the baby carrier because there hadn’t been room for it anywhere else. Ima spread out the dough on top of the pot cover and set it to bake, and that was how we ate our bread, called kicha, in the middle of the forest. Ima also made intatiyeh, chick pea flour mixed with water, which we spread on the kicha before folding it back in half. The children were woken up for a taste and then fell back asleep.

With our own eyes we saw how God guided us on every step of the grueling journey.

Ima continued baking until about four in the morning. The first group, Uncle Legeseh and his family, ate some of the fresh bread before embarking on the next part of the journey. They arranged a time and place for the next rendezvous and went on their way. Ima, much more relaxed knowing her children had food to eat, finally went to sleep.

It’s hard to fathom how anyone could have slept at all under these conditions. Any one of them—the war, the forbidding forest, the wild animals, the robbers, and the exhaustion—would have stopped others with less faith in God. The words of Tefillas Haderech, the prayer for travelers, came to life as we prayed for safety, “You should lead us in peace, lay us down in peace, and direct our steps in peace so that we should arrive at our destination in peace!”

And so it was. We saw with our own eyes how God guided us on every step of the grueling journey. We looked directly into the faces of wild animals, and we weren’t harmed. We stepped into the path of robbers, armed soldiers, and policemen and emerged unscathed. We believed in God and knew He would protect us, and with this calm, we fell asleep.

Mitzllal book coverMitzllal: Stranger among Sisters is available in bookstores or here.

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