A three month investigation shows how – covertly – Uganda has been receiving Israeli refugees and taking arms in return to keeping them here or transiting them to their home country. Despite numerous government denials, tickets, photos and videos of Israeli refugees expose the grim nature in which the deportations are carried out and accepted by Uganda
Foreign affairs ministry officials, on top of denying the allegation said the deportations from Israel would be in contravention of established International law practices that Uganda ascribes to. But the allegation held and probably might now be true.A few months after denying the allegation, Israeli government officials would shift their pronouncements from the non-existence of the deal to ‘the deal is not completely unfounded’. Haaretz, a leading agency in Israel quoted the Israeli Interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, in September last year, saying the deal for the transfer of refuges from Israel to Uganda is not completely unfounded.
But while the Israeli government officials shifted goal posts on the matter, the government back in Kampala stayed firm, assuring the press from month to month that the government wasn’t taking any refugees from Israel.
While the government denied the allegations, they didn’t deny that Israel had approached them to act as a transit country for refugees. Infact, Foreign Affairs minister Okello Oryem in an interview with the EastAfrican newspaper would pronounce that indeed Uganda had been approached to host unwanted refugees of Eritrean and Sudanese origin
I set out to verify the allegation if indeed the Ugandan government had received refugees from Israel and whether arms were exchanged in the process.
The story of Israel’s approach to Uganda on the matter is traceable to the long held friendships of the Israel government with Uganda. What perhaps was the start of the conversation on the matter was President Yoweri Kaguta Museveni’s visit to Israel in 2011.
The visit, was the second of its kind the president was making to Israel and travelled on private planes to get there. While in Israel, Museveni would talk to Benjamin Netanyahu on agricultural relations and in part military aid.
Present in that room that day was a man not new to Museveni’s eyes, Rafi Eitan. Having served in the Israeli airforce, Eitan had been elected Director of Israel’s top spy agency Mossad from where he left to become minister of Pension Affairs of Israel, it was from this post that he left Israel’s civil service to do private business in Agriculture. Those who know him, sing praise of his intelligence gathering and dissemination. Eitan retired to a private life in business and agriculture, his preference being starting a cattle ranch in Uganda, a trade Museveni leaves no stone unturned when explaining. Eitan would become a close associate of Museveni, often advising him on handling terror and in return, his business interests would come to fruition in Uganda.
A source who worked in statehouse at the time says every time he visited, he was highly guarded and given first priority, they describe him as a friendly old man that speaks less and is a stickler for order.
The details of that meeting may never become public but the outcome certainly became. A gag order lifted by the Israeli court in August this year proved that Uganda had agreed to a deal to take in over 5,000 Sudanese and Ethiopian refugees in exchange for arms and agricultural support.
Uganda indeed had the atmosphere for the refugee settlement, the country was swarming with refugees to a tune of 220,555 according to data from the UNHCR, at the time, Museveni was in dire need of arms to deal with emerging threats of Al-shabab that Uganda had started fighting 2 years before then. Museveni also needed – rather too strongly – strong agricultural ties to sustain the national economy that was on skewers. Israel was willing to offer this and more. Arms, agricultural inputs, training for soldiers in Israel’s prestigious military and even Israel backing in missions against LRA and Al-Shabab.
So did the refugees come?
That question cannot be better answered by anybody other than Nesredin Jemal Hasen, an Ethipion national stuck in Uganda. Jemal, fled fighting in his home country in Ethiopia and docked in Israel where he was given temporary asylum pending refugee status in 2009. He was assured by Israeli officials that upon processing of his documents, he would be granted refugee status however all that was about to change in 2014.
Jemal recalls receiving a phone call from a company named Inbal Insurance agency that informed him that he had booked a flight aboard Ethiopian airlines to fly out of Israel destined for Uganda on the 2nd of June. To the best of his knowledge, Jemal, an asylum then, did not have money to book a flight ticket but he was informed that the ticket had been cashed in by the insurance company and all that was required of him was to be at the airport on the said date to take his flight back home. Jemal pleaded to remain in Israel but that plea would bear no fruit. On the 2nd of June 2014, following orders he had been given, he went to the airport and was reffered to a man he fondly recalls introducing himself as ‘Amadeus’. Amadeus was the name that had booked the tickets for Jemal and would later hand Jemal $3500 to fly safely to Uganda, it was then that Jemal realised he had ‘formally’ accepted to be deported from Israel.
We traced the origins of the tickets and booking numbers on Jemal’s tickets and all of them led to an ‘agent 0403′ working at Inbal Insurance agency in Israel. Inbal, is a state owned insurance company that handles among many Israeli matters, insuring arms deals. Inbal had incurred a cost of 2 million shillings (USD 800) to book a ticket and flight for Jemal aboard Ethiopian airlines, seat number 17 D on the 2nd of June 2014. Jemal’s story checked. Addis Ababa airport had received a person in his names on the date he had given me and that person had proceeded on a private plane to Entebbe airport in Uganda. Jemal now lives in Kampala. He refused to disclose his location citing fear of reprisals after the story was published.
The email address provided by the said ‘Amadeus’ on the tickets that were booked for both Jemal and Fransa when mailed returned an automated response saying there is no such user.
Dr Rami Gudovitch, a known activist on Israeli refugees describes the process of transferring refugees as ‘shopping’ and he says the matter could even be bigger. He says that the refugees are being arrested in the countries they are being sent to and Uganda is ‘certainly one of them’.
I sent the details of Fransa and Jemal to the Commissioner for refugees at the Office of the Prime Minister Apollo David Kazungu, to date, no response has been provided. Various requests for an interview on the matter have been turned down but he is quoted telling Associated Press that he ‘is not privy to any deal for the exchange of refugees between Israel and Uganda’.
To the arms deal
In 2009, Uganda needed arms the most, UPDF had just undertaken ‘Operation Lightening thunder’ to flash LRA rebels out of Ugandan territory and needed more supplies, at the time, documents from parliament’s defence committee seen by URN confirm that indeed a request by UPDF was put in for an extra 47 billion to fund operations in Garamba. Infact, a closer look at the spending patterns of UPDF from that year indicate that an extra 95 billion shillings was put in for the defence budget. When we traced the hansard for this discussion, the deputy Chief of Defence Forces then, Ivan Koreta had explained that the year had been a ‘hectic one for security’ and they ‘needed the money’.
The year following however, the ministry of defence budget was cut by over 55 billion shillings and in the same year, Israel reported to the United Nations Convention on Arms that they had sold weapons (eighteen 120mm mortars and 3 truck mounted weapon systems) , a sale that would have cost the UPDF four national budgets to put to bed. One 120mm mortar bought from Israel costs 1.3 trillion shillings according to the Japanese military expenditure list. Japan had bought the same guns a year before. The major point is that Uganda government could not have afforded the weapons that Israel sold to them over the course of three years. The coincidental nature in which arms kept moving from Israel to Uganda following Museveni’s meeting with Netanyahu and former Mossad director Rafi Eitan would come into question. Eitan’s history with handling of refugees did not help the accusation either. During his tenure as Senior Affairs minister, Eitan had suggested that the Israeli government forcibly evict Jewish refugees that had settled in the country.
The covert nature of arms sales in Uganda made it impossible to track any paper work on this deal. Col. Felix Kulaigye, a spokesperson of UPDF at the time when asked about the arms purchase declined to comment saying it would be tantamount to breaching national security. Documents of accountability from the Ministry of defence on the arms purchase in the following financial year 2010/2011 do not reflect any deal to that amount, infact, the entire national budget would have to be taken to fund it.
An incident happening in November this year has however blown off the lid of what may have been detained them at Special Investigations Unit over ‘illegal arms importation’. The Israeli officials identified as Dotan Regev and Asaf Ben Israel were arrested at Entebbe Airport over ‘illegal importation of arms’ .
The two would be produced in court four days later from where they denied the charges and launched a counter claim stating that the Uganda government was the one importing the guns from the Israeli government and they are simply the go-between under their company Israeli weapons Industries (IWI). A string of documents following this claim has bought to light what may have been an arms deal. Rossette Byengoma, the Permanent secretary authored the first letter on January 29th this year stating that the UPDF was to be an end user of weapons being carried by the two Israeli officials. This in effect committed the UPDF to the deal.
The documents available suggest a government to government deal for the weapons however no track record of documents shows payment for the same by the UPDF.
Refugees like Jemal and Barahawi continue to question circumstances under which they ended up in Uganda but Ugandan government officials are neither willing to tell nor ready to divulge any details on the matter.
Jemal and Barahawi have since met in Kampala and are planning on travelling to their home country in Ethiopia but lack passports and citizenship that was stripped off them after they fled their home country.