It was one of the most daring operations in Ethiopian history: Israel’s 1991 airlift of Ethiopian Jews, when nearly 15,000 people were crammed into a series of non-stop flights lasting 36 hours.
Clutching only a few belongings, in planes with seats removed to make more space, they left a nation their ancestors had called home for two millennia for a land they knew only from scripture.
More than two decades later, some 2,000 descendants and relatives of those Israel had identified as original Jews are set to join them in the Holy Land.
All that’s left of Ethiopia’s Jewish population, called the Falash Mura, or “wanderers” in Ethiopia’s Amharic language — is expected to move to Israel over the next 18 months, the end of an ancient chapter of Ethiopian history.
“It is God’s promise to us to go to the Promised Land and fulfill his prophecy… but that doesn’t change the fact that I am Ethiopian,” said Gasho Abenet, 25.
Ethiopia’s remaining Falash Mura live in Gondar in the north of the country, supported by the Jerusalem-based organisation The Jewish Agency for Israel, where many have waited for years to complete bureaucratic hurdles and win approval to move.
Many say they feel frozen in limbo, not quite at home in Ethiopia, eager to become Israeli, and suffering from a long separation from family members who have already left.
“Once… you’re in this halfway status of being internal refugees, you’re certainly better off in Israel than being internal refugees in Ethiopia,” said Steven Kaplan, professor of religion and African studies at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University.
Many Jews in Ethiopia — a small minority in a country where officially 62 percent are Christian and 34 percent are Muslim — say they have been misunderstood and even discriminated against.
Housing rents are arbitrarily hiked, some say, and many report name-calling from those who do not understand or accept Judaism.
“It is difficult to live here in Ethiopia as an Israelite because we get insulted,” 22-year-old Amhare Fantahun said.
For Gasho, it means never feeling fully at home in the land of his birth.
“The life that we are living here is a nightmare, we can never settle,” he said, donning a black and white skullcap and a Star of David pin.
Despite their feeling of apparent transience, the history of Judaism in Ethiopia dates back about 2,000 years.
The precise roots are disputed: some say Ethiopia’s ancient Jews — called Beta Israel, or “House of Israel” — are descendants of Jewish nomads who travelled first to Egypt, then on to Ethiopia.
Others say they are direct descendants of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon.
The Falash Mura, descendants of the Beta Israeli — many of whom were forced to convert to Christianity in the 18th and 19th centuries — have observed a unique interpretation of Judaism for generations.
Practices include separating menstruating women from men and burying their dead in Christian cemeteries. They must learn Rabbinic law and Hebrew before moving to Israel.
In skullcaps and draped in prayer scarves, they gather every week in Gondar’s makeshift synagogue, a corrugated iron shed painted the blue and white of Israel’s flag, chanting verses from the Torah in Ethiopia’s Amharic language.
The push to transport Ethiopia’s Jews to Israel began in the 1980s, under Ethiopia’s brutal Communist dictator Mengistu Hailemariam, who used Ethiopia’s Jews as pawns and tried to trade them for weapons from Israel.
Many left Ethiopia illegally, travelling by foot to Sudan, where 20,000 people were eventually flown to Israel in Operation Moses in 1985, the precursor to the 1991 airlift from the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa.
The airlift, known as Operation Solomon, came as Mengistu lost his grip on power.
There are about 130,000 Jews of Ethiopian descent in Israel today. By March 2014, the immigration of Ethiopia’s Jews to Israel is expected to finish, closing an ancient chapter of Ethiopia’s history.
Under Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie, departure for Israel was blocked as he said the country would lose a key cornerstone of its heritage.
“Haile Selassie said, ‘If we did that we would lose one of the key elements in the Ethiopian tapestry. They represent a tradition that we all think we’re descended from,’” said Stephen Spector, author of a book about the airlift.
But for Israeli ambassador to Ethiopia Belyanesh Zevadia — who was born in Ethiopia and lived in Israel for 28 years — the end of the returns to Israel merely marks a new chapter in relations between the two countries.
“Maybe (we are) losing the culture, the Jewish culture,” she said. “But there are so many of them coming back and investing here… so we are building the bridge between the two countries.”
Gasho said the heritage lives on in other ways too, even though most of the Falash Mura have left the country.
“We Jewish who are living here in Ethiopia, we taught our wisdom and knowledge,” he said. “Our culture is well understood throughout the community… learning, metallurgy, handcraftsmanship, it is all passed on,” Gasho added.
At Addis Ababa’s transit centre, where the Falash Mura gather before boarding a flight to Israel, new shoes and clothes are passed around as children play table tennis and table football under the beating afternoon sun.
Despite not knowing what to expect when they reach Israel, there is a sense of happiness from those about to leave Ethiopia for good.
“I am going to miss Ethiopia, of course, but this is life, so I have to go to Israel, and that is the path decided for me,” said Malefeya Zelelu, 84, who waited in Gondar for 14 years before being approved to leave.
“I am now going to be an Israelite,” he added, smiling widely.