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Israel's forgotten hostage: Avera Mengistu remains in Hamas captivity after 9 years

Michal Worke, an Israeli artist with Ethiopian roots, shares her studio space and artwork. Much of her work is devoted to a kidnapped Ethiopian Israeli citizen who has been held in Gaza for over nine years by Hamas.
Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR Images
Michal Worke, an Israeli artist with Ethiopian roots, shares her studio space and artwork. Much of her work is devoted to a kidnapped Ethiopian Israeli citizen who has been held in Gaza for over nine years by Hamas.

Nine years.

That's how long ago since the Mengistu family last saw their son and brother, Avera Mengistu. He was 27 years old when he ran across the Gaza border in a state of emotional distress and was taken by Hamas. He is 36 now.

"It's a hole. It's like a sense: like eyes, or ears, or a wound. You live with it forever, until this whole thing is over and he comes home," Yallo Mengistu said of his brother's absence in his family's lives. "We live with it all day, every day."

Mengistu's kidnapping remains top of mind for his family and Israel's Ethiopian Jewish community after around 240 hostages were taken by Hamas on Oct. 7.

A deal to that has resulted in the release of some of the hostagesdid not include a mention of a possible exchange for Mengistu or Hisham al-Sayed, a Palestinian citizen of Israel of Bedouin descent who was taken by Hamas in 2015.

The posters bearing the names and faces of the Oct. 7 hostages hang almost everywhere across Israel: on street signs, bus stops, restaurant windows and cars. But Mengistu's name and face is nowhere to be seen, although Israel says it is committed to bringing back all hostages.

Mengistu's case highlights the inequality facing Ethiopian Jews and other non-white Israelis, says one artist and activist who has called for Avera's return for years.

"Avera's story is my story and it's the story of the entire Ethiopian community," Michal Worke, an Israeli artist of Ethiopian descent, said. "Nine years he's been a hostage in Gaza, and no one cares."

The Mengistu family have been pressured to keep quiet

Avera Mengistu's mother Agarnesh Mengistu (left) and his sister Tsige Engidaw enter the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, on July 5, 2023.
Gabriel Monnet / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Avera Mengistu's mother Agarnesh Mengistu (left) and his sister Tsige Engidaw enter the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, on July 5, 2023.

Yallo Mengistu said he is not trying to make comparisons between those taken on Oct. 7 and his brother's case.

But just like those families of the Oct. 7 hostages, the absence of his brother is a wound that cannot heal without his return, he said.

"Every time that someone brings up Avera in front of my mother, she cries," he said. "And a lot of years have gone by, but you don't get used to it. It's a living thing."

After a fight with his mother on Sept. 7, 2014, Avera Mengistu left his family home in Ashkelon, Israel, and never returned. Video evidence viewed by the family shows that Mengistu entered Gaza by crossing a fence that night, according to Human Rights Watch.

He crossed into Gaza in full view of Israeli soldiers who didn't stop him. Once in Gaza, he was taken captive by Hamas.

Avera Mengistu when he was younger in an undated family photo.
/ Yallo Mengistu
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Yallo Mengistu
Avera Mengistu when he was younger in an undated family photo.

The night he left, Mengistu was in an emotional state, his brother said. He had been suffering from a decline in his mental health since the death of his brother, Masrashau, in 2011 and had been hospitalized and on medications.

The fact that Mengistu crossed the Gaza border by himself and suffered from mental health issues is a point that has since been twisted by some in the Israeli media and the government to dismiss the gravity of his situation, Worke, the artist calling for his release, said.

"It wasn't of his own accord. Avera was diagnosed as mentally ill, he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital twice, he was on medications," Yallo Mengistu said. His brother couldn't take responsibility for his actions. "So the claim that he crossed the border of his own free will, it's not even relevant."

A week after Mengistu was taken, there was a meeting with his family and some government representatives.

"They told us, 'We know where he is, there's no need to worry, just keep it quiet. Don't talk about it.' Then, a month later, we were visited by the Commander of the Gaza Division, he came and said that they had lost contact with him [Avera] and they didn't know where he was. Since then, we haven't had any information. Nothing."

In a statement to NPR, the Israeli prime minister's office said: "All the hostages held in Gaza will be brought back to Israel. Gal Hirsch the special coordinator for the hostages and the missing appointed by the prime minister met with the Mengistu family. Israel is committed to bringing back all its hostages and missing people, including Avera Mengistu."

The Israeli government only announced Mengistu was held by Hamas in July 2015 — almost a year after his disappearance. That was because the Israeli newspaper Haaretz submitted a request to repeal the gag order put on Mengistu's case by the government.

If that hadn't happened, Yallo Mengistu said the family likely would have continued to stay quiet. In 2015, Haaretz released a YouTube video of a call between the Mengistu family and members of the government in which the officials can be heard threatening and bullying the family.

"It's the hardest possible situation. On one hand, they tell you that if you talk it's going to be bad for him, and will result in him staying in Gaza for much longer, but if you keep quiet, we'll bring him back right away," he said. "You shut up and suffer in silence. It's a terrible feeling."

In January 2023, more than eight years after his kidnapping, Hamas released a video purporting to be of Mengistu still alive. According to The New York Times, Mengistu asked in Hebrew in the video, "How long will my friends and I remain in captivity here after long years of suffering and pain? Where are the state and the people of Israel?"

At the time of the video's release, i24NEWS English spoke to the Mengistu family. They said they were uncertain about whether it was definitely Avera. The family said they saw video only through the press — just like the rest of Israel.

"Avera's story is my story"

Worke has spent years devoting much of her work to Avera Mengistu, an Israeli citizen who has been held for over nine years in Gaza and who has been forgotten by the Israeli media and the government, she says.
/ Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR Images
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Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR Images
Worke has spent years devoting much of her work to Avera Mengistu, an Israeli citizen who has been held for over nine years in Gaza and who has been forgotten by the Israeli media and the government, she says.

In the nine years since his brother's kidnapping, the Mengistu family has found a silver living: "Regular people who never met Avera, they did more and helped more than the government," Yallo Mengistu said.

There is a sizable portion of Israeli society, he said, including of the Mengistu's own Ethiopian Jewish community, that has supported their family.

Ethiopian Jews started arriving in Israel in the late 1970s. Now, there are more than 140,000 Jewish Israeli citizens of Ethiopian origin. But the Ethiopian Jewish community often suffer serious discrimination and inequality in Israel. Ethiopian Jews are often on the the lowest socioeconomic rung in Israel.

Worke is an artist and a member of this population. Since Mengistu's kidnapping, she has painted him and his family. She posts her work regularly on social media and appears at protests always advocating for his release.

She said she sees the inequality facing the community everywhere.

"I've confronted it in my education, in the art world, where they don't give enough voice to Ethiopian artists," she said. "So, Avera's story appears in lots of smaller stories and it makes his story more symbolic, something shared by the whole community."

Michal Worke, an Israeli artist with Ethiopian roots, shares her work devoted to Avera Mengistu.
/ Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR Images
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Tanya Habjouqa/NOOR Images
Michal Worke, an Israeli artist with Ethiopian roots, shares her work devoted to Avera Mengistu.

Worke said she's seen the artwork created in honor of the hundreds of Israelis taken on Oct. 7, some of whom have been freed as part of a deal with Hamas involving the release of Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

"There are artists who immediately started working, who just jumped right in and started showing their faces [the kidnapped] and giving them a platform. But not for Avera. He isn't there, his face isn't anywhere," she said.

She continues to post about his case, sharing her paintings of him, even after Oct. 7 when much of the focus has been on the hostages taken in the Hamas attack. She said she's faced criticism for doing so.

"I post a critical story about Avera and people say it's not the time to criticize. If you don't say something, nothing will change," she said. "And I want it to be clear, I love my country. But I think if you want to change something, you have to identify the problem."

NPR's Jaclyn Diaz reported from Tel Aviv. Freelance producer Eve Guterman contributed to this report.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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