Racism fingered in Ethiopian soldiers recent suicide

On Sunday, March 23, Alene Tamene, 22, an Ethiopian Jewish immigrant and resident of the Israeli southern port city of Ashkelon, told his niece about the welcome he receives at his army base.

"Every morning when I get to the base, six soldiers are waiting for me who clap their hands and yell, `The kushi [black] is here.'"

One day later he committed suicide.

Tamene was the second Ethiopian-born Israeli soldier to commit suicide within the past 10 days, and the third in the past month. He was to complete his service in less than three months.

Molla Belay took his own life on March 14, after an army psychiatrist dismissed his pleas to be released because he felt "under pressure."

His request came after Belay was publicly harangued by his superiors. And about one month ago, soldier Avraham Gideon of Beersheva committed suicide.

When Tamene complained to his commander about the name-calling, he was told: "What's the matter, don't you know you're a kushi? What are you complaining about?" according to Shlomo Mula, secretary of the United Ethiopian Jewish Organization.

After he gave his niece a gift for her birthday on Sunday, she asked Tamene what his army service was like.

"He told her: `I'm having trouble in the army,'" Mula said Wednesday of last week after Tamene's death.

Mula said Tamene told her of his daily denigration by his comrades and his commander's refusal to intervene.

"Then he told her, `I'm going to kill the commander and commit suicide,'" Mula said.

The Israeli army is still investigating the incident.

"Every week we go to funerals," Mula said, of the recent series of suicides among Ethiopian soldiers.

Ethiopian immigrants make up just four-tenths of 1 percent of the Israeli army, but comprise 10 percent of army suicides.

In Belay's case, the soldier had worked as a cook and was asked to prepare three crates of sandwiches for soldiers from the base. When he saw that he lacked enough kitchen staff, he enlisted the help of some other soldiers. Then, the base doctor, who had stopped in to do a midnight sanitation check in the kitchen, yelled at him to throw out the sandwiches, since using soldiers to prepare them violated sanitation codes.

Belay then got some other kitchen workers and worked through the early morning hours to get the sandwiches ready in time.

Later he complained of suffering shakes, and requested some time off the base, but a psychiatrist he was sent to in Beersheva ruled he "was faking," according to Mula.

Mula also denied that Belay, who lived in a caravan of trailers for immigrants in Hafetz Haim, committed suicide because of economic or social problems, or a general inability to acclimate to army life.

Belay belonged to a yeshiva for religious soldiers and is one of eight brothers, four of whom were in the army, Mula said. "This wasn't a family that was unfamiliar with the army."

Mula wants the army to examine how its lower-level personnel treat Ethiopian immigrants, and furthermore urged an army ban on use of the word "kushi."

Labor Knesset member Adisu Massala said he had received several complaints from Ethiopian immigrants serving in the army about racist remarks and mistreatment.

"The [army] has not learned how to deal with the phenomenon of the suicides of Ethiopian soldiers. The army must immediately draw the necessary conclusions, and reduce this phenomenon to the minimum," Massala said.

Captain Mekonan Gathon, an air force officer of Ethiopian origin, recently said the army tries to counsel Ethiopian youths before they are inducted and throughout their service.

He stressed, however, that the Ethiopian community does not want special treatment or to be treated as if they have unusual problems.

Since 1993, 10 soldiers of Ethiopian origin have committed suicide.