Amazingly it is 25 years since Operation Solomon when the Jews of Ethiopia were airlifted to Israel - the top-secret operation saw 34 planes, going on 41 sorties, to bring to Israel some 14,500 Ethiopian Jews, plus five born in flight. The following is an extract from an account written by Dr Fred Wright who had the privilege (and challenge) of being involved. He says "I had the opportunity to become involved in what, over these 29 years of Aliyah, remain within my most treasured memories." A fuller account of Fred's experiences in Ethiopia are recorded in the e-book "Banner to the Nations" which will be available soon on Ezra UK's website. Well worth a read!! Fred visited Ethiopia in 1990 and again in early 1991 - we continue the account in his words:
Upon return to UK I was greatly moved by the plight of Ethiopia's Jewish people and resolved to help their aliyah in any way possible. There was within the land itself the overwhelming problems of poverty and this was exacerbated by little or no work. A direct consequence of this is what may be termed the prostitution of desperation. Many girls and women prostituted themselves not because they were immoral, but it was the choice between that and starvation.
There was a lot of cotton and fabric in Ethiopia but sewing needles were virtually unobtainable. Along with a contact in the Church and particularly my late mother we set about obtaining as many sewing needles as possible for my next planned trip a couple of months later. PFI were interested in this visit and gave a generous donation in USD for the Jewish community in Addis. Due to regulations all monies had to be declared on entry and departure. This money and others were carefully sewn into the sleeves of my leather jacket.
At the time I was the Principle of a school and tried to fit my next trip around the next break. However, in prayer I felt pressed to go on 20st May. I immediately fought against this date for the assignment, as I was far too busy in the time frame. In the event the only time that could possibly work out was in fact the May date. In those days to fly to Ethiopia you could only go via Moscow, Rome or Frankfurt, the latter being the obvious choice, and the former not being a realistic option as if there was a delay and you missed the connection you would have to wait at least two days for another flight. The day arrived and the flight left Heathrow on time, which was important as there were only around 30 minutes to effect the transfer. In the event the plane was nearly an hour late, and I anticipated that I would have missed the connection. The problem was, at this time there were not flights every day. However, as we were making the descent, an in-flight announcement asked me to identify myself and approach the front of the aircraft asap. To my surprise they gave me the first exit from the cabin, at the foot of ramp there was a buggy with my baggage that sped me to an awaiting aircraft. I was swiftly ushered in and informed that they had upgraded me to business class. I had bought a newspaper at Heathrow but had not looked at it as I was working on a school matter. As we flew out of Frankfurt I opened the newspaper to be greeted by the headline that loudly proclaimed the rebels were within six miles of Addis Ababa. It was then I noticed there were only three of us in business class. I walked to the toilet which was located on the division between Business and the rest of the passengers, to see that on this huge aircraft were only two people in the cabin class!
As we were approaching Addis we were informed that there was a curfew in place that included a 'lights out' at seven pm. We were expected to land at seven thirty. It was a strange thing to see all the lights of Addis Abba go out as we approached. Upon landing we were hurried to awaiting police cars and delivered to our respective hotels. As I began to unpack I could hear a rumbling noise; as an ex-service man I recognized the smell of diesel and cordite - tanks approaching!
I went to reception and was met by a nervous concierge who informed me that there were only three other residents at the Gihon, Addis Ababa's second best hotel, all of whom had rushed down to see what the noise was. We were greeted by the sound of shelling. The concern was that the rebels would attack the hotel or at least seize it. In the event they passed it by heading towards the Mechanisa which was their main target. Mechanisa is one of the world's largest markets, threaded through with narrow alleys where thousands of people live in cramped, squalid conditions. We watched as the stragglers of the rebel army followed the main, many of them not more than children who bore severe looking wounds. Many were barefoot. Throughout the night the sounds of gunshots and the familiar rattles of firing squads and double execution shots haunted the darkness as the smells of war wafted through the air.
In the midst of all of this my contact arrived and explained the best ways to deal with the situation and how to make contact with home, that eventually being by telephone. Our focus was to try and reach as many Jewish people who were not adjacent to the Israeli presence and see if we could help move them to the comparative safety there within.
My contact arrived early and we made our way to Mechanisa, although being advised by what was left of any security that it was inadvisable and very dangerous as the rebels were making it a centre. We were able to help some of the Jewish people in the area to make their way to the so called 'Israeli Compound' and hopefully some protection. The area at the best of times was poor and squalid. Now it was even worse with an assortment of dead and sometimes contorted bodies covered in flies and the stench of death. Many old scores had been settled.
Later in the afternoon we were informed that Ethiopian Airways had gathered all of their aircraft and fled the county. Hiele Miriam Mengistu had also by pre arrangement with interested parties fled to Uganda, taking a vast fortune with him, leaving the country impoverished. Further, we were informed all international flights outbound were cancelled as the rebels held the airport. As we stood in a central park, the giant statue of Stalin was being pulled down with joy, celebration and a party atmosphere. It became apparent that what had been intended to be a few days of compassion ministry was turning into something far more challenging!
The next day began by following the same pattern, when suddenly an excited messenger arrived with news and a request from my contact. His son, who was an air traffic controller named Saloman, was involved in something of great import; also could we go to the Israeli compound as soon as possible.
Upon arrival, and also on the way, there was a flurry of activity with young boys rushing around, some barefoot, calling all of the awaiting falashas in the area to the compound. Suddenly the sound of aircraft was heard. Groups of people were, for lack of a better expression, being 'rounded up' in to groups, and surrounded by tape to keep them together, as they were hurriedly but in an orderly fashion being sent to the airport. They were transported in special buses. Each bus had an Israeli soldier of Ethiopian origin on board. The best kept secret of the time, Operation Solomon, had begun.
We worked through the night and the next day, picking up people and taking them to the compound and helping with food and water supplies. We heard some news and rumours but it was not until it was complete that the enormity and scale of what had happened registered. The top-secret operation saw 34 planes, going on 41 sorties, to bring to Israel some 14,500 Ethiopian Jews plus five born in flight.