By Raffi Berg BBC News, Tel Aviv
Arous was an idyllic holiday resort in the Sudanese desert, on the banks of the Red Sea. But this glamorous destination was a base for Israeli agents with a secret mission.
“Arous on the Red Sea, a wonderful world apart,” the glossy brochure says, pronouncing it “the diving and desert recreation centre of Sudan”
Illustrated with pictures of putty-coloured chalets on a Sun-drenched beach, a smiling couple in scuba gear, and varieties of exotic fish, the advertisement boasts of “some of the best, clearest water in the world”. As night falls – “after the landscape colours have paled” – there are, it says, “breathtaking views of the heavens, aflame with millions of stars”.
Arous Village, on the fringe of spectacular coral reefs and the odd shipwreck, appears to be a diving enthusiast’s dream.
The pamphlets were printed in their thousands and distributed in specialist travel agents across Europe. Reservations were booked through an office in Geneva. And over time hundreds of guests went on holiday there.
It was a long trek. But once at the desert oasis, they enjoyed first-rate facilities, water sports, deep-sea dives and an abundance of fresh food and wine. The visitors’ book was a catalogue of glowing comments.
The Sudanese International Tourist Corporation was also happy. It had leased the site to a group of people introducing themselves as European entrepreneurs, whose venture brought some of the first foreign tourists to the country.
The only thing was, unbeknown to the guests or the authorities, the Red Sea diving resort was entirely fake.
It was a front, set up and run for more than four years in the early 1980s by operatives from the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence agency.
They used it as a cover for an extraordinary humanitarian mission – to rescue thousands of beleaguered Ethiopian Jews stranded in refugee camps in Sudan and evacuate them to Israel. Sudan was an enemy Arab country, and it had to be done without anyone finding out, either there or at home.
“It was a state secret, nobody talked about it,” says Gad Shimron, one of the agents who served at the village. “Even my family didn’t know.”
The Ethiopian Jews belonged to a community called Beta Israel (House of Israel), whose origins are shrouded in mystery.
Some believe they descended from one of the so-called 10 lost tribes of the ancient kingdoms of Israel, or from Israelites who accompanied a son of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon back to Ethiopia around 950BC. Others think they fled there after the destruction of the first Jewish Temple in 586BC.
They adhered to the Torah, practised a Biblical version of Judaism and prayed in synagogues. But, isolated from the rest of Jewry for millennia, they believed they were the last remaining Jews in the world. The Beta Israelis’ authenticity was confirmed by Israel’s chief rabbis in the early 1970s.
In 1977 one of their members, Ferede Aklum, joined a wave of non-Jewish Ethiopian refugees who crossed the border into Sudan to escape civil war and a deepening food crisis.
He sent letters to relief agencies, pleading for help, and one found its way to the Mossad. For the then Israeli Prime Minister, Menachem Begin – himself a refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe – Israel existed as a safe haven for Jews in peril. The Beta Israelis were no exception and he instructed the intelligence agency to act.
Located by a Mossad agent, Ferede channelled messages back to his community, saying there was a better chance of getting to Jerusalem from Sudan than Ethiopia, which had severely restricted emigration.
It offered the tantalising opportunity of fulfilling a 2,700-year-old dream. And in the period that followed, some 14,000 Beta Israelis made a perilous 800km (500-mile) journey by foot along with over a million other Ethiopians seeking refuge across the Sudanese border.
About 1,500 of the Jewish refugees were killed along the way, perished in the squalid camps around Gedaref and Kassala, or were abducted.
As there were no known Jews in Sudan, a Muslim-majority country, they were instructed not to disclose their religion so as to blend in and not get caught by the Sudanese secret police.
Almost straight away, some small-scale rescue activities got under way, with Ethiopian Jews spirited out of Sudan to Europe on forged papers, then on to Israel.
Sudan’s Red Sea coastline, though, presented the possibility of stepping up operations on an altogether different scale.
“We approached the [Israeli] navy for help,” says a high-level agent involved in the mission, who did not want to be named.
“They said, ‘OK,’ so a couple of Mossad guys went down to Sudan looking for possible landing beaches. They just stumbled across this deserted village on the coast, in the middle of nowhere.
“For us it was a godsend. If we could get hold of this place and do it up, we could say we’re running a diving village, which would give us a reason for being in Sudan and furthermore for roaming around near the beach.”
What happened next is the subject of a soon-to be released Hollywood film called Red Sea Diving Resort. Filmed in Namibia and South Africa, it tells the story of the operation and the village. Though while it is based on true events, some of the scenes are fictitious.
Completed in 1972 by Italian entrepreneurs, the resort was a cluster of 15 red-roofed bungalows, a kitchen and a large dining room opening out to the beach, a lagoon and the sea.
However, with no electricity, water supply or even a road, the Italians found the project impossible and the resort never opened.
“It’s a very difficult place to run, if you don’t have the Mossad behind you,” says the unidentified agent.
Using false passports, a group of agents posing as employees of a Swiss operating company went to Sudan, convinced the authorities of their business proposition, and rented the village for three years for $320,000 (£225,000).
They spent the first year renovating it and struck a deal with local suppliers for fresh water and fuel.
The resort was also kitted out with Israeli-made equipment, including air-conditioning units, outboard motors, and top-of-the-range water sports gear, all smuggled into the country.
“We introduced windsurfing to Sudan,” says Gad, smiling. “The first board was brought in – I knew how to windsurf, so I taught the guests. Other Mossad agents posed as professional diving instructors.”
They also recruited about 15 local staff, including chambermaids, waiters, a driver and a chef “poached” from a hotel. “We paid him double,” says the unnamed operative. None of the staff knew the resort’s real purpose, or that their Caucasian managers were Mossad spies.
Female agents were put in charge of the day-to day running of the place, which it was thought would lower any suspicions.
The diving storeroom was out-of-bounds. In it were concealed radios the agents used to keep in regular contact with headquarters back in Tel Aviv.
While seeing to their guests by day, every so often at night a squad would leave under cover of darkness and head to a rendezvous point 10km (six miles) south of Gedaref.
“We’d tell the staff we’re going to Khartoum for a few days, or to meet some Swedish nurses from the hospital in Kassala,” says Gad.
They would pick up groups of Ethiopian Jews, smuggled out of the camps by so-called Committee Men – a handful of Beta Israelis recruited for the job.
“The Ethiopian Jews were given no notice, as we could not risk word getting out,” says Gad. “They did not even know we were Israelis. We told them we were mercenaries.”
From there, a convoy of lorries carrying dozens of bewildered refugees drove a two-day – 800km – journey, evading detection at numerous checkpoints along the way by a combination of guile, bribery and occasionally ramming their way through.
At breaks, they would try to pacify the frightened passengers.
“When we let them sit in the driver’s cabin and touch the wheel, they were in seventh heaven,” Gad says, in his book Mossad Exodus. “It was amazing to see how happy they were at sharing a piece of chewing gum among 20 children. They looked at us as though we were creatures from outer space.”
When they got to the beach, north of the holiday village, Israeli navy sea, air and land teams (Seals) would come ashore on Zodiac dinghies, collect the refugees and transport them a further hour and a half to a waiting naval vessel, the INS Bat Galim.
The ship then took them to Israel.
“It was constantly dangerous,” says the unnamed operative. “We all knew that if any one of us got exposed, we’d end up hanged on gallows in the centre of Khartoum.”
They came close to it in March 1982, when on the third such operation the group was spotted in mid-transfer on the beach by Sudanese soldiers. Possibly suspecting smugglers, the soldiers fired warning shots – but the Zodiacs, with the Ethiopians on board, managed to get away.
Image caption Ethiopian Jews eating on board an Israeli navy ship
After that, it was decided naval evacuations were too exposed, and a new plan was devised. The agents were tasked with finding a suitable landing spot in the desert for C130 Hercules planes. The refugees were going to be secretly airlifted out of the country.
In the meantime, the Israelis continued to run the diving resort and entertain the guests. By now, Arous Village had earned quite a reputation and word spread.
“By comparison to the rest of Sudan, we offered Hilton-like standards,” says Gad, “and it was such a beautiful place, it really looked like something out of the Arabian Nights. It was unbelievable.”
The resort counted among its varied clientele an Egyptian army unit, a group of British SAS soldiers, foreign diplomats from Khartoum and Sudanese officials – all unaware of their hosts’ true identity.
One German military attache told Gad he had had a good time in many places “in my life but never quite like this”.
Arous Village became so successful that it turned enough of a profit to become financially self-sustaining, much to the relief of the accountants back at Mossad HQ. Some of the money earned from guests was used to buy or rent the lorries that took the refugees.
Airlifted to safety
Meanwhile, the airlifts got under way. Gad and his team got message back that there was an abandoned World War Two British airfield not far from the coast, and in May 1982 the first Hercules, carrying an Israeli platoon, landed there in the dead of night.
Years later, one of the 130 Ethiopians rescued on that flight told Gad: “You have no idea what it meant for me to go into an aeroplane in the middle of the Sudanese desert on a dark night.
“I’d never seen an aeroplane in my life before. I felt like Jonah the prophet going into the belly of the whale, and then all of a sudden three hours later I was in Zion [Israel].”
After two airlifts however, the Mossad discovered Sudanese authorities had got wind of suspicious activity – the unnamed agent is convinced “a Bedouin went and ratted on us”. The team was then instructed to find more inconspicuous landing sites.
They identified suitable locations much nearer Gedaref, which had the advantage of reducing the time on the road with the refugees to a couple of hours. The downside was “they weren’t airstrips, they were just a piece of desert”, according to the unnamed agent.
“The strips were hardly lit,” he says. “We had just 10 tiny infrared lights and the C130 pilots had to find us without navigational aids and after a long, tedious flight, in pitch black.
“By comparison, Entebbe was a piece of cake as far as flying’s concerned,” he says, referring to the daring hostage rescue in Uganda in 1976, which saw an Israeli Hercules land at the airport in a surprise raid and fly out again with more than 100 people freed by commandos.
Despite the complexities and potentially catastrophic consequences of failure, 17 clandestine flights were carried out, co-ordinated by the agents of the Red Sea diving resort, some 600km away.
Towards the end of 1984, famine was declared in Sudan, and it was decided to escalate the evacuations.
With intervention from the US, and a large payment, Gen Jaafar Nimeiri agreed to let Jewish refugees be flown directly out from Khartoum to Europe. He did so on condition of total secrecy, so as to avoid repercussions from the rest of the Arab world.
In a series of 28 covert airlifts, on Boeing 707s lent by a Jewish Belgian airline owner, 6,380 Ethiopian Jews were flown to Brussels and then straight on to Israel. The rescue was codenamed Operation Moses.
There was a media blackout in Israel, but eventually “the thing was leaked to the press by some idiot from the Jewish Agency [an Israeli non-governmental organisation]”, says the unnamed agent.
The story gets out
Newspapers around the world ran the story on 5 January 1985 and Sudan immediately stopped the flights. It publicly denied any involvement, dismissing allegations it had colluded with Israel as a “Zionist-Ethiopian plot”.
The Mossad continued running the holiday village, keeping it available as an undercover option. Despite a pause in rescue operations, the agents still had to cater for the influx of guests, And Gad had even been recalled from leave in Israel to organise the entertainment at Christmas and New Year.
Outside, the atmosphere was changing. “From January 1985, I could smell it in the air that a coup d’etat was coming,” says Gad.
It did not take long. On 6 April 1985, Gen Nimeiri was overthrown by army officers. It was a turn of events that imperilled the operatives at the village.
The new military junta turned its sights on flushing out Mossad spies, real or imaginary, to burnish its credentials in the Arab world.
The head of the Mossad gave the order to evacuate the resort. They did so the very next day, by stealth.
“Six of us left the diving village in two vehicles before dawn,” says one of the agents, who wishes to remain anonymous. “A C130 landed to the north, on a landing spot we had never used before. We got on it and came home.
“There were tourists in the village,” he says. “They would have woken up and found themselves alone in the desert. The local staff were still there, but no-one else – the diving instructor, the lady manager and so on, all the Caucasians had disappeared.”
When the plane landed at an air-force base outside Tel Aviv, they drove out in the same vehicles they boarded with, still bearing Sudanese registration plates.
In the wake of the agents’ sudden departure, the diving village shut down.
For the 492 Ethiopian Jews left stranded by the abrupt halt of Operation Moses, another airlift was engineered two months later, by then US Vice-President George Bush, and they were finally flown, by American Hercules, to Israel.
Over the course of the next five years, more operations followed, bringing in total almost 18,000 Beta Israelis to begin a new life in the Jewish state.
Ferede Aklum was among them.
“The Ethiopian Jews are the real heroes of the story,” says Gad, as he sipped tea in a cafe in Tel Aviv, “not the pilots, nor the Navy Seals nor the Mossad operatives.
“When I think of what they lived through – such horrors that an ordinary person could not endure for one day.
“We just did our job.”