As a Jewish girl growing up in Ethiopia in the 1970s, Wuditu was raised on a steady diet of Jewish holidays, kosher food, and by a burning desire to reach “Yerusalem” – the holy city of Jerusalem.
But like many refugees, she got separated from her family during Ethiopia's bloody civil war. It was the late-1980s, and rumors had spread quickly among the Jews in Ethiopia that an emergency, clandestine airlift was underway in neighboring Sudan. Wuditu’s family set out to make the journey. They stayed together throughout the 1,000-kilometer trek from their native village of Dibebehar to the Sudanese border – avoiding government troops, rebel forces, arid desert and the wild animals of the African veld.
Eventually they made it safely to a refugee camp in Sudan. There, they endured squalid conditions while waiting for the "committee," as Jewish Agency and Israeli workers were known, to load them onto planes bound for Israel.
The night before they were to leave, rebels raided the camp and randomly threw people into the back of a truck. Wuditu and her younger sister, 10-year-old Lewteh, were caught in the raid. They were driven part way toward the Ethiopian border, thrown out of the trucks and forced to walk the rest of the way.
They were told they were being taken to Israel, but the girls quickly realized they were being lied to, since the real operations were carried out in secret.
They were warned that if they attempted to re-enter Sudan, they would be shot.
The rest of the family – father, stepmother and sisters – were airlifted safely to Israel.
At age 13, Wuditu was trying to stay alive amidst the chaos of war, while nursing Lewteh, who was suffering extreme exhaustion and malnutrition.
Across the border, Wuditu made contact with Kes Baruch, a local religious leader. He made arrangements for Lewteh to remain in his care while she traveled to the market town of Amba Giorgis to search for medical aid for her sister.
Work in Amba Giorgis was scarce, and to make matters worse, an overt anti-Semitism had taken hold in certain regions, primarily in the province of Gondar where the Jews lived. This forced Wuditu into a lonely, hidden identity throughout her struggles. Eventually, she managed to find work as a servant in a brothel, cooking meals and cleaning up in exchange for room and board of sorts – sleeping on a on a pallet on the floor of the back porch, and eating scraps of food.
"Nothing about her life at that time was easy," says Judie Oron, Wuditu's adoptive mother and the recent author of Cry of the Giraffe, a semi-biographical account of Wuditu's journey. "During her four years in Amba Giorgis, Wuditu suffered constant hunger and frequent illness. After losing touch with her family, she was forced to develop survival skills well beyond her teenage years just to stay alive. Most importantly, that meant hiding the fact that she was a Beta Israel, a member of the country's millenia-old Jewish community. If the locals had figured that out, her life would have been in certain danger."
If the locals had figured that she was a Beta Israel, her life would have been in danger.
Eventually, Wuditu's lonely, but relatively benign, existence as a maid gave way to a far more perilous reality. One of the brothel's regulars, a soldier who was heavily armed with rifles and was often drunk, set his sights on Wuditu, claiming her as his personal slave. He raped and beat her, threatening to “share” her with his comrades-in-arms.
Eventually, the soldier was killed in battle, but Wuditu's troubles were far from over. After a makeshift abortion that nearly killed her, she found new accommodations in town in exchange for performing household chores. Yet contrary to her agreement, she was never paid, and before long it was clear that Wuditu was not a maid, but rather a slave.
Now age 15, her chores included collecting animal dung from the fields to heat the home, a task that left her reeking no matter how much she washed afterwards. Her bed was a mat in the living room, together with the family's most prized possession, a cow.
Back near the border with Sudan, little Lewteh, whose health had deteriorated, managed to travel to the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. At the time, the Israeli embassy there was staffed by Jewish Agency social workers, responsible for investigating the case load and deciding who was eligible to come to Israel.
One of the people there was Judie Oron, a Canadian immigrant to Israel, who had become involved in offering support to Ethiopian immigrants whose family members had still not been able to get to Israel.
"I'd organized a group of professionals to try to help Ethiopian families in Israel reconnect with their missing relatives in Ethiopia," Oron told Aish.com. "While I was in Ethiopia, one of the Jewish Agency social workers brought a 10-year-old girl to me. The girl was in very, very poor health, with bad spinal issues, along with debilitating hunger and illness. She'd been separated from her family a year or so earlier, then had walked back to Ethiopia from Sudan.
“There were so many refugees that needed our help, but there was something indefinable that drew me to Lewteh. She stuck very close to me for the next two months and she was nursed back to health. An exit visa was arranged for her, and eventually the two of us arrived back in Israel."
Back in Israel, Oron managed to locate Lewteh's father, Berihun, who was blind, broken and too ill to care for his daughter. He asked Oron to unofficially adopt Lewteh, which she did. The old man also spoke of another child named Wuditu. He had sent a private investigator to search for the girl; that man returned with the grim news that the elder daughter had been killed.
Two years later, however, Oron awoke one night to the sobs of her adopted daughter. "I'm sure Wuditu is still alive," said Lewteh. "I can feel her breathing."
The girl's cries were convincing enough for Oron to begin searching for Wuditu in absorption centers and orphanages across Israel, but to no avail. Eventually, a contact in Ethiopia claimed to have seen Wuditu in Amba Giorgis. The man suggested she might be held as a slave.
They promised to pay for the girl if she were delivered unharmed.
Acting on little more than a hint, Oron enlisted the help of Zimna Berhani, a friend from her days at the embassy in Addis Ababa and Israel's first Ethiopian-born diplomat. Looking for a needle in a haystack, Oron traveled to Ethiopia to search for the missing sister. Berhani located two credible witnesses who said they had seen Wuditu in Amba Giorgis, so he and Oron set out for the city some 100 kilometers away.
Upon their arrival, the pair was surrounded and by an angry mob, but they managed to leave word before fleeing that they would pay for the girl if she were delivered to them unharmed.
Berhani returned to Addis, but Oron stayed in Gondar, a short drive from Amba Giorgis, hoping in vain for news. Eventually, just before her visa to Ethiopia was about to expire, Oron hitched a ride to Amba Giorgis to try to find the girl herself. Upon arriving in the city, an armed man stopped the car. Oron quickly told him why she was there, to which the man replied that he knew Wuditu and could turn her over – for a price.
A few hours later, the man delivered Wuditu – wounded, malnourished and badly confused. He threw Wuditu into the back seat, grabbed the pistol in his holster and demanded payment from Oron. Oron confirmed with Wuditu that she was indeed the young woman she'd been sent to find, by showing photographs of her biological family and asking about family details.
Once satisfied, she paid the asking price of 500 birr – about $111 USD – and fled the scene.
Wuditu began a recovery process lasting several weeks. The pair then flew to Israel where the now-17-year-old woman was reunited with her family. Berihun asked Oron to unofficially adopt his elder daughter as well. She readily agreed.
"When I first found Wuditu, she was totally cowed. She would bow all the way to the ground if anybody looked at her directly. It took a fair while before she came to understand that her ordeal was really over.
"At the same time, she quickly began to show strong personality traits. I'm told that her father was a strong, influential character – often called to judge local disputes, even though many of the locals openly said they didn't like Jews. Wuditu inherited much of her father's personality. She's also remarkably intelligent. With very little formal education in Ethiopia, Wuditu was accepted into a university prep program after only three years in Israel.
Despute years of abuse, Wuditu preserved the ability to love and be loved.
"Most importantly, she's got an enormous 'help' button. It's very hard for her to say no if someone asks for help. To me, that's the most remarkable thing about the whole story. Wuditu suffered constant, indescribable abuse during some of her most formative, impressionable years. But she doesn't appear to bear any residual anger. Yes, she came away from the experience badly scarred. But she managed to preserve the ability to love and be loved, with a deep desire to help others and to share of herself. Wuditu has added so much to my life and to my family. I cannot imagine what life would be like without her."
Now two decades after their arrival in Israel, Judie Oron is ferociously protective of both girls' privacy. In fact, the names Wuditu and Lewteh are pseudonyms. Oron will not reveal more than to say that both live in Israel and one is a professional woman.
Although Oron is now living in Canada, she speaks with her Ethiopian daughters every few days via Skype, and they are in close contact with Oron's two biological sons.
Oron says she has never recovered from the experience of “purchasing” a daughter. Although she feels grateful to have had the opportunity to raise two Ethiopian girls, she is constantly haunted by thought of thousands of children and young people, in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa, who are abused, trafficked and enslaved.
"We talk so much about freedom, but we never really stop to consider what that really means, or that we live in a world where so many people are simply not free. Paying money for another human being brings you face-to-face with your own inner being, your own freedom, your own self-worth. All the privileges you've ever enjoyed are no longer taken for granted. You find yourself with a completely new set of lenses with which to view the world."
For two young women caught up in the politics of war, Judie Oron’s kindness and idealism gave them a new lease on life, back home in the promised land.