In the late 1970s, the Mossad launched one of history's most audacious missions: Operation Brothers. Their goal? To rescue thousands of Ethiopian Jews facing violence and bring them safely to Israel. In this deep, three-part retelling of the very first True Spies story, Sophia Di Martino meets Mossad operatives Daniel Limor, Rubi Viterbo, and Gad Shimron who worked undercover to lead the covert evacuations. We also hear from Takele Mekonen, one of the thousands of Jews saved during the operation. In Part One, Dani Limor recounts the frantic early days of the mission and his partnership with Ferede Aklum, the heroic Ethiopian that helped to make it possible.
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True Spies, Episode 143 Part 1: The Telegram

NARRATOR: This is True Spies. The podcast that takes you deep inside the greatest secret missions of all time. Week by week, you’ll hear the true stories behind the operations that have shaped the world we live in. You’ll meet the people who live life undercover. What do they know? What are their skills? And what would you do in their position? I’m Sophia Di Martino, and this is True Spies, from SPYSCAPE Studios.

DANIEL LIMOR: It was an area where there was a lot of fighting. And if you get into the crossfire, it doesn't matter if they know that you're Jewish or you're not Jewish. It doesn't matter. A bullet is a bullet. 

NARRATOR: Ethiopia, 1976. The country is convulsed by civil war. Since taking power in a bloody coup, the ruling Marxist military junta known as the Derg has waged a campaign of ‘red terror’ against a swathe of opposition groups, ranging from anti-communists to Eritrean separatists. No one is safe. And there’s one group in particular danger from their Christian and Muslim neighbors - an ethnic minority unknown to most of the world. Up until the civil war they had lived in an uneasy co-existence with their fellow citizens. But now their very existence was a target. Their name? Beta Israel, or the Black Jews of Ethiopia.

TAKELE MEKONEN: We faced anti-Semitism there, very horrible anti-Semitism. They said, “You are dirty Jewish. You do not belong to Ethiopia. What are you doing here?” So if you are not very, very strong, they can kill you. 

NARRATOR: With enemies on all sides, the Beta Israel community grows desperate. 

TAKELE MEKONEN: We would say we have to find a way to run away from Ethiopia. The main agenda is we have to leave. We have to be free and we have to be with the Jewish state.

NARRATOR: Fortunately, they have a powerful ally - the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service. In this three-part special, True Spies retells one of the greatest covert operations of all time: Israel’s rescue of the Ethiopian Jews. If this is sounding familiar, it’s probably because we covered this mission in the very first episode of True Spies, Operation Brothers. But we thought the story deserved a full, in-depth treatment. And trust us, it’s worth revisiting.

RAFFI BERG: The Mossad had never been involved in anything quite as unique as what they did here. And they've never done anything quite like it since.

NARRATOR: We’ll hear how the scribbled note of one man changed the course of Jewish history.

RAFFI BERG: He pawned his wedding ring for a notepad and pen and he sent a telegram. 

NARRATOR: We’ll hear from the Ethiopian Jews themselves.

TAKELE MEKONEN: We have to be very, very careful to hide your identity. The consequences? Very, very huge. 

NARRATOR: And from the True Spies who made it happen.

DANIEL LIMOR: The door opens and two guys, each one with a pistol, jump out. Then one pushes me against the wall and he puts the gun in front of my nose and starts shouting in Arabic.

NARRATOR: From Ethiopia and civil war to Israel, 1977, and a changing of the old for the new, Menachem Begin is swept to power after nearly 30 years in opposition. 

RAFFI BERG: Israel had never seen a prime minister quite like him.

NARRATOR: This is Raffi Berg, the Middle East editor at the BBC. He has covered Israel for several decades. Begin was indeed unlike any previous Israeli Prime Minister.

RAFFI BERG: One of Begin's most important motivations was the ingathering of Jews from all four corners of the world. Didn't matter to him what color the skin was or where they came from. To him, it was important that Israel serve as a sanctuary for Jews under threat. In his first speech in the Knesset, he referenced the Holocaust, where countries around the world and in Europe left the Jews to their fate. And he said, "I'm not going to do that."

NARRATOR: Shortly after becoming Prime Minister, Begin held a secret meeting with the head of the Mossad - Yitzhak ‘Haka’ Hofi. “Bring me the Ethiopian Jews,” Begin said.

RAFFI BERG: And that was quite extraordinary. No such order, humanitarian order, had been given by any prime minister before to the head of the Mossad. 

NARRATOR: What made the order even more extraordinary was that Israeli prime ministers up until then had mostly ignored the Ethiopian Jews.

RAFFI BERG: Part of that is, unfortunately, discrimination. Israel is no different from any other country in the world. Israel had other problems to deal with and it was a new country. It was fighting for its existence.

NARRATOR: But in 1973, the tide turned. One of Israel’s top two rabbis finally declared Beta Israel authentic Jews - one of the 10 lost tribes… Takele Mekonen is one of them.

TAKELE MEKONEN: We arrived in Ethiopia after the destruction of the first temple, before 2,700 years. And we suffered a lot. The Jewish identity is very important and we were in Ethiopia temporarily. So we have to be, one day, in Jerusalem. We’ll come to the Promised Land.

NARRATOR: The Mossad had its orders - bring the Ethiopian Jews to Prime Minister Begin. However, it was not at all clear whether that was even possible. But then, the Mossad spotted an opening. In July 1977, neighboring Somalia invaded Ethiopia, adding yet another front to the conflict. Meanwhile, the Derg’s main backer in the war, the US, pulled all military aid to the country.

RAFFI BERG: Out of objection to Ethiopia's appalling human rights record.

NARRATOR: And besides, backing a Marxist regime wasn’t exactly the American way.

RAFFI BERG: So the Derg needed to replace the US support. And they turned to Israel for help.

NARRATOR: Knowing that Israel had one of the most advanced militaries in the world, Ethiopia’s president Mengistu Haile Mariam sent a classified message to Mossad headquarters.

DANIEL LIMOR: He wanted us to send fighting planes, bomber planes to bomb the Somali positions.

NARRATOR: This is the Mossad intelligence officer who picked up that message, Dani Limor. Dani was no typical Mossad agent - if such a thing exists.

DANIEL LIMOR: I wanted to be a doctor. But one thing is what you want, and the other thing is what happens in reality. But actually, I found myself serving in a combat unit, paratroopers. Mossad did not exist, even in my imagination. 

NARRATOR: Serving as an officer in the 1973 Yom Kippur conflict, Dani was well-versed in the horrors of war.

DANIEL LIMOR: I participated in the southern front. And I saw soldiers of mine and friends of mine killed in action. I was even wounded.

NARRATOR: Eventually, Dani was invited to an interview with an unnamed contact at an unnamed organization.

DANIEL LIMOR: And they made the proposition. I'm not going to detail this proposition. But he made a proposition and I thought about it, one and a half minutes. I said, “Yes. Okay.” And he was so surprised he said, “What?! you don't want to consult with someone? You have a girlfriend or someone, parents maybe?” I said, “No, it's okay... So yes. The answer is yes.” 

NARRATOR: And with that, Dani was in the Mossad.

DANIEL LIMOR: And then once you're inside, even after you retire, you continue.

NARRATOR: But Dani wasn’t a ‘company man’. Raised in Uruguay, he only came to Israel at age 16 through the Youth Aliyah - a relocation scheme for young Jews in danger around the world.

DANIEL LIMOR: When I came to Israel I was alone. I was in a boarding school. I was sharing the room with Jews originally from Iraq, Yemen, Morocco, and so on. It was a great discovery for me. I realized that this mosaic is part of the strength of our history, of our tradition.

NARRATOR: Knowing that a long-overlooked part of that mosaic was now calling for help, Dani takes the message to his boss - a legendary Mossad spy called Dr. David Kimche.

DANIEL LIMOR: He saw an opportunity to carry out Begin’s order.

NARRATOR: So, Dani and Kimche go to see the head of the Mossad, Yitzhak Hofi - the man who Begin had personally ordered to bring him the Ethiopian Jews. Almost immediately Hofi tells Kimche to go to Ethiopia to meet personally with [head of state Mengistu Haile] Mariam. 

DANIEL LIMOR: He said, “Okay, he wants this, he wants that. We will give him something, but in return we will get Ethiopian Jews.”

NARRATOR: But Kimche wants another agent to go with him.

RAFFI BERG: He wanted somebody who wouldn't strictly obey orders, who would be able to think for himself. Somebody who was creative, had ideas, and a determination.

NARRATOR: He picks Dani. The next night, Dani and Kimche fly to Addis Ababa on an unmarked military plane.

DANIEL LIMOR: We had a meeting with Mengistu at the Imperial Palace. It used to belong to the Kings of Ethiopia. And we entered the room and he showed us where to sit. He says, “A week ago, Fidel Castro was sitting in that chair.” So I did a military salute and I said, “Yeah, well I read everything that Che Guevara wrote at the time.” 

NARRATOR: As the meeting progresses, Kimche begins to outwit the president.

DANIEL LIMOR: He really gave me a lesson not to forget: how you negotiate with the head of state. Mengistu was not the brightest light. So it came down to, “Okay, we will supply you with the ammunition and small arms. And every plane that comes with this material comes back with Jews.” 

NARRATOR: Kimche gets his wish, without agreeing to bomb Somali targets.

DANIEL LIMOR: We supplied those really small arms. Nothing more than machine guns. Nothing heavy.

NARRATOR: Within a month, another unmarked Israeli military plane landed in Ethiopia. Its mission was so secretive that even the pilots did not know what they were transporting. After dropping off its ‘light’ cargo of machine guns, the plane took off. Only on the return leg, the machine guns were replaced by 63 Ethiopian Jews. In December 1977, the exercise was repeated. This time, 61 of the Beta Israel people were taken to the Promised Land. Israel’s Prime Minister, Begin, was overjoyed. They had a system - albeit small, secret - through which to bring the Ethiopian Jews home. A couple of months later though, that system was blown apart. Not by the Ethiopian government, but by the Israeli foreign minister himself.

DANIEL LIMOR: He was in Zurich at the airport. And some journalists asked him: “Is it true that you're helping, militarily, this regime in Ethiopia?”

NARRATOR: The Minister pauses.

DANIEL LIMOR: And of course, he could have said no. But he chose to say, “Yes, we do.” 

NARRATOR: As the news breaks, President Mengistu’s allies are outraged.

DANIEL LIMOR: All the neighbors and supporters and so on - “What? You are getting arms from the Zionist State?”

NARRATOR: Humiliated, Mengistu orders all Israeli personnel to leave the country within 24 hours. The same personnel he had previously invited to fight the rebels.

RAFFI BERG: It also meant that Israel's hopes of extracting a larger number of Ethiopian Jews suddenly came to an abrupt end. 

NARRATOR: The plan to rescue the Beta Israel Jews is now back at square one. Undeterred, and with Begin’s order still live, the Mossad sent Dani back to Ethiopia several months later. Undercover.

RAFFI BERG: Well you often hear the expression 'the right person at the right time'. This is exactly what happened here. There was no rule book. Dani operated… really he winged it. Which may sound a bit odd, because we're talking about Mossad in the field. Yes, they have a modus operandi. But it was uncharted territory so Dani had to literally write the instruction book as he went along. He thought on his feet.

NARRATOR: Dani’s cover was a good one.

DANIEL LIMOR: I went there as an inspector for the ORT. 

NARRATOR: The ORT, or The Organization for Rehabilitation through Training. It is a global education network building schools around the world. Incredibly, it is also a Jewish organization - a Jewish organization that President Mengistu still allowed to operate within Ethiopia.

DANIEL LIMOR: He had a soft spot toward Israel. Why? Because his father used to be one of the officers of the Imperial Guard, the Royal Guard of Haile Selassie. So his father had a stroke. And the one who saved his life was an Israeli doctor. 

NARRATOR: Dani makes two trips to Ethiopia posing as an ORT inspector.

DANIEL LIMOR: To see how the schools were performing at these very dire times. 

NARRATOR: But while the ORT was still allowed to operate within Ethiopia, the reception toward Israel and Jews across the country was growing ever more hostile under Derg rule.

DANIEL LIMOR: The last king of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, they assassinated him. And they took over. And they took Ethiopia from the western world to the Soviet world which made things much worse because there was a presence of all those intelligence agencies like the KGB and the Stasi. Even the Cubans were there and - at the time - the North Koreans. It was a huge presence of all the friends of Israel, shall I say.

NARRATOR: All the friends of Israel expect to hear a few remarks like that from Dani.

RAFFI BERG: A dry sense of humor but he has a sense of humor. In fact, he said he couldn't have survived this operation without a sense of humor. 

NARRATOR: But, humor or not, Dani’s task seemed impossible. No one knew anything about the Ethiopian Jews, not least how many there were or where they all were.

DANIEL LIMOR: We are an intelligence agency and we didn't have any kind of intelligence about it. Ethiopia is a huge country which has very difficult terrain, mountains, and valleys. And it's like a fortress. And I heard so many different numbers. Someone told me, “Yeah they’re about 20,000, 30,000.” Another guy said, “No, 50,000, no 100,000.”

NARRATOR: Eventually however, the ORT guide took Dani to several known Jewish villages.

DANIEL LIMOR: Without the guide, I probably would have been still looking for the villages right now because there were no signs, no roads, not even dirt roads.

NARRATOR: After scouting the Jewish regions for any possible evacuation strategies, Dani returns to Israel and briefs his boss David Kimche.

DANIEL LIMOR: I must say, I personally recommended not to do anything in Ethiopia.

NARRATOR: The country was too volatile, too dangerous, Dani told his superiors.

DANIEL LIMOR: Moving people from one place to another was very, very dangerous and physically difficult because of the terrain and because everywhere you went, there were some hostile people. There were bandits. There were deserters from the army. Eritrean liberation movements blocked access to the Red Sea anyway if we wanted to evacuate people. That was impossible.

NARRATOR: And while thousands of refugees were fleeing Ethiopia for neighboring Sudan, no Jews were known to have made the journey. 

RAFFI BERG: However dangerous it was for Jews in Ethiopia in the 1970s, it was more dangerous for them to be in Sudan. Sudan was an Islamist country. It was an avowed enemy of Israel. It had participated in the Arab wars against Israel and in the wake of the 1967 War, the Arab League met in Khartoum and declared the Three No’s, which was i) no to recognition of Israel, ii) no to peace with Israel, and iii) no to negotiations with Israel. So to be Zionist in Sudan was effectively a death sentence. 

NARRATOR: Dani’s superiors agree. Evacuating the Beta Israel from Ethiopia was simply not possible.

DANIEL LIMOR: We were stuck. 

NARRATOR: While Mossad was at a loss at what to do, the situation for many of the Beta Israel was becoming ever more desperate. Not least for one of their local leaders, a man by the name of Ferede Aklum.

RAFFI BERG: Ferede Aklum was an Ethiopian Jew, but he was more than that. He was a Zionist. And in his younger days, he had tried to leave the country, to get to Israel himself. But he was thwarted. Nevertheless, it didn't stop him from being a pro-Israel activist but this was an extremely dangerous thing to be in Ethiopia at that time. 

NARRATOR: What made Ferede even more suspicious to both the Derg and the rebels was his lack of public support for either.

RAFFI BERG: He didn't take sides in the conflict, even though where he lived was one of the main centers of the rebellion. So the rebels were suspicious of Ferede because he didn't want to become involved and the regime was suspicious of Ferede because they suspected he was working for the rebels and they also suspected him of Zionist activity so he became a targeted man. 

NARRATOR: The Derg issued a warrant for Ferede’s arrest, a likely death sentence in 1978 Ethiopia. And now, he’s on the run.

RAFFI BERG: He had to leave his home, his wife, and his newborn baby, and flee for his life.

NARRATOR: After going from village to village evading the authorities, Ferede concludes he has only one option - an option unthinkable before.

RAFFI BERG: The only place he could go for relative safety was another country, and that country was Sudan.

NARRATOR: The journey was notoriously dangerous. Officially, the Ethiopian-Sudan border was closed. Bandits roamed the region preying on fleeing refugees. Gun runners went back and forth supplying the Tigrayan rebels. But in that, Ferede saw an opportunity and paid one of the smugglers to take him across the border.

RAFFI BERG: Sudan was in those days the biggest country in Africa. Ferede made this journey by foot, an extraordinarily long journey of hundreds of kilometers. A terribly arduous journey through the jungle, through mountains, across rivers, exposing himself to the scorching heat. 

NARRATOR: After five days, in late 1978, Ferede arrived at a refugee camp just across the border. From there he moved on to another on the outskirts of the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

DANIEL LIMOR: To call them refugee camps would be a great compliment. There was no camp, no running water, no food, no hygiene. Nothing, it was really living hell.

NARRATOR: Exhausted and starving, Ferede begged for food and money. He slept in an old car yard.

RAFFI BERG: He went into hiding. He didn't really have a plan.

NARRATOR: Ferede had only two possessions left - his gold wedding ring, hidden in his shoe, and a notebook. But in the notebook, Ferede had something highly unusual. Something - potentially - highly valuable.

RAFFI BERG: Ferede was known by Jewish humanitarian organizations in Europe because he had previously helped with the first evacuation of a small number of Jews.

NARRATOR: In his notebook, Ferede had written down the telephone numbers of three of these organizations.

RAFFI BERG: He pawned his wedding ring for a notepad and pen. And so, he wrote to three of them and sent a telegram. 

NARRATOR: My name is Ferede Yazezow. I am in Khartoum. I ran away from Ethiopia. You know why. Send me a ticket to Europe or the USA. Below he put the address of a Khartoum P.O. Box to send the ticket to and waited. A few days later, one of the telegrams landed on the desk of an official at a Jewish relief agency in Geneva. Immediately, the official rang his contact at the Mossad - one Dani Limor.

DANIEL LIMOR: And this is where the story begins.

NARRATOR: Dani goes to his boss Kimche, arguing that someone should go and meet with whoever this Ferede is.

DANIEL LIMOR: The fact that people in the different corners of the world, sometimes not even being in contact with each other, kept doing the same things at the same times, first of all, makes you think. And you realize that this is you. Doesn't matter if the other guy is black or looks totally different from you. But you're him and he's you.

NARRATOR: Both Dani and Kimche know this is an opportunity they cannot pass up.

RAFFI BERG: All at once, it dawned on them that this could be the answer to the conundrum because they've been left facing a brick wall as to how to get Jews out of Ethiopia. And it occurred to them that if a Jew had managed to hide in Sudan and make that terrible journey and survive, then this could be a gateway for more Jews to follow in this person's footsteps. 

NARRATOR: After presenting the intel to the head of the Mossad, Yitzhak Hofi, a meeting is arranged. The sole item on the agenda? Who should go to Sudan to track down Ferede Aklum. Dani was desperate to be that man. Dani arrives at the meeting having not shaved for several weeks. He’d only just returned from another assignment in Nigeria and didn’t feel the urge to clean up. As the meeting progresses, Hofi rejects all the names proposed to him. Then, he turns to Dani, saying: “How about this guy? If he shaves…” With Kimche’s support, everyone agrees.

DANIEL LIMOR: He thought well about me. He thought that I could face situations that are an unknown quantity and try to navigate those troubled waters and try to get something out of it. Sudan was a really unknown quantity because it was an enemy country. 

NARRATOR: Dani replies: “For this, I’m willing to shave my whole head!”

DANIEL LIMOR: All my life, since the moment I came to Israel as a young man, I always felt that whatever I do, first of all, I'm willing to pay the price. 

NARRATOR: And there’s another reason he is the right man for the job, although his superiors don’t ever mention it.

RAFFI BERG: If Dani wanted to defy an order because he thought it was the right thing to do, he was prepared to do that, even if it meant putting him at risk of losing his livelihood. 

NARRATOR: Dani messages the relief agency official back, telling him to reply to Ferede’s P.O. Box. Four words are sent back to the man, who is almost out of hope. Wait. Someone will come. Three weeks later, Dani was in the air. Alone. He didn’t even know what Ferede looked like. The only intel he had was the P.O. Box address.

DANIEL LIMOR: Which was not easy because he was not living inside the P.O. Box.

NARRATOR: Knowing what was at stake though, Dani was unfazed. Posing as an anthropologist, he secures a Sudanese visa with a forged sponsorship letter from a French university. I’d love to tell you which one, but that’s classified. Armed only with that and the P.O. Box address in Khartoum, he got to work.

DANIEL LIMOR: I went to the mail office in Khartoum and I positioned myself so that I could see the P.O. Box. My idea was to wait until someone opened it because I didn't know how he looked. And I said, "Okay, he will come to look for mail or something." 

NARRATOR: Before long, Dani realizes what he is up against.

DANIEL LIMOR: I was in the middle of the hall looking in a certain direction but I heard - and I understand Arabic - so I saw that they were looking at me with suspicion. So I said, “Okay, I cannot stay there because I can be easily arrested. And these people, they don't play games.

NARRATOR: But as a white man, not attracting attention in late '70s Sudan was likely to be impossible.

RAFFI BERG: Sudan was also Islamist. So it didn't tolerate Western influences and it was very suspicious of Westerners, to say the least. There were no tourists, no visitors. Only some businessmen would operate in Sudan. But this was always under the watch of the Sudanese intelligence agency, whose agents were on the prowl everywhere, plain-clothed... Nobody knew who was being watched. 

NARRATOR: Hanging around drawing attention to himself at a  P.O. Box is no longer an option so Dani has to improvise.

DANIEL LIMOR: I didn't know anything about Khartoum. Nothing. So, first of all, it took me a few days to understand how Khartoum functioned as the capital. So I started to look around, to think about where I could find him.

NARRATOR: Eventually Dani locates the refugee camp bordering the city. Entering it, he realizes he can comb through the entire camp systematically.

DANIEL LIMOR: It was mainly rows of huts. And it was geometrically okay. Straight lines. And so you could actually go walk on those dirt roads. There was no asphalt. And so, I started to visit, to go into each shop. I couldn't go into each hut, of course, but I concentrated on shops.

NARRATOR: From morning to nightfall, in each shop, he asks if the owner knows a Ferede Aklum.

DANIEL LIMOR: The answer is no, no, no. 

NARRATOR: And then, finally, a week into his exercise, Dani gets a different reaction in one shop.

DANIEL LIMOR: Which was a shop that sold wigs. There was a guy sitting there and I asked my question. 

NARRATOR: The shopkeeper looks up at this stranger. After a moment, he replies: ‘Why do you ask?’

DANIEL LIMOR: So I knew that maybe I had found someone who knows.

NARRATOR: Dani tells the shopkeeper that he has just seen Ferede’s wife. He has a gift from her that he needs to give Ferede personally.

DANIEL LIMOR: “So if you see him, you tell him that I'll be waiting for him at this hotel from six to seven in the evening.” And then of course I said I was the only white man. “Easy to identify.”

NARRATOR: That night, Dani goes to the veranda of the aforementioned hotel - the Blue Nile overlooking the river. But he spots nobody who fits the description. The next night, however...

DANIEL LIMOR: I saw a guy who clearly was not Sudanese, was either Ethiopian or Eritrean. And he came up the stairs to the veranda and went around the tables. Didn't make eye contact with me. Then he went out. 

NARRATOR: Unsure whether it was Ferede or not, Dani goes back again the following night.

DANIEL LIMOR: Again, he came. This time, there was brief, very short eye contact. But without any signs of recognition or something like that. So once he finished this and went back to the stairs, going to the street, I went up behind him and he was already walking and I called him by his name. 

NARRATOR: The man doesn’t stop. Dani runs to catch up with him.

DANIEL LIMOR: And I said, “Are you so-and-so? Did you ask for a ticket? Because I'm your ticket.”

NARRATOR: The man stops. Turning to Dani he says, “And who are you?”

DANIEL LIMOR: I said I was Jewish from a European country. I was sent here - I didn’t say by the state of Israel - I was sent by a Jewish community in Europe to help Ethiopian Jews somehow to leave Ethiopia. 

NARRATOR: The man’s eyes light up. Now Dani knew it was Ferede Aklum.

DANIEL LIMOR: So I told him, “Look, I cannot do that alone. There's no way I can do this alone. So I'm asking you to stay with me. And eventually, you will get a ticket to whatever you want.” 

NARRATOR: Saying that he must get to Israel, Ferede agrees to help. But he’s not sure how. He has met no other Jews in Sudan.

RAFFI BERG: It's extraordinary, if you think about it. The only known Jewish person in Sudan at that time was Ferede Aklum.

NARRATOR: The two men decide to scour the refugee camps across Sudan, looking for Jews. Dani bribes a local for his Land Rover Defender.

DANIEL LIMOR: At the time, they called it the mechanical camel. You just fill them up and they will go anywhere. 

NARRATOR: And the two of them set off, ready to cross the vast expanse of the Sudanese desert. They’ve barely gone 20km when they hit trouble.

DANIEL LIMOR: We came to our first roadblock. The soldier with the Kalashnikov makes a sign for me to stop. And so he asks for papers. I gave him my passport. 

NARRATOR: Dani hands over his identification. The soldier’s eyes flick between the papers and their owner.

DANIEL LIMOR: And so I got back my passport politely. And I said, “Okay, thank you” in Arabic. And I did like I was going to move. But then he pointed his gun toward Ferede and said, “You come with me.” 

NARRATOR: Dani knows he cannot let that happen.

DANIEL LIMOR: They have the guns - and an Ethiopian for them is less than an animal. So they can do whatever they want to him. They could kill him on the spot.

NARRATOR: In Arabic, Dani tells the soldier that his passenger is going nowhere. The exchange grows heated. Other troops begin to approach the Jeep.

DANIEL LIMOR: And he started moving the gun and making noises like he was going to shoot.

NARRATOR: Dani starts yelling at the soldier.

DANIEL LIMOR: I said, “He's not going with you.” Then I started really shouting at him. “You go and call the commander!”

NARRATOR: Hesitating, the soldier turns around and heads for the command tent.

DANIEL LIMOR: I let him go and in a certain moment I just stepped on the gas and pfft.

NARRATOR: Accelerating past the roadblock, Dani steels himself for gunfire.

DANIEL LIMOR: And if he would have fired, maybe we wouldn't be here talking but that's a risk I was willing to take. And he didn't. He didn’t shoot. He didn't fire. 

NARRATOR: Retreating into the bush, Dani and Ferede must devise a new plan.

DANIEL LIMOR: The first thing is we cannot stop at the roadblocks because if we stop that’s it, we will be exposed. And if we don't want to stop at the roadblock, we cannot drive during daylight. So you work only at night and you never stop on the road. And that became the modus operandi. 

NARRATOR: Visiting the camps, some 400 kilometers drive, Dani waited outside while Ferede went in.

DANIEL LIMOR: He knew how to recognize. He knew what type of questions to ask. 

NARRATOR: But still, he could find no Jews. And there was another issue.

DANIEL LIMOR: Once you leave Khartoum, there's no gas station. 

NARRATOR: At least no commercial gas stations. There was somewhere to fuel up. But it was a risk.

DANIEL LIMOR: The military governor's camp.

NARRATOR: Reluctantly, Dani begins refueling there. The first few times, he goes in and out without a problem. Eventually, though, he attracts attention.

DANIEL LIMOR: I was playing a small game. These Nintendo games, because you get bored queuing, it can take two or three hours. The sergeant comes by and sees. And they called me and told me, “You come with me.”

NARRATOR: Dani follows the sergeant into the main building. There he is confronted by the military governor himself.

DANIEL LIMOR: I was holding my little screen game and so the sergeant tells the officer, “I caught him transmitting.”

NARRATOR: Feigning that he couldn’t speak Arabic, Dani asks if the governor speaks English, French, any European language. In English, the governor asks him to place the device on the table. Dani does as instructed. Immediately the officer can tell it is not a transmitter but he is still unsure of this white man.

DANIEL LIMOR: And then he asked me if I have a permit from the Ministry of Interior or something to be here at all because this is considered a military area and you need a special permit to be in this area.

NARRATOR: Dani says he’s never heard of such a permit.

DANIEL LIMOR: And he says, “But how come they didn't stop you at the roadblocks?”

NARRATOR: “They just waved me through,” Dani replies.

DANIEL LIMOR: I said no, that they always make it like this with the hand. I thought they were saying hello, so I said hello also, and I continued. Which made him laugh.

NARRATOR: Sensing an opportunity, Dani explains his work as an anthropologist. Eventually, the governor agrees to issue the permit on the spot. Then, he asks where Dani usually sleeps when out here in the desert.

DANIEL LIMOR: So I said, “Well, usually I sleep out in the field or there was something that the locals called the hotel, but actually was like a building where the refugees were renting a bed for a night.” 

NARRATOR: The Governor is shocked.

DANIEL LIMOR: He said, “You what? I am forbidding you to sleep there because you might be killed. And I don't want any European guy killed in my area under my responsibility.” 

NARRATOR: “From now on you are to sleep at the barracks whenever visiting the area,” the governor says. Dani could hardly believe it.

DANIEL LIMOR: I said okay. For at least three months this was my home, if you want to call it that. And we became friendly.

NARRATOR: Operating from the barracks, Dani links up with Ferede to continue their search. But still, nothing. By this time, Dani had had no communication with the Mossad for two months.

DANIEL LIMOR: Communication between headquarters and the field was very elementary. For many reasons. Nothing was digitalized yet, I mean, there were not even computers. 

NARRATOR: Not long after, Dani is back in the governor’s office.

DANIEL LIMOR: I came to say hello and he was sitting there and then I thought, there were always many phones on his desk. And I said, “Which one of these phones actually works?”

NARRATOR: The governor points to one of the hand dials.

DANIEL LIMOR: I said, "Do you think from here we can call Paris?" 

NARRATOR: “We can try,” the governor replies. Dani hands him a phone number.

DANIEL LIMOR: A few minutes later - ring, ring. “I've got the guy on the other side.”

NARRATOR: Dani picks up the receiver. On the other end, he can hear the electronically distorted voice of a Mossad colleague.

DANIEL LIMOR: And he says, “Oh, you're okay.

NARRATOR: “Have you found any merchandise?” he asks. “Not yet,” Dani replies. But then, the voice says something that makes the blood drain from Dani’s face. “Dad wants to see you urgently.”

DANIEL LIMOR: Dad, meaning my boss, wants to see me urgently. That means I have to leave and go back to Israel through Europe.

NARRATOR: The mission was over. Dani’s time was up. Next time, on True Spies, Dani is fighting to save both the mission and his accomplice.

DANIEL LIMOR: I go back to the car and as I exit the building, in front of my eyes I see Ferede being dragged by the collar of his shirt by a policeman. Immediately I saw he was going to the police headquarters. 

NARRATOR: While rumors begin to spread of a way out for the Ethiopian Jews...

TAKELE MEKONEN: In the beginning of 1980, we heard that Jews from the Tigray region arrived in Sudan and came to Jerusalem. And we thought that was our chance.

NARRATOR: And the Mossad stumbles across a potential escape route.

DANIEL LIMOR: We started going northward along the coast. And we see these nice bungalows with red tile roofs. 

NARRATOR: That’s next time on True Spies. I’m Sophia Di Martino. Join us next week for the second installment of True Spies: Operation Brothers. Or, if you're a subscriber to SPYSCAPE Plus, you can listen right now. You'll get new episodes of True Spies, and the rest of the SPYSCAPE podcast network, a week early and ad-free. You'll also get exclusive access to The Razumov Files - an audacious adaptation of Joseph Conrad's classic spy thriller, Under Western Eyes, starring Jessica Brown Findlay and Maryam d'Abo. SPYSCAPE+ is available via Apple Podcasts and SPYSCAPE.com/podcasts.

Guest Bio

Daniel Limor (pictured) is immigrated to Israel from Uruguay at the age of 16 with the Youth Aliyah. He was drafted to be a paratrooper in the IDF and became an officer and served for 25 years in the Mossad. He was head of Mossad field undercover operations for the clandestine Aliyah of Ethiopian Jews in the 1980s.

Raffi Berg is the Middle East editor of the BBC News website. A journalist for 30 years, he has a particular interest in events in Israel. He is also the author of Red Sea Spies the true story of Mossad's fake holiday resort.

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