25 years ago, Rafael Barmatz and Bazazau Mengistu met for the first time when Barmatz was called for reserve duty during Operation “Solomon” in which Mengistu made “Aliyah” (immigrated) to Israel with his family. Years later, they work together, Barmatz as an engineer in the Security Industries and Capt. Mengistu as an IAF Officer, on a project on the “C-130J Super Hercules” aircraft, a variant of the aircraft they first met on
25 years ago, Rafael Barmatz was a 27 year old engineering student when he was called for reserve duty to take part in Operation “Solomon”, one of the most complex and emotional operations in Israeli history as a part of which over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews were transported to Israel. At the time, Bazazau Mengistu was a seven year old child who knew nothing of Israel besides holy Jerusalem. They first met in the airport in Addis-Ababa. Barmatz, who served as a loadmaster in the operation, loaded Bazazau and his family on the IAF “Hercules” which brought them to Israel, the country they dreamt of for so many years.
In 2012, they met again. This time, Barmatz was an engineer in a security company and Mengistu was a Capt. in the IAF Material Directorate. “When we saw each other, we ran into each other’s arms in slow motion and embraced”, Barmatz cynically said as they both laughed.
“We both work on a project on the ‘Hercules’ aircraft”, Barmatz shared. “I lead the project on behalf of the Industry and Bazazau on behalf of the IAF. When we began the project, Bazazau was introduced to me as the project’s officer. When I asked Bazazau when he made ‘Aliyah’ and he answered that in Operation ‘Solomon’, it connected us, because I participated in the operation”.
Capt Mengistu: “When he told me about it for the first time, I was very excited. Thanks to people like you, we immigrated to Israel. Today, there is closure when we work together, side by side, on the ‘Hercules’ aircraft”.
How it all Started
May 1991, Addis-Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia. IAF and “EL-AL” aircraft land and take off, airlifting over 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel.
Barmatz was on one of the “Hercules” aircraft. “When we landed, we saw chaos in the airport”, he describes. “As a result of the coup that took place in Ethiopia at the time, and the rebels getting closer, there were many aircraft from different countries sent to return their representatives home. We land, I open the ramp and I see a group of about 200 people approaching the aircraft”. Capt. Mengistu clearly remembers walking towards the enormous “Hercules”. “I was born into a reality of yearning for Israel and Jerusalem”, he shares. “I didn’t hear of Tel-Aviv or Hadera in which I live today”.
When Capt. Mengistu boarded the aircraft with his Father and Brother, he saw his mother, who he didn’t see in the days of organization that preceded the flight. “It was nice to find out that I was on the aircraft with my whole family”, he shares emotionally.
Half an Hour in Addis-Ababa
The “Hercules” aircraft that participated in the operation could contain up to-92 passengers, but in practice, over 200 immigrants boarded each aircraft. “One of the loadmasters’ jobs is to calculate the weight and balance of the aircraft before takeoff”, explains Barmatz. “We pre-assessed the weight and balance in Israel. When we saw that there were no problems, we took off for Israel”.
“It makes me incredibly proud that this is part of our identity” | Taken during Operation “Solomon”,
Half an hour after landing in Addis, the aircraft took off for Israel. Barmatz and Mengistu described what happened during the five hour flight: hundreds of stressed people sitting on the floor of the aircraft. “During the flight, the loadmasters were responsible for all actions that required moving in the aircraft. Because the planes’ floors were filled with people, we moved around with the use of metal cables that were stretched out from the back door to the front wall of the cabin. I would hold on to the ceiling in order to get to the front or back”.
“Show me one other nation in the world that would conduct such a big operation. There is no such place”, ruled Capt. Mengistu. “It is the Jewish nation’s mentality that acts upon the saying: ‘Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world’. It makes me incredibly proud that this is part of our identity and that I am part of this nation”.
A New Life
The aircraft landed in the IAF AFB in Lod, Bazazau and his family disembarked the aircraft, stepped on Israeli soil for the first time and began their new life. Barmatz returned to his life as an engineering student.
“During the operation and after, when I returned home and heard the publications, I felt that I took part in a historic event”, Barmatz said. “Before, I took part in operations to transport Ethiopian Jews to Israel from Sudan, which were small and secretive, but this time, there was a feeling that this was huge on its own terms, that’s why I took a camera and documented it”.
Capt. Mengistu excelled in school, completed his B.A before his military service and drafted in the IAF in 2007 as an Electronic Warfare Officer. He advanced in the Technical Division and over time was positioned in the Material Directorate in IAF HQ. He lives in Hadera with his wife Tova and his children Nevo (6) and Maayan (3).
As mentioned, the two lead a project on the IAF’s “Hercules” aircraft. “I give him a hard time at work”, Capt. Mengistu said with a smile as Barmatz nodded in agreement. “I insist on IAF standards and make sure that what was decided upon in the deal between the IAF and Security Industry is executed”.
“Bazazau doesn’t cut me any slack”, Barmatz added. “He is a professional officer and represents the client. We have many hours of mutual travel and we talk a lot. From the moment I entered the project, it has been a kind of closure: I served in the IAF and later studied engineering in order to serve as a loadmaster for six years”.
Double the closure | Photography: Mor Tzidon