Inside a torturers' den, manacles lie abandoned
By Robert Fisk at Khiam Jail
The Independent, 25 May 2000
The torturers had just left but the horror remained. There was the whipping pole and the window grilles where prisoners were tied naked for days, freezing water thrown over them at night. Then there were the electric leads for the little dynamo -- the machine mercifully taken off to Israel by the interrogators -- which had the inmates shrieking with pain when the electrodes touched their fingers or penises. And there were the handcuffs which an ex-prisoner handed to me yesterday afternoon.
Engraved into the steel were the words: "The Peerless Handcuff Co. Springfield, Mass. Made in USA." And I wondered, in Israel's most shameful prison, if the executives over in Springfield knew what they were doing when they sold these manacles.
They were used over years to bind the arms of prisoners before interrogation. And they wore them, day and night, as they were kicked -- kicked so badly in Sulieman Ramadan's case that they later had to amputate his arm. Another prisoner was so badly beaten, he lost the use of a leg. I found his crutch in Khiam prison yesterday, along with piles of Red Cross letters from prisoners -- letters which the guards from Israel's now-defunct "South Lebanon Army" militia never bothered to forward.
What is it that makes men do things like this? The prisoners -- thousands of them over the two decades of Khiam's existence -- included guerrillas, relatives of gunmen, civilians by the dozen whose crime was innocence, who would not collaborate with the Israelis or the SLA, who refused to join the murderous little militia, who declined to give the Israelis information about the Lebanese army.
"I was hung here naked for 13 days," Abdullah Attiyeh told me as we walked along a dirty passageway beside the wall of the old French mandate fort. "They put a bag on my head and threw cold water over me night and day."
The hoods were still there, big light-blue corduroy sacks with towels inside -- some of the towels bought from Norwegian Unifil soldiers because the UN globe was embroidered on some of them -- and so was the wire with which other prisoners, including women, were beaten. Big, thick wire bound in blue plastic. The torturers were sadistic, often stupid men. There were pornographic magazines and cheap comics and puzzle books in their filthy quarters. Israel has admitted teaching these men how to do their job.
In the women's section, we found the mementoes of girls. A drawing of a fish with a heart attached to it and a painting of six white horses running over a darkened field. There was a picture of Father Christmas taken from a chocolate wrapper. And names. "Zeina Koutash, born 3/9/79, arrested 7/5/99, released 3/1/2000." There were the names of Rana Awada and Ismahan Ali Khalil, only 19 when she was dragged to this awful place by the SLA. "How many drops of blood have been spilt on our soil -- and have not flowered?" she wrote on the wall. Along with two words. "Remember me."
And of course, the prematurely old men who languished in Khiam came back yesterday at the moment of its liberation, to relive their misery.
I suppose evil is always banal but I couldn't fail to be struck how grubby the whole place was, how unclean, how smelly; as if wickedness had somehow corrupted the prison. The lavatories stank, the food had been left to rot, the prison cells were covered in muck. The men's solitary block was a pit in the ground with a concrete hole for air. A broken wooden police baton lay outside. "Dog Zorro" was written on it in biro.
There was a little humanity. One ex-inmate recalled the name of Tannious Nahara, an SLA guard from Qleia who would bring food and cigarettes to the prisoners. He was fired from his job for being kind, and threatened with imprisonment in the jail he had worked in.But the cruel men had all fled, pleading their way across the border into Israel a few hours earlier.
Ibrahim Kalash was allowed a bath once every 40 days. "If we spilt water on the floor, they used to make us lick it clean," he said.
"You're surprised we didn't escape? Four men did. One made it, another was shot, another captured and the fourth blew himself up on a mine and lost a leg and an eye." Around the prison there are minefields galore. "An Israeli officer came here and told the SLA men 'Destroy everything that is green'," Abdullah Attiyeh said. "That is why there are no trees, just long grass with mines.
The prison interrogation rooms were as banal as the men who worked them. There were playing cards scattered on the floor, jars of coffee, helmets, unwashed clothes and a stack of beer mats bearing the words "Middle East Lutheran Ministry". Ghassan Abu Aissa, a well-known stool-pigeon -- working for the SLA and Israelis but incarcerated along with the inmates -- even left a notebook of childish love poems, a morbid complaint about the hopelessness of passion. Abu Ahlan, a prisoner of more integrity, had written on a wall: "Lebanon is ours and for our children after us." I suppose that's why they came back to look at Khiam yesterday.
Abdullah Attiyeh walked me to the prison guardpost on the walls and looked out at the land and mountains he was never allowed to see during his imprisonment. "This place," he said, "should be kept forever as a witness to our history."