Lebanon bursts free to uncertainty
Freedom - 100 inmates released after villagers storm prison camp
Miral Fahmy in Khiam
The Guardian, Wednesday May 24 2000
Scores of villagers used rifle butts and their bare hands
yesterday to free about 100 people jailed in south Lebanon's
notorious Khiam prison, after its pro-Israeli militia guards fled.
The mostly Shi'ite Muslim residents of Khiam stormed the detention camp where, according to human rights groups, about 160 men, women and children were subjected to torture.
Guards belonging to Israel's proxy militia, South Lebanon Army (SLA), which ran the prison, left the jail in a convoy of about 20 civilian cars, leaving behind tanks, armoured personnel carriers and ammunition to be seized by the victorious villagers.
"We're actually free at last," shouted a white-haired prisoner after villagers broke down his cell door with their bare hands.
Overjoyed prisoners, some detained since the late 1980s, fainted with emotion on seeing their relatives. A man tumbled out of his cell, kissing the ground and sobbing.
"We didn't know what was going on at all, but we had a feeling we'd be out soon because of all the shelling and bombing we've been hearing," said Mohammad as he ran from the prison. "We chased them away. Our people actually won. They avenged us."
Human rights groups have criticised Israel and the SLA for holding prisoners in Khiam without trial. The compound, with its dirty white buildings topped with barbed wire, often echoed with the screams of detainees tortured during interrogation.
According to the Lebanese Follow-up Committee for Detainees in Israeli Jails, electrocutions and beatings were routine procedures during the SLA interrogations. It said detainees were often hung from posts for hours, and beaten with steel rods on their heads and genitalia.
"I'm an engineer, I've been here for four years, they've also arrested my wife, my child, my mother and my sister but now it's all over," said Ali, tears streaming from his one good eye. "Our people released us. The resistance has released us. We are all resistance. Long live Hizbullah."
Most of the detainees were arrested by the SLA on charges of either aiding Hizbullah guerrillas or fighting alongside them. The Islamist group has taken at least 30 villages abandoned by the Israelis and SLA in the past two days.
Khiam was a Lebanese army barracks before the SLA transformed it into a detention centre in 1985. Hundreds of villagers from throughout the zone have served time there and yesterday was their chance to take revenge.
Gaunt and exhausted, some prisoners joined in the destruction of the compound. Doors were broken open, windows shattered and most of the equipment smashed.
Villagers climbed up the vacant guard towers, planting green flags with religious emblems and firing into the air.
Others crammed into an abandoned armoured personnel carrier and drove it down the slope to Khiam village, where dozens of waiting families pelted the detainees with flower petals and rice.
Children ran through the compound, picking up handcuffs and ammunition to play with, while cars bearing the prisoners to the village tooted their horns and women sang.
"The nightmare is over," said a wild-haired detainee as he sobbed. "I can't believe the nightmare is actually over."