Detention, torture and freedom of women in South Lebanon
By Kim Ghattas, The Dawn 16th Aug 2000
AINATA, (South Lebanon): It was a sunny day, a quiet Thursday. She was enjoying a late lunch with her family when a car pulled up in the driveway and two men asked her to accompany them to answer a few questions.
On September 2, 1999, Cosette Ibrahim, a 24-year-old journalist, was taken from her parent's house, in the Christian town of Rmeich, to be questioned by Aql Hashem, an officer in the South Lebanon Army and then commander of the western sector of the Israeli occupied zone.
Hashem told her that if she did not answer the questions in his office, she would be taken to the dreaded Khiam, a prison controlled by the SLA with the tacit agreement of the Israelis.
For the past 15 years, Khiam has been synonyms with fear, torture, and the violation of human rights.
A bewildered Cosette climbed into the car. It was not long before she realised that they were, indeed, headed in the direction of the prison.
"Bizarrely enough, there is a kind of relief, of giving in, at that moment. At least you know where you're being taken, and you know there is nothing you can do to fight it," recalls Cosette.
Cosette was one of more than 3,000 people who were held at the infamous Khiam detention centre.
Some were arrested, after being caught passing information on to the Hizbollah, the guerrilla group that spearheaded the war of liberation against Israel's occupation of south Lebanon. Others were just suspected of doing so.
Some were even held because of personal grudges. Thousands of lives were shattered and families torn apart in the process.
"After refusing, so many times, to provide him with information, I felt Youssef Hashem, who was in charge of security in our village, had developed a grudge against me. That was his revenge," said Sawsan Khanafer, 24 year old teacher, who was taken to Khiam in Feb 2,000.
The Khiam detention centre was set up by the Israelis in 1985. They were directly in charge of it until 1987, when they handed control over to their allies, the SLA, while still pulling the strings.
Pressure from the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit the Khiam centre forced the SLA to improve detainment conditions. However, it took a year before they allowed the ICRC to inspect the prison in Jan 1995.
Despite international pressure, the torture methods continued unabated. Former inmates say these included boots kicking every part of the body, electric rods applied against humid bodies, hanging upside down on a pole, usually almost naked, baking in the sun or drenched in the pouring rain.
Every day, for 20 days, two women guards came to fetch Sawsan for her interrogation session. A bag would be placed on her head and, handcuffed, she would be dragged into a room where she would spend two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, under interrogation.
"The first three days were okay, I was not beaten. (In fact)I (even) told my interrogator I thought Khiam (would be) worse (than it was). He told me that was all media exaggeration," said Sawsan.
"But then I got (a) taste (of) how bad it could get," she adds. Sawsan was made to kneel and hold a chair up in the air with her handcuffed hands for hours. She was threatened with electrocution if she dropped it.
Every time she felt herself faltering, Sawsan said she thought of the electric shock. But, in the end, she couldn't help her body from collapsing. She was then splashed with water and electric shocks passed through her fingers.
Kicks in the face broke her nose and she developed an allergy all over her body which became infected.
However, despite the horrific ordeal, Sawsan maintains that she was lucky to be a woman. She says the torture women were subjected to was several degrees lower than what the men had to endure.
Sawsan says she cried herself to sleep in her solitary confinement cell, where all prisoners remain until the interrogation is over.
"The worst for me was when they stopped coming to get me for interrogations," she recalled.
After two months, she was put in the same cell with another girl, Ismahan Khalil. They were later joined by Cosette and Najwa Samhat, a mother of four, whose husband and 19 year old son were detained at the same time.
The four of them spent their last weeks of detention trying retain a positive outlook. They knew that Israeli premier, Ehud Barak, had pledged upon his election that he would withdraw from Lebanon by July 7. This was something to look forward to.
And it came sooner than expected.
On May 23 the cries of "Allah Akbar" resounded in the courtyard of the detainment centre. It was a cry they will always remember.
"We thought maybe the SLA was killing the detainees as they left, but soon we saw from the hole in the door, people swarming the prison and a man opened our door with a crow bar," said Sawsan.
Nobody was laughing, nobody was crying. They were all too stunned as realisation began to slowly set in that they were finally free and that their worst nightmare was over. Their prayers had been answered, Israel's 22 year long occupation ended on May 24.
Cosette does not regret her sojourn in prison. "In the end, it was thanks to our sacrifice and of all the others that our country was finally liberated," she said. All the detainees are slowly getting used to life and freedom again.
For Sawsan, the new freedom is double, not only were they released from Khiam, but their villages were also freed from Israeli occupation.
However, the scars run deep. It will be some time before the people of south Lebanon will learn to speak without fear.
"I learned the price of freedom in the prison. Of course we were always free in our minds in Khiam, but we also had been through 22 years of occupation and constant fear, this shapes your attitude," she said.