It is ironic that justice has come for Vittorio Arrigoni and his family as we commemorate the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatilla massacre, one of the most atrocious crimes ever committed against us, against anyone. Thirty years have passed since it happened in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon by a Lebanese Phalangist militia trained, supported, and secured by Israel. The blood spilled in less than three days, the elderly and the babies killed and tossed into rubbish heaps, women raped and brutally killed: the horrors unleashed on a vulnerable village knew no bounds. The memories of this atrocity are too painful to forget and the wounds it left in the Palestinian people’s hearts are just too deep to heal.
Justice was done for Vittorio — Vik, we called him — by Hamas, an organization that almost the whole world branded as a ‘terrorist’ organization and opposed when they were democratically elected in 2006. But justice for the thousands of victims of Sabra and Shatilla, a slaughter in which Israel was entirely complicit, has not yet been achieved.
And neither has justice for Rachel Corrie, killed in 2003 by a soldier of “the world’s most moral army.” He ran over her body with his Caterpillar bulldozer while demolishing a Palestinian home in Rafah that she gave her life trying to save. Less than a month ago, almost a decade after Rachel’s murder, an Israeli court in Haifa ruled that it was merely an “accident” for which the State should not take responsibility.
I decided not to attend the final court hearing for those suspected of killing Vittorio on Monday. I tried it once last April, but it was just too painful to watch the endless procedures mask the horror of the truth people were trying to find. I remember how I sat and shook, bit my nails, bowed my head, and looked at my tears falling on the floor. I remember how intolerably annoying it was to hear the murderers’ voices speaking of morals and respect while they had no shred of morals, respect, or humanity. I remember how I couldn’t bear to remain until the end and escaped the court to express my anger and sorrow at his murder outside.
At the time of the verdict, I sat in a cafe hall named after Vittorio Arrigoni, waiting for Adie Mormech, a British activist who was one of Vik’s best friends, to tell me what the court had ruled. He said that Mahmoud Salfiti, 23, and Tamer Hasasna, 25, were sentenced to life imprisonment, plus 10 years of hard labor, for kidnapping and murder, while Khader Ajram, 26, was sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment with hard labor for assisting. The fourth, Amer Abu Ghula, fled Gaza after the killing and was sentenced in absentia to a year of imprisonment for harboring fugitives.
I didn’t know how to describe my feelings about the criminals’ sentences. I don’t suspect them to be unjust. But something tells me that this trial only punished the hands behind this crime, not the minds that plotted it. I also believe that with the killing of the Jordanian Abderrahman Breizit and the Salafi Bilal Al-Omary during their shootout with Hamas forces, many facts were buried as well. This trial didn’t answer all our questions and left us still wondering, who benefited? Who had the most to gain from the murder of Vittorio Arrigoni and Juliano Mer Khamis who was killed in Jenin shortly before?
Even after the convictions of Vik’s murderers, they can never absorb the grief that his family and friends felt and still feel over his loss. Since his killers sentenced us to live the remainder of our lives without him around, Vittorio’s physical absence has been difficult. I still find it hard to imagine that we will have to continue without his laughs filling the room, without his voice singing, “Unadikum, ashod Ala Ayadikum,” “I call to you all. I take your hands and hold them tightly.” I know it’s been more than a year since he had his last Friday dinner with my family, but no Friday has ever passed without his memories flooding into our minds. His spiritual presence is very strong almost every place I go, especially in our house.
I see him in every corner of our home, on the sofas sitting and smoking his pipe while drinking coffee, on the dining table using his unique sense of humor to make us laugh and distract us from eating, even in the street in front where he frequently had football matches with my youngest brother Mohammed and other internationals activists such as Adie and Max Ajl. He also used to chat in the garden with my father about his immense pride in his grandparents who resisted fascism in Italy, a legacy that inspired him to fight the fascist policies of Israel against the Palestinians.
I will never forget you, dear Vik, and I’ll always cherish your memories dearly. We still laugh very hard when we hear any of my family or our friends imitating you, speaking your countable Arabic words that you used to repeat over and over again, “Zaki, Mushkili, Mish Mushkili, Mumkin, shway.”
You will live immortally in every heart of every Palestinian, every farmer, every fisherman, and every child in the Samouni family to whom you gave your strength and sympathy. In the massacre, you were there for them like for so many others, right from the moment Israel forced a hundred of them into one house, before dropping a missile on them all. You were one of those trying to reach them, as the dead and injured lay together under the rubble for four days. 29 of them were killed, yet three years later Israel’s military prosecution absolved the Israeli army of wrong-doing, arguing that the massacre had not been carried out “in a manner that would indicate criminal responsibility.”
I hope you’re resting in peace, looking upon us from heaven, and smiling. Be sure that those murderers didn’t kill you, but made you immortal. You have become a symbol of humanity, an icon of Muqawama, the tattoo you chose for your right arm out of your faith in our cause and as a promise to the oppressed Palestinian people to never end the struggle for real justice. We will carry on the fight, and we will achieve the aim you sacrificed your life for: “Freedom, justice, and equality for Palestine.”
“The detainees spend their imprisonment waiting for their families’ visits,” Dad once said, recalling the Israeli Prison Service IPS punishing him by denying him family visits during his 15 years of imprisonment. “Despite all the suffering and humiliation attached to their procedures, family visits are as important to prisoners as the air they breathe.”
Following the capture of Gilad Shalid in June 2006, Israel collectively punished Palestinian political prisoners from Gaza by banning family visits, one of their basic rights and a lifeline between detainees and their families. “Under international humanitarian law, Israeli authorities have an obligation to allow the detainees to receive family visits,” said Juan Pedro Schaerer, the head of the ICRC delegation in Israel and the occupied territories.
Our detainees’ determination proved stronger than the jailers’ guns. In exchange for ending the one-month mass hunger strike in May, they made Israel comply with the international humanitarian law and reinstate family visits to Gaza Strip detainees after almost six years without them.
On July 16, 48 family members were finally allowed to see to their relatives in Israeli jails for the first time since Shalit’s capture, through barriers for 45 minutes. However, Israel imposed its own conditions on the visits. Only wives and parents were allowed to visit. Detainees’ young children weren’t, “for security reasons.” Fathers must imagine their children growing up without them, or wait for the miracles of their smuggled pictures.
Last Monday, August 6, the fourth group of detainees’ families gathered in front of the ICRC to visit their relatives in Nafha prison. The day before a visit, the ICRC usually announces the names of approved relatives.
Among those who received permits were the parents of detainee Yahya Islaih, who was captured on August 24, 2008 and sentenced to 12 years. His 75-year-old mother and 80-year-old father arrived very early at the ICRC, dressed very traditionally and beautifully. Yahya has not met his parents since his arrest. I used to see Yahya’s mother Aisha in the sit-in tents for political prisoners. She barely missed any protest, despite her advanced age. Last Monday was supposed to be her first reunion with her son in four years. But destiny stood between them.
Aisha breathed prayers of thankfulness that she had been blessed with another opportunity to talk to her son, and see him through a barrier after five years of separation. While sitting in the bus, wishing that time would move faster, she felt the gasp of death and leaned on a neighboring woman’s shoulder.
Later that morning, as I was getting ready to leave for the weekly protest for political prisoners, I read the terrible news. I found it difficult to believe that this had really happened. I thought that we only hear such stories on dramas. But it did happen. When she was so close to meeting her son again, she passed away. Death separated them, just as Israel had for so long.
I left home with tears in my eyes. When I arrived at the protest, people were very quiet. Everyone was in shock. I could read the sorrow in every eye. The elderly mothers of detainees cried while hugging the banners of their sons. Each seemed to wonder, “Will we share Aisha’s fate?”
Amidst silence and sorrow, the 75-year-old mother of detainee Ibrahim Baroud who has been detained for 27 years stood and began shouting. “Enough tears. Tears won’t bring her back to life! Just pray for her soul to rest in peace.” Om Ibrahim Baroud was in the first group issued permits to visit their sons on July 16. That was her first visit to her son, after 16 years banned “for security reasons.” “How would an elderly mother like me threaten their security?” she always complained. “They are simply heartless and merciless, and enjoy breaking mothers’ hearts over their sons.”
The world blamed her when she hurled her shoes at Ban Ki-moon’s convoy when he entered Gaza. She was angry and disappointed by his prejudice when he refused to meet prisoners’ families in Gaza, after repeatedly visiting Gilaad Shalit’s parents. But they didn’t know to how much she had suffered at Israel’s hands. Read the story of this incident, when shoes and stones welcomed Ban Ki-moon to Gaza, here.
After the protest, I went to say hello to her. “Are you joining us for the funeral, Shahd?” she asked, every wrinkle in her face revealing her sadness. “Yes, grandmother,” I answered, even though I hadn’t known of the plan. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go or not. Honestly, I fear funerals.
But when I said yes, she caught my hand so I could help her to the bus, and pushed me forward as if she sensed my hesitance. “When I saw her last Monday, she congratulated me for having visited my son, and sighed while hoping that her turn to see hers again would come soon,” Om Mahmoud said.
When we arrived at the funeral, we learned that Aisha hadn’t been buried yet. She was in a narrow room with two doors. It was crowded with women. They entered one by one from a door, kissed her, prayed for her, and then left through another door. I glanced at the scene, then pushed myself away, trying to postpone my turn. I recalled meeting my dear friend Vittorio Arrigoni for the last time as a dead body.
I stood next to a woman who happened to be Aisha’s niece. “Yahya wrote her a letter once, asked her to remain steadfast and know that she would see him again,” she said with tears streaming down her cheeks. “He asked her to wear her traditional Palestinian dress when she comes to visit him again. And she did. After she learned that she would visit him, she was very happy. She ironed her new dress, which she had kept for Yahya’s wedding after his release.” She burst out crying and continued, “But she neither visited him, nor would she ever attend his wedding.”
Finally my turn came. I entered, one foot pushing me forward, the other backward. I saw her body and kissed her forehead. I still can’t believe I did. Traumatized, I returned home in the afternoon and slept. I couldn’t stand thinking of her, nor her son, who would never see his mother, alive or dead again. I felt like I wanted to sleep forever, but I woke up after twelve hours.
Please pray for Aisha’s soul to rest in peace, and for her son to remain strong behind Israel’s bars. Her story is more clear and bitter evidence of the suffering our detainee’s families endure because of Israel’s violations of their basic rights and their families’.
Twenty-seven years ago, my father’s eyes saw the sun after being in the dark of Israeli prison for 13 years. On 20 May 1985, my father regained his freedom.
“I was sentenced for seven lifetimes plus 10 years and I thought that this prison, Nafha, would be my grave. Thank God I didn’t stay that long there, and I was set free to marry your mother and to bring you to this life,” my father told me, smiling. He considered the 13 years of misery as not that long. Yes, it’s not that long if compared with the life sentence to which he was bound if the deal to exchange Palestinian and Israeli prisoners didn’t happen.
I can’t recall that Dad ever showing any regret or sorrow for how the precious years of his youth were stolen from him. His prison experience is instead his song of life. He believes that it is his treasure, the reason behind his rich culture and beliefs, his strong character, his intimate friendships, and the reason why he values life. I’ve always been proud that I am my Dad’s daughter, and I’ll always be. He is a mix of experience and knowledge.
The story of the exchange deal all started when Ahmad Jibril of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine captured three Israeli soldiers (Yosef Grof, Nissim Salem, Hezi Shai) in revenge for thousands of Palestinian prisoners kidnapped by Israel without any apparent reason. After a long process of negotiations, both sides struck a deal that Israel would release 1,250 prisoners in return for the three Israelis that Jibril held captive. My father was included in the deal, and fortunately, he was set free. Among the prisoners released were the Japanese freedom fighter Kozo Okamoto who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, and Ahmed Yassin, the leader of Hamas who was sentenced to 13 years imprisonment in 1983.
History repeats itself
History repeats itself. On 18 October last year, we experienced a similar historical event with a swap deal involving the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, who was arrested by the resistance in Gaza while he was on top of his war machine (an Israeli tank). Just like what happened with Shalit, the capture of three Israelis caused uproar in the Israeli public opinion and international media at that time, but the thousands of Palestinian prisoners behind Israeli bars were not noticed, except for by the resistance fighters that have always forced Israel to meet some demands regarding the Palestinian prisoners.
When I deeply think about these events and the way the international media reacts, I get angry at how unjust this world is. Why did the world make a big deal of Shalit and the three soldiers when they were attested by the “terrorist” Palestinians while thousands of Palestinian political prisoners are left behind in Israeli jails enduring all forms of violations and torture and the world chooses to look away?
My father told the story with tears struggling to fall. He was staring at a picture stuck on the wall of his room; a painting that my father drew during his imprisonment of flowers blooming among barbed wires. “I cannot forget the moment when the leader of the prison started calling off the names to be released,” he said.
Among the prisoners was Omar al-Qassim, a leading member of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Al-Qassim was asked to read the list of the names loudly. He was so excited at the beginning hoping that his freedom would be restored. Every time he said a name, a scream of happiness convulsed the walls of prison. Suddenly, his face’s features started to change. He became reluctant to speak because he noticed that his name wasn’t among the names. This was another incident of psychological torture that the prison’s manager committed against him. But he left him no chance to make fun of him. He withdrew himself silently and went to his prison to continue with his resistance. Sadly, he died in a horrible narrow cell after 22 years of resistance, pride and glory.
The tears of happiness and sadness mixed together. The freed prisoners were happy to regain their freedom but they were upset at leaving the other prisoners in that dirty place where the sun never shines. “We were like a big family sharing everything together. We all handled the same issues that we were united to fight for,” my father said. “Although I am free now, my soul will always be with my friends who are still suffering in there.”
My father has always said that “prisoners are the living martyrs.” He also described Israeli jails as “graves for the living.” Let’s unite and use all the means available to help 4,653 Palestinian political prisoner have fewer years of suffering. We share this responsibility as we can’t leave them as prey for those criminal jailers. Their freedom will be a triumph for humanity.
Note: Read this in Italian here. Many thanks for Emanuele Qalitry for translating it!
On May 10, 39 Palestinians from Bethlehem completed eleven years of deportation from their precious homes. On the very same day, eleven years ago, they were expelled from the Church of Nativity after a siege by the Israeli Occupation Forces that lasted for 39 days: 26 men went to Gaza, 13 to Europe. Since that tragedy, which marked another form of ethnic cleansing, this day has been called ”Deported Palestinian’s Day”.
Since the last swap deal in October, hundreds of Palestinians have joined this category, as 203 ex-detainees were convicted to indefinite deportation. Moreover, ex-detainee Hana’ Shalabi was recently deported from Jenin to Gaza after hunger striking for 45 days to protest having been re-detained after midnight by a huge, aggressive force of Israeli soldiers, and held under administrative detention on February 16. Israel has intensively deported people from the West Bank to either the Gaza Strip or countries such as Turkey, Syria and Qatar. Israel offered administrative detainees Bilal Diab, Thaer Halahla, and Jafar Ez Al-Din Qadan, all on hunger strike for over two months, deportation to Gaza, but they refused this horrible offer and bravely insisted on continuing their battle of empty stomachs against Israel’s injustices and violations.
On May 10, hundreds of people from all generations marched to the sit-in tent for Palestinian political prisoners in Gaza to share the continued suffering of the deported Palestinians. The experience of exile, with all its pain, repeats itself hundreds of times in Palestine at the hands of Israel, as it openly violates the same Geneva Convention it ratified in 1951.
One of the people I am very proud to have met through the weekly protest for Palestinian detainees is a deportee from the Church of Nativity, Fahmi Kanan. Fahmi has been a good friend of mine, despite our difference in age: He is 43 years old, while I am only 20. He makes sure to attend every Gaza activity organized in solidarity with the Palestinian detainees and their families.
I remember very well Mr. Fahmi’s touching words when I first met him and asked him about the reason for his dedication to the detainees’ cause. “I have never lived a settled life,” he said. “First, I was born in a land under occupation. Secondly, I lived the hard life of detention inside Israel’s prisons five times, each under administrative detention. I was only a 17-year-old teenager when I was first detained. Thirdly, when I’m not detained, wherever I walk within the Palestinian territories, I’m ‘wanted’ and chased by the Israeli Occupation. Fourthly, I was one of the people besieged inside the Church of Nativity in 2002, then deported to Gaza. Our sufferings take different forms, but all of them result from one thing – Israel.”
Afterward, I learned that Mr. Fahmi is the spokesman for the people deported from the Church of Nativity. Having a shared passion for a just cause, Mr. Fahmi and I get along well. He always brings his kids with him to the protest for detainees. I’ve gotten to know him as a person, not merely as a political activist. I believe that children are reflections of their parents. In Mr. Fahmi’s case, his children are outstanding reflections. I always tell him, “If I ever have a child, I’d like to raise her or him the same way you did.” I see a bright future for Palestine through his kids who are, despite their young ages, very well-educated about Palestinian issues.
On the second day of Eid al-Adha last year, I saw him with all his kids in the weekly protest for detainees outside the International Committee of the Red Cross. When I asked him how his family in Bethlehem was doing, he replied, “I was on the phone with Dad this morning, greeting him for Eid. He is getting older. He fears that his death will be soon as he suffers from some health problems. My heart aches when he tells me that he wishes he could see his grandchildren before he dies.” I asked his 11-year-old son Nasr whether he was enjoying his Eid or not. He replied with a sad look on his face, “I feel like it is the same as any other day. All our relatives are in Bethlehem, and Eid without family is tasteless.” His words touched me very deeply.
When I shared with Mr. Fahmi what his son told me, he answered, “My kids were raised without their grandparents or relatives around. The times I was questioned about them are countless, especially during our traditional and religious feasts. But thankfully, they are smart enough to understand that this is one of the prices that Palestinian people pay for being merely Palestinian. And they are proud!”
Yesterday, Mr. Fahmi made a moving speech that showed the humanitarian aspect of a deported Palestinian’s suffering. “The hardest times in a deported person’s life are the times of need,” he said. “Today, we should remember Abdullah Dahoud, one of the 39 deported from the Church of Nativity. Sadly, he could not be among us today. He died of sorrow over his mother and sister, who passed away without him seeing them for one last time. When he was once asked about his fondest wish, he said, ‘I wish I could read a verse of Qura’n next to my mother’s grave.’”
Palestinians consider the United Nations a partner of the Israeli Occupation because of its silence. Security Council Resolution 607 “[c]alls upon Israel to refrain from deporting any Palestinian civilians from the occupied territories” and “[s]trongly requests Israel, the occupying Power, to abide by its obligation arising from the Convention.” But when it comes to reality, the UN chooses to take no action against Israel’s violations. We, the Palestinian people, don’t want resolutions, we want actions! We want real justice, not just words tossed into the air!
The sit-in tent for Palestinian political prisoners has been moved from the International Committee for the Red Cross to a central park near the statue of the Unknown Soldier in the middle of Gaza City. It is one of the few green places and thus one of the most lively places in Gaza, where people escape from their dark houses and seek fun and relief, or to simply waste their times observing others. However, the sit-in tent is now used differently, to send messages of solidarity with our Political prisoners who have been on a mass hunger strike since April 17, and to show anger with the Arab and international community and all human rights organizations, which keep calling for human rights, democracy and justice, but when it comes to our prisoners, they do nothing but watch them dying and remaining helpless.
The solidarity is taking many forms, such as lighting candles, making marches, creatively performing plays, songs, poetry and Dabka, joining a symbolic hunger strike. In Gaza’s sit-in tent, 50 men and 45 women have joined a symbolic hunger strike in solidarity with the detainees since May 2, including prisoner’s wives, parents, sisters and former prisoners. Those people have been protesting day and night. The tent is their shelter as long as the revolution of hunger is going inside Israeli prisons. Having been in the solidarity tent daily, even more than in my house, I’ve witnessed most of the cases among hunger strikers whose health conditions got deteriorating. Several cases were sent to hospital for low or high blood pressure and so many people fainted or emotionally collapsed. Ambulances and doctors never leave the tents anymore as if they have full time job at the tent.
While observing the hunger strikers getting paler as more days pass, I can’t help but think of our heroes, our prisoners behind Israel’s bars and compare. The strikers here have access to water and salt and they also have a small dish of yogurt and soup per day. But our prisoners have nothing but water and salt, ‘in case it’s not confiscated by the Israeli Prison Service (IPS).’ Strikers here can rest or sleep whenever they feel like it, but our prisoners keep being transferred between sections and prisons by the IPS attempting to exhaust them. Loai Odeh, a former prisoner who is also now on a hunger strike in solidarity, emphasizes that the IPS mercilessly prevents the strikers from resting, with these words he wrote recalling his experience of hunger strike during the campaign of disobedience. “Soldiers burst into strikers’ rooms aggressively as if they were confronting armed fighters on a battleground, not hunger strikers with feeble bodies that can barely stand. Knowing that strikers are intolerant of noise, soldiers break into their rooms with loud screams and initiate a hand search in a way that one feels that he’s being beaten rather than searched.”
While making the daily tour to show support and admiration to the hunger strikers in the tent, I was surprised to see Abu Hosny Al-Srafity wearing the strikers’ t-shirt that distinguishes them from others, and which beautifully designed with the Palestinian flag with “we’ll live dignified” written on it. Abu Hosny is a 66-year old detainee’s father whom I met since I started going to the weekly protest in the ICRC for political prisoners. Whenever we meet, we greet each other and have a short and informal conversation, but never had a real one that would make me feel like knowing him intimately. Finally, I had this conversation with him after I said “You, too?” out of surprise reacting to seeing that t-shirt.
“Absolutely!” He powerfully confirmed. “We took this step because we consider ourselves as partners in this battle of dignity but our hunger strike remains symbolic at the end of the day. It equals nothing of our detainees’ enormous suffering under the Israeli oppressive regime. They aren’t only hungry for food, they are hungry for dignity, justice, and freedom.”
He refused to let his age be a barrier in front of standing with his son Ali who was detained for 10 years and still has six to go. Doctors keep pressuring him to break his hunger strike but he refuses saying that “my life isn’t any more precious than that of my son.”
Our conversation was still in the beginning. What came next was heartbreaking. I was amazed at his high spirit and his determination but this profound chat we had clarified to me where he got that strength from.
“Ali is the only son left.” He said. “Left?” I interrupted. Then he moved his below to take a photo he kept below and started explaining. “I had three sons. My oldest son Hosny and my youngest Mohammed were killed and the one in the middle is behind Israel’s bars.” I felt raged and asked how. “In 2004, I was sitting with my wife chatting alone about the terrifying sounds of warplanes that occupied Gaza’s sky. We knew an attack was coming. Then a loud expulsion was heard and shook the land below us. We were in indescribable panic. My wife prayed, “May Allah stand with the mothers of the targeted people.” Then she answered the phone that informed her about the assassination of her oldest son, having no idea she was praying for herself.”
It was very hard to keep control of my emotions after hearing that tragedy. I continued looking directly at his eyes that were full of sorrow and listened silently. “Wait. The next story is even more shocking.” He said. “I was on my way home from a family visit with my wife and my seven-year-old son Mohammed in 1994. We were close to the eastern line, near Naheloz settlement. While standing in the street and waving for cars to take us back home, we suddenly glanced an Israeli car and a jeep driving too fast toward us. We got confused and scared. They intentionally smashed my son under their wheels, hit my wife and badly injured her and kept driving fast toward the settlement. It was horrible. It all happened so quickly that I couldn’t rescue my son who froze out of fear in front of that heartless driver who killed him and didn’t bother to even look back.”
Abu Hosny stopped talking to see my reaction but I was too shocked to utter any word after hearing that horrible incidents. His voice narrating the stories of the murder of his two sons kept replaying in my ears, and my tears kept flowing and the features of shock didn’t leave my face. He saw me in that condition and softly tapped on my hand and said, “Don’t be sad, my daughter. As long as we’re living on these holy lands of Palestine, we’ll never get fed up giving any sacrifice. These unjust and unsecure lives we’re leading are the source of our inner strength and determination. If that wasn’t the case, you wouldn’t see me now hunger striking in solidarity with my son, the living martyr, with hope to celebrate his freedom soon.”
Let’s pray to all detainees’ families to celebrate the victory of their detained sons in their battle of empty stomachs against the armed merciless jailers and pray that this victory will result in allowing them to visit their sons after over 6 years of family visits’ ban. Let’s support our prayers with taking serious actions.
People celebrate Loai Odeh’s freedom in October 18 and welcome him in Gaza
Loai Odeh is a former prisoner and my best friend, whom I am very proud to have met after his release. He joined the campaign of disobedience, the 22-day mass hunger strike, launched at the end of September 2011 to protest cruel conditions and an escalating series of punitive measures against Palestinian prisoners, until the swap deal by Israel and Hamas on 18 October. He was released after ten years of imprisonment and expelled from Jerusalem to Gaza, where we met at a festival. Since his release, his main concern has been the fellow prisoners he left behind. He always attends events in solidarity with them. He has been my main resource every time I had a question or needed to enrich my knowledge about prisoners’ conditions.
While following his updates on Facebook, I noticed that he had written new statuses taking the form of a hunger striker’s diary recalling his experience. This surprised me, as he has seldom posted since opening his account. His diaries are touching and vivid, giving a clear vision of the great challenge and determination that our prisoners enjoy amidst hunger and the fascist repression of the Israeli Prison Service.
The following is my translation of Loai’s day-by-day diaries from the first to eighth days:
On April 17, Loai wrote:
Today is the first day of the battle to defend our dignity. The battle’s leaders are our homeland’s heroes who are resisting with their empty stomachs for the sake of our dignity.
The first day of a hunger strike is the hardest. Abstaining from food or drinks has a great impact on strikers during the first three days. But what distinguishes the first day is the measures that the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) takes against our prisoners, attempting to repress them. The jailers confiscate all their possessions, but are generous enough to leave them only the clothes they’re wearing. Moreover, they remove everything the cells contain in a very provocative way, damaging a lot of valuable items our prisoners have collected throughout their precious years in jail to ease the pain of their daily lives. On top of that, IPS conducts misinformation campaigns between rooms and prisons, so that no one knows whether he will be separated from his circle of friends and the environment to which he has adapted.
The journey of steadfastness and determination begins when the strikers manage to control themselves and overcome their desires and physical needs, armed with their desperate desire for freedom and victory which will bring them dignified lives.
We are all with you, as you’re our conscience.
On April 18, Loai wrote:
Today is the second day of the journey of respect and pride. Today is one of the hardest days of hunger strike as the body still isn’t used to not receiving its necessities from food and drinks, especially coffee. This causes lasting headaches. The pain of hunger is also at its peak.
The biggest challenge is for the smokers among our prisoners. For them, quitting cigarettes is more difficult than abstaining from food. It makes them lose their temper. But this condition simply vanishes once their will reminds them of their goal of defeating the jailers. Therefore, during these days, there is no place for irritation despite the constant harassments our prisoners endure at the jailers’ hands. Our prisoners prefer to not waste their energy responding to the provocations of IPS. Before the strike starts, all prisoners agree that strikers shouldn’t respond to any of the harassments and provocations they face, and that they shouldn’t exert any effort, to spare their energy for the days ahead. This battle is different from other clashes that happen on normal days between jailers and detainees. When there is no hunger strike, it’s not allowed to any detainee to accept insults, and if one is humiliated by a jailer and doesn’t reclaim his rights immediately, he faces punishment by the national committee inside the prisons.
The strong will that our friends behind bars enjoy turns all their sufferings into fuel that lights their flame of victory. Their faith in the just cause they have fought for makes them solid rocks that shatter the fascism of IPS.
On April 19th, Loai wrote:
The battle of the empty stomachs still continues. It’s the third day of the strike. The hardest stage ends here as the body starts using the muscles’ reserves of food to produce energy. It stops sending signs and pains of hunger. Here, strikers feel that things are getting better, not realizing that they have begun losing around 1 kg of weight per day. Actually, by now, it has become harder for them to move.
According to law, strikers have the right to stop standing for the daily counting procedure starting from the third day, as standing causes them dizziness, and sometimes unconsciousness. Though Israel’s oppressive administration, compelled by law, exempts them from standing for counting, they overstrain our prisoners with endless searches and announcements, which are very exhausting.
Despite everything, our heroes become more steadfast from these attempts to enslave them. The more inhumane treatment they endure, the more strength and resistance they have.
As the living martyrs are the leading defenders for our dignity, we will always remain loyal to their just cause.
On April 20, Loai wrote:
Today is the fourth day of challenge and championship. Today, silence begins to spread all over. By now, the striker tends to be silent and stops talking. All the voices around him seem loud. He becomes unable to join discussions. As days pass, his ability to hear voices shrinks, expect for these which lift the spirit up and strengthen souls and hearts. These voices are mainly the ones that bring news about popular support for their battle. This news becomes the source of energy, the strongest motivation for them to remain steadfast.
Our enemy is fully aware of that. Israel spells their fascist generosity against our heroes. They set up speakers and raise the volume to its loudest, constantly playing Hebrew music and news that will depress their spirits. They also circulate special news about them, like claims about the declining number of hunger strikers and names of those who have broken their fasts. They also do their best to give hunger strikers the impression that life outside is moving on normally and no one there cares about them.
However, all these inhumane attempts fail once a prisoner returns from a visit with his lawyer to tell them about popular events held locally and internationally to support them and their just cause. So don’t ever underestimate any activity you do, as they have small, smuggled radios with which they follow the news. Even children’s protests increase their inner determination to achieve their aims, as they feel that their responsibilities have broadened to include children, the future generation, which have spiritually joined their battle.
We have faith in your ability to win and we are with you until victory!
Loai Odeh and his childhood friend Bilal Odeh whom he saddly left behind. This photo was taken in prison.
On April 21, Loai wrote:
Today is the fifth of the days of challenge. The battle of steadfastness goes on. What makes it more powerful is the strength of their leaders, which has a strong impact on the strikers’ spirit. The news which informs the strikers that their heroic leaders have joined the hunger strike fills them with unspeakable and incomparable energy. Ahmad Saadat has bravely joined their battle, despite his critical medical condition after participating in the previous, exhausting mass hunger strike, which lasted for 24 days. Receiving such news supports strikers morally, strengthening their determination even more.
We will unite soon as you win the battle.
On April 22, Loai wrote:
Today is the sixth day of the battle of championship, the hunger strike for the sake of dignity and freedom. Today, the strikers’ stomachs start to get used to hunger. Strikers make sure they lick some salt several times during the day to avoid the putrefaction of their stomachs. This annoys the tyrannical Israeli Prison Administration to the extent that they sometimes confiscate even the salt prisoners keep to survive their battle. However, our prisoners hide small quantities of salt in the cracks of walls or under their mattresses.
But IPS is very generous with the fascist practices they rain on our heroes. They pump water into their mattresses and walls so they salt melts. How can they accept our heroes finishing their strike without any permanent damage? Most of our prisoners who joined long hunger strikes have sustained ulcers and gastritis (inflammation of the stomach lining) as a result.
But our prisoners have smart ways of hiding salt, small radios, and everything that helps them to survive and persist. Even if IPS stripped them of everything they own, it will never manage to break their will. Their indestructible spirit will lead them to victory, as they are starving for the sake of dignity.
Your steadfastness brings us honor!
On April 23, Loai wrote:
Today is the seventh day of the mass hunger strike, the battle of challenge. Strikers’ bodies get more accustomed to hunger than the first days of striking. However, joint pains start and a feeling of coldness pervades their bodies and increases as more days of hunger pass. Their stomachs adjust to the lack of food and stop producing the juice needed for digestion as there is no food to be digested in the first place. This avoids the negative side effects for this juice on their stomachs and helps the feeling of hunger to stop.
However, the fascist Zionist guards keep practicing their outrageous actions attempting to tempt the strikers. Inhumanely, they bring the cooking equipment in front of strikers’ cells and start frying and grilling food such as eggplants that arouses their empty stomachs to produce the digestive fluids. As a result, the hunger pangs begin anew, and having nothing for that juice to digest causes sores which accompanies strikers for many years after the hunger strike.
These fascist procedures, which we haven’t heard of even during Nazism, makes our heroes more determined to defeat the IPS with their empty stomachs.
With this battle of empty stomachs, you bring us honor. We trust in your ability to win.
Loai Odeh and his mother reunite in Gaza after his release.
On April 24, Loai wrote:
Today is the eighth day of the battle. In the eighth day of the hunger strike, the strikers’ movements start to decrease notably as the joint pain and the dizziness which result from moving prevents them from doing so. These consequences leave them stretched on their mattresses motionless, dreaming about the day the hunger strike ends with victory.
During these difficult times, our prisoners try their best to stop thinking about their families but all attempts fail. Instead, their families constantly dominate their thoughts, especially their mothers. Mothers become their central concern as strikers realize that their mothers bear more pain than they themselves do. Despite the fact that our heroes think of their mothers more than themselves, they keep looking forward to a breaking dawn when their strike will end with a satisfactory victory that befits them, a victory that makes them proud. All respect for the mother that gave birth to and raised these heroes. Palestinian mothers are the source and root of revolution that never complain giving.
It’s our duty to tenderly embrace our prisoners’ mothers with all possible care till we celebrate the victory and the freedom of their sons.
If you didn’t read the first part of my story, kindly press this link to read it first.
I left Gaza at 10:00am and arrived in Jordan by sunset. The weather was freezing. I couldn’t wait to climb into the warm taxi that would drop me near the Marriott Hotel, where the reunion was held. I wrapped my body with my kuffiyeh, the traditional Palestinian checkered scarf, and slept. The hour-long drive passed without my notice. When we drew near to the hotel, the driver woke me up. I rose quickly to the window and took in my surroundings. The place exceeded my expectations. I was truly tired, and very sleepy and hungry, but as I saw the beauty around me, I felt refreshed and excited once again.
As I entered the lobby, my first glances fell on my friends, who were the main reason I decided to attend the reunion. I spent all my time in the US with them. Seeing them again filled me with happiness. After an hour of greetings and exchanging stories, the time came to check into my room. A hotel worker helped me with my luggage and showed me my room. Once I got in, I left the responsibility for my luggage to the worker and eagerly hurried to the balcony.
I stood motionless, with my eyes wandering around my surroundings. I had ever seen a landscape that so deserved to be painted. I was captivated by the beauty of the big garden behind the building. Dim lights spread nicely amongst the colorful trees, flowers and swimming pool. Behind the beautiful backyard, the Dead Sea lay peacefully. It was cold and the sky wasn’t very clear, so more beauty lay hidden behind its dark clouds. I had never seen the Dead Sea before then, but my parents had told me many times about its breathtaking beauty. They used to tease me and my siblings, since they had gotten to swim there and walk on Jericho’s beach, while we couldn’t. The movement restrictions got more intense during the latest couple of decades of the Israeli Occupation. I smiled while remembering these memories and wished they were there.
The next day, during our break, everyone else preferred to stay inside to avoid the cold winds. But I didn’t want to let that hold me back from meditating on the beach of the Dead Sea. So I put my jacket and my kuffiyeh on and eagerly went to the closest point to the shore. As I got closer, my gaze grew longer and my heart beats got faster. I lost my breath as I saw the wind forming small waves, tenderly wetting the golden sand, and hitting the rocks, colors and sizes, that lay on the shoreline.
It was a bittersweet feeling to be on the other side of Jericho. I could see Jericho’s hills in the horizon line. I was so close yet so far away, since Israel’s apartheid regime deprives me as a Palestinian from Gaza from reaching it.
The reunion schedule was very busy. We had tasks to accomplish and workshops and lectures to attend. One was about democracy, which is not my favorite to discuss. I was obliged to sit and listen to a professor whom I didn’t like. I argued with him once, about Israel and Palestine, when I briefly met him after he defended Israel’s crimes and illegal existence and occupation by saying, “I believe in Israel’s right to exist.” I remember our heated discussion about that, which left him trapped. Then he became mad and tried to get himself out of the debate by raising his voice. After his speech about “democracy,” we were given a chance to share our points of view and tell stories of democracy in our homelands.
I had been waiting anxiously for the moment to speak up, so I raised my hand. “In 2006 in Palestine, we experienced this democracy,” I said angrily. “We had a democratic election, which Hamas won. But because the result of this ‘democracy’ didn’t satisfy Israel and its friend America, they imposed a siege on the Gaza Strip as a collective punishment for everyone, whether they voted for the ‘terrorist’ Hamas or not.”
The professor didn’t like what I said, but I went on speaking. “I don’t think democracy exists in reality. There is no such thing. In fact, this definition should be replaced in the dictionaries with HYPOCRICY.” He interrupted me by saying that I should give others a chance to speak. I stopped, but could no longer listen to more hypocrisy and left.
On the fourth day, we had an exhibit. Posters by all participants, briefly describing the projects they were planning to implement in their home countries to seek change, were hung on the walls. Having a passion for art, I decided to focus on artists in Palestine. For more regarding my project, you can see me presenting about it here.EQxqnvWhnGQ
That was basically the end of the reunion. Only then did I have a chance to enjoy the beauty of the Dead Sea again. The weather became a little better, but was still cold. A single day was left for me in the Dead Sea, and this opportunity might not come again. Therefore, I joined a group of my friends who decided to challenge the weather and swim for the same reason. We encouraged each other to go crazy and take the plunge. I dyed my skin with the famous Dead Sea mud -— it looked scary. Then I slowly and carefully got into the water. It was torture before my body adjusted to the coldness of the water. Suddenly I found myself floating and oh my God! It felt like heaven. It seemed like I had no control over my body. But I felt safe and peaceful in the bosom of nature.
I was scheduled to leave the hotel on March,5 to Amman. I enjoyed its archeological sites that speak of the history and culture of the Roman Empire. I went to many interesting places like the Roman theater and the citadel. I had a great time with my friends there, but I also felt homesick, especially after I heard about the Israeli attacks on Gaza that had resulted in 15 martyrs by then. Watching these attacks from outside is different than being inside. I felt so much panic. I was very worried about my family and my people, and wished I could be there, sharing their difficult times.
11 March is the day when my permit in Jordan went invalid. Thus, my awesome Jordanian friends offered to drop me at Allenby bridge to go through more checkpoints on the way back to Gaza.
My journey in Jordan ended like that but another journey, or risky adventures, inside the occupied lands started. To read more about come tomorrow!
First, I’ll introduce you to a drawing that I didn’t upload in my blog before. It’s actually one of my favorites and I hope you like it. I think it fits with the next section of the entry. Palestinians went through a lot, starting with ethnic cleansing to the series of violations of their rights, to the daily attacks on their land and their people, and so on. However, Palestinians maintain their determination believing in victory, justice and peace. They always have a bright look full of hope towards a better future where humans are treated like humans, even in their crying eyes. I meant to highlight some symbols in the wood “background” such as 48, the key, and the map of historical Palestine, to convey a message that we will not give up. Despite many people thinking that these are only illusions, and that one-state solution is not feasible, I still believe that just peace will inevitably come along.
While preparing my assignment for the translation course at university, and being busy with translating texts from Arabic into English and vice versa, I came across an Arabic poem entitled: “They Asked Me”. I fell in love with this poem and I tried to look up its author, but I found nothing. It describes Palestinians and their long decades of struggle against the Israeli Occupation. I see the strength of Palestinians, especially prisoners, portrayed in this poem very simply. It embodies their dignity, challenge and steadfastness in front of the tyranny, oppression, humiliation, injustices committed by the Israeli Occupation. I think it is worth the time it took me to translate it. Enjoy.
They shut my mouth up and ordered me to “utter”
They hit me and asked me why I suffer
They broke my teeth and demanded to hear “laughter”
They insulted my family and asked me to be, of the situation, “understanding”
They shut my course and told me to “learn”
They set me on fire and told me “move forward”
They have left me homeless and said that I was “fantasizing”.
And as I screamed the truth, they questioned why I was “attacking”,
And invited me to a discussion where I was threatened to be “executed”
And they asked me “steadfast still?”
I held my head high and shouted
“I am Palestinian, so learn, you scoundrel!”
If you have the power, you can abuse it and no one will say a word in protest. At least this is the case for Israel, which openly violates international law and human rights feeling secure that one will stop it.
But Khader Adnan, a detainee from Jenin, has decided not to stay silent and accept injustices against him and his fellow prisoners. He is battling armed jailers with his only weapon: his empty stomach. Khader started hunger striking the day of his arrest, December 18, to protest the unjust administrative detention he is serving and the indescribable cruelty he has experienced since then.
My father’s experience of being an administrative detainee
It’s worth mentioning that administrative detention is a procedure the Israeli military uses to hold detainees indefinitely on secret evidence without charging them or allowing them to stand trial. Over 300 Palestinian political prisoners are serving this term now, and tens of thousands of Palestinians have experienced administrative detention since 1967.
My father served this term three times. Previously, he had been sentenced to seven lifetimes plus ten years, but released in the 1985 prisoner exchange after serving thirteen. As I read about Khader’s story in a report by Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, stories about Dad’s experiences in Israeli prisons came back to me.
The last time it happened, a month after I was born in 1991, was the hardest. My mother told me how I came into this life where safety, peace, and justice are not guaranteed. ”In the middle of the night, a huge force of armed Israeli soldiers suddenly broke into our home, damaging everything before them. They attacked your father, bound him with chains, and dragged him to the prison, beating him the whole way.” The happiness of a new baby – me – didn’t continue for the whole family. My traumatized mother was able to breastfeed me for a month, but then she couldn’t anymore; her sorrow ended her lactation.
Every Palestinian is convicted to a life of uncertainty without having to commit a crime. Being a Palestinian is our only offense. For Khader, this detention is not his first time in Israeli prisons. It’s actually his eighth, for a total of six years of imprisonment, all under administrative detention. Each one had a different taste, ranging from bitter to bitterer.
Story of Khader’s Adnan’s arrest
This time, the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) raided Khader’s house at 3:00 am using a human shield, Mohammad Mustafa. Mohammad is a taxi driver who always takes Khader’s father to the vegetable market. He was kidnapped by the IOF and forced to knock on Khader’s door while blindfolded. Then the IOF raided Khader’s house, trashing it as they did. Shouting, they aggressively grabbed his father, with no consideration for Khader’s two little daughters, his wife, who could have miscarried her five-month fetus, or his sick mother. But when did IOF have any respect for human values?
Khader was immediately blindfolded, and his hands were tied behind his back with plastic shackles. Afterwards, the soldiers pushed him into a military jeep with non-stop physical torment that continued for the ten-minute drive it took for the jeep to reach Dutan settlement. You can imagine how a short period seemed like forever to Khader, who was unable to move or see while every part of his body was continuously and brutally beaten. To make things even worse, Khader’s face was injured when he smashed in a wall he couldn’t see due to the blindfold wrapping his eyes after he was pushed out of the jeep.
Addamear reported that after Khader’s arrest, he was transferred to different interrogation centers and ended up in Al-jalameh. Upon arriving there, Khader was given a medical exam, where he informed prison doctors of his injuries and told them that he suffered from a gastric illness and disc problems in his back. However, instead of being treated, he was taken to interrogation immediately.
Silence and hunger strike in response to interrogators’ humiliation
The interrogation period, which lasted for ten days, took the form of psychological torture with continuous humiliation using very abusive language about his wife, sister, children, and mother. Throughout the interrogation sessions, his hands were tied behind him on a crooked chair, causing extreme pain to his back. Believing in the power of silence, Khader’s only response was to object to the interrogator’s use of increasingly insulting speech.
Because of Khader’s hunger strike against violations of his rights and the terrible treatment used against him, Addameer reported that he was sentenced to a week in isolation by the Israeli Prison Service (IPS) on the fourth day of interrogation. Moreover, in order to further punish him without being required to go to court, the IPS also banned him from family visits for three months.
In addition, during the second week of interrogation, Khader experienced further humiliations. One interrogator pulled his beard so hard that it ripped hair out. The same interrogator also took dirt from the bottom of his shoe and rubbed it on Khader’s mustache. But they couldn’t break his dignity, and even after the interrogation ended, Khader continued his hunger strike.
According to Addameer report, on the evening of Friday, 30 December 2011, Khader was transferred to Ramleh prison hospital because of his health deteriorating from the hunger strike. But even there, he lacked medical care. He was placed in isolation in the hospital, where he was subject to cold conditions and cockroaches filled his cell. He refused any medical examinations after 25 December, which was one week after he stopped eating and speaking. The prison director came to speak to Khader, or rather threaten him, commenting that they would “break him” eventually.
I know I mentioned before that there are no trials for Palestinian detainees under administrative detention. But actually, they do get a trial. It’s not for them to challenge the reasons for their detention though. It’s for a military judge to decide the period they are going to serve according to the “secret evidence” that IPS holds against him, none of it shared with the detainee or his lawyer. This is an obvious violation of human rights, leaving Khader and detainees like him with no legitimate means to defend themselves.
On 8 January 2012, at Ofer military court, Khader received a four- month administrative detention order. There, he was threatened by members of the Nahshon, a special intervention unit of the IPS known for particularly brutality in their treatment of prisoners, who told Khader that his head should be exploded.
The need to act
Khader’s health is deteriorating rapidly. He is refusing treatment until he is released, but a prison doctor has threatened to force-feed him if he continues. Cameras in his cell watch him at all times, and if he does not move at night, soldiers knock loudly on his door. This prisoner is at risk, so SUPPORT Addamear campaign to call for his release.
People in Gaza set up a tent in front of the Red Cross last Thursday to join Khader’s protest against his administrative detention and violations of Palestinian detainees’ simplest rights, and demand justice and freedom for them. Something must be done against this unjust system and its conditions of imprisonment. International solidarity is greatly needed. Join Addameer’s campaign to Stop Administrative Detention. ACT NOW!
Read this article in Italian
When I’m going through some difficulties, I find it hard to put the right words together to describe how I’m feeling about it. So I made this drawing to speak for me. Every one of you can look at it as you prefer. If I can choose a name for this drawing, it would be “A Complete Mess”.
I believe if we didn’t cry, we wouldn’t know how laughter tastes and if we didn’t feel lonely, we would never appreciate friendship, and if we didn’t lack anything, we would never realize the blessings we have.
Therefore, I’m trying to stay positive and thankful. I hope that these difficulties will end up for the best. If it doesn’t, it will at least help me discover myself more. So I hope that these obstacles will end up creating a better person out of me. I pray for everyone who is feeling like they are living in a mess to find a way to fix it. And I pray that I’ll manage to find the strength inside me to pass through these difficulties and become stronger.
When I was a very young girl, I used to climb the window and stretch my arm out, trying to collect some rain in my small hand, then sip it, believing that it was the purest ever. I remembered this as I was listening to the raindrops hitting my room’s windows, which I made sure were securely closed, to keep the cold wind from blowing inside and disturbing the warmth my body felt under my heavy blankets.
Meanwhile, I could hear mum talking quietly from the room just next door, but couldn’t recognize exactly what she was saying. She suddenly paused and called me to join her and seize the chance to pray, as in Islam it’s said that prayers are more likely to come true while rain is falling. I closed my eyes as tight as I could and listened to her sincere prayers for us to accomplish all that we dream, for all sick and injured people to recover soon, for all dead to reach heaven, and for Palestine, from the sea to the river, to be free. As I could only hear mum’s voice along with the raindrops, a harmonic atmosphere spread around me, and my lips moved in silence, “Amen”.
Being a Muslim, I never celebrated Christmas myself, but having lots of Christian friends inside and outside Palestine has connected me to this day. I’ve always shared it with them one way or another, since I believe that religion shouldn’t stand as a barrier between human beings. Religion is to call for love, compassion, and tolerance. It should unite people, not divide them. Sadly, not all that is said is done. Three years ago, people around the world welcomed Christmas and the New Year happily with lights, colorful balloons and fireworks while Gaza received it with white phosphorous lighting the dark sky and rivers of bloods spilled by the Israeli Occupation Forces.
Even though I am Muslim, I’ve always appreciated the beauty of Christmas trees, lights, gatherings, meals and religious songs that I see Christians perform in the Christmas movies I watched. On this rainy and windy day, which I knew was Christmas, I wished that Gaza’s sky would snow so that it would be a typical Christmas day like movies made me picture. For an observer like me, snow adds a factor of beauty to Christmas celebrations, even though my Christians friends abroad would sometimes complain about it. I don’t blame them, though, as I have never seen any snow and never experienced its negative side.
I spent this Christmas Eve with Lydia and Joe, two of our Christian friends who came to Gaza in solidarity with Palestine, and in support of Palestinian people who live under the Israeli Occupation. My family and I didn’t hesitate to bring Christmas gifts and share this special day with them, as a form of appreciation for their indescribable humanity as they chose to celebrate it in the besieged Gaza Strip rather than joining their families on such a holy occasion.
Approximately three thousand people among Gaza’s population are Christians. Recently, I made new friends among them, a Christian family that I met through a funny coincidence. A couple of months ago, I was walking with my Greek friend Mack, who came to Gaza as a solidarity activist, and we passed a dress shop named Kopella. The name attracted Mack’s eyes, as it happened to be a Greek word for a young lady. He dragged me inside the shop, which we learned was owned by a Christian family named Alsalfiti. He was very curious to know if they knew what the word means, and it turned that they have a daughter studying in Greece, who chose this name for their shop.
Around a week ago, I visited the Al-Salfiti family with Joe and Lydia, who were interested to know how Christians in Gaza celebrate Christmas. The first thing my eyes glimpsed was a beautifully decorated plastic tree that was placed in the corner of their house to welcome Christmas. “I brought this from Bethlehem five years ago,” Lili, the mother, told me while pointing at the tree after she noticed my surprise.
“We used to get permits from the Israeli Occupation to Bethlehem every Christmas, to celebrate it in the Church of Nativity with our relatives who live there,” Abu Wade’ the father, said. “But that can no longer happen. After Shalit was captured by the resistance, people from 16 to 35 weren’t allowed to go. So my kids haven’t been able to join us in Bethlehem for more than five years. Many people are denied permission for the reasons of security, but no one knows what the security reasons are. For example, my wife and I applied a little while ago. She got permission, but I didn’t.”
Lili interrupted with a frustrated voice, saying, “Only a range of three to five hundred Christians get permission.”
Abu Wade’ raised his voice: “Remember, no Muslim is allowed by the Israeli Occupation to pray in Al Aqsa, either on their religious holidays or any other days.”
While talking about Bethlehem, I recalled precious memories stuck in mind since I was nine years old, just before the Second Intifada started. Mum struggled to get permission from the Israeli Occupation to take me and my two elder siblings on a trip to the West Bank. She eventually did, and so we went. I recall the few hours I had inside the Church of Nativity, and how strongly spiritual it felt to be where the Christ was born. I remember how my eyes were captured by the beauty of the place and its architecture that is enriched with history. Once I recalled these memories with Mum, and she laughed at me, remembering how surprised I was to see people crying very hard. When I asked her about it innocently, she replied, “Christians cry while praying out of reverence, just like Muslims do.”
It is very painful to think of how close I am to the West Bank, but how far the Israeli Occupation makes it seem at the same time. If I were to ask Santa Claus for something that would come true, I would wish that I could step on every grain of sand in our historical Palestine, freely visit Jerusalem to pray in Al-Aqsa Mosque and enjoy the smell of its air and its charming, mountainous nature, and visit Bethlehem and the Church of the Nativity. There are many beautiful, breathtaking scenes that I would love to draw as I see them in reality. I have faith that I will someday, once Palestine is free.
As the second stage of the prisoner swap deal begins, Israel is escalating its violations of the simplest rights of the Palestinian political prisoners still behind bars and exercising more violence against them.
A statement I have heard repeatedly from all my friends who are former prisoners, every time I have asked about how Israeli torture affects the prisoners’ spirits, is that “Israeli jailers never keep a sense of stability inside prisons. They expose prisoners to extremely difficult situations tying to depress their spirits. However, they always fail at achieving their inhumane aim. Their cruelty brings more strength and will out of the prisoners. No matter how strong those armed and heartless jailers are, our barehanded prisoners are stronger in spirit.”
On Tuesday, 13 December, a savage group of armed Israeli jailers broke into section 10 of Eichel prison and attacked prisoners aggressively. They sprayed tear gas and pepper powder at the detainees, which resulted in several injuries and cases of suffocation. They summoned additional military units to break into all 13 rooms of the section. Adding more savagery, they confiscated all the detainees’ possessions, dragging away TVs, fans, banning prisoners from the cafeteria, and cutting off electricity and water, leaving Eichel Prison isolated from the outer world.
Rebelling against this aggression, the prisoners reacted by chanting and banging on doors. Our strong-willed detainees have started a short-term hunger strike protesting the unjustified attack, and threatened to take serious protest action, like refusing to stand up for the daily count, in objection to Israeli soldiers’ brutality and arrogance.
As I read this news, reported by the Palestinian Prisoner Club, my mind was preoccupied with my friends Mohammed Brash and his brother Ramzy, who are imprisoned together at Eichel Prison and who witnessed this aggression. I found myself consumed with anger and contacted their family, who live in Al-Am’ary Camp in Ramallah. I called Hamza, their youngest brother, who sounded very worried. “I can’t wait to hear some news about them. I don’t know what to expect from Israeli brutality. My brothers might be among those who were injured, but I can never know. Tomorrow, a lawyer of a detainee imprisoned there that I know is going to visit Eichel Prison, and we expect to hear some news if he is allowed to visit.”
His words added insult to injury. He made me even more frustrated than I was already. Thinking of his mother, I asked him whether she knew about this attack that prisoners, including her two sons, had faced. I hoped that she doesn’t know about the increased repression. He settled my fears that his mother was aware. “If you were me, would you tell her?” he asked me, but when he only heard my silence, he continued “of course, I didn’t tell her. Imagine the reaction of a mother of two detained sons in the merciless Israeli prisons as she hears of this attack against them. She is already worried and laments their names over and over again, just knowing that they are in prison for the tenth year, so what if this old mother hears such terrible news?”
These violations by Israeli jailers are not something unusual to our ears, which are used to hearing about their violence and aggression, and to our eyes, which are used to witnessing their enduring crimes, oppression, and humiliations against all categories of Palestinian people. However, one shouldn’t stay silent. The language of silence means submission to their power, which they think is unbreakable, and allows them to exceed all red lines and openly violate human rights and international law. Only the language of action can work here.
My voice is muted but every feature of my face speaks sorrow and anger. There is no need to wonder why. It’s Palestine, the rich land where smiles can turn to tears and laughs can turn to sighs in a second. It’s Palestine, where series of sad stories mixed with strength, will, and glory never end.
Anees and Akram Al-Namoura are brothers who were released in the first stage of the prisoner exchange on October 18 after spending ten years, originally supposed to be two life sentences, in prison. They joined the resistance by the beginning of the second Intifada, answering the call of their occupied lands and oppressed people to defend them, ready to pay any price that their precious homeland, Palestine, would require. While Israel was aggressively and continuously attacking, killing, wounding, and detaining Palestinian citizens, the brothers took to arms against the occupying army hoping for a better future for their family, their neighbors and their community. They planted a bomb beneath an Israeli tank, killing two Israeli soldiers.
I coincidentally met Anees, the elder brother, in his hotel while I was interviewing some other former detainees. After having a short chat, I learned that he was somehow related to my mother’s family. Then he told me that his imprisonment started five months before his brother’s. I commented innocently, “I can’t imagine how hard it is for your mother to have two sons in prison at the same time. But it is a little fortunate that you and Akram met each other there.” He shook his head, smiling at my naïveté, and corrected me. “No. We were in prison at the same time, but separated by the Israeli Prison Administration for the first five years. We tried legal remedies, but no lawyers and no courts could bring us together. So we started an open hunger strike to pressure them, and we were clear that our hunger strike would end only after they had met our demands. We could eventually meet and live as brothers in Armon Prison, in the same cell, for the last five years of our imprisonment. “
Anees and Akram couldn’t enjoy the blessing of kissing and hugging their elderly parents even after they gained their freedom. Israel imposed a separation of a different kind on them as they were exiled from Hebron to the Gaza Strip. But this was only additional pain from a wound that was already existed, as their 80-year-old father, a cancer patient in a wheelchair, and 65-year-old sick mother weren’t allowed to visit their detained sons for more than three years.
When I Googled Anees and Akram’s names, I encountered a video of their parents from a year ago. They were interviewed about how it felt having sons in the Israeli tyrants’ prisons. “How can an old man like me, sick with cancer, threaten Israeli security?” their father wondered with a shaking voice full of sadness. “I collected all papers that explain my health situation, which is getting worse, and tried every possible way to meet my sons again before I die.” After watching the video, I smiled despite my sadness, thinking of how merciful God is: Anees and Akram’s father is still alive and has witnessed his sons attaining freedom.
In the same video, their mother, with expressive wrinkles that evoked long years of suffering, said, “I only wish I could sit on their beds, as I used to when they were young, and play with their hair while their heads lie on my knees.” The father challenged his disability by joining his sick wife and one of his daughters in a trip to the Gaza Strip to meet their sons only six days ago. This trip couldn’t happen earlier, as their permission to leave through Jordan was denied by Israel, and they obviously couldn’t come here through the Erez border for “security reasons.” However, if there is a will, there is a way. They eventually overcame all obstacles and made it here.
Six days ago, I heard Mum speaking cheerfully to Dad about the arrival of Anees and Akram’s parents and sister safely. Today, I saw Mum’s tears for the death of their mother, who had waited long to hug her sons and celebrate their freedom. “Oh Allah, her destiny was to live and not die before she enjoyed seeing and hugging her sons between her arms once again,” Mum said with tearful eyes as she entered our home after the funeral. After ten long years of waiting, with worry, sadness, suffering, and humiliation between checkpoints as she tried to visit her imprisoned sons, she lived six days with them before passing away, leaving us a real legend, a symbol of patience, challenge, and motherhood.
Update on August 7, 2012: After Akram and Anees lost their mother, Anees suffered some medical problems. He had a kidney failure. Doctors thought that this might be caused because of the mass hunger strike he joined which lasted for 24 days and ended following the agreement between Israel and Hamas to release Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for 1,027 prisoners, including him and his brother.
Anees’s medical situations was so bad. Doctors said that in order to rescue his life, someone has to donate a kidney for him. Hazem, his 30-year-old brother decided to sacrifice one of his kidneys for Anees. Thankfully, the surgery was successful. I saw Anees after he recovered many times and he looked very well and healthy.
Sadly, when Anees’s medical condition got better, Hazem’s health was under risk. Today, Hazem passed away. Please pray for this symbol of brotherhood to rest in peace. And pray for Anees and Akram to stay strong after their mother’ and their brother’s loss.
|A beautiful halo around Gaza’s full moon|
In a nice restaurant overlooking Gaza’s beach, beneath a full moon with a beautiful halo surrounding it, I sat with my new friends who recently were released from Israeli prisons. Their freedom was restricted by Israel’s inhumane rules, including indefinite deportation from the West Bank, away from their families and friends. However, they all shared one thought: “The problem is not here. Both the West Bank and Gaza are our homeland. The problem is that our freedom will not be complete until our land and people are totally free.”
I listened carefully to their prison stories and memories of their families in other parts of Palestine. One of the most interesting things for me to hear was the warm, strong, and caring friendships they remembered from inside the painful cells. These unbreakable friendships were their only distractions from the wounds that used to hurt them deeply inside.
|Palestinians in Bethlehem are protesting in solidarity with Chris who is deported to Gaza|
One of my new friends is Chris Al-Bandak, the only Christian of the released detainees, who was freed in the first stage of the swap deal. After I was introduced to him, I congratulated him on regaining his freedom. He faked a smile and replied, “Only one half of me is free, but the other half is still there, locked up behind Israeli bars.”
I didn’t know much about Chris, except for his religion, but many things about him made me want to get to know him more closely. I was quite certain that this impressive 32-year-old man had many interesting stories to tell and learn from.
Chris said that he was one of the people besieged by the Israeli Occupation Forces at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in 2002. That alone made me impatient to hear the rest of his story. “The siege lasted for 40 days. It became more unbearable as time passed, with the food and first aid equipments dwindling. The injured people were under the threat of death, and the others’ lives were endangered as well as the IOF’s pressure increased.”
As Chris spoke, his eyes evoked anger and sorrow as they wandered to his right. He sounded like he was replaying a tape of his most difficult memories. Then he suddenly began stuttering as he said, “My best friend, Hafith Sharay’a, was one of the injured people.” I reminded him that he didn’t have to speak about it if it made him feel bad.
He pulled himself together and kept telling his story. “On the 28th day of the siege, we were on the top floor of the Church of the Nativity, responsible for the lives of the people downstairs and guarding the church, when he was shot in the right side of his stomach. With every drop of blood he lost, my soul burned inside. I couldn’t watch him die and do nothing.”
Impatiently, I interrupted, asking, “Was he killed?” He shook his head and continued. “His injury left me only two choices: let him bleed to death, or send him to the Israeli Army for treatment, while I was certain that he would afterwards receive at least a life sentence.”
Each option was worse than the other. Chris thought that if Hafith died, he would never see him again. If he was treated and then imprisoned, he might meet him, even though the chance was very small.
Hafith and Chris were like soul mates. They didn’t share many things in common. Hafith is older and a Muslim, while Chris is a Christian. However, they prioritized their deep passion for Palestine above everything else. This overcame all their differences, and they share a strong friendship that will last forever.
So Chris chose to put his emotions aside and rescue Hafith from death by delivering him to the Israeli army. “On the 29th day, I somehow managed to sneak out of the church and escape. But ten months later, I was kidnapped by the Israeli entity’s army.”
Chris described in detail the horrible story of his capture. He had gone to visit some of his relatives. Within 20 minutes of his arrival, the Israeli army arrived in great numbers and surrounded the house. He faked a name for himself and answered the police’s questions in a very sarcastic way. He told all his relatives to say his name was Fady if asked, which they did. He refused to admit that he was Chris. After several hours of investigation, pressure, and threats of bombing the house and arresting his mother and brother, one of the children was shedding tears out of fear. Seeing this, a policeman used the child’s innocence and tricked him. After the policeman said that the soldiers would leave if he said the real name of Chris, the child admitted it.
Chris was persistent, and didn’t admit his identity until they were about to bomb the house in front of his eyes. After his confession, he was asked where he had been sleeping at night. He replied, “You bombed my house, so where did you expect me to go? I spent my nights in the cemetery.” The interrogator was very shocked at his reply and asked him, “Weren’t you afraid among all dead bodies in their graves?” He answered, with an angry, challenging look in the Israeli soldiers’ eyes, “One shouldn’t fear the dead. They are dead. But we should be afraid of the living people whose conscience is dead!”
Then they blindfolded him, pushed him inside one of their Gibbs vehicles, and headed to an interrogation center, where he was psychologically and physically tortured for 43 days.
Chris constantly thought of his friend Hafith, and hoped that his imprisonment would allow him to meet his best friend again. This happened in a very narrow cell in Ramla Prison, as he waited to find out which prison he would be jailed in. The detainees were having <em>foura</em>, an hour-long break that detainees take daily outside their jails in a hall, and a very small window, closed with a revealing cover, separated him from the hall. Suddenly he glimpsed his friend Hafith and found himself screaming his name loudly to get his attention. “Our reunion was so emotional, especially behind a fenced barrier,” he said with a broken smile.
Their happiness didn’t last long, as they had to separate once the <em>foura</em> was done. Chris was transferred to Ashqelon Prison, then to Nafha. “I didn’t see Haifith for over a year, but during that time, I never stopped hoping that God would be kind enough to bring us together again.”
Chris was in Nafha when his friend was transferred there, finally uniting them. Then they went through a series of separations keeping them apart for a total of four years. “A prison offers no sense of stability.” Chris said. “When we were imprisoned, we didn’t stop our struggle, but we started another stage of resistance of a different kind, determination and persistence mixed with hope.”
During the period before Chris was released, he shared a prison cell with Hafith. “Other detainees received the news of their freedom with screams of joy and happiness, but I received it with tears. I didn’t even feel one percent happy, as I realized that only I was included in the swap deal. Even now, I feel like my body is outside but my heart is still inside the prison with Hafith and all the other detainees,” Chris said with sadness on his face.
“I am very grateful for having Hafith as a big brother. But I am broken inside because he didn’t get his freedom back. I am sure that he’s such a steadfast man that nothing can depress his spirit,” he said, attempting to console himself.
Their friendship amazed me. It can’t be described in words. I pray that Haifith, along with all the Palestinian political prisoners, will be freed soon. I hope Hafith maintains his strength which used to inspire and strengthen Chris. Chris said that Hafith made him believe in his principle that “the prison’s door must unlock someday. It’s only an obstacle, and is bound to fade away at some point.” I hope it will be unlocked soon to let all prisoners breathe the sweet fragrance of freedom again.
Press here to read this article in French. Thank you Nour Halimi and Claude
The day before the start of the Eid al-Adha holiday is the day of Arafa. It is said that a believer who fasts on this day expiates the past year’s sins and the sins of the coming year. As it is considered to be a day of forgiveness from sin, many Palestinians fasted on that day. Despite me fasting, I eagerly accepted the offer of my friend, a solidarity activist from Holland, to have a walk in Jabalia Camp. Approximately 108,000 registered refugees live in the camp, which covers an area of only 1.4 square kilometres.
I passed by the Jabalia market, which was so crowded that one has to keep pushing people out of his way in order for him to pass through. With every step forward I could glimpse many faces of different ages, genders and features. I could see children jumping around from one stand of clothes to another, excited to pick their new outfits. At the same time, other children seized the opportunity of this unusually large crowd. They were carrying heavy boxes containing simple goods, trying to earn some money so that they could help their poor families have sort of happy atmosphere, to at least buy some candies.
I could see faces full of anger because of the high prices of goods, which result from the siege which has been illegally imposed since 2007. Parents would spend hours going around to every stand, searching for the cheapest clothing to buy for their children, who still innocently think that Eid means having new clothes. Yesterday, I could see how the inhabitants of Jabalia Camp, who are mostly refugees, face obstacles like low income, shortages of goods, and high prices for the available ones. They are desperate for happiness, even if it’s always missing something: the feeling of freedom, security and independence.
As Gaza welcomed Eid al-Adha, hymns played as the sun dawned. I could hear children and men gathering around the microphone in the mosque right behind our house, singing continuously and happily in one voice, “Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar …” I couldn’t help but wake up earlier than I always do, and more energetic than ever, excited for what would come next.
My mother said that the door has been knocked on constantly since the early morning by people with Eid greetings. Some of them could afford to buy sacrificed animals, “Uḍhiyyah,” and hand out a slice of meat.
Eid is a very special religious holiday, as it reconnects people with each other, strengthens social life, and reminds the rich of people who are in need. In Palestine, Eid exceeds its conventional frame. It’s a festival of tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, and thoughts of the people who are missed in prison, in Diaspora, or in the grave. My father and his brothers, for example, visit the families of martyrs and prisoners in the neighborhood.
On the second day of Eid, there was a demonstration in solidarity with our detainees at the Red Cross headquarters to convey that their spirits live among us, and that they are never forgotten. We also meant to show sympathy with the mothers who waited many long years, hoping for their sons’ freedom, who passed away before they could celebrate their release.
It was a day of support for our heroes inside the merciless Israeli bars, encouraging them to stay steadfast, as well as a day of compassion for their families, who have passed through several important holidays with one, or in some cases more than one missing, making their happiness incomplete, to help them stay strong and optimistic.
While celebrating Eid, I felt blessed for having all the people I care about around me. At the same time, I felt like I couldn’t enjoy my happiness at its fullest while thousands of people in Palestine couldn’t feel this blessing.
How can Palestinians fully enjoy our happiness while these heartbreaking stories are so very common in their daily lives? I hope next year the happiness of Eid and other occasions will be complete, with the Israeli jails emptied and Palestine independent and free. Insha’Allah, God willing.
To read it in French, press this link (Thanks to the webmaster, Claude)
The Palestinian political prisoners suffered 22 days of hunger as they decided to fight with their empty stomachs the oppression and the injustice of the Israeli Occupation. They eventually decide to no longer go on with their battle against the violation of their rights as the Israeli Prison Service promised to meet their list of demands which had on the top “ending the solitary confinement policy”. However, that wasn’t but another cruel trick for them to break the hunger strike.
As usual, they’ve never stuck to something they said and their hypocrisy has been one of their traits which characterize them the most. Israel keeps on breaking all the International treaties including Geneva Convention which guaranteed the right of Palestinian prisoners to be treated as War prisoners, and instead, they describe them as “terrorists”.
A friend of mine who had the sit-in tent as a shelter during the hunger strike of our prisoners and who himself joined the hunger strike in solidarity texted me that Ahmad Saadat, the PFLP secretary-general, is bound to serve one more full year of pain in isolation. They have ignored the worrying health condition of Saadat as a result of the carelessness of medical care along with his solitary confinement which started since March 16, 2009. Saadat was not allowed any visitations and even denied his right to write or receive letters from his family during his solitary confinement.
Saadat was sent to court ignoring his lawyer, who never received a notice regarding this court session. The Ad-Dameer, one of the human rights organizations, stated that by sentencing Saadat to solitary confinement for an additional year, the court violated promises by the Israeli Prison Administration to receive treatment that is guaranteed by the International law. No justification for this criminal and illegal decision has been provided.
My internal conflict and my worries reached its peak as I remembered when I was sitting with Loai Odeh, one of the released prisoners in Shalit’s swap deal and who participated in the hunger strike, and said that “the mental health of the prisoners who are in isolation should be expected to be in jeopardy after two or three years of isolation and that was the first motif for us to take that step; hunger striking till solitary confinement is no more.”
“It would be difficult for a prisoner in a normal jail to pass through his imprisonment without suffering psychological problems or at least depression, so imagine how difficult it would be for a prisoner in the solitary confinement for long time.” Loai continued. No wonder that is true; the mankind is a sociable creature, and if one is totally isolated from the outer world in a very narrow cell in which light could barely sneak, psychological and mental problems are hardly avoidable.
The brutality of the Israeli entity can never be imagined by someone who has never experienced their inhumane behavior. As Ahmad Saadat’s case occupied my thoughts, I remembered what my father told me about the psychological methods of torment which he endured during his imprisonment and which Israel continue to exercise daily over all the Palestinian prisoners inside the Israeli jails which never follow any of human virtues or the International Humanitarian Law. The more I think about this, the more I fear about Ahmad Saadat’s mental and physical health.
Trying to be positive, I recalled when my father told me “Ahmad Saadat is one of the toughest men I’ve ever know in my life.” It’s true, but that doesn’t mean that Israel should continue breaking its obligations to end its solitary confinement policies, and to implement the demands of the detainees after they conducted a hunger-strike for 22 days. It’s time to take action to fight injustice and to guarantee human rights for all people.
Mohammad Barash is a disabled political prisoner inside Nafha Prison; one of 85 prisoners who are either physically or mentally disabled. On the 17th of February, 2003, he was arrested after he was badly injured, and despite his disability, which resulted from his injuries, he was given three life sentences plus 35 years. He is still continuing his struggle with pride inside a cell paying a double price; his precious years of prime and the consequences of zionist entity’s crimes.
‘Don’t tell my mother that I can no longer see. She can see me but I can’t see. I fake my smiles when she shows me the photographs of my siblings, friends, and neighbors as she doesn’t know, that I have become blind after illness spread in my eyes till the darkness filled me.
Don’t tell her that I waited for several years to have a surgery to plant a cornea. But the Israeli Prison Service kept on procrastinating and procrastinating providing my eyes all reasons to leave me.
Don’t tell my mother that the shrapnel of bullets and the bombs which managed to hit me is still settling in my body, and that my left leg had been mutilated and replaced by a plastic one. Don’t tell her that the other leg rotted and dried of blood and life.
Don’t tell my mother that the prisoner’s emotions got stripped of the most basic elements of human life as he is sentenced to see only ashes and iron, lightless life and hopelessness.
Tell her that I am alive and safe. Tell her that I can see, walk, run, play, jump, write and read. Don’t tell her that I am shouldering my pains on my walking stick, and I can picture every martyr as a moon souring in the sky and calling me with the power of lightning, thunder and clouds.
Don’t tell her that I suffer from sleepless nights, and that I live under the mercy of the pain killers till it drugs my body. Don’t tell her that I keep twiddling my stuff till I barge into the iron beds or another prisoner sleeping close to me, to wake him up to help me reach the bathroom. Don’t tell her that wakefulness always hurts me and sleep never visits me.
Don’t tell her that a piece of lead entered my eye in that bloody day in the camp streets. They aggressively shot me until my leg was cut off, and my eye was gone. And before I fainted I saw a little kid running toward me waving the Palestinian flag while screaming: a martyr, a martyr.
Tell her that my dream is not enough. My nostalgia for her is too much and her soul never leaves me. I still have from her my language, my purity, my symbols stuck on the wall, all of which heal my pain every time the light disappears around me.
Tell her that I always embrace her holy prayers, to survive from the dark cloud that surrounds me after my body has tortured me. I might get back to her or I might not, but I left the answer to this question open, although I’ve chosen spiritually to be close to her heart, as if I chose my future, of which I have officially no control.
Don’t tell her that Israel, a country in the 21st century, has turned the prisons into places where diseases are planted and bodies are ruined slowly; and slowly, it turned to be fields of trial for living people whose death is inevitable sooner or later.
Don’t tell her that I have become knowledgeable of all names of horrible illnesses and strange medications, along with all types of pain killers, while I’m witnessing my friend Zakariyya diving into a coma, with an ending unknown to me.
Don’t tell my mother about the sick prisoners whose diseases launched an insane war against their bodies: Ahmad Abu Errab, Khaled Ashawish, Ahmad El-Najjar, Mansour Mowqeda, Akram Mansour, Ahmad Samara, Wafaa El-Bis, Reema Daraghma, Tareq Asi, Mo’tasim Radad, Riyad Al-Amour, Yasir Nazzal, Ashraf Abu-Thare’, Jihad Abu-Haniyy. The merciless Israeli prisons slaughter them; illness and carelessness of a country that enjoys slow death sentences and funerals for others.
Tell her that I am still 30 doors away from you and I get closer every time a bird flies and a fire flames up my eye, and barbed wires wound me, carrying me to your arms and to your prayers.’
This was Mohammad’s letter to his mother which unveils the inhumane nature of Israel which claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East while violating the most fundamental human values. I meant to share with you those powerful words he wrote in Arabic to help you picture the torturous conditions that the prisoners endure inside the Israeli cells, especially the disabled.
The core of their shameful crimes which offend any sense of propriety in any heart with any shred of conscience, were done under the banner of maintaining security. However, in this case where those disabled prisoners can hardly threaten their holy safety, how would they justify this?
|crowds of thousands have greeted 310 former prisoners on Tuesday, 18th of October|
The first stage of the prisoner swap deal has already taken place. As agreed on, 477 Palestinian detainees were set free before an Israeli soldier held in Gaza was delivered by the resistance to the Red Cross to enjoy the full range of freedom.
In Gaza, crowds of thousands have greeted 310 former prisoners — 131 of whom are from Gaza, and another 179 who were deported to Gaza according to Israel’s inhumane stipulations. The release of a total of 1,027 Palestinian prisoners should be completed within two months.
As prisoners have returned to their families, celebrations of freedom have been heard all cross the Gaza Strip, bringing a sense of hope for freedom. However, the road to freedom will remain incomplete even with one Palestinian still suffering inside the Israeli occupation prisons. So what if approximately 6,000 political prisoners are still locked up, including 164 children, in violation of international law?
The deported prisoners
The most painful part of this swap deal is the deported prisoners. They have long waited to be free again to return to their families, but Israel has instead deported them to other places where they have to wait even longer before they can wrap their arms around their loved ones again. The freedom of these deported former prisoners is not true freedom.
My parents recently went to a celebration held in the neighborhood for some released detainees. I was sitting alone when suddenly my phone rang. It was my mother. I could hardly hear her because of celebrations that were going around her. “You should come and see how people are dancing with joy and singing for freedom,” she said. I got so excited that I could no longer stay home and I decided to join them immediately and see for myself the joyous atmosphere there.
I didn’t know the exact address of the festival but I didn’t worry about it as I was certain that the resonance of the songs of freedom would guide my steps. The lights along with the Palestinian flags of all sizes were everywhere, decorating the dark blue sky. The walls were dressed with photos of our heroes who sacrificed precious years for the cause of freedom.
People came from different areas of the Gaza Strip to share with the released detainees the happiness of their freedom. The festival included folk dancing performances, songs of liberation and poetry dedicated to those who were free and to those who are still suffering behind Israeli bars.
|Loai is holding his mother, Rawda, after his release in Gaza City.|
A long-awaited reunion
Near the end of the festival, which lasted for several hours, my father called over me and mom to introduce us to his friends. A woman wearing a beautiful Palestinian traditional dress decorated with threads in the colors of the Palestinian flag — white, red, black and green — was standing beside a bald man.
“Rawda, Yacoub, here is my daughter, Shahd,” my father introduced us. Then the man, Yacoub, stepped forward, kissed my forehead and hugged me and left me surprised and still wondering who he was.
Then Dad continued with a big smile on his face: “This is my friend from Jerusalem who was detained with me in Nafha prison for 15 years, and we were freed together in Ahmad Jibril’s exchange deal. And this is his brother’s wife, Rawda, who was imprisoned for five years as well in the 1970s.”
I then realized that they were here a day ago to see Loai, Rawda’s son, who was freed in the swap deal but deported to Gaza. She was hoping that she would hug her son, Loai, as soon as he was released. She had been waiting for ten years, daydreaming about that day.
Her son was sentenced to 28 years of imprisonment but thanks to the prisoner swap, he only spent ten years behind Israeli bars. However, it was very disappointing for her to find out that he would be deported to Gaza and that he would not return back home.
She did everything she could to tightly hug her son again and for that she traveled with her husband and his brother by bus from Jerusalem to Eilat and then to Egypt and then to Gaza through Rafah crossing. It’s so ironic to know that she had to suffer two days of travelling to enter Gaza when it would take her less than two hours if Israel allowed her to enter though Erez checkpoint.
Shortly after meeting Loai’s mother and uncle, I met him. “Congratulations for your freedom. I’m very glad you’re finally released,” I said, my face expressing happiness and admiration.
After short chat, I discovered that Loai has completed his bachelor degree in sociology. Since the beginning of his imprisonment, he applied for the Israeli Prison Administration to study at Hebrew University. While he must have finished his degree in four years, it took him around 10 years to eventually have it as many times his application to continue his study was rejected for no reason.
After I told him that I am studying English at Al-Azhar University, he replied so enthusiastically, “I’m going to further my studies at Al-Azhar University and you will have to help me and give me so much support as I am new here.” I kept nodding my head, admiring his unbelievable determination and his civility, and replied: “Of course! Any time!”
We soon had to separate, as it was getting late and everyone needed to go back home and rest after long hours of dancing and chanting. On the way back home, my father was expressing how happy he was to meet his friend, Loai’s uncle, again after more than 24 years of separation, as he is denied access to Jerusalem by Israel.
“Can you imagine that his baldness is because of the torment he endured by the Israeli army?” he asked me with an angry voice.
He added, “The Israeli soldiers used to use a thin stick and knock on the top of his head in sensitive places continuously and slowly for long hours as a way of torturing psychologically and physically at the same time. However, this is maybe the least torturing method. Israeli soldiers are very creative at bringing new methods of torment…”
My father left me speechless and thinking of how much our prisoners have endured in Israel’s cruel jails. It’s true that those former prisoners, including Loai, are now out of Israeli prisons, but still their freedom is conditional and incomplete, as they were forced to accept their fate to live in exile far away from their land and families. It makes me sad to think that this beautiful family is now going to be scattered between their home in Jerusalem and Gaza, where their son is forced to live from now on.
|My drawing for the Palestinian women, especially those who are still waiting for their relatives in Israeli prisons|
The prisoners’ families make sure not to miss any day of the weekly protests, so the number of the people inside the Red Cross building is more than usual on Mondays. Therefore, one should expect to see lots of tears and hear lots of tragedies, especially after the names of the soon-to-be released prisoners were declared.
As I entered the Red Cross on Monday last week, an old woman was sitting in a corner, hardly noticeable. She was putting her hand on her cheeks, closing her eyes and saying nothing. The wrinkles on her face, with expressions of sorrow and burdens and the broken glass frame of the picture she was holding, directed my steps toward her.
I tried to talk to her but I didn’t get an immediate answer. She responded only after I started talking very loudly while holding her hands. I realized that she can barely hear anything and her vision is very weak.
“Who’s this man in the picture?” I asked loudly.
“This is my son Fares, my darling. He’s not going to be released. I am very sick and about to die. I even spent last night in hospital. Why wasn’t he included to fill my last days of my life which passed for 20 long years without him? I want to enjoy hugging my son before I die,” she said with tears falling so intensively and bitterly.
Calming her was a very difficult task, but one can imagine how deeply her wounds were felt. I was looking around asking who accompanied that lady to the tent, as I found it impossible to imagine that a blind woman came by herself. However, what I thought was impossible, was actually a fact.
A dreamer who never gives up
After questioning people in the Red Cross about her, I met a young woman who seemed to know her. She told me that the old woman, Umm Fares, lives alone in Beach Camp. Her husband passed away years ago and she has nobody to take care of her. It was very hard for me to believe that this very old woman, who can barely walk, see or hear, lives alone. I was very angry and questioned aloud how an old sick woman could be left alone with no one to look after her. But the young woman calmed me down after she declared that Umm Fares was a reason for her to keep coming to the weekly protests. She even arranged a group of girls to help her and show solidarity with her. They have taken turns during the week to visit her as much as they could. Hearing that, I couldn’t help but smiling with relief to know that there are still some caring people, and without her asking me to join her group, I stated that I am already a part of them.
The young woman told me that she once was sitting with Umm Fares in her very simple and narrow house, chatting, attempting to make her feel that she was not alone or forgotten. Suddenly Umm Fares asked her to bring a piece of paper and a pen to write down what she heard her say.
“Dear Fares, when you are free, I’m going to pick for you the most beautiful bride in Palestine. I’m going to build a big house for you to live in with your kids. Stay steadfast my darling and God willing your freedom will be soon,” she said while her weak hands dried the tears that fell on her cheeks. The poor woman didn’t realize that she was only a dreamer, but a dreamer who never gives up.
No one has left a profound impact on me as much as this woman, Umm Fares. I pray that she gets the chance to see her son before she dies and I promise her that she will never be alone. There are many people who will never forget her or her precious tears over her son’s ongoing imprisonment.
Press this link to read it in French (Thank you Claude)
“I waited long enough for him to come back to me; 19 years of forced separation between us. I’ve always fantasized about our unborn child, as the imprisonment of my husband after less than one year of our marriage prevented me from ever having one,” she said after I asked her whether she feels better.
“They broke into our house in October of 1993 and kidnapped him very late at night from inside our home in an excessively violent way,” she continued while tears struggled to fall from her eyes. She looked in a different direction and fell in silence trying to hide that feminine character inside her.
I learned that her husband Salama Mesleh was sentenced for 99 years inside the Israeli prisons. I was amazed at her ability to stay strong and optimistic for a day that would come when she would be united with her husband in a warm house full of love and harmony and bring up their first child.
My sympathy got even deeper for her as I learned that she had been very close to delivering a child. She was 2 months pregnant when the Israeli army attacked her house and turned everything upside down and kidnapped her husband. Her experience was too much to tolerate. The Israeli army didn’t only take her husband away but also killed the fetus growing inside her. If she didn’t go through all these horrific circumstances, maybe this fetus would have turned out to be an 18-year-old man by now who would take care of her while she bravely fights her harsh destiny.
Determined to share pain
My affection for her has been increasing as I knew more of her stories. She is on a hunger strike for the sixth day trying to share with her husband and other Palestinian detainees their battle of empty stomachs. She has refused to break her fast despite all the attempts which people made to persuade her to, especially after she fainted. However, she insisted on going on demonstrating. “Salama, my husband, suffers from more than merely hunger,” she said. “Let me at least feel like I’m living some of his pains even though I know that I’m not even close!”
I suddenly realized that I ran out of time and it was the time to go back to my lecture at university. I had to go there only for the attendance check and be in the class only in body but I knew that my mind would stay with the prisoners and their families. I couldn’t wait till the lecture ended to return to the Red Cross.
I thought that I would go back and see the usual sight of people sitting in the tent chatting while songs for freedom for our detainees are playing. But that wasn’t the case. There was an emergency taking place; people were running inside the Red Cross. An ambulance’s siren was very loud and its red lights were flashing all over the place. My heart skipped a beat as I realized I had missed something during the hour I was at university. My fear of the unknown overcame me.
I was trying to pass through the crowd to discover that the same woman, Najiyya, lost consciousness again. She couldn’t bear the psychological conflict she had inside her — not knowing whether her husband was going to be released or not.
At first, she heard that her spouse was included; and then discovered that he was not. She was swinging between facts and illusions to realize later the fact that her husband will stay jailed inside the dark cells. I learned that she was walking around while talking to herself unconsciously and she suddenly stopped and looked at a big banner that includes the picture of her husband, and then fell down.
I know no matter how strong and how much of a fighter she is, she is a human at the end of the day. The fact that her husband is not going to be free was very hard for her to accept, especially since she was lingering with the hope which the swap deal had brought her.
When I arrived at the tent on 12 October, the wife of the prisoner Nafez Herz, who was sentenced to life-long imprisonment and has been jailed for 26 years, shook hands with me and said very excitedly that she had heard that her husband would be freed. Then she said, “But you can’t imagine how much my heart aches for those families whose prisoner will not be released in this exchange deal. All prisoners’ families have become like one big family. We meet weekly, if not daily in the Red Cross, we share our torments, and we understand each other’s suffering.” I grabbed her hands and pressed them while saying, “We will never forget them, and God willing, they will gain their freedom soon.”
While I was writing this article among the crowd of people at the Red Cross building, I suddenly heard people chanting and clapping and could see a woman jumping with joy. While on the phone, she said loudly, “My husband is going to be free!” Her husband is Abu Thaer Ghneem, who received a life sentence and spent 22 years in prison. As I watched people celebrating and singing for the freedom of the Palestinian detainees, I met his only son, Thaer. He was hugging his mother tight while giving prayers to God showing their thankfulness. I touched his shoulder, attempting to get his attention. “Congratulations! How do you feel?” I asked him. “I was only one day old when my father was arrested, and now I am 22-years-old. I’ve always known that I had a father in prison, but never had him around. Now my father is finally going to be set free and fill his place, which has been empty over the course of 22 years of my life.”
His answer was very touching and left me shocked and admiring. While he was talking to me, I sensed how he couldn’t find words to describe his happiness at his father’s freedom.
The celebration continues for an hour. Then I return to my former confusion, feeling drowned in a stream of thoughts. The families of the 1,027 detainees will celebrate the freedom of their relatives, but what about the fate of the rest of the prisoners?
Don’t forget the hunger strike
I have heard lots of information since last night concerning the names of the soon-to-be-released prisoners, but it was hard to find two sources sharing the same news, especially about Ahmad Saadat and Marwan Barghouti and whether they are involved in the exchange deal. I’ve always felt spiritually connected to them, especially Saadat, as he is my father’s friend. I can’t handle thinking that he may not be involved in this exchange deal. He has had enough merciless torment inside Israeli solitary confinement for over two and a half years.
Let’s not forget those who are still inside the Israeli occupation’s prisons and who have been on hunger strike, as this hunger strike wasn’t held for an exchange deal, but for the Israeli Prison Service to meet the prisoners’ demands. The people who joined the hunger strike in Gaza City has included those with loved ones in prison. We have to speak out loudly and tell the world that Israel must address our living martyrs’ demands. We will never stop singing for the freedom of Palestinian detainees until the Israeli prisons are emptied.
I haven’t been getting enough sleep lately. Last night I was exhausted in body and mind, but tried to keep my eyes open to follow updates on the Palestinian prisoners’ conditions. My heart and mind were with them completely, in every corner of the horrible Israeli prisons where our heroes continue to display persistence and steadfastness.
Deciding to rebel against the cruel conditions they could no longer endure, hundreds of prisoners started a hunger strike on 27 September. Approximately 6,000 detainees inside Israeli prisons are forgotten about and treated as if they are less than animals.
Israel, which claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East, seems to forget that prisoners are humans and have rights. The Palestinian prisoners are on hunger strike in the hope that Israel will grant their simple demands. But while they are calling in loud voices for their rights, Israel is reacting negatively, using every method it has to force the prisoners to give up. Prisoners are being sent to isolation cells in increasing numbers, family visits and lawyers are being denied, families threatened, and identity cards, belongings and clothing confiscated. This is all in addition to the constant torment they already have to endure.
Israel is violating international law and nobody is stopping it. Oh, pardon me for forgetting that Israel is beyond any law! Approximately 285 Palestinian children are currently imprisoned, and the world is still silent. Nobody will dare challenge Israel.
I am very emotionally attached to the prisoners’ issue, especially their hunger strike, not only because I am Palestinian but also because I am the daughter of a released prisoner. I was brought up hearing my father’s sad stories, full of suffering and despair, which remain stuck in his memory and will never leave him.
My father’s experience of hunger striking
My father’s eyes would have never seen the sun if Ahmad Jibril of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — General Command (PFLP-GC) didn’t manage to make a deal exchanging three Israeli prisoners he held captive in 1985, in return for the release of 1,250 Palestinian political prisoners. My family was watching the news concerning the current prisoners’ hunger strike when Dad started telling us about his imprisonment, which lasted for 15 years.
“I witnessed and participated in the longest hunger strike in the history of Palestinian prisoners in 1982, which lasted for 33 consecutive days,” he said. “Three prisoners died and tens of cases were sent to hospital, including about 27 for dehydration, but what else could we do to pressure them to provide us with the smallest things?”
Thinking deeply about my father’s words, and trying to imagine the awful conditions of the Palestinians inside the merciless Israeli jails, broke my heart. All the unbearable treatment prisoners endure is totally unfair and against humanity.
Before I wrote this article, I took part in a Gaza City demonstration in solidarity with these prisoners, whose health is getting worse every day, but who will bravely continue. I was lucky to not have early lectures at university, so I could be there at 9:00 am protesting against the situation facing our prisoners. I had some conversations with other women protesting there, too. Most of them were either released prisoners or had sons, brothers, or husbands in prison and on hunger strike.
One of them was a mother of six children, who grew up as if they were fatherless — her husband is spending his 26th year inside a damned Israeli prison. “I was one month pregnant with my youngest girl, who is 25 years old now, when my husband was arrested,” she said. “My oldest girl was only seven years old. All my kids do have a father but they became adults without their father around, like orphans.”
She kept describing to me how hard it was to be alone without her husband taking care of six children, and how much she suffered and endured to make her husband, sentenced to lifelong imprisonment, proud of his children when he hopefully someday gets his freedom back. “I was very young, only 24 years old, when he went to prison. I stayed in this state of a married woman who has to live without a husband for 26 years for my six children. Thankfully, I now have 25 grandchildren,” she said proudly.
Miracles needed to contact prisoners
Then she burst out crying, and said that she was worried because she heard that the Israeli army attacked Ashkelon prison where her husband is held the day before. They violently attempted to force the impossible — to make the hunger strike end.
I couldn’t hide my tears anymore, despite trying so hard not to let them fall. I didn’t know what to do to calm her down. The woman told me that she and all other prisoners’ families have been denied visitation rights since Hamas won the 2006 election. They hear nothing from their imprisoned family members, except rarely, when some miracle happens; like when someone from the West Bank visits relatives who are imprisoned with her husband. Then, her husband can ask the visitor to convey a message to her that he is doing well.
I couldn’t say anything but for prayers that God provide her with patience and that her husband gets his freedom back soon.
My father has always said that prisoners are the living martyrs. I think they really deserve this honor for all the injustice and suffering they endure. This open hunger strike of the Palestinian prisoners will continue until Israel addresses their demands. International solidarity is needed now more than ever. Everyone needs to wake up and do something. We shouldn’t let the cruel conditions of the Palestinian detainees last forever.
After all the difficulties I had been through in order to get myself out of the big prison of the Gaza Strip, I made it to USA.
I spent the first week of the program in Gaza against my will. My hope of leaving had gradually been fading until I received a call informing me that I would be leaving through Erez on the 26th of June after a whole week of pain trying to pass Rafah border. I was in Gaza physically but not mentally. My mind was constantly with the people who would become my second family soon after my arrival. I was daydreaming of life in USA and I couldn’t wait till I arrived there. I thought I was so unlucky that I missed a week in my life there but in fact I was such a lucky girl. What had been waiting for me was beyond my expectations.
At 8 am, on the 26th of June, my adventure had started. I had passed through Erez and Jerusalem, and somehow I was able to convince my driver to take me by the old city. I wasn’t allowed to leave the bus till I arrived Allenby Bridge in Jericho, but my driver had sympathy for me and he allowed me to have one hour there even though he took a risk by doing that. I actually exceeded the limited time I had as walking in the old streets of Jerusalem and visiting all the holy sites, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque, stole my mind. I was jumping in the streets and singing out loudly like a nut. Can’t blame me for that! I had to go back to where we agreed to meet in order to get dropped off by Allenby to complete my way to Amman, while wondering why it must be so difficult for me to go to my capital city and why I have to go through all these complex procedures in order to travel.
I had arrived in Amman by 6 pm and had stayed with a very nice woman whom I knew through Facebook as she was supporting the sales of my calendar, Gaza Calendar 2011. I spent a short but unforgettable time in Amman. My plane was scheduled to leave at 5 pm on the following day. I had to travel to Dubai’s airport and then to Washington DC.
I couldn’t believe myself when I took my first step out of the plain in Washington DC airport after a 12-hours-non-stop flight. I was even more excited knowing that only a couple of hours separated me from joining the MEPI family. But I should learn that excitement sometimes works in the wrong direction. I was walking the airport with a look full of excitement, smiling to everyone I encountered, and ended up sitting in a gate that I thought it was the right one, but realized had been the wrong one two minutes after my flight to Philadelphia took off. It was actually kind of funny. I didn’t know how it had happened, but I guess for someone who had taken a 12-hour non-stop flight, sitting between two elderly people who kept snoring the whole trip, it is normal to run out of batteries. My flight was rescheduled for me. It was by then a bit sad as almost nothing remained to meet my MEPI family, but it turned out to require four more hours of waiting. Then I cried like a baby until I fell asleep, only to wake up just as my flight started boarding and return to the same excitement I had before.
“Nothing happens without a reason” – this is something that I started to believe in very deeply. I met wonderful people on that flight that left an impact on my vision for my future. Some of those people belonged to a church group who were volunteering in Zambia fighting hunger and poverty there. By the end of the trip, it felt as if I was one of them. They didn’t leave me tell they made sure that I got my luggage and everything was ok with me. Soon after, they formed themselves as a circle and held each other’s hands and included me. Then they made a prayer with their eyes closed to give thanks for their safe arrival. I am Muslim but I joined them while they were doing their prayer and it felt good to me. I believe that religions shouldn’t create gaps between people. To whatever religion we belong, we are all humans at the end of the day and what we share is more than how we differ from one another.
As I was walking toward the exit expecting to see somebody to drive me to Newark, Delaware, I saw the coordinator of MEPI program in the University of Delaware, waiting for me and holding a paper with my name written on it. After glancing at him, I ran to him and I hugged him as if I knew him already. I was just so excited about starting my journey. He drove me to Delaware where my MEPI family was waiting for me excitedly.
Meeting my MEPI family was so special to me. Thinking of them constantly before the time came and following their Facebook posts from Gaza made them already a part of me, even before I met any of them. That made it easier for us to get along. We were together all the time. We used to leave each other at bedtime, only to dream about the next day. Every day made us more connected and more caring about each other. I felt a real family overwhelmed with love, passion, and care around me. We would laugh together and cry if anyone started to shed a tear. They maybe didn’t know to what extent each one of them affected my personality, but at least I know that they will keep their own place in my heart forever. My colleagues were from 14 different countries of the Middle East and North Africa. We had many differences but those differences didn’t keep us apart, they only made our family more interesting. We had fun laughing at each other’s accents and sharing our cultures. The loveliest part was the staff members. They are such great people who accompanied us all the time to make sure that every day would be better than the previous day. They were there to educate us, to help us doing our homework, and to cheer us up whenever we felt down. They dedicated themselves to supporting us in every way they could. Such giving and loving people are rare to find. They have left an enduring impression on me. I feel so proud having had a chance to be close to such wonderful people with amazing characters.
The real wealth is not measured with money but with how many close relationships you form. Therefore, I consider myself to be very rich as I have many real friends that I can trust for the rest of my life.
Apart from making friends, for a Gazan, who got used to seeing gray all around and not much green, it is delightful to see some views of nature. This is another thing I loved about America. I never got bored wandering around in the streets as the huge trees with fireflies that seemed like Christmas tree lights made me full of joy and inspiration. I would go for a walk ifI felt rough, but that was never a way for me to relax in Gaza. I never minded long drives, too. My head would keep swinging from one window to another in order not to miss any views. We would pass by huge lakes that took my breath away, or a group of geese, or sometimes we would see deer standing by the woods.
I felt so fortunate had having a chance to let my eyes enjoy pondering nature there and meeting many interesting people, some of them were great professors who are so passionate about the Palestinian cause. They became excited about setting up a meeting with me as soon as they know I am a Palestinian living in Gaza.
I also enjoyed talking to people that I encountered by chance. Palestine was my favorite topic to talk about whenever I had a chance. It was funny as most times I spoke to anyone, she or he would ask me where I am from, and then I would reply with a smile on my face, “I’m from Palestine.” Then most people would ask, “Pakistan?” and I would say again, “no! PaLLLLestine” to make sure that I make the pronunciation of letter “L” as clear as possible. But this actually didn’t make any difference to some of them, as they would either ask “where is that?” or “what’s that?” My answer would be “Do you know Israel?” They would show all the expressions of confirmation they can and then I would say “well, Israel is in Palestine” to leave them with exclamation marks on their faces. And then they would be confused, which would be the responsibility that I enjoyed the most, to explain what I meant with history as my only evidence.
It was a bit sad that many people didn’t recognize my country. I say MY COUNTRY as I’ll never lose hope that it is going to be a country one day. Sometimes I got emotional seeing maps with Israel written in bold on the world map and not finding Palestine in the resources that were given to us for use during the leadership program. However, that only grew two things inside me: Knowledge of how hard I have to work to educate people about my country, and determination to make Palestine recognized by every human being on the planet.
Writing about my journey to USA can never end. Briefly and honestly, the five weeks I spent there made me much more mature and confident in my potential, and my ability to give as much as to take. I’m not such a different Shahd, but I can assure you I am a better Shahd after this interesting, eventful, and educational journey.