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Akram Rikhawi’s family: “Are they waiting for him to return to us in a coffin?”

Akram Rikhawi’s family and I at their house in Rafah during the power-cut (by Magne Hagesæter)

The Palestinian football player Mahmoud Sarsak walks freely in Gaza’s streets and alleys, breathing victory among the steadfast people of the Gaza Strip. He acquired his strength to hunger for 96 days from Mahatma Gandhi’s words, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Gandhi’s promise came true, and Mahmoud actually won the battle of empty stomachs. Read my account of visiting Mahmoud Sarsak after his release.

Mahmoud was released from the Ramla Hospital Prison on July 10 after he revealed Israel’s crimes against humanity and made it submit to his demands. But his happiness remained incomplete. His thoughts are still in a place he described as “a hospital for torture, not for treatment,” with his comrades he left there, especially Akram Rikhawi, Palestine’s longest hunger striker in history.

About 6:00 pm on Thursday, the 99th day of Akram Rikhawi’s hunger strike, I saw a tweet: “Help us in spreading the truth about Prisoner Akram Rikhawi who might die at any moment #PalHunger”. As I read it, I felt anger at the world’s silence. I called Mahmoud Sarsak to ask for Akram Rikkawi’s home address. He kindly answered, saying, “Come to Rafah and I’ll take you there.”

Excited, I called some friends to join me, quickly got ready, and hurried to Rafah. The one-hour drive to Rafah felt like it took ages. We arrived there around 8:30 to find Mahmoud waiting. “Is it too late already to visit Akram’s family?” I asked him. He shook his head and said, “Their part of Rafah camp is filled with Yibna refugees. They stay up very late, especially Akram’s family. I don’t think they ever sleep!”

Before Mahmoud’s release, the Israeli Prison Service sent him to Akram to pressure him to break his hunger strike. Mahmoud took it as an opportunity to meet Akram for one last time, and to carry messages he wanted to deliver to his family. Akram was very happy for Mahmoud, and had faith that his victory would follow Mahmoud’s sooner or later.

The camp was very dark. I could barely follow Mahmoud’s steps. As we walked through one of the alleys, I recognized our destination from the huge banner of Akram hanging on his house. I could feel his family’s indescribable strength and faith from the way they welcomed us in with hopeful eyes and big smiles. There wasn’t any light in the house, but the smiling faces of Akram’s children filled it with light. Shortly after we arrived, we received word that Friday would be the first day of Ramadan. For Akram’s family, the news held some bitterness, as according to his wife Najah, it is “the eighth Ramadan without Akram.”

We all sat on the rug close to a lantern, the only light in a sitting room filled with photos of Akram. As his wife Najah started speaking, I learned that Akram is the son of a martyr, the brother of another martyr, and has a brother detained in Nafha Prison: a typical Palestinian family’s sacrifices for the sake of freedom and dignity. His father died in the First Intifada, while his brother was killed in the 1990s during a ground invasion by the Israeli Occupation Forces (IOF) in Rafah. His detained brother, Shady, became disabled after he refused food for 22 days during the mass hunger strike in Israeli prisons which began this year on Prisoners’ Day, April 17.

Akram Rikhawi has chosen to shoulder the responsibility for hundreds of disabled and ill political prisoners who grieve daily behind Israel’s bars and suffer its medical neglect. He also decided to rebel against the racist treatment that he received at the hands of some Ramle doctors. That was the main reason for his hunger strike. “After more than 100 days on hunger strike, Akram is in a wheelchair and cannot move either his left hand or leg,” Najah said. “Hunger has perhaps overtaken his body, but can’t easily defeat his will.”

“Before he started refusing food,” she continued, “he wrote a few articles on the suffering of sick prisoners and the medical neglect they endure, describing Israeli Prison Service violations against Palestinian detainees. He hoped they would pay his critical health conditions more attention and care. Instead, they punished him for speaking out by placing him in solitary confinement.”

Akram’s family described the Ramla Hospital Prison as “a slaughterhouse, not a hospital, with jailers wearing doctors’ uniforms,” using Akram’s situation as their best evidence. “He was detained at Ramla from the first day of his detention,” Najah said. “Before his arrest, he suffered only slightly from asthma. His health started to deteriorate when he was given the wrong medication.” She explained how this caused him severe health complications. “He had only one health problem, but medical neglect in Ramle Hospital Prison caused him six, including high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic problems, and osteoporosis, sight problems, and queasiness.”

Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-IL) previously reported that its doctors had found an “alarming deterioration of Akram’s asthma, which continues to be unstable,” adding that they believed he “has been given very high doses of steroids as treatment, which can cause severe long-term and irreversible damage.”

Najah managed to visit him twice. But since the ban on the family visits for the families of Gazan detainees in 2006, which followed the capture of Gilaad Shalit, they no longer can. “We can neither visit him, nor receive letters or phone calls from him. Our two main sources of information we rely on have been the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and released prisoners, who coincidentally met him after being sent to Ramla because of health problems they suffered.”

My admiration reached its utmost when I learned that Najah was actually the wife of Akram’s martyred brother. “I was a young widow of five children when my first husband Mo’taz was killed with cold blood by the IOF,” she said. “Akram was still single, and decided to take responsibility for his brother’s orphaned children and widow. So he married me. Allah blessed us with eight more children.”

One of Akram’s youngest twin who were born a little before his arrest and knew their Dad from photos.

Then a young woman interrupted our conversation. “I’m Yasmeen, my mother’s eldest daughter,” she said. “My father died when I was four years old. I can barely remember him. But I recall very clearly how tenderly my father Akram raised me. I never felt like an orphan around him. He always treated his children and his brother’s alike and loved us all the same.”

“He was always like a best friend to me,” Yasmine continued. “I was having my high school exams when he was arrested. During my final exams, he used to stay up with me to study. He never allowed me to prepare anything. He would bring food to my room. He used to wake me up for the Fajer prayer. Allah has made everything up to me when he guided Dad Akram to marry my mother.”

“I was the dearest to his heart, and he sometimes teased me, saying that I was the reason for his detention,” she said. “On June 7, he walked me to school in the morning before my exam. He spent the entire trip reminding me that I should have faith in Allah and not worry. Then he headed to Gaza City. On his way home in the afternoon, the IOF stopped the vehicle at the Abu Ghouli checkpoint between Gaza City and Rafah and demanded to see all the passenger’s IDs. After handing over his ID, Dad Akram was immediately arrested. In his first letters from prison, he wrote that his friends had warned him that the situation was worrying, and that he should remain in Gaza. He refused, saying he needed to check how I did in my exam.” Yasmeen said this with a slight smile on her face. After Akram’s detention, she could barely continue her examinations, and finished them with an overall score of 55.

Then a 17-year-old girl walked in, looking very upset. “This is Akram’s eldest daughter,” Yasmine said as the girl sat silently in the corner. “She’s repeating the same experience I had since Dad’s detention. This morning, the high school results were announced. She is sad that she got 75%, while she has been always one of the brightest students. It was difficult for her to concentrate on her studies while expecting that she might wake up any morning to mourn her father’s death.”

The family’s situation was heartbreaking. I listened carefully to their sad stories and struggled to hold my tears. I felt most moved when his wife pointed at her twin youngest sons and said, “A little while ago, they came to me asking what their father looked like. Was he tall or short, fat or slim? Their age equals the years Akram served in detention. They only know him from photos.”

I could feel the family’s anger and disappointment with popular and international solidarity. “What are the human rights organizations, Hamas, the PA waiting for before they move?” his daughter Yasmine asked severely. “Are they waiting for him to return to us in a coffin? Would they be happy for eight children to become fatherless, and five others to be orphaned for a second time? If Dad dies, we will never forgive anyone who could have done something, but chose to look away.”

Don’t choose to look away. Akram Rikhawi is in desperate need of your urgent actions to save his life. It is late, but it is not over. You can still do something, anything, to contribute to his survival.


In Valentine’s Day, A celebration of Love And Struggle

The former prisoner Allam Ka'by

I just returned from a wedding, a wedding that I waited for fervently since I met its groom in October, 2011. Oh October, how many nice memories you brought me and how many amazing people you introduced to me. Allam Ka’by, today’s groom, was one of them and has become a close friend. Feeling blessed to meet this person, I want to briefly express my thankfulness for the day that resulted in us meeting. October 18, the day of the first stage of Gilaad Shalit’s swap deal, was a remarkable memory in Palestinian history. It marked victory. This day is printed in my mind like no other day. How could I forget the day that brought freedom to 447 Palestinian’s, of which Allam was one?

In the 20 years I’ve lived in Gaza, I never witnessed a day as happy as this. Festivals were held in every corner. It felt like not only people were celebrating. The sky, the trees, the buildings, everything was celebrating freedom. It was a day of unity, a day of compassion. Happiness was shared all around Gaza. Even those families who weren’t lucky enough to see their relatives in prison that day were so happy; excited to meet the released prisoners to hear news of their relatives. They joined the celebration with a high spirit and greater hope that soon freedom would also be coming to their beloved ones, who are still locked behind the Israeli bars. “My son wasn’t released, but at least this swap deal brought me news about him from his fellows that calmed the fire burning inside me during all nine years I haven’t been allowed to visit him,” said Om Ibrahim Baroud, a mother of a prisoner who’s serving his 26th year in jail.

My first meeting with Allam Ka’by

Allam Ka’by spent aound 15 years in total in Israeli jails, but sadly, the day of his freedom was celebrated away from his family. He is originally from Balata Camp in Nablus, but Israel forced him to separate from where he was raised up, where his family lives and his new wife, Manar, used to live. He didn’t have his own family to receive him but we, residents of Gaza, welcomed him to the bosom of our homes with so much love and admiration that he considers himself as living at home. Since he was set free, the Hamas government has taken care of Allam and his comrades who were deported to Gaza, and they have granted them with good accommodations.

Allam first lived in a hotel overlooking the beautiful beach of Gaza, where we first met. In fact, it was the second, but I like to consider it as the first as the real first time didn’t give any of us a good impression about the other.

By the end of a festival held for the released prisoners, my friend, an American activist living in Gaza, asked me to help him with translation of an interview he had organized with one of them, who was actually Allam. He was in a hurry and Joe wasn’t fully prepared to start the interview as quickly as Allam wished. I kept asking Allam if he could please wait for five minutes. But 5 minutes in reality took maybe 15 minutes that Allam could no longer wait and he left us disappointed. It was almost a fight that turned out to be a sweet memory to laugh at when Allam and I remember it. So the second meeting, which was a coincidence, fixed the wrong impression caused by lack of preparation. It was our first meeting because it was when I first had the honor to get to know him closely.

He recognized me as he met me and then gently started apologizing for the clash we had when we met first. I remember very well how we peacefully sat in the hotel’s lobby and I felt magic about him that made me feel as if I knew him for ages. He had the art of attracting people’s ears to listen to him without any boredom. I lost the track of time while hearing his heroic and inspiring stories from his experience of imprisonment.

Allam started with cherishing his childhood memories in every corner of Balata Camp, which were shorter than any child around the world should enjoy. Israel deprived him from fully living it innocently. At the age of 15, the first Intifada, called the intifada of stones, his childhood’s innocence was brutally killed.  The Israeli Occupation arrested him for being a stone thrower. His harmless stone that could cause armed Israeli soldiers no harm resulted in him being jailed for almost 5 years. They ignored that his detention was a crime against him and is a scandalous crime Israel still commits against children, violating International Law and all humanitarian agreements.

Allam’s experience as a child detainee and then as an administrative one

However, Allam looks back at his raped childhood positively, giving the gratitude for the educated, courageous and dignified man he is now, “they don’t know that they actually created a man of me so early by detaining me at such a young age.” His dark cell witnessed the torment and the humiliation he endured, but it also witnessed his unbreakable strength as he challenged the Israeli jailers’ inhumanity and brutality. He summed up his early struggle as a teenage in a sentence: “my early imprisonment taught me how I should let myself live in a prison but never let the prison live inside me.”

When he was 15, he wasn’t really aware of the situation and he used to question a lot about the occupation and all the crimes endured by Palestinians. Inside prison, everything became clear to him and he realized the significance and the meaning of resistance. He realized how his sacrifice of his years of prime was even worthless in relative to his precious land and his dear people. After his illegal and inhumane detention, he was set free at the age of 20 with a great passion toward his homeland and his people.

Then, he spent two years free on his occupied land before he served more than a year of administrative detention in 1997 with no charge or trial, but under secret evidence that can’t be shared by the detainee or his lawyer, to learn more about the cruelty of the Israeli heartless jailers. Upon his release, he joined the PFLP party as a means of resistance.

Allam met the love of his life amidst struggle

With no previous intention, he fell in love for the first time with a beautiful girl from his camp Manar, and unintentionally made another person involved in his rugged life of struggle. Because the most precious things we own, even our souls, are valueless in comparison to our freedom and dignity, in Palestine, the sacrifice has ended up meaningless and tasteless. All our lives represent a medley of sacrifices that started to feel like a routine we are bound to live with.

The second intifada started, the intifada of Al-Aqsa. Allam got engaged to the love of his life but that didn’t make his life any easier. Between his love for Manar and his love for the land, he got torn. But he couldn’t stand idly by.

"Stick to the Path of resistance" written with Allam's blood

In 2003, Allam and his childhood friend Ameer were trapped in a building in one of Nalus streets by intensive forces of Israeli armed soldiers. They were attacked and in the same time a call for them to succumb and hand over their weapons was spread all around the city through loudspeakers. They chose confrontion and death with dignity rather than surrender making one of the most heroic and epic battles in the history of struggle in occupied Nablus. Their confrontation lasted for 9 hours, proclaiming that “surrender isn’t one of morals, but the sacrifice of souls for the sake of dignity and freedom is.”

Their limited repertory ran out and they got badly injured but never raised the white banner. Before the IOF raided the building, Allam wrote on the wall with his blood “stick to the path of resistance!”

I can’t express how emotional he made me feel after hearing this story right from his mouth. I was looking at him with all admiration feeling thankful for that God was merciful enough to make him survive even though that wasn’t his plan. I felt so grateful that I could see him in a good health and what was more, “FREE”. I knew he would become someone close to me, someone to trust. I wasn’t wrong.

“And what happened with your fiancée?” I interrupted trying to add a cheerful topic. “Who would have ever believed that I’d be free after being sentenced to 9 life sentences?” He said while laughing sarcastically with glittering eyes and continued, “after I got arrested, I never thought of a possibility that I’d ever be free. Thinking that holding one captive is better than two, I decided to set her free. I divorced her.”

Allam and Manar have reunited in Valentine’s Day

Then my face turned sad. I expected that Manar gave up and married another but I was surprised that he was still smiling with hope. “She refused to marry any other person and convicted herself to be either with me, or single forever. We have discussed our reunion since my release!”

Since his release, they have fought the barriers that Israel built in their way to meet at one point. They won over it. She arrived from Balata Camp to Gaza last Saturday and made the Valentine’s Day be the day that witnesses their deep and passionate love that no occupation nor apartheid could kill. Absence diminishes small loves but increases great ones. In their case, over ten years of absence has made their love greater. I can’t tell you how beautiful they were in the wedding, like two love birds. I could tell from their eyes that they were like living a dream. They didn’t pay attention to the crowd of people who came from every part of the Gaza strip to witness their successful love story that has overcome all obstacles. Be happy Allam and Manar forever and bring revolutionary children just like you and keep teaching the world about Palestine, the land of love and struggle.


Palestine mourns another real legend, a symbol of motherhood

Anees and Akram's motherMy 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.


Another full year of pain in isolation for Ahmad Saadat

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.


Conditional Freedom

crowds ofthousands have greeted 210 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 210 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 blond 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!”

Exile

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.

 


A mother’s story: Om Fares

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 22 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)


Salama’s wife clings to fading hope

I had a one-hour break at university on Saturday, so I grabbed the chance to visit the Palestinian detainees’ solidarity tent by the Red Crossbuilding. Every day I go, I see the same people, whom I’ve started to feel are a part of me. When one of them is not there, I miss them, as I recently have spent more time with them than my family.As I arrived at the tent, I felt that there was something strange going on. I asked a friend what had happened earlier. She answered while pointing, “That woman, Najiyya, just fainted when she learned that her husband is not included in the swap deal.” I kept sympathetically following her with my eyes wherever she went. She lifted my spirits up as she walked toward me and sat in an empty chair next to me. She smiled at me, despite her sorrow. I wish she knew how much people like her give me indescribable spiritual power with their incredible strength and steadfastness. Seeing her smile again, while knowing that she was broken inside, brought life to me. I couldn’t help but smile back with a look of admiration and appreciation.

“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.