17 April 2011

Narratives Behind Locked Doors (9)

Fairouz Afaf at her workplace, the Red Crescent library in Gaza City.

Fairouz Afaf: A Former Prisoner Discusses Israeli Prison Conditions in the 1970s

Fairouz Afaf was born in 1948 in the Daraj area of Gaza City. While a student in secondary school in the 1970s, she was arrested three times and spent a total of 18 months in the Israeli-administered Saraya prison in Gaza City. Sitting in an office at the Red Crescent library, where she has been working for the past 30 years, Fairouz told PCHR researchers about her experience as a female political prisoner forty years ago, how improvements in prison conditions were brought about by the prisoners themselves, and how she evaluates the situation of Palestinian prisoners today.

"The first time I was arrested was on 24 December 1970. I was in high school and active with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). It was at night, the Israeli soldiers arrested me like they arrested the men. They surrounded the house with soldiers and there were even some tanks a little further away. Then they came in suddenly and told me I was under arrest. Then they blindfolded me and took me to the Gaza City prison in As-Saraya. On the way, they shackled me, they insulted me, and beat me. One soldier kicked me in the neck. At the prison, they put foul-smelling bags over our heads. They were the same kind you can see in the pictures from Abu Ghraib today. In the cold weather, they sprayed us with very cold water, and then very hot water, then cold again… this was one of the ways they tortured us. They forced us into the 'Shabeh' position. Sometimes they made us hold heavy objects; soldiers would stand next to us to make sure we stayed in the same position for up to three days. They would also tear out the hair of the female prisoners with their hands – and then hand it to the prisoners."

A prolonged period of interrogation followed: "each day a new investigator came, and each one treated me worse than the one before." Female prisoners were threatened: "They said 'If you do not confess, we will tear off you clothes!' Or, 'We will take and torture your relatives.' They also had a particular kind of humiliation for women, the full strip search." Fairouz was put on trial and convicted to one year in prison for membership in the PFLP. "There was no significant difference in the treatment I received before the trial and afterwards," she says. "There was a slight improvement, but the torture continued." The Red Cross was only allowed to visit her after the sentence. "We were not allowed to make telephone calls and only later on did the Red Cross facilitate an exchange of letters. We had to write our message on a very small piece of paper with a limited number of lines. Then our relatives would write back to us on the back of the small piece of paper. But we were not allowed to keep the letters: if the guards found the paper, they would tear it up in front of our eyes. This was our only means of communication. It was very hard because we were in Gaza, so close to our normal lives, our families, but so isolated from everything. We were not allowed to read books, magazines, or newspapers in the 70s. At 4 pm, we were permitted to listen to the radio for a bit – a few Fayrouz songs, the news, and that was that."

At the Gaza prison, women were incarcerated separately from the men. "We were about 60 women who had been arrested for political activities. Twenty of us were from Fatah and the rest were from the Popular Front. Not all of them were members. Some were just supporters. At that time, there was no political fragmentation. The cells in prison were very small. A single cell was about 1 meter by 0.5 meter, a room for up to 30 female prisoners was 5 by 4 meters wide. There was very bad ventilation, no windows and no sunlight. All the walls were black and the blankets smelled badly. There was only a very thin mattress with no sheets or covers. Sometimes they turned on extremely bright lights, they made me dizzy. The food we were served was very bad. This was before prisoners were allowed to prepare their own food. Sometimes we did not know what it was. We were given the leftovers after the soldiers had finished eating."

Remembering the conditions in prison during her time, Fairouz reflects on the fact that much has changed in the last 40 years, and she attributes this mainly to the achievements of a prisoners' movement. "We had to fight for the smallest rights at that time. For instance, we went on a 15-day hunger strike just to get a toothbrush. We fought for shampoo, for warm showers. When we got these things, they were highly rationed. There were developments in this respect in the 1970s: The first time I was in prison, we were not allowed underwear, when I was imprisoned for the second time, it was allowed. Thanks to the strikes, books and clothes are now allowed to be brought in. But it is still not guaranteed that prisoners can keep them. But even now, when prisoners can have books and watch TV, they still suffer immensely – both physically and mentally. Many people continue to suffer from problems after they are released. When I myself was released, I had bad stomach pains for a long time, and I developed breast cancer. These were results of the conditions in prison, especially the medical negligence. Even if some of the conditions are better now, the Israeli occupation still has the same methods of torture."

She was arrested again in 1974 and 1976 and in both situations she was kept in solitary confinement for three months without a charge or trial. "The later arrests were like the first one. They came in the middle of the night from my home." It was not until after her final release from prison that Fairouz was able to continue her university studies. She had hoped to attend university in Beirut but did not receive permission from Israel to travel to Lebanon. She explained, "This was often the case at the time – if someone had been in prison, they made it difficult for him to get a job or to get an education." She attended Islamic University instead.

In the days when Fairouz was imprisoned, it was not acceptable for women to take part in the struggle. "People did not understand. They thought we should stay at home and have children. At the time, there was very little media coverage about the issue of prisoners in general, and female prisoners specifically. This is different today. After prisoners' associations were formed, books were written and more attention was given to the topic. There are many organizations that honor the female prisoners, they organize celebrations when they are released and give them presents. I have received many awards and honors from various organizations." Fairouz herself is part of an association for female ex-prisoners. "We meet regularly and discuss different topics. We all keep a diary. I wrote this notebook filled with my memories of my time in prison. Whenever I remember something, I write it down. It is important to document all the suffering for the future generations, to preserve the legacy of the Palestinian revolution." They hope to publish their writings one day.

Source: Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), 17 April 2011

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