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Israels Torture Den

Khiam prison was a detention and interrogation camp during the years of the Israeli occupation in Southern Lebanon. From 1985 until the Israeli defeat in May 2000, thousands of Lebanese were held in Khiam without trial. Most of them were brutally tortured - some of them died.

The prisoners included members of the resistance, their relatives, civilians by the dozen whose crime was innocence, who would not collaborate with the Israelis or the SLA, who refused to join the murderous little militia, who declined to give the Israelis information about the Lebanese resistance.

Israel ran the prison using the militia they had created from the Maronite Christian community - the SLA. The SLA provided Khiams guards and interrogators whilst israelis held the top positions. They provided the training for the torturers and lead the torture sessions. They paid the salaries and provided all the equipment. They commanded, the SLA followed.

Men women and even several children were locked up without trail, some spent decades here.


Children Tortured

Ali Kashmar was fourteen when he became caught up in the conflict that was to cost him his youth. Ali was simply a schoolboy.

"I was like everyone else; all I could think about was playing. At that stage if I thought about the future at all it was about passing my exams and waiting for the results of my studies."

This picture was taken just two weeks before Ali disappeared from his family's life.

Ali Kashmar, aged 14, was imprisoned & tortured at Khiam

No one really seems to know why he was arrested. He thinks it may have been because he made anti-Israeli remarks in the school playground.

It happened the night he'd chosen to sleep alone for the first time.

"I thought that that night I'd become a man. I was asleep when suddenly I had guns pointed at me and my mother and sister were crying.

There were armed men everywhere - outside the windows, in the street and on the roof.

Ali Kashmar's Mother Sobiyeh:

"He got to the front door, hugged me and said goodbye Mother. I collapsed against the wall. After a while I looked around and he was gone. I ran outside and saw the cars speeding away."

It would be ten years before Ali was back here with his mother Sobiyeh.

In prison:

"Alone I fought with time. I thought about my parents and my friends. I got mange for five years because of a lack of cleanliness, so I used to spend my time scraping my scabs waiting for the time when they offered me food. I tried to sleep as much as possible to make the time pass."

Ali Kashmar was now seven years into his detention.

Ali Kashma's mother Sobiyeh without her son for 10 years

Each night his mother would lay an extra place at the table for her missing son. And as she went about those daily rituals that bind a family together, she was constantly reminded of the place that had swallowed him up.

The Kashmar family home is in the town of Khiam and from her roof she could see the prison.

"I used to take my cigarettes, go up to the roof and sit there. I used to imagine I was talking to Ali. I'd say; 'my son, my beloved son, what are you doing now, what are they doing to you, where have they put you?' I'd think that I was talking to him and that he was going to answer me. When the neighbours heard me they'd come to take me down."

The interrogators were looking for intelligence about anti-Israeli resistance operations. But after eleven days of torture in Khiam the fourteen year old Ali Kashmar, with no real secrets to tell, remembers desperately making things up.

"I tried to convince myself that I was someone important. I told myself I must be stupid, I probably am involved, I've probably done many things against them and worked for other people without being aware of it. In the end I made up story after story after story. Later my conscience started bothering me but I ignored it because I just couldn't think straight anymore."

The interrogators forgot about Ali, once they realised he had nothing to tell them. But there were no courts to rule on his guilt or innocence, no one to appeal to for release. So Khiam kept Ali anyway. Through his teens and into his twenties.

Freedom could be as arbitrary as detention. In 1998 in an exchange between Israel and Lebanon, fifty-five Khiam prisoners were freed and forty-four Lebanese corpses were handed over. The remains of three Israeli soldiers were delivered in return.

After a decade Ali Kashmar had served his purpose - one of those bargaining chips in this grim trade in the living and the dead.

Ali Kashmar upon release after 10 year of imprisonment without charge.
Compare this photo taken upon his release with the one aged 14 which
was taken just before his arrest. The years in between were lost at Khiam.

Ali Kashmar's Mother on seeing Ali after years or imprisonment:

"I stared at him and said to myself; 'this man has a beard, in my imagination my son was still a little boy'. I had never thought that he was grown up and had become a man. I stared at him . I wanted to say; 'why am I here, where's my son?' Then Ali said; 'Mother look at me, Mother it's me, Ali'. And he laughed. When I saw his smile I finally recognised him."

Mother and son reunited again after 10 years

Ali Kashmar on his release:

"For a month I heard but nothing but horns and voices, horns and traffic and cars. I tried to spend some time alone and sleep, to get used to the outside world step by step."

"I wanted to go down the street in my pyjamas but my parents told me this was an embarrassing thing to do. I couldn't understand why because in prison I always wore pyjamas."

Ali Kashmar about his imprisonment:

"If a person is free he can look in a mirror and see his appearance changing. In prison we had no means to look at ourselves. Once I saw a mirror in the guard's room, someone was reflected in it, so I looked back to see who it was. It turned out to be me. It was I moving in that mirror."

"It's really hard to summarise all that period in seconds. But I tell you something - when you die you die in a second but in that prison you died a hundred times every day."

Methods Of Torture

Ryadh Kalekesh comes from a family that was deeply involved in Hezbollah and its resistance against Israeli occupation - one of his brothers had been martyred as a "suicide" bomber.

He didn't have time to play much of an active role in the fighting himself. In the spring of 1986, when he was seventeen, Israeli troops made a sweep through his village and he went into hiding.

"When they caught me they started beating me and asking for information about saboteurs. I told them I didn't know any saboteurs. I'd come here to visit my grandparents and didn't have any weapons."

"I lost consciousness. They woke me up by beating me and throwing water on my face then they made me stand up, my hands and feet cuffed. They said; 'you will stay like this until we tell you to sit down'. I was standing the whole time with no food or water. Every fifteen minutes I'd start to collapse. This lasted for six or seven hours, throughout that time they were interrogating and beating me."

Ryadh Kalekesh - tortured

In prison, Ryadh Kalekesh:

"I told the guard that I needed to go to the lavatory. He said; 'no, urinate in your cell'. They gave us hardly any food, so a long time passed before we defecated. I used to defecate once every fifteen or twenty days. Many detainees were like me. As for urinating, I used to urinate on the floor, I had no choice."

Most of the questioning was done in the interrogation rooms and the process could last for months.

In evidence from the detainees the same stories keep coming up. Most endured electric shocks administered by attaching wires to the fingertips, the tongue or the genitals.

Ryadh Kalekesh:

"They electrocuted me, choosing a particularly sensitive place. I used to lose consciousness and wake up to find myself stumbling blindly in my room. During the interrogation the Israelis were there all the time torturing me that way."

New prisoners quickly became familiar with what they called 'the pole'. Hooded and handcuffed to the ironwork, often naked, they were beaten, doused in hot then cold water or simply left to hang here for hours with their toes just touching the ground.


Whole Families Tortured

Sometimes whole families would be drawn in. The Kalekesh's were a natural target for attention. With one brother Ryadh detained in Khiam and a second martyred in a "suicide" bomb attack, a third brother, Adel, came home from abroad to join Hezbollah.

In 1993 Adel was arrested and taken to Khiam too. When he proved tough under torture his wife was pulled in as well.

Mona, pregnant at the time, was subjected to utmost torture

Three members of the same family were now within Khiam's walls. Mona was pregnant with their first child at the time. Her interrogator played her against her husband and her husband against her.

Mona recalls:

"They beat my husband and made me listen to him screaming. They also made me listen to Ryadh scream while he was beaten. They used this method for a while but they didn't get anything from me."

The women's section of the prison was smaller than the men's but some of them were tortured just as badly.

"He beat me and attached the electrodes to my nipples. Then all I remember is that I was screaming."

Mona spent a total of three months in solitary confinement. After one day long interrogation she was taken to hospital. When she returned after being patched up the torture resumed.

"He lay on the bed and started, I don't know how to tell this, he started masturbating. At that moment I was really terrified. He approached me while I was sitting on a chair and tried to rub his body against me. That moment was the only one when I felt really vulnerable. I felt that he was trying to take something from me. Then I started crying."

Mona lost her baby in Khiam. Her husband Adel may never be able to father another child because of the way he was tortured there.


The Tools Of Torture

Robert Fisk, a British journalist, describes what he saw at Khiam during a visit days after its liberation:

The torturers had just left but the horror remained. There was the whipping pole and the window grilles where prisoners were tied naked for days, freezing water thrown over them at night. Then there were the electric leads for the little dynamo - the machine mercifully taken off to Israel by the interrogators - which had the inmates shrieking with pain when the electrodes touched their fingers or penises. And there were the handcuffs which an ex-prisoner handed to me yesterday afternoon.

An ex-prisoner demonstrates how "the pole" was used

Engraved into the steel were the words: "The Peerless Handcuff Co. Springfield, Mass. Made in USA." And I wondered, in Israel's most shameful prison, if the executives over in Springfield knew what they were doing when they sold these manacles.

They were used over years to bind the arms of prisoners before interrogation. And they wore them, day and night, as they were kicked - kicked so badly in Sulieman Ramadan's case that they later had to amputate his arm. Another prisoner was so badly beaten, he lost the use of a leg. I found his crutch in Khiam prison yesterday, along with piles of Red Cross letters from prisoners -- letters which the guards from Israel's now-defunct "South Lebanon Army" militia never bothered to forward.

"I was hung here naked for 13 days,"

Abdullah Attiyeh told me as we walked along a dirty passageway beside the wall of the old French mandate fort.

"They put a bag on my head and threw cold water over me night and day."

The hoods were still there, big light-blue corduroy sacks with towels inside -- some of the towels bought from Norwegian Unifil soldiers because the UN globe was embroidered on some of them -- and so was the wire with which other prisoners, including women, were beaten. Big, thick wire bound in blue plastic. The torturers were sadistic, often stupid men. There were pornographic magazines and cheap comics and puzzle books in their filthy quarters. Israel has admitted teaching these men how to do their job.

Ibrahim Kalash was allowed a bath once every 40 days.

"If we spilt water on the floor, they used to make us lick it clean," he said.

Khiam prison surrounded by minefields

Abdullah Attiyeh was asked why they didn't escape:

"You're surprised we didn't escape? Four men did. One made it, another was shot, another captured and the fourth blew himself up on a mine and lost a leg and an eye."

Around the prison there are minefields galore.

"An Israeli officer came here and told the SLA men 'Destroy everything that is green', That is why there are no trees, just long grass with mines."

UN Stayed Silent

The screams of the prisoners being tortured could be heard from the UN post

Khiam wasn't entirely isolated from the outside world. From the prison yard you can see the blue flag of the United Nations snapping in the Mediterranean breeze.

There was a UN post within sight and hearing of Khiam throughout its time as a detention and interrogation centre.

But they did nothing - "the UN contingent here are supposed to be observing Lebanon's border with Israel, it's not part of the mandate to act on whatever may or may not have seen or heard beyond the prison walls."


Confessions Of A Prison Guard

Tanios Nahra was a guard at Khiam from 1985 until 1987 - years which saw some of the worst excesses.

Tanios Nahra, Khiam Prison Guard

Tanios Nahra:

"There was this old field telephone they used to wind manually, the wires were tied to the detainee's fingers and could produce as much power as your mains at home. If you crank it quickly the detainee might lose consciousness so it's better to crank it slowly - that way the detainee suffers more."

Do you remember seeing Israeli officers present while electric shock treatment was being administered or while people were on the pole?

"They weren't just present; they themselves hung people on the pole and electrocuted them. The Lebanese interrogators imitated the Israelis because they were in charge. The Israelis were present less often but as for torture they were even worse."


Confessions Of A Nurse

When prisoners did get medical attention, they were brought to the Israeli run Marjayoun Hospital.

Marjayoun Hospital where tortured prisoners were sometimes brought

None of the staff would talk openly about what they saw when prisoners were brought in. One nurse did agree to speak if her identy was concealed.


"They were brought here with bags on their heads, even if they had asthma. They would be dragged in here hooded and handcuffed. The guard would torture them. When prisoners rang he would verbally abuse them and beat them. Then he'd lock the door and wouldn't let anyone come in. The guard sometimes used to stub his cigarettes out on the patients."

The medical files at Marjayoun Hospital provide one of the very few sources of written evidence about what happened at Khiam prison. The prisoners are listed not by their family names but by their prison numbers and these paint a pretty grim picture of the condition some of them were in when they were brought here. The diagnoses include trauma to the head, broken limbs, injured testicles, several miscarriages, gunshot wounds and one patient is recorded as having multiple trauma.


Conditions In The Cells

Six prisoners would be held in dark cells little more than six feet square. They went weeks without washing and were allowed into light for exercise only once a month.

Prisoners were only allowed into the light once a month

Hunger strikes about conditions were commonplace. A spell in solitary was often the punishment.

These punishment cells were just concrete boxes less than a metre wide apart from a tiny ventilation shaft at the top. They had no toilets and only a few were big enough to lie down in. It wasn't just hours or days that prisoners spent in these, many of them were there for weeks even months in solitary and one detainee said he did a seven month stretch.

How to survive when locked up for years in solitary confinement between the four walls of a 1m 80 by 80 cell; or when six people have to share a 2.25 by 2.25 m room.

Deprived of the most basic necessities, the prisoners recreated them, picking up secretly and hiding bits of string, wood and stone, cheese wrappers, olive stones, garbage. That is how they contrived to produce secretly a neele, a pencil, strings of prayer beads made of olive stones...

Prisoners secretly produced works of art from garbage

Prayer beads from olive stones ... a comb from drift wood

The prisoners used their walls as canvases for expressing themselves. In the women's section there is a drawing of a fish with a heart attached to it and a painting of six white horses running over a darkened field. There was a picture of Father Christmas taken from a chocolate wrapper. And names.

"Zeina Koutash,
born 3/9/79, arrested 7/5/99, released 3/1/2000."

There were the names of Rana Awada and Ismahan Ali Khalil, only 19 when she was dragged to this awful place by the SLA.

"How many drops of blood have been spilt on our soil and have not flowered?"

she wrote on the wall, along with two words.

"Remember me."

In the mens section, Abu Ahlan had written on his wall:

"Lebanon is ours and for our children after us."


School Teacher Tortured To Death

Nowhere, it seems, was beyond Khiam's reach. This head teacher of a school was picked up in 1986.

School Head TeacherAbdullah Hamzi, father of three children,
was tortured to death at Khiam prison

Abdullah Hamzi had made no secret of his opposition to the Israeli occupation. But his family insist he wasn't part of the guerrilla campaign against Israel.

He left a wife and three children behind when he was taken away by Israeli soldiers one February dawn. They had no idea what became of him once he'd gone.

Feyrouz Hamzi:

"We went crazy, we lost our minds. We used to ask and ask and ask and make enquiries; 'do you know where they've taken him?' We couldn't find him. Some said they'd killed him, others said he was still here, some said he was taken to Israel. Some said they'd put him in a cell alone."

Feyrouz Hamzi, widow of murdered teacher Abdullah Hamzi

What Feyrouz and her children didn't know is that she was already a widow, they were already orphans. Abdullah Hamzi was killed within three weeks of arriving in Khiam.

The events of that night unfolded in earshot of Ryadh Kalekesh's cell. He recalls:

"He kept shouting; 'there are no charges against me, this is unjust and unfair'. He banged on the door demanding to be released. Then the guards took him out, handcuffed him, hung him on the pole and beat him. When he died at their hands the guards started blaming each other for the death of Abdullah Hamzi."

For three and a half years, oblivious of the truth, Feyrouz walked the thirty miles to Khiam carrying clothes and food to the husband she believed was being held there.

For three and a half years Feyrous walked the 30 miles to bring food
and cloths for her husband who, unknown to her, was already dead

She eventually learnt what had happened from detainees who were released.

But even now this family's Khiam story isn't quite over.

Feyrouz Hamzi:

"We want his body so we can bury him. We want to know where he is. We'll never give up our fight to bring him back. This is what we're demanding, even if it costs us our lives, we want his body back."

Abdullah Hamzi died in the spring of 1986.

In 1989 two prisoners were killed during a protest - the guards threw tear gas into their windowless cells.

Another three are believed to have lost their lives as a result of torture. Two prisoners simply disappeared and altogether at least fourteen people are believed to have died in this detention centre or not long after leaving it. The full toll isn't known for certain.

Israel Defeated By Hizbullah

The final act unravelled faster than anyone could have anticipated. In May 2000 Israeli troops scrambled out of southern Lebanon with Hezbollah forces hard on their heels.

Israeli Army, defeated and humiliated by Hizbullah,
scramble out of Lebanon in the cover of darkness

Twenty-two years of occupation were over. Hezbollah and their allies were victorious. Without Israeli support the SLA simply melted away.

Hizbullah is victorious

Crowds enter Khiam Prison and freed the prisoners

The first sight of freedom:
Cries of 'Allah O Akbar' - God is Greater

Prisoners being freed as the prison echos of 'Allah O Akbar'


Free but its not over

One of those freed that final day was Ryadh Kalekesh:

"My mind was racing. A thousand thoughts went through my mind. I felt fear and euphoria at the same time. I wanted to find the girl who'd been faithful to me and was waiting for me."

As towns and villages all over southern Lebanon welcomed home their local heroes, Ryadh Kalekesh had something more to celebrate.

He and Nada fell in love as teenagers. They got engaged just before his detention and she waited for him throughout those fourteen years and four months.

Nada recalls:

"Everyone was greeting him but I wasn't there. He was looking for me. When we finally found each other I fainted. I woke up to hear him saying; 'it's me, Ryadh, I'm here, wake up'. I looked at him and my tears started running. He hugged me and put me in the car. This was our meeting, it was a strange feeling."

Nada engaged to Ryadh waited for 14 years while he was imprisoned

But the years Ryadh Kalekesh spent in Khiam have left their mark. The electric shock torture did long term damage - he's had six operations on his genitals over the past five months.

His doctor says almost all the long term detainees from Khiam he's examined have eye problems because of the conditions they were kept in.

Ali Kashmar suffers frequent panic attacks. His mother says he desperately needs help he's not getting.

Ali Kashmar still suffers frequent panic attacks, his mother attends him

Ali Kashmar's mother confides:

"He feels anxiety. He asks me to sit by his side and says; 'I feel a pressure in my body that wants to escape'. He remains like that all day. Sometimes he spends three or four days or even a week asleep. He does nothing but eat, go to the toilet and sleep. He slips into a state of drowsiness."

Khiam is now a place of pilgrimage. At weekends hundreds of people crowd through the buildings.

Entrance of Khiam Prison after liberation

Their guides, who saw so much suffering here, want justice.

There are those who believe that for the sake of reconciliation Khiam's story should be allowed to slip quietly into history, especially at this sensitive moment in Middle East politics.

But there are also those for whom forgetting is not an option.

Ali Kashmar is still a prisoner of his memories. Ali is asked: When you stand here and look at the prison what goes through your mind?

Ali Kashmar cannot reply, he shakes his head and walks away.

So what has become of those who are guilty of this crime?

The people of Israel have elected him, Sharon who led the brutal invasion of Lebanon and is responsible for these war crimes, as their Prime Minister. His lackeys the SLA torturers who escaped Lebanon, today enjoy holiday apartments with Mediterranean views as guests of the state of Israel.




This article relies on the work of several journalists and reporters for which we are grateful:

Most of the interviews and images are taken from the BBC Correspondent Series episode titled "Israel Accused" which was broadcast on 4th November 2000 (44 min). The reporter was Edward Stourton.

The description of the torture den came from Robert Fisk's article "Inside a torturers' den, manacles lie abandoned" which appeared in the Independent Newspaper on 25th May 2000.

Part of the description of the prison cells came from Hilary Andersons BBC News report on Khiam Prison which was broadcast on May 27th 2000.
Details of how the prisoners spent their time locked up deprived of the most basic necessities, and the images of their artwork originates from the introduction to the film Khiam by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige (Lebanon/2001/Video/52 min).

© 2002