Layla was the first of four female political prisoners I met and wasn’t the kind of person I’d expected. I’d expected someone more withdrawn and wary of my curiosity. I’d anticipated having to initially gain her trust before carefully encouraging information from her. So when she came bounding in to the women’s centre, in which we were meeting, I immediately relaxed.
The centre eventually cleared of women and we were able to sit in the kitchen and talk. ‘So, what do you want to know?’ she asked me. I’d prepared a list of questions but found that after I’d asked her the first- ‘When were you arrested?’ I simply had to keep up with her account of her time in prison.
It was 2004 and she was in her third year of Psychology at university… “The soldiers came at 2.30am, and shot the living room lamp from outside with a silent gun,” she began. “My dad went outside to see what they wanted but they’d come for me. They asked for my ID and searched me. When they pulled me by the jacket I protested and so they pushed me onto the ground and pointed a gun at me.”
Her and her mum were then handcuffed and blindfolded and their legs chained. “We were made to walk for a long time, over an hour, and very quickly so that the iron rubbed our ankles. The soldiers were swearing at us, calling us disgusting things and so we argued with them, telling them that they had no right calling us such words. I only realised there was a dog with them when I put my hands down and they touched the top of its head”. By the time they arrived at Hawara, a checkpoint outside of Nablus, it was morning and they were put in separate rooms. When she described the room, she pulled a face as though remembering a bad smell, ‘It was filthy and had bits of old food in it. It was tiny too, about that size [pointing to the small toilet]”. She was worried about her mum but, after questioning her, the informers told her that that she wasn’t allowed to see her.
At 1.30 pm she was put in the back of a van and her head touched the low roof. She arrived at Tilmond prison in Netanya, Israel, exhausted and not hearing well. Tests were carried out on her before she was put into solitary confinement. She was given food but didn’t eat it- “I was afraid it was poisoned”. She was later put into a cell and though there was just a low iron bedframe with no mattress she managed to sleep for six hours.
After two weeks she was taken to a court in Ramallah but this didn’t help shed any light on the reasons as to why she was in prison. She and her lawyer, who she met for the first time that day, were simply told that the information was secret and she was given six months inside.
“The little food that there was, was horrible, I wasn’t allowed to write letters or get visitors and there were lots of punishments”. She told me of a ‘doctor’ that would come with the soldiers and hit them, put them to sleep or spray them with water from a hose. “There was no proper medical treatment. For any illness you just got given antibiotics.”
When six months came to an end she went back to court. She expected to be set free but instead was simply given the same spiel about ‘secret files’ and another six months inside. When those six months finally came to an end she was given a document in Hebrew to sign to say that she wouldn’t be active in the resistance. “I signed it because I just wanted to get out of there”.
Back at university, after having spent a year in prison, she found it difficult to concentrate and failed two terms. “I took some time to get myself together and then focused and thankfully succeeded.”
Her time in prison also affected her freedom to travel and she was frequently stopped at checkpoints and prevented from going to Ramallah, the main city and thoroughfare in the West Bank.
I tried to get to the root of why she might have been imprisoned and she told me she’d been an activist for Fatah. Now, I know of plenty of people who’ve been taken for being involved in Hamas but, since Fatah is the more moderate of the two main parties, to be imprisoned for a year for being one of its activists seems more than a bit strange.
But I started to get the sense that people were simply imprisoned on a whim. The crime of the next woman I met – administrating a facebook page that raised awareness of those imprisoned and reported their ‘crimes’, illnesses and hunger strikes.
Ayah began by setting the scene and it became clear she’d told the story many times before… “I remember the day perfectly as it was the day before Mothers’ Day. I got back late because I’d been shopping for a present and because I was tired I went straight to bed without greeting my Mum who was living above. Then at 2.30am the soldiers came into the house with dogs and turned the place upside down. They asked my family at which computer I sat. My sister came into the room to tell me the soldiers had come for me.”
They told her to dress and to come with them. She wasn’t scared but her mum was livid – “You’re taking another of my children?” she’d screamed at the soldiers.
They took Ayah to Hawara… “I didn’t know where I was going. I was scared for my mother and what had happened to her. They gave me food but I didn’t eat it”. Again the fear that it would be poisoned and I began to wonder if instead of ‘Don’t take sweets from strangers’, the rule in Palestinian is ‘Don’t take sweets from soldiers’.
“When they interrogated me, they asked me what party I was but I just said ‘I am Ayah and I am Palestinian’. They told me that I wanted to do an operation and that they were afraid because my brother was in prison.”
They then took her to Askalon prison, in which her brother was imprisoned, and thus she became the first female Palestinian prisoner to be put in a male prison, though she was left on her own in a 2m by 1m box of a cell. She was never hit but she recounts that the psychological torture of being so close to her brother but unable to see him was worse than anything, and when her family came to visit her brother she wasn’t allowed to see them.
She then went to court but since she hadn’t done anything they had nothing to charge her on. However, they said she was wanted and moved her to another cell.
“I could just remember the sight of my mum in court. I hadn’t been allowed to speak to her but the look on her face stayed with me for days”.
Her tale reminded me of a dream I once had in which a crazy devil monster was picking individuals at random from people lined up against the edges of a hall, and giving a running commentary as he ate them alive. It came to my turn and, as I was begging for my life, I turned to see my mum’s face as she witnessed what was happening to me. And her expression was the most terrifying part of the dream by far. Of course, it was only a dream and so I’m able to tell the tale with a grin. When talking to Amina however I found myself asking her if she wanted to stop her recount.
“No, no, it’s fine,” she assured me, wiping her eyes. “The only thing I really feared,” and now what was almost a smirk replaced the sadness, “were the cockroaches, which were all over the cell.”
For the ten days she was in prison she wasn’t allowed any calls or visits. She also chose not to eat or drink the whole time, and so also became the first Palestinian woman to go on hunger strike for the duration of the time she was taken.
When they let her go, she collected her things but had no money. “I asked them how I was supposed to get home without any money and they put me on the prison bus that takes people back to the West Bank. It was the middle of the night and I didn’t know where we were when they pushed me off the bus. But then I found out I was near Hebron – that’s three hours away from my home. I’d been expecting to see my family waiting for me but I couldn’t see anyone I knew. They left me – a woman, on my own at night, three hours from my home without any money!”
Fortunately people recognised her as Ayah, who’d been on hunger strike in prison, and helped her get home.
“You don’t appreciate freedom until it’s been taken away,” she said. Ironic words for someone who had been released back into a life under occupation.
I asked her if she’d continued her activity on Facebook or if she was now afraid to do so. “We have a saying her in Palestine,” she told me. “If Acre was afraid of the sea it wouldn’t sit on the shore.”
And that was one of the few times in my life I’ve been star struck. Footballers and singers really don’t interest me but the first female Palestinian prisoner to go on hunger strike – well that’s true celebrity status. That night they invited me to eat with them (refusal of course not actually being an option) and I hung around in the kitchen making poor jokes about the washing up and small talk on Palestinian laws.
But an even stronger woman was to come. Before she told me her story I had to confirm that I wasn’t a Jew living in Palestine and that I agreed with the right to return. I had to swallow a reminder of the sins Granddad Balfour committed and my attempt to shed some of the blame off onto the UN was blocked. But I warmed to her when she told me of the conference she’d been to that day in which they’d forced a rude minister to leave: “This was a minister and he told someone to stop barking like a dog!”
Her run-ins with the soldiers seemed to have become habitual since the first time they took her she was 18 and in her first year of Politics, “They took me from the door of the university to a centre in Nablus. When I told the soldier it was my legal right to be with a woman, he hit me”. She was interrogated for a month and then put under house arrest, having to return home before 8pm every day.
She completed university and then set off to Jordan in search of work but was stopped at the bridge. They at first refused her entry before taking a U-turn and deciding to expel her abroad for four years, during which time her father died.
Another time, now back in Palestine, the soldiers came and hit her 13 year-old brother in front of her before taking them both to the police station and taking their IDs. Since at this time there were many checkpoints throughout the town, each of which would have made her and her brother wait for at least half an hour while they contacted the station to ask where their IDs where, they decided it would be quicker to walk all the way around the city.
But it was the most recent time she was taken, in which she delved into more detail…
It was December 2009, and so in the middle of the cold Palestinian winter. At 1am she heard the sound of the soldiers outside and so quickly dressed and closed her phone and computer, as had become automatic. Yet within seconds they shone a laser into the room, smashing the mirror, and were entering: “I was afraid and stayed sat still. They opened the door on their own and proceeded to break everything in the room. They then asked me if I was Naveen and I said I was”. They then asked her who was in the other room and, after being told it was her mum and the young children, made them sit outside on the ground in the cold. They brought in the female soldier to strip search Naveen: “They treat the women just as harshly as they treat the men.”
Her brother had only just got out of prison and one of his kids cried “I don’t get to see my father much. Let him stay longer.” Their mum, resigned to the fact that her children would be taken, shouted “Take one and then when they’ve been released come and take the other”.
“Everyone was crying,” continued Naveen, “Me and my brother couldn’t look my mother in the eye”.
They were both blindfolded and “led like animals” from the house. She shouted at the neighbours to look after her mum and she was then separated from her brother. “It was raining and though the soldiers were warm in their clothes, I was freezing, still in my mum’s sandals that I’d hurriedly put on, and the chains were rubbing”. When they asked her anything, she kept stubbornly silent. For hours she was driven around in the car. “I could tell we were just going round and round Nablus,” she said, laughing, “because the roads were bumpy.”
Eventually she was taken to Hawara and was made to stand outside in the middle of the night in the freezing cold. “I started walking up and down to try and keep warm but was careful to stop before the soldiers at each end. I was freezing and finally yelled at them in English, ‘You’re Zionists! I’m a woman! Put me in a room!’”. After more time stood in the cold, the men were eventually put in a room and she was put back in the van.
“Then they put me in a communications centre (I could tell because of the sound of typing and phones) and made to sit on a stool, with my hands tied underneath it, until the morning. All the soldiers were men and there was no food, no water and no toilet.”
They then tried to put her in ‘Dead Frozen’ – the name Palestinians have given to the bus that is used to transport people between prisons, due to its freezing temperatures. “But I refused to get on. I told them I was on my period and that I wanted pads, medicine and a bathroom. And what do you think they did then?”
I at first thought her question was rhetorical and so didn’t reply but then after a moment’s silence realised she was waiting for an answer, “Er, me? What do I think?” I spluttered. I really had no idea what to say and so suggested the obvious, “They refused and hit you?”
“No. Much worse than that,” she informed me, “They laughed and one man said ‘Let the blood go on your body’”.
After sometime in which she refused to get on the bus, the captain came and let her go but the other soldiers kept on laughing and dancing and singing around her. She didn’t want to take the medicine in case it was poisoned and so told them that she wanted to take it later and put it in her pocket. “The toilet was exposed and there was a soldier staring right at me in an attempt to make me shy, so I just pulled my pants right down, which she wasn’t expecting, and that made her turn away”.
She then got on the bus and five, “or maybe even ten”, hours later arrived at Tilmond prison – “My ears hurt from the low roof and the air con that had been blasting cold air at me. I was taken to a doctor but he was just a military informant. Everyone was laughing – they were happy a woman had been brought there.” She was then put in isolation. The cell was mucky, smelt bad and there was water all over the floor. There was a bunk bed with a thin mattress on each bed but no blankets and so she placed one mattress on top of the other on the floor and sat on them with her jacket wrapped around her. “But the tap was broken and wouldn’t stop dripping. The constant dripping was driving me crazy.”
That night the soldiers were having a party… “It was really loud and the soldiers were banging on the doors. At 10pm a big Russian female soldier came in and told me I was with Hamas, which wasn’t true. They then put me in a different room. I was still freezing and hadn’t eaten. The water was cold and this was the middle of winter!” She then turned to Layla, who was with me, and they momentarily reminisced about the state of the showers, laughing about how it was hard to have a proper shower because the water came out at horizontal angles.
Naveen spent 13 days in prison and was taken every day in ‘Dead Frozen’ to the interrogation centre to be questioned from 7.30am until 1.30pm. She twice saw a lawyer but it was in a room with cameras and they were separated by a window so that they had to talk through a phone. The Israelis could therefore hear everything that was said.
She told me that she hadn’t done anything except ‘exercising her right to resist’ – being an activist for prisoners and working for the women’s union. “They want information and they think women will talk but now I’m even stronger because I know the occupation is just empty words.”
And then I met Heba, who was really not the kind of woman I had expected.
The other three women had had a certain powerful aura about them. They seemed very self-sure and though their ordeals had been horrific, I felt that they had only been strengthened by them. Heba, on the other hand, held herself as if she would happily have the ground swallow her up. She spoke so quickly I could only snatch words and had completed her story within a minute, skipping the dramatic entering of the soldiers that the others had been so careful to include. It was only by getting her to clarify bits of her story that I got a clear picture of what had happened…
Like usual, the soldiers had entered in the early hours of the morning – 2.30am to be precise. They had then proceeded to throw everything onto the ground. Her youngest son was crying and her mother was lying on the floor. She and her 15 year old son were taken and put in the same prison but in different sections. After five days she was able to see him, “He didn’t know I was in prison too and couldn’t see that I was just wearing sandals, and so was asking where the rest of the family were. It took some time before he finally understood I was in prison. I was then allowed to see him once a month. Oh, how I wept!”
I asked her how they were treated in prison – “If someone did something like attempted a hunger strike they would be put in isolation for three or four days. Normally we were let out for an hour each day to walk around. I was never hit but for any illness they just gave you antibiotics and when my tooth hurt I wasn’t given a dentist and so it got worse”. She showed me her tooth that was now black.
I asked her why her son had been put in prison and she told me it was for being a terrorist involved in a suicide operation. I wondered, at 15, what role he could have possibly taken in an operation and, since I knew of children shot for simply throwing stones, decided to find out exactly what part he’d played. Apparently he’d got involved in a group of older boys who planned a suicide attack in Tel Aviv but had left the group before they did anything and was in Nablus when the attack happened. “When they interrogated me, they told me that I’d been involved too but I told them that I hate such groups and disagree with older boys getting youngsters involved”.
After 13 months she was released – “I waited outside the prison for him and was calling his name. I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving without him. When I found out he was going to be in prison for 20 years I couldn’t speak for four days.”
She now gets to see him once every six months but the first time she went the soldiers at the prison prevented her from seeing him.
“The suffering, oh the suffering,” she exclaimed. “Twenty years is hard on the tongue but here [and she pressed her fist against her chest], here it’s difficult.”
She then repeated to me what she’d told her interrogators, “I’m against youngsters being in such groups. They don’t know anything about politics and then older boys go and get them involved. How have I benefited from this?!”
She added that they’re now struggling with thousands of dollars of lawyers’ fees, though the lawyer has done nothing for them and has even tried preventing her from seeing her son in prison. She also explained to me how they Israelis have since told her that she said she didn’t want to appeal against the court’s decision, “but how could I have said that when I was in prison?!”
Her son is currently 23 and so still has 12 years of prison to go. I realised that what had at first looked like weakness was in fact exhaustion from 8 years of pain and struggle and was reminded of what one women’s centre told me – that though life is hard inside, those imprisoned come to accept it and adjust but for the mother, wife or sister who is left to battle on, the situation is actually much harder.
Layla’s family dropped me off at home and, in the car, asked me if I was happy. It seemed a strange question to ask after meeting such a person and hearing such a tale and so I just said that it had been useful but that the stories had been sad. An understatement if ever there was one. That night I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and I turned, I even tried imagining a ‘relaxing place’, but the women’s stories just played over and over in my mind. I tried listening to music but all the lyrics reminded me of things I’d heard.
I felt like a fly on the wall of a torture chamber built by Granddad Balfour.