From Sarajevo to Atsioun: Long Live Freedom

The journalist Omar Nazzal tells the story of his unexpected detention between April 2016 and February 2017 as he made his way to Sarajevo to participate in a conference of the Union of European Journalists. He was arrested because of his previous journalistic work, and of his defence of those journalists who are repeatedly assaulted by Israel. “The interrogator said to me: ‘My questions are not accusations, but mere suspicions based on information we have. This interrogation session was the first and last during the whole period of my detention.’

He talks about the journey of torment which began with his being conveyed, blindfolded, hands chained, through the Al-Karama Crossing to the Atsioun detention centre, before being moved to Ofer prison.

He draws with his elegant journalistic style, coloured with the warmth of his feeling, images in words of his life and that of his pals and colleagues in the Atsioun detention centre and Ofer prison, admitting the reader into his world, to witness, watch and learn.

We accompany Omar Nazzal in his voyage of suffering and resistance, from his transfer to the courts of Ofer in a special vehicle designed for a specific purpose, labelled the ‘grave rehearsal’, to the last days spent in Ofer prison before he was released.

He speaks about the philosophy of prison administration, based on a quadripartite: isolation, oppression, deprivation and constraint, which aims at suffocating the detainees, in the hope of defeating them.

He also speaks of the philosophy of the prisoners/freedom seekers which depends on a quadripartite: resistance, determination, imagination, cooperation, which aims at giving the detainees inner strength in the hope of defeating the aggressor.

‘The difference between life and living is great. If one is obliged to live in a prison, one needs to get rid of the prison inside oneself.’

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How do the detainees get rid of the prison inside themselves?  They plant a broad bean seedling; it grows, and hope grows with it.

“Abu Mina was able to collect a handful of soil, grain by grain, over several months, sometimes from the roots of onions, until he had enough to put in a small plastic jar. In this he placed six broad beans, four of which flowered, growing centimetre by centimetre, indeed millimetre by millimetre.” They all took great care of the plant, and took turns in guarding it with their lives. However, those assassins of life were there, watching.  A green plant, suggestive of life and hope, was among the most forbidden. The green plant was confiscated. ‘However, we are and will not be defeated. A week later, another plant was and still is growing sturdily.’

They communicate with loved ones through the ‘Ghazzal’. “You climb up onto the back of the ‘Ghazzal’, you listen and speak. You ask how they are. You ask about their health and studies, or anything else. The answers come through, brief and unsatisfactory. There is no time for lengthy minutiae. They ask a question and you say: I’m well. What about you? But you are not well.

“Do not ask me what a ‘Ghazzal’ is. It’s forbidden. Asking about it is forbidden. And an answer that addresses the nature of it is even more forbidden.”

They create and shine in their creation, thus bypassing all forms of prevention and deprivation.

“The juice of socks is used sometimes as an expression of mockery and amusement. But there was such an incident in Ofer prison, and the juice was wonderful, at least from the point of view of those who tried it.

“A prisoner asked his mother to buy him a bottle of the scent he liked. She would then empty the scent into a bowl, then soak a pair of socks in that bowl until they absorbed the contents of the scent bottle completely. After that, he asked her to bring the socks that had been soaked in the scent, along with the rest of the permitted clothes, to the scheduled visit. She would carry them in quite naturally after going through the manual and electronic search.

“When the clothes were brought to him in jail, he squeezed a few millimetres of his favourite scent into a plastic bottle, a scent which was no more than the pure juices from a pair of socks. Along with his closest friends, he used the scent on special occasions: to courts where family were present; on Fridays; and on feasts that took place while he was in prison.”

They reject all that offends their national dignity in more ways than one, like communal protests, and more importantly, going on hunger strikes.

They protested when “the prison administration flew the flag of Israel next to that of the administration of prisons, nine metres from the ground, at the top of the wire netting over the yard where the detainees exercised. The protest of the detainees against this sight was communal and spontaneous. The prisoners’ movement administration decided to convene and demand a meeting with the prison administration: We will not accept this. Take it away or you will be held accountable and have to bear the consequences. The next day, the flags were removed from all the units. The general feeling among the prisoners was how powerful and important this incident had been, and a strong determination to achieve victory.”

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A considerable part of Omar Nazzal’s book is dedicated to describing in detail both a new and an old practice in the life of detainees, namely hunger strikes. He considers this as “the highest degree of protest against or rejection of a decision or procedure, which aims at ending it, or achieving certain everyday necessities. Sometimes these strikes have a political nature and aim at expressing a protest against a specific policy or certain acts: protest strikes that aim at ending or limiting the administrative detention policy.”

He talks about the experience of detainees generally, and about his own specifically: how a decision is made on communal strikes; on individual strikes; preparing for a strike; announcing it; the procedures taken by the prison administration to break the willpower of detainees such as fully nude strip searches, searches as a punishment, confiscation of nutritional supplements required after day 12 of the hunger strike, including saline solutions and some grains of sugar.

He speaks about the pains of the hunger strike: acute headaches, head, stomach, joint and muscle pains, dizziness, fighting against salt and cigarette withdrawals. He also talks about the difficulties of ending the strike.

In most hunger strikes, the determination of the detainees is a triumph over the prison wardens, thus proving that a mouse can take on an elephant (the weak can take on the strong).

*****

These are magnificent images in words, from the very heart of the prisons of Israeli occupation, worthy of translation into the languages of the world. They would inspire films, plays, literature, evening conversations, and float around the world to tell the story of a free people who withstands oppression and insists on victory in its battle for freedom.

 

faihaab@gmail.com

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