Nivine Ghanem met me at the entrance of the Tulkarem refugee camp in Palestine. I was going to meet her mother, Manal. This was my first visit.
As we walked along the narrow alleys between the tall unpainted apartment buildings, I stretched my arms out. So narrow are the alleys that I could touch the buildings on both sides.
Rays of sunshine entered between some buildings, but other than that, drab greyness was everywhere. No grass, no flowers, just greyness.
The buildings are plastered with posters of martyrs and graffiti, a political story being told. Children played outside, with the faces of the dead watching over them.
One can easily get lost in the confusing maze of alleys, and as I zigzagged through them, I wondered how Nivine manged to find her way. But she has been living here all her life, a product of politics.
The camp, built in 1950, has approximately 20,000 residents. Unemployment stands at approximately 50 per cent, forcing children to become beggars.
We arrived at Manal’s house, and she welcomed me inside. Although we shared some laughs, her story saddened me.
That visit took place a year and a half ago. I was haunted by it, and for three nights I tossed and turned as my dreams took me down the alleys.
I wanted to write an article about Manal, but so shocked was I by what I saw that as much as I tried, I just could not find the words to tell her story. I have visited her a few times since, and grown accustomed to the camp, and now, in the week when we commemorated the International Day of Solidarity with Palestinian Prisoners (17 April), I feel I should tell her story.
Her house is very small, and has only the basic necessities. Hanging on the walls are pictures of Manal’s brother and husband’s brother – both martyrs.
Manal (below), 37, is an ex-political prisoner of Israel.
She cannot forget the day that she was arrested. It was during the second Intifada (uprising). At 3am on 17 April 2003, about 50 Israeli soldiers entered her house. They ordered her husband, Naji, and her three sleeping children outside in the cool night.
Manal said, ‘The soldiers did not leave anything in the house untouched,’ as they failed in their search for incriminating evidence.
Manal, a carrier of the blood disorder thalassimia and three months’ pregnant, was beaten, blindfolded and shackled, hand and foot, and taken to the District Coordination Office (DCO) for interrogation, which included emotional abuse such as swearing, spitting and insults.
She was told she would be gone only five minutes, but those five minutes stretched into over four years. Her children, Ehab, Nivine, and Majid (who also has thalassimia) went to live with Naji’s family.
Manal describes prison life as difficult. Prisoners were crowded into small, humid cells. Medical care was lacking, and sick prisoners often had to get by with just aspirin. Food was inadequate, often consisting of rice and beans and half-baked bread.
To Manal, the most ordinary things became treasures. Laughing, she recalls ‘sewing cucumber slices together so that my fellow inmates could see a whole cucumber.’ But when they were given a whole chicken, there was cause for celebration. ‘We held the chicken up high and danced around it!’ she said.
Baby Noor (meaning ‘light) was born six months after Manal entered the prison. ‘I was chained by my hands and feet to the bed in the prison hospital, and with no family by my side, I gave birth.’ The chains were left on her for the entire three days she was in the hospital.
Noor spent the first two years of his life in the prison with his mother. ‘He thought prison was life – always locking doors and hiding keys.’
Manal was in administrative detention – held without trial or charge – for two years. When she was finally tried and convicted, Noor was taken from her and returned to his father. Her one thought when she was in prison was: ‘When will I get out?’ ‘My thoughts were always with my family,’ she recalls.
Manal spent two more years in prison, and was eventually released in 2007.
Life is not easy for the Ghanem family. Naji, who was doing janitorial work for UNWRA is now unable to work because of health problems. And Manal, who occasionally gets requests for her embroidery, says now there is no work. Additionally, Manal had a fifth child, now two years old.
Her wish is for all the prisoners to be released, and for the Palestinian Authority to take care of them. She does not, however, dream: ‘Dreams are for no reason. Let them sleep.’
Majid (below), still sick and missing school days, worded his wishes more graciously when asked what he most wanted. ‘I want your health and happiness,’ he said. His mother helped him out a bit – ‘He most wants a computer,’ she said.
According to Addameer Prisoners’ Support and Human Rights Association, since 1967 and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, ‘over 750,000 Palestinians have been detained by Israel. As of March 2011, 5,777 Palestinians are being held in Israeli jails under harsh conditions which include unhygienic, overcrowded cells, inadequate food and medical treatment and various forms of torture.