It was an unreal feeling. I was actually walking in the notorious Khiam prison where over 2,000 Lebanese men, women and children as young as 13 were tortured. Less than 12 hours before, Israel's proxy militia, the South Lebanese Army (SLA), had fled the prison when hundreds of villagers stormed it, tearing down its gates and barbed-wire barricades to free 144 detainees.
And here I was walking through the filthy cells. Nothing had been touched. A full bowl of rice stood on one side of a cell as if the prisoner were just about to have his meal. The smell of perspiration still filled the cells. 'God is just and is watching out for you,' a prisoner had written on the wall.
In the women's quarters a 21-year-old student of journalism, Cosette Ibrahim, had written in French: 'It is so much easier to dream my life than to live it.'
Up to 12 prisoners were crammed into each tiny cell. And for months many were isolated between two walls - I couldn't even call them cells - where there was standing-room only. It was pitch dark. There were no windows and no lights.
The jailers' rooms were eerily empty. Maybe they were going over who was on duty that day, as logbooks of prisoners and guards were strewn about. Posters detailing the guards' duties were hung on the wall. Even SLA uniforms were laid out on some mattresses.
Among the number of people wandering silently around the prison in obvious shock were a number of former detainees. Ali Khesheish, 38, wanted to show his children where he endured so much suffering for 11 years before his release four years ago. He held a pair of handcuffs in his hands - he found them in one of the interrogating rooms. He explained how guards hung him for hours on the prison gates, dousing him with scalding-hot and freezing-cold water. Meanwhile, the beatings never stopped. The worst were the electrical jolts.
'They clipped wires on my genitals,' recalled 33-year-old Riad Kalakish who was one of the 144 detainees released as the Israelis withdrew. 'And every 15 minutes they sent a jolt through my penis. I bled so badly.' Riad was only 18 when he was snatched from his grandfather's house. He was accused of being a member of Hizbullah - the Islamic resistance party fighting to oust Israel from south Lebanon. And even though both his brothers were members, he repeatedly told them that he wasn't. He was taken to Khiam in the trunk of a car and was interrogated and tortured for two months.
'They began by repeatedly jabbing a screwdriver into my neck, kicking me in the shins and punching me in the chest,' he said. 'Several of my ribs were broken.'
He was refused water or food and was shaken when he fell asleep. Once the interrogations were over, surviving the filthy state of the cells became his next preoccupation. Prisoners were given little food and their toilet was a bucket that was emptied every two days. Once a week they were allowed ten minutes in the sun.
In 1995 the Red Cross intervened and conditions became a little better. Prisoners were given mattresses and blankets and the SLA allowed family members to send in a limited amount of food.
Technically, the prison was run by the SLA. Israel always denied responsibility for running it, arguing that the military it trained, armed and paid had sole jurisdiction. But, according to hundreds of detainees like Riad, 'the Israelis did the questioning and the SLA did the hitting'.
After 15 years in prison, Riad still can't believe he's free. He will never forget the first seconds when he realized that he was about to be liberated. On 23 May he suddenly heard distant calls of 'Allah Akbar' - 'God is great'. He couldn't figure out what was happening. The chants became stronger and stronger. The detainees realized that there were crowds just outside the prison gate. Prisoners banged on their doors shouting 'Allah Akbar' in response. Villagers then broke down the prison gates and ran to free the detainees. Their torturers pleaded for a safe-passage out. Silently, the crowd let them through.
Today the prisoners are gone and many members of the SLA have fled to Israel. But the repressive atmosphere of the prison remains strong. I could practically hear the screams that resonated through the nights - and found myself almost running back outside.
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