1,600 days alone
He counts them effortlessly. There’s no need to think. The marks on the prison walls are ever present in his mind: 1,600 days in solitary confinement and almost the same number again in other prisons. Altogether he spent 2,955 days – or eight years, one month and five days – before being released.
His name is Dr Joseph Hallit – better known to inmates as number 16 – and he was released on 15 December last year from a Syrian prison. He had been charged with ‘communicating’ with the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia active during the 16-year Lebanese civil war.
And now he wanted me to write his story.
‘Not just my story,’ he said. ‘But the plight of political prisoners who were released from Syrian jails. Nobody wants to hire them. Employers get scared.’
So do newspapers. I regarded Hallit with wonder. Would the local newspaper even print his story?
An association with Syria – the main power broker in Lebanon with about 25,000 troops in the country – causes fear in Lebanese communities. But Hallit wanted to speak out. In the months since his release he has turned himself into a human-rights activist urging society to allow the reintegration of ex-prisoners.
Life for him has started again. At 40, it’s not too late. There’s a lot to do. Every minute has to be savoured. ‘I figured that if I sleep two hours less every night I may be able to catch up with the first five years,’ he said. ‘I can never catch up with all eight though.’
Hallit’s ordeal began on 11 November 1992 just after he obtained his medical degree from a Syrian university and was preparing to leave for the US to continue his studies. He was arrested at a café in Damascus. For the next 15 days, he was interrogated – and brutally beaten.
In his cell, Hallit stared at his bloody arms with exposed torn nerves and muscles dangling from one of them. The choice was clear: survive or wither away.
Determination took over and he grabbed a plastic spoon from his lunch tray, pushed the nerve and muscle back inside his arm and wrapped it tightly. With only a tiny slit in the door to tell him whether it was day or night in his solitary confinement, he marked the walls to keep track of the passing days and months. ‘I never saw the sky.’
Every 60 days, he was allowed a shower. It was four years before he was transferred to another prison and allowed to join other political prisoners.
Five years after his arrest, Hallit’s case officially went to court. Unbeknown to him, he was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment. After 310 days, he was transferred to another prison.
By now, Hallit’s sisters had discovered his whereabouts and were allowed a half-hour visit every three months. His elderly mother, however, was told that her son was studying in the US. To keep up the bluff, Hallit wrote her a letter every so often and his sisters inserted some money.
Meanwhile, with money supplied by his sisters, Hallit set up a ‘clinic’ and ‘pharmacy’ near his bed by purchases through the prison guards. He bought syringes, a stethoscope, a blood-pressure gauge, a diabetes testing unit and a cardiograph. As guards left the doors between cells open for most of the day, Hallit wandered from room to room attending to the sick. His reputation got around and soon even prison guards and supervisors started going to him complaining of ailments.
On 11 December 2000, Hallit and 16 other Lebanese inmates were suddenly transferred to the Lebanese Defence Ministry.
‘And then on the fifth day at 6.00pm, without even so much as a question, the door was opened and the guard told me to leave,’ recalled Hallit. ‘I didn’t move. I didn’t know what he meant. Then the guard said “Come on – go!”’
When Hallit finally made his way back to the family home, he announced to his mother that he was back from his studies in the US. ‘She asked me about my luggage,’ he said laughing. ‘And I told her it was lost at the airport. To this day, she has no idea that I was in prison. If she were to find out, it would kill her.’
Two months later, Hallit became a regular volunteer at Lebanese prisons tending to the sick. He works at the YMCA and trains in a hospital. His dream of pursuing his medical studies abroad are long gone. Instead, he will begin courses this fall in hospital administration at the local university.
‘I know it will take me eight years to regain what I lost and another eight years to rebuild,’ he said. ‘But there’s a future for me out there and I have to run to catch up.’