On Pain, Memory, and Survival

qasfi.jpgWhen I met Dan (read about him here and here) for the second time on September 2*, I kept wondering if I should be posting about him any more. On the one hand there was the feeling that I had conveyed to my readers what I felt required publicization. On the other there was the feeling that I needed to say more, primarily for two reasons: 1) some of my readers have expressed interest in being updated on Dan’s health status; 2) I feel that there should be emphasis on the human element of the “other” and often misrepresented or rather, mostly unrepresented side in this decades-long conflict. Dan is definitely not the only one who has a story to tell. Each and every fighter has a story to tell, I am sure. Even more painful are the stories of those who have been kidnapped and held in dungeons for decades, regularly tortured – mentally and physically – treated worse than animals are, stripped of their identity, their mere existence denied, their names unknown to the world; a world that looks the other way while men are kidnapped from their farmland and houses, snatched from their families in the blink of an eye; a world that so readily memorizes the names and romanticizes the plight of every Israeli soldier captured but has probably never heard of Anwar Yassine (hostage for 17 years), of Jawad Qasfi (hostage for 16 years), of the hundreds and thousands of men, who were held for years, decades even, at detention and torture centers in south Lebanon, Khiam and Ansar to name the most notorious, where routine humiliation of Palestinians and Lebanese was practiced by Israel and its proxies – the same proxies some of whose family members remained in Lebanon and were not persecuted, but who have sprung up at the occasion to “prove” that they had received threats (these claims were debunked by many observers, who insisted that those who fled to Israel in the recent month-long conflict did so in a coordinated manner, to re-unite with their family members who had crossed into Israel in 2000 – see for example Sada Al Balad, August 31, 2006, p. 10). And while the plight of these “refugees” (note the dualism: the good kind vs the bad kind of refugees) has been emphasized, thanks in no small part to Israeli PR efforts, an uneasy silence characterizes the individual suffering Israel’s dehumanized foes have endured, stories that, if told, would literally drop one’s jaw. Many wish to keep the stories to themselves, others feel that telling theirs would empower them. But whether told or untold, the stories remain unheard in parts of the world where the shape of the region and the fate of millions of its inhabitants are determined. As I watched the documentary aired on LBC (you can see most of the first part here, mostly in Arabic with Hebrew subtitles), I could not help but feel angry at the hypocrisy of the west. The documentary, which raised a lot of eyebrows for promising to show footage of Ron Arad after his capture, also tells the story of Lebanese hostages held by Israel for decades. One of the most touching stories is that of Jawad Qasfi, a former Amal fighter, who was kidnapped by Israel in 1988 while planting tomatoes on his land. At the time of his kidnapping, Qasfi’s wife was pregnant with their first child. Jamila was born 4 months after the kidnapping of her father and grew up without him. Her mother tells reporters that when the Israelis withdrew in 2000 and the Khiam prisoners were freed, Jamila had cried upon seeing the scene of the prisoners, still locked in, holding the hands of the Lebanese who had come to let them out. But she had, at the same time, laughed, because she felt that the release of her father was closer than ever. When the 3 soldiers were kidnapped at Sheba’a, Jamila was even more confident that her father could come home any minute. Her mother tells how Jamila used to excitedly tell her that they could be having lunch together or going out together any time soon, a week or two or a month down the road. Her father had only seen pictures of her. He had never heard her voice. But the waiting was long, and while Jamila’s hope never withered away, her kidneys failed to match her hopes and aspirations. 13-year-old Jamila died of kidney failure in October 2002, never having met her father.

The story shows that to every story there are at least two sides, and while world media ignores the human element and tragedy of non-Israeli detainees (be they Lebanese or Palestinian or Syrian), and the international community gives Israel the green light to massacre 1200 civilians in an attempt to return two of its captured soldiers, such stories pile up. Stories of kidnapped civilians, people who lost mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, and children in massacres, fighters who lost their families, families who lost their loved ones who were fighting in the south, and yes, since there are more than two sides to this conflict and the suffering that pervades and perpetuates it, I also see the grief of families in Israel who lost loved ones in rocket attacks, and also those (like the three Israeli soldiers in 2000) who perished for the stupidity of their leaders, who chose to place them on the sacrificial altar for political and electoral considerations or some unreal hope for getting information from HezbAllah on Ron Arad. I also feel for the family of Ron Arad. The story of his family is so much like the story of the Qasfi family. It shows how fates are so intertwined that arguing that steps taken by actors should be judged not based on the actions and unsolved issues of the past but on ideological agendas is utterly foolish. For many decades Israel has practiced (whether in Lebanon or Gaza or the West Bank), with complete disregard for international law, hostage-taking, detention, and torture. These were mostly completely unprovoked. Despite withdrawal from Lebanon and the official closing of the Lebanese file, Israel refused to release the hundreds of hostages it had taken in Lebanon. When the negotiations were taking place for the prisoners exchange (including Elhanan Tannenbaum, who was interviewed in Germany after his hand-over to the German mediators, and said that he had not been mistreated by his captors; he was also filmed during his captivity by Ibrahim al-Amin, a journalist from Assafir newspaper – it showed a bed, a table and a book), there had been a mutual understanding, confirmed by the mediators, that the negotiations would include a second phase, which would be the final one (and would include Samir al-Quntar, Nassim Nisr [a Lebanese Jew], and Yehia Skaff). That second phase, however, never came. Israel refused to sit at the negotiations table, and refused to even take into consideration, given its heightened sense of invincibility (though based on what I am not sure – 2000 withdrawal? 2004 exchange?), the release of the prisoners even as part of wider negotiations. Nasrallah insisted in numerous speeches that the freedom of the prisoners would have to be ensured, given the complete disinterestedness of the international community and the failure of all diplomatic means, by the capture of more Israeli soldiers. 2 years after the prisoners exchange deal that returned a number of prisoners including Jawad Qasfi, Anwar Yassine (member of the Lebanese Communist Party), and perhaps the most brutally tortured of all prisoners, Mustafa Dirani (kidnapped from his home in the Beqa’a in a commando raid in 1994), HezbAllah conducted an even bloodier raid that resulted in the capture of 2 Israeli soldiers. It was a déjà vu, except that Israel foolishly believed that it could circumvent 2004 this time around. Needless to say, it was this foolishness that resulted in horrible destruction in Lebanon and the shattering of public perceptions of invincibility in Israel, together with deaths on both sides, which could’ve been prevented had Israel learned the lessons of 2000/2004.

The question of the hostages held by Israel is a very thorny one. On the one hand you have Israel actively seeking to get its hands on anyone it can capture in order to use them as bargaining chips for the return of the two soldiers, desperately trying to prevent the possibility of releasing Samir al-Quntar, hoping to keep him for another round of negotiations to come much later. On the other hand you have HezbAllah, which captured the soldiers in a declared attempt to secure the release of the hostages in Israeli prisons. The capture is perhaps the last operation of its kind by HezbAllah, though no one can tell what the future holds. Yet this reality can have severe implications on the negotiations for exchange of prisoners. HezbAllah’s position will surely be a very hard one to negotiate with. Israel will have to pay the highest price it has ever paid in negotiations of this kind. Had Israel’s initial reaction been different, it might have been able to come out of the negotiations without having to release al-Quntar. But it is hard to see how HezbAllah would compromise its position on al-Quntar at this point. It is still unclear how many individuals (fighters or civilians) Israel has captured in the latest round of fighting, but having in mind previous negotiations patterns, it is unlikely that these would be too big a bargaining chip for Israel to enter negotiations with. That is not to say, however, that the possibility of more kidnappings and long-term detainment of fighters was not taken seriously or pondered by both sides. Back to my meeting with Dan, and a brief conversation I had with him, brief due to the fact that his condition has really deteriorated. He is fighting battles on more than one front. His leg is not getting any better, which is not a good sign at all. He is also suffering from internal infection. He did not look nearly as good as last time. His face was pale and sweaty, his voice weak and void of the resolve (for recovery) that characterized his speech during our previous meeting. I had contacted his mother on his behalf, telling her the situation, but her reaction was bitter and negative, as he had expected. I was placed in an awkward situation. It is never easy to convey such news to someone in such a situation as Dan is in. His expression did not change when he saw me. He was calm, though breathing heavily. I asked him how he was doing. He looked straight ahead, as if focusing on some distant point and studying it, and said “I don’t know, I think not too well”. Then he turned and looked at me and frowning, said, “what? you talked to my mom I presume?” I nodded. He continued, “let me guess, she doesn’t want to talk to me or see me [true]. She wishes I were killed [that’s his assumption]. Hmm, maybe she has a point, I mean I always kept thinking, what if they take me alive? How can I stand torture or those long years of imprisonment? Sure I would’ve been unable to do anything else and I would’ve had faith and endured, but what about my family? What about them, waiting for me all those years, and I can’t help but think, what would my child have felt? Is it better, I wonder, to know that you have a loved one in jail, that he is there after all, than to not have him at all, to know that he’s gone? And for me it would’ve been double-suffering, once for the physical pain I would’ve had to endure and all those endless months of imprisonment, and once for the emotional pain, the pain for the pain that my family would be feeling, and for them it would’ve been the same, double-suffering too, and you know, the helplessness, that you can’t change a thing, you’re just a small person, you can fight with your fists but there are powers that you can’t beat or be freed of, and that’s when you realize that things will be better if God wills it, so you leave it to him. I don’t know, I’ve been thinking about this for the longest time. If I had to choose between being captured or being injured like this, which would I have chosen?” He stopped, then smiled triumphantly, “So you see, it’s pointless to answer, God has brought me here, and it’s not up to me to question that. And I think, whatever happens to me, and look I’m not feeling well but they are fooling me into thinking I will recover, whatever happens to me, they will have to accept. Like I accepted my dad’s past, it’s something I couldn’t change, but I did better and didn’t make the same mistake as he did, and that’s the most important thing. I think I can say that I have matured. I wish I had found the right path a long time ago, but at least I found it, so I should thank God for it and be happy with what I have.” Ever since I heard the Qasfi family’s story, I was tempted to say that Dan’s pain is not nearly comparable, in my view at least, to theirs, for example. But then again, who am I to rank pain as if it is an absolute thing? Isn’t that what distinguishes human beings from machines, after all? Feelings that are always-changing, always-adapting, shaped by the past but also charting the dark and difficult paths of the future. Life is a palimpsest and pains are the writings on it. Some are erased in time, healed but never completely forgotten, making space for new ones, new pains, that would in time be worn away, too. The cycle continues, and pain is passed on from generation to generation. As is suffering. Then there are those who try to burn the “other’s” palimpsest to triumphantly prove that they have inflicted no pains on others, or that the others do not exist to begin with, that they are a myth perpetuated by those who hate them; but they will surely fail. The palimpsest that they are trying to burn is no longer just a piece of paper, it is alive, it reflects not only the past but also the present. It is the eye of the witness, and the mouth of the survivor. I believe that stories have the power to change the way people think about others. They are not just a mere retelling of facts, they also represent a philosophy of life. Stories are made to be shared, and in sharing, we learn and advance. The challenge is how to make people listen. And I am not sure how to answer that. I guess the best thing one can do is keep telling those stories and spreading awareness, with the hope that with time more people would open their eyes and really see.

* I have received a number of inquiries as to why I have not been posting any photos of the south. Truth of the matter is that while on any normal day I would have shot photos, I prefer to keep my trip to the south strictly for the purpose of meeting with Dan. For the curious, there is no lack of images of the post-ceasefire reality in the south.


5 responses to “On Pain, Memory, and Survival

  1. Hi there,

    I would like to invite you to sign a petition a number of pro-Palestinian bloggers worldwide have launched today afainst Hollywood hypocrisy by supporting the Isreali terror. I would also be grateful if you could publicise the petition in your blog using one of the petition banners. You can find the details of the petition and the banners on my blog http://www.akramawad.com

    In solidarity

  2. Ibrahim El-Amin left Assafir. He now runs Al-Akhbar [www.al-akhbar.com].

  3. Thanks for pointing that out, Bashir. Good for him. I’ve been checking out Al-Akhbar and I must say that while I don’t find that the website has too much content, it is not so bad. The guy is really good, too. But the video was made a few months back and at the time I’m guessing he was still with Assafir (I think he was introduced as such in the video).

  4. Hello Anarchorev,

    How are you? I have been reading your excellent blog since this recent
    conflict in Lebanon. I just had a few questions and would
    appreciate it if you took the time to answer them. 1) How many
    Lebanese are currently held by Israel in the dungeons? I know that
    there are some 10,000 total Arabs held by Israel, but did not know
    how many are Lebanese. 2) From earlier news sources it is clear that Hezbullah captured the two IDF soldiers in Ait-al-chaab which is
    in Lebanon, but I have not heard anything about this from hizbullah,
    do you have any info on this matter?

    Thankyou for your blog and great writing.


  5. Gee, something must have gone wrong with my server or something. I posed a question about how Hezbullah was again instisting on Samir Kuntar’s release – a man who killed two civilian Israelis in Isreal in 1979 – before Hezbullah even existed. On of the non-combattants was a 4 year old girl whose head Kuntar smashed on the rocks with his rifle butt (he has admitted a number of times, apparently, to the killing.) He also indirectly caused the child’s mother to suffocate her own baby as she tried to keep the child from crying while they hid from Kuntar and friends in the attic. Just as you wonder if the IDF kidnappings might be trying t to force the cease fire to end, I wonder if Hezbullah again (the did it in 2000 as well) trying to get the release of a man Isreal is very reluctant to release is way to make negotiations impossible. Does either side really want peace, I wonder?

    The funny thing is my post disappeared. So I’m trying again.

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