December 7, 2016

9 Years Later: My Journey to see my Father; 45 Minutes, a Window and a Telephone by Sumoud Sa'adat

sumoud-prison

Published originally on Sumoud Sa’adat’s Facebook:

For us Palestinians, life has a different meaning and taste. While people around the world go on journeys to embrace nature, hike its mountains, or dive in its seas, we, the families of Palestinian political prisoners, go on journeys of our own to completely different places.

We journey to the Israeli occupation’s prisons where our loved ones are held in captivity. Although these prisons were forcibly imposed on us Palestinians, yet we go there with joy and excitement in our hearts while trying to ignore the harsh and bitter reality that lies within the prison walls. The night before the visit, many are unable to sleep the night, as was my case. Others cannot sleep deeply and instead spend the night tossing and turning in their beds trying to relax their anxious bodies in the hopes of being in their best shape for the visit.

Preparations Before the Visit

Our day started at four o’clock in the morning. First, we thoroughly packed the things my dad asked for so we wouldn’t forget anything. Then we prepared some food, coffee and cold water given the hot weather in the place we were heading to.

My mother, my brother(Ghassan) and myself left the house at 6:00 am, and headed towards the buses, which were located in front of ‘Isa’ad Al-toufeleh’ Park in Al-Bireh, Ramallah. Upon arrival, all the prisoners’ families gazed at us as we were getting off the car. When we approached them they met us with smiles and morning greetings. I heard someone saying: “this is the family of Ahmad Sa’adat. They are visiting with us!” Some approached us with warm greetings and said: “finally! They are allowing you to visit!”

The interaction between us and the other families started instantly and went smoothly without any barriers. After all we knew most of them. Some, used to deliver clothing and books to my father whom we were banned from visiting while visiting their sons and loved ones. To some we were relatives, and others I knew though my work in Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association.

There, I met my seventh grade Arabic school teacher. But today she came as the mother of the prisoner Mohammed Wahbeh who was sentenced to five years in Israeli prisons. In such moments, you can only see hopeful faces full of energy, smiles, laughter and joy. At some point you realize all of us that bus stop shared the same pain, the same  purpose; visiting our loved ones in Nafha Prison.

Beit Seira Checkpoint: The Fear of Being Returned

The bus moved at 6:50am. Since it was my first visit, the families were explaining what the next stop was. Beit Seira checkpoint was our next stop. At this checkpoint you wait with the fear of not being allowed to pass through. We arrived at Beit Seira check point at 7:30 am, we got off the bus and we walked around 50 meters until we reached an open yard sheltered with metal plates. In that yard there was but one filthy toilet which the families are forced to use because of the long journey. In that yard an employee from the International Committee of the Red Cross would hand the families tickets which allow the visit. We got our tickets and headed to the inspection point.

At the inspection point,you come across a revolving metal gate (gate number one). This gate is referred to as Al-Ma’atah, a gate usually used for animals especially chicken. Then, you have to empty your pockets, and if you are a woman, you put your hand bag on the inspection machine. At this gate, you present your identity card and wait for a while before being allowed to proceed to the next gate (gate number two).Gate number two is the gate which the families hate and despise. At this gate,there is a window and behind it two armed- Israeli female soldiers to whom you hand-over your identity card, the visit permit and the Red Cross ticket. When I presented my visit permit, identity card and ticket, one of the soldiers asked me to wait after she read my name. I noticed that she handed all my documents to the other soldier who was sitting behind her on a computer. I had to wait for a while during which two families passed the checkpoint as I watched the soldier one sitting at the computer. She kept staring at me which made me wonder what sort of information was she reading on her computer.

Shortly after, she returned my documents to the soldier at the window who then gave them back tome. Without a doubt, my mother went through the same procedure. Unlike me, my mother holds a Jerusalem ID, that allows her to pass checkpoints without needing a permit. Nevertheless she decided to share this experience with me.

Eventually we passed through the checkpoint and waited on the other side for the rest of the families to gather. In total we were 72 visitors on that bus. On the bus one of the families explained that their child, who was 15 years old was banned from passing the checkpoint and visiting his brother. The soldiers claimed that he was 16 years old and thus needed a permit. His mother however insisted his 16th birthday was in four months and he didn’t need a permit. To our sorrow,however, the soldiers did not allow him to pass and continue his journey.

The bus moved again at 9:20 am. My heartbeat started to pace. I was asking myself, how will the meeting be? Will I cry? Will I laugh? Will I, by some miracle, be able to get a hug from my father? How will my dad react? Last time he saw me I was 20. Today I was 29 years old. Will he even recognize me?! What about his features? Has he grown old? Will I find in his reassuring eyes the comfort they always gave? Is he calm? Will I see that smile which grants me strength and hope?

I decided to escape all this anxiety by sitting next to the driver and asking him about the places around us and the weather in an attempt to kill some time but also because it has been a very long time that I was in south of occupied Palestine. When I was young, we used to visit my father in Al-Naqab prison, and now I was reminiscing memories long forgotten. We passed by the junction which leads to the Israeli Naqab prison. We also passed by the Israeli Eshel prison which I heard so much about.We also passed by stunning desert mountains of such a beauty that I never saw before.

Two hours later, we arrived to the Rimon and Nafha Prisons. Suddenly all the anxiety returned, but even stronger this time. All my attempts to control this anxiety failed. When the driver announced that we arrived, all of the questions which I tried to avoid were back. I was like a butterfly which wants to fly, my heart was racing,my eyes were full of tears and absurdly, I had a strong urge to smile. A strong feeling overcame me, one that I haven’t felt for 9 years. Finally I was going to see my father, but I was certain it wasn’t going to be easy, for Indeed long waiting hours and humiliation were ahead of us.

sumoud-prison2

We arrived at Nafha prison at 11:30 am. One shouldn’t expect to just get off the bus and proceed to visit their loved ones, for this isn’t the case here. Right at the entrance, a security vehicle approached us and we were asked to wait. The bus had to park on the side while waiting, and we were surprised when a large bus passed by.The bus was a white and had the logo of the Israeli Prison Service’s (IPS) Nahshon unit on it. It had tiny and high windows and looked like a dairy truck. This was the bus which transports prisoners. Of course we couldn’t glimpse any of the prisoners, but we saw the dozens of Nahshon personnel surrounding the bus.

For 20 minutes we waited inside the bus as we were banned from moving. Eventually a policeman who was wearing the IPS uniform came and opened a gate which led into a yard. As we entered the closed yard, the policeman was making sure everyone had entered so he can close the door behind us. In the yard were uncomfortable metal seats and only two fans in this unbelievable heat. The toilets were so filthy to the point that you rather not use them or end up using them with difficulty if it’s absolutely necessary. Inside the yard were two windows; one for smoking and the other one was the window through which the families hand-over the clothes and books to prisoners. I really wish I could have destroyed that window because of the humiliation one faces at it. The policeman at the window was dull, slow and mean. He seemed to have creative ways of making the families suffer. On the left, there was a window where one hands their visit permit and identity card after they call the prisoner’s name. I called that window, the window of luck.

One of the jailers called out the names of several prisoners, which he categorized as the first group. The divided us, the 72 visitors into four groups. Although the fourth group was only of four families, yet it was an excuse for the IPS to delay us further and cause us more suffering. My mother, Ghassan and I each separately headed to the three windows. Ghassan went to the smoking window, I went to the mean soldier window, and my mom went to the window of luck- and I wished she hadn’t.

At the window, the soldier told my mother that only me (Sumoud) was allowed to visit on that day,and both of Ghassan and herself weren’t. My mom started shouting at him saying that the whole family was allowed to visit, and he replied in a very cold manner saying that was decision. At that moment, I felt my mom’s deep pain and saw her tearful eyes. Ghassan’s face was full of rage. They completely disrupted our happiness and eagerness for that long awaited visit. My mom was trying to look away from me to hide the tears in her eyes. Ghassan was hugging me and telling me to greet our dad warmly, while in fact he was trying to hide his anger. It was an extremely painful and stressful moment for all three of us. My mom wasn’t allowed to visit my dad for over two years, and my brother hasn’t seen my dad since the last war on Gaza in 2014. How can I visit my dad while they can’t see him? I felt like I wanted to cry and shout as loud as I can, but I didn’t let‘them’ destroy this precious and priceless meeting for me. My mum and Ghassan left and I was alone. It was a very cruel feeling that moment, however I had to proceed with this long awaited visit.

The Mean Window

Ever since we entered the waiting hall and until the time of the visit, I and a group of no more than ten people were waiting at window with the mean policeman. We waited at the window from 11:45 until 1:00 pm all through which the mean policeman was doing anything he could to make us suffer. He would allow some clothes and reject others based on their colors and his mood. One of the mothers with us said last time black was allowed, wherea sthis time black was prohibited! Each of the family’s had at least one piece of clothing which the mean policeman decided were not permitted. Moreover, the policeman kept disappearing without giving any explanation leaving us to wait even further. Instead of having a moment of calm to plan how and what to say to our loved ones in the 45 minutes of the visit, this policeman kept us waiting,feeling bitter and humiliated.

For 9 years I dreamed of visiting my father. After 9 years of waiting, I will get to see him for 45 minutes! Around 1:15, they called the names of the prisoners in the first group. We stood by a metal gate waiting to enter. A policeman would ask which prisoner each person was visiting and then would make one wait while he checks the names. More waiting! At the moment I was wishing these doors, these mean people and faces did not exist! I just wanted to go through the gate to see my father. I wished these restrains and limits did not exist and that this suffering be over, for I couldn’t wait anymore.

I finally went through the gate. Behind it was a metal detecting machine. I was asked to take off my shoes, put them through the machine and walk through. If the machine would buzz, you will have to take off anything that could possibly make a sound. Sometimes women would be asked to takeoff their underwear if it had a metal hook. They would give the women prayer clothes, ask them to go to the bathroom to take off their underwear and then place it in the machine for further inspection!

Lucky enough, the machine did not buzz, so I was able to proceed. I then entered a second inspection room. There stood two heavily armed female soldiers who were about 22 years old. They held a portable metal detecting machine. The look in their eyes lacked any innocence, which one think they would have at their age, or humanity. I almost felt like shouting them, how does it feel for you as women to be oppressing other women? But I didn’t. After the inspection I entered a hall, and there waited again. I waited and waited. Slowly I started feeling happy. Behind the next door I will be seeing my father, at last. I will see the bright face that I love and miss.

A policeman entered the hall and said it’s time for the visit. At that moment I felt like running, or walking! I really didn’t know what to do. We finally entered the visiting hall. The first thing I noticed there was the window which separates us from the prisoners. I was trying to glimpse my dad. Where are you dad? I was eagerly trying to find him. At the first window was a young man, at the second a man. But not my father. And suddenly I saw him. Walking next to the last guy. I ran towards the empty window so quickly that I even jumped over a set of steps. Suddenly he was therein front of me. My father, Abu Ghassan. I wished the glass separating us could break so he would hug me as he did when I was young. But some dreams are never meant to come true. The glass did not break.

My father, my source of power and happiness, was finally there in front of me where our eyes can finally meet. Despite the glass that was separating us, I held up the phone and I shouted as loud as I could:(Baba Habibi!) Dad, my love! Finally! Then I sent him several kisses from behind the glass. At that moment my eyes were full of tears and my voice was shaking.My father’s eyes were full of tears as well. However, we did not want to cry at that moment because it was a time for joy, so out of nowhere I made a loud Zaghrouta (ululation: a celebratory sounds usually made in weddings and other celebrations) and we started laughing. It was here that the visit properly started.

My dad was still the same. His sight made me feel like I am at the top of the world. We laughed and talked. I sent him more kisses though the glass. I passed greetings from many people. He told me about this daily life, how he spent his days and his new and I the same. These moments felt like a dream that I can never forget.

I started at him a lot, in an attempt to satisfy my need of him, my warm loving father, and his gaze which I will not be seeing again anytime soon. These moments felt like I was a child again living my happy childhood. Although he looked the same, yet he looked older as well. This annoyed me a lot, however, his spirit does not sound any older for he had the same strength and smile to which we were used. The beautiful grey had spread to the rest of his hair. His eyes were somewhat sad, probably because my mother and Ghassan could not visit him today, but also because today was my uncle’s 13th memorial. My father was also sad for his companion in prison, Ishrak Rimawi, who’s son, Ahmad, had passed away just two days ago. We spoke about how painful and shocking Ahmad’s death was. Ahmad was only recently released from Israeli occupation prisons and he actually spent time with his own father inside the same prison.

Despite all the sadness and pain, we still managed to smile and send each other kisses every now and then. We also managed to joke and laugh loudly about some family matters. Towards the very end of the visit,my dad was about to say goodbye and tell me to take care, when suddenly the phone was cut off. I could no longer hear his voice. The 45 minutes were over.Still he continued to speak from behind the glass and he placed his hand at the window. I said very loudly, do not worry abu Ghassan, and I placed my hand at the window facing his. I glanced at him one last time and he as well. That moment was the most difficult. My dream came to an end and I did not have enough of my father. I still yearned for him and missed him.

My father stood up to walk towards the door. I walked on the other side of the glass following his footsteps and watching him.A police officer was asking me to hurry up, but I did not hear him for I was trying to listen to my father’s steps. When I got to the door and was about to leave, I shouted as loud as I could: “Baba (dad), Abu Ghassan! I will miss you a lot” and I sent him a kiss. He waved his hand goodbye, smiling and we both left.

45 minutes are not enough for a 9 year old conversation. It was not even enough to quench my thirst and yearning for my father, but it was enough to give both me and him some strength and hope. My dream was over and I did not want it to end. Nevertheless, the beauty of the situation is that one could break the shackles placed on his happiness and could be happy, although briefly, despite all the difficult circumstances. For 45 minutes we ignored the police officer surrounding us, from my side and his watching the families and their loved ones. I ignored their reactions to our interaction, or their reaction to how the glass separates us from our loved ones or the inhuman phone. We simply were looking for minutes of happiness throughout our pain to keep us going, and we found them.

After the Visit… Reflecting on the Dream

The visit was over, but the journey did not end yet. We left around 2:50 pm to a room where we would have to wait for the other families to finish their visits. I can’t but describe how sad was the situation in that waiting room. The room was very quiet. The families were waiting,eating some of the food they got with them. Sad looks were all over their faces. They all were busy thinking, remembering every detail of the short visit that went by too quickly. Everyone was tired and filled with sadness. We all had to wait for over two hours for the remaining families to finish their visits. It was 5:10 pm already when we were about to leave. As we were leaving through the prison doors and I wished I could stay a little longer. Even if I couldn’t see my father, yet I did not want to leave him there alone. These moments were very difficult for me and for the other families. To leave your loved ones behind. Yet, we will continue to dream. We will continue to hope.