Middle East


Longest Serving Prisoner Tells His Story

Lebanese prisoner Anwar Yassin on the day of his release, with his nephew on January 29, 2004. (Photo: Mahmoud Zayat)

When Anwar Yassin took up arms against Israel he was just 17-years old. As Lebanon crumbled under the weight of the civil war and Israeli occupation, Yassin, like many young disaffected Lebanese, chose to give his life to defending the country of his birth. His was not a religious war. As a member of the Lebanese Communist Party, Yassin’s devotion lay in securing a democratic and secular Lebanon and, as he moved towards the party’s military wing, resisting the Israeli occupation of the south.

Yassin was spared what many of his comrades could not escape: death in pursuit of a political objective. When captured by the Israeli army on one fateful day in 1987, however, the Shiite born guerilla fighter was forced to pay for his beliefs, spending the next 17-years as a prisoner inside Israel. I speak to Yassin some five months after his much-celebrated release, the result of a three-year prisoner swap deal between the Lebanese resistance group, Hezbollah, and the Israeli government.

Now 37-years old, his features remain untarnished by the harsh years spent living in various Israeli jails. These days, he is busy holding meetings all over Europe, and is currently on a two-month tour of Germany, Belgium and Great Britain, giving lectures about his own experiences and those of other Palestinian and Lebanese political prisoners in Israel.

Indeed, January 29 heralded the beginning of a new life for Yassin, who, along with 20 other Lebanese detainees, arrived at Beirut International Airport to a hero’s welcome. His release afforded him the chance to return to his roots, to understand how, as a teenager, he eventually ended-up in the hands of a country he had long struggled against.

“It was September 16, I remember, when I was involved in the military confrontation that would change my life,” says Yassin, who was the longest serving prisoner of those freed in the swap. “It was a commando operation inside the Sheikh mountains (a mountain range in Lebanon’s eastern sector), where we came face-to-face with members of the Israeli army. They had infiltrated a Lebanese village, so we fought them, killing five soldiers and two officers. The battle took place for nine-hours. I was eventually injured and my comrades were killed. It was then that I was taken into custody.”

Yassin was taken to Israel the following day, where he says he was subjected to severe torture from the moment he arrived. “They took their revenge out against me, of course, and showed no concern about my injured right shoulder, which I lost sensation in for a long time. My full interrogation took 100 days. I spent most of my time completely naked, standing -- shackled -- for eight-hours a day. My legs swelled up and I didn’t see the sun for the whole duration. They would beat me on my legs and hands, and when they realised that they weren’t going to extract anything out of me, they would threaten me with death, telling me they would throw me on a minefield.”

He says the soldiers, many of whom were his age or younger, would also splash him with hot water followed by cold water, and then leave him wet in open spaces during the cold winter months.

“I remember when one of the employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross saw me after a torturing session, he cried,” he says.

As his interrogation ended, his trial began. Brought before an Israeli military court, Yassin refused to recognise its authority, and objected to the appointment of a defense lawyer.

“I refused to take orders from an occupying power who had captured me in my own country,” says Yassin, speaking calmly and deliberately. “So they charged me with three offences: firstly, for being in a banned political party; secondly, for carrying illegal arms; thirdly, for endangering the lives of Israeli civilians. They sentenced me to 30-years.”

The German-mediated prisoner swap between Hezbollah and Israel saw the release of some 400 Palestinians, as well as 21 Lebanese -- a number that also included two senior Hezbollah officials. In return, Israel received the bodies of three Israeli soldiers and kidnapped businessman, Elhannan Tannenbaum. And as Lebanon rejoiced, the mood in Israel was somber, amid much mixed emotion at making a deal with Hezbollah, and on a day when a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 10 Israelis in Jerusalem.

During his imprisonment, however, Yassin spent much of his time with a large number of these Arab prisoners, who, like him, had been convicted of plotting against Israel.

“The Palestinians in the prison welcomed me,” says Yassin, speaking of his confinement in Ashkelon, where he spent the first 12-years of his sentence. “They told me how to adjust to such a long time in prison. I was a stranger, without a family and far from home. I received no visits, and I knew no one. I was also with 40 Lebanese prisoners, but their numbers started to decline, as they had substantially less prison sentences than I did.”

“But I wasn’t completely oblivious towards what was happening in the outside world, as we were afforded a number of rights. We were given a TV, and I was allowed to watch Egyptian, Jordanian and Israeli channels. Then after a while, they allowed me to watch some Lebanese stations, and I was given books and I was allowed to write. However, all these luxuries were strictly controlled.”

At the beginning of his sentence, Yassin continually turned his attention towards escaping, but a “strong political belief” caused him to stay and withstand his incarceration.

“There were many times when my comrades and I thought about escaping,” he says. “But we felt we were justified in our cause, and bigger than escaping. So we stayed there and put up with the various sentences Israel had handed down.”

With the passing of years, however, Yassin clung to the hope that one day he would be a free man. “I never stopped hoping that I would be released. I was encouraged when Hezbollah captured some Israeli soldiers, because it was then that the (prisoner exchange) negotiations began. And I knew that these negotiations would have to come to some conclusion. We followed the process through by watching television, and then (Hezbollah secretary-general) Nasrallah declared that we were going to be released. A few days later we were.”

Yassin’s communist ideals never wavered throughout his imprisonment, and he remained fiercely loyal to a party that had fostered his ambitions. Indeed, the Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) -- formed in 1924 by a group of intellectuals -- made very little impact on the Lebanese political scene early on, though for some 20-years they controlled communist political activity in both Lebanon and Syria.

When it formed a well-trained militia in the 1970s, however, the LCP established itself as a major military force during the civil war and
Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. For Yassin, this latter period represented a “struggle for all humanity, not for one group or sect” -- a non-sectarian concept peculiar to the communist struggle that still exists in a country deeply split by ideological divisions.

Through his own experiences as a political prisoner, Yassin pours scorn on the harsh treatment received by those Iraqis who were incarcerated by the US at Abu Ghraib, describing it as “Jewish punishment with an American flavour”.

“The Israelis are more clever when it comes down to punishing prisoners,” adds Yassin. “They (the Israelis) try to do it in secret, while the Americans like to tell everybody what they’re doing, as they believe that this shows them to be a free and democratic country.”

Despite spending half his life in prison for his political activities, Yassin’s strong views have not diminished, and though he has no intention of returning to politics, he is ultimately unwavering in his attitude towards a country he has always considered a sworn enemy.

“We will always fight for liberation,” he says. “The Palestinians, for example, are just a people who are struggling for their own identity and their right to exist. We are not against human beings -- I’m not against the Israeli people. But Israel is our enemy, and will always be our enemy, until we attain liberation for the Arab people.”