HUMAN PAWNS IN A SORDID GAME
In southern Lebanon's notorious El Khiam prison, freedom is tied to
of the Western hostages
Five men kneel motionless in the windowless cell as they await inspection
the guards. Only a faint light glows from the single electric bulb hanging
in the corridor. Thin rubber mattresses with small gray blankets cover the
10-ft. by 13-ft. concrete floor, and the air reeks of sweat. There are no
personal effects, no furniture, only a small jar of water and a big plastic
can that alternates as a toilet and a washbasin.
At El Khiam prison in southern Lebanon, 304 men and women are held in
cells by the South Lebanon Army, the Israeli-sponsored 2,500-man militia
that rules Israel's self-proclaimed security zone. Most of the prisoners are
Lebanese Shi'ites. Many are members of Hizballah caught while attempting to
attack SLA positions and patrols or Israeli border settlements. Some were
arrested by the SLA security apparatus for interrogation. None have ever
been charged or tried. Some will be released if their interrogators decide
they are innocent. But for most, the only chance to get out will come when
someone makes a deal to swap them for Israeli and SLA soldiers--and probably
some of the Western hostages held by Hizballah. And Hizballah is not
considered likely to free the remaining hostages in Beirut until the gates
of El Khiam swing open. There is no sign of a break in the impasse.
Although El Khiam is under the formal control of the SLA and its General
Antoine Lahad, Israel holds the ultimate authority. TIME'S visit was only
the second permitted to journalists in six years. Israeli officials
apparently hoped the publicity would remind Hizballah that Israel and the
SLA hold high cards in the hostage game--and are ready to deal.
"I know I am a bargaining chip," says Ibrahim bazi, 27, a Hizballah
from the town of Bint Jebeil. Like all the other prisoners, his black hair
is cropped short and he wears a dark blue uniform and plastic slippers. His
unshaven face reveals little emotion. "My only hope is that all hostages
will be released and that I will be part of the deal."
El Khiam has a reputation for torture and abuse. The Israelis deny any
responsibility. "It is a Lebanese jail under the authority of General
Lahad," says Uri Lubrani, in charge of Lebanese affairs for the Israeli
Defense Ministry. "If we ask him to provide us and some 120,000 Lebanese
with security, we have to let him do it his way." In its 1986 annual report,
Amnesty International quoted ax-prisoners as saving those held at El Khiam
were beaten with fists and thick electric cable during interrogations.
Prisoners were allegedly hooded and handcuffed, stripped and soaked with
water and subjected to electric shocks.
Well-informed Israeli sources say the report was accurate through 1986,
Israel still occupied parts of Lebanon and its officials looked the other
way. But after Israel pulled out and established the security zone, the
politicians in Jerusalem realized that the world was holding them
responsible for the behavior of their Lebanese proteges. The army sent
experts to teach Lahad's men how to run a proper jail and to instruct them
in sophisticated interrogation methods to minimize the use of torture and
Inmates describe their interrogation, which usually lasts between 20
days, as the most difficult experience of their life. Yet they seem
curiously unbowed. Says Hassan Mohammed Nasser, who describes himself as an
active member of a radical fundamentalist faction called Believers
Resistance: "I was beaten from time to time, but that was not hard for me."
He has been imprisoned for 19 months, but says he was not tortured or
The interrogators contend that violence and force are largely ineffective.
"We can get the inmate to confess whatever we want, but that is not what we
need," says the chief interrogator, a Lebanese Christian. "The best way to
get reliable intelligence is through dialogue and cooperation. We show them
how senseless it is and how harmful for them and for their families it will
be to withhold information from us." But harsher methods are also common.
"Since I have been here, no one has been tortured or treated with electric
shocks," says the interrogator. "Beatings, yes. From time to time we beat
them, but this is on rare occasions, only with our hands and never in a way
that makes the inmate a cripple or kills him."
Even harder on the prisoners is their isolation. They are not allowed
read or write. The only news from the outside is brought by new detainees.
"In the four years since I arrived here I haven't heard a radio or read a
paper or a book," says Ali Ra'ad, 27, from the village of Jabah. "Sometimes
I hear shooting, sometimes I hear helicopters, but I don't know who is
fighting whom and why. I am completely cut off from the rest of the world."
Ali says he has been interrogated and beaten. He has told his captors
little he knows. But for prisoners like him there is little hope of freedom
anytime soon. "Please ask General Lahad to pardon me. or tell the leaders of
Amal to do something to secure my release," he pleads. But the guards put a
dark blue hood over his head and cuff his hands to lead him back to his
cell, where he will sit and wait until the lead actors in the ugly hostage
affair decide to play their cards.
By RON BEN-YISHAI EL KHIAM