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PULLOUT FROM LEBANON

Withdrawal Is Especially Sweet for Freed Prisoners of Khiam

Jubilation: Thousands of residents storm facility, using axes and crowbars to break out 140 incredulous inmates, some held for 10 years without trial.

May 25, 2000|JOHN DANISZEWSKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KHIAM, Lebanon — For Hussein Akil, the day started much like hundreds of previous days in Khiam prison, with the same breakfast of bread and jam and long hours of idleness ahead.

Already the 21-year-old resistance fighter was approaching his third anniversary as an inmate in one of the Middle East's most notorious prisons. His sentence for building bombs to attack Israelis was open-ended; he might never get out. The only relief from the mind-numbing boredom was two hours of outdoor exercise once a week.

But if Tuesday began ordinarily enough, its ending was anything but normal. Before the day was over, 3,000 town residents had stormed Khiam prison and freed the approximately 140 inmates. They used axes and crowbars to break the locks on the prisoners' fetid cells and in wild scenes of jubilation pulled and dragged the incredulous inmates out into the light.

"We had absolutely no idea," the slim, bearded Akil recounted Wednesday at the prison. "We knew Israel was supposed to withdraw on July 7, but we did not know that it was happening already."

The prison sits on a rise above Khiam, only a few miles from the Israeli border. The facility, with its low-slung, dun-colored buildings surrounded by barbed wire and high concrete walls, was established in the early days of the Israeli occupation in 1978.

For years, the prison run by the Israeli-backed South Lebanon Army, or SLA, has been a target of human rights groups, based on allegations of routine torture at the facility and the lack of any system of formal charges and sentencing for the people in jail here. Many of its inmates had been held for as long as 10 years without trial. Israel long disclaimed involvement in running the prison but last year acknowledged in court that it had trained Khiam's interrogators.

The liberation of Khiam prison was one of the most symbolically powerful events to take place during this extraordinary week in southern Lebanon, illustrating how unexpectedly and quickly 22 years of Israeli occupation could unravel. The inmates, who had been imprisoned mainly for fighting Israel and its Lebanese proxy militia, emerged as heroes in a country now rid of both.

After the prison guards ran away, the new master of this area--the Hezbollah guerrilla movement--moved quickly Wednesday to admit journalists into the prison and show the world the abysmal conditions faced by the inmates.

Hezbollah put up a banner just inside the prison gate that read: "By the blood of the martyrs, the help of the heroes and the patience of the prisoners, Lebanon has won its liberty."

The prison seemed destined to become one of the area's hottest tourist attractions, with Lebanese jamming all the approaches and peering past Hezbollah militiamen surrounding the empty facility, hoping to get a glimpse inside. An ice cream vendor set up shop at the end of the driveway.

"They shouldn't put animals in a place like that, and they put human beings there," Akil's father, Assad, told a Lebanese TV interviewer before walking through the prison with his son.

The walk took Akil, his father and a small group of reporters to Room 3 of Cellblock 4. The room is about 10 yards long and 7 feet wide, filled with 10 bunk beds and a two-hole toilet in a small room at one end. The cell has a dank, sour smell, and Akil said that rain routinely poured in during the winter.

Akil said that he was not physically tortured after his arrest but that most other inmates were. They were freezing during the cold weather, and only got out of the cell once a week in summer and once every two weeks in winter.

"This is not a room. This is a grave," his father said.

In his case, the younger Akil said, psychological torture was used rather than physical abuse. He said he was put in solitary confinement soon after his arrest, and then he was told by a masked interrogator that his mother was next door and was about to be raped if he did not tell his interrogators everything.

"In the beginning, it is very hard," Akil said. "When you are isolated you cannot make out the difference between right and wrong. But after a while, you get back your confidence and can get the upper hand."

Not knowing when or if his son would be freed was also a form of torture for the family, said Akil's father, a teacher in Khiam. He said there were many nights that he would cry himself to sleep, wondering if he would live to see Akil free.

Faced Tuesday by a loud, clamoring crowd of more than 3,000 people and no longer able to call on Israel for help, the 20 to 30 SLA guards at the prison had little choice but to leave, the elder Akil said.

The senior guards talked to the leaders of the throng and struck a deal: If they were allowed safe passage, the people of Khiam could have the prison and the prisoners.

"They were shouting 'God is great!' " said Hussein Akil, recounting what he had heard from inside his cell. The prisoners finally realized what was happening and responded by banging on their doors in reply. Then came the moment of being freed.

The first thing Akil did was to walk to his grandmother's house about 500 yards away.

"I feel very happy," Akil said. "I feel that this has been a very powerful victory for us. But now, I mostly want to live as an ordinary Lebanese citizen."

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