Woman Forges New Life After Two Years in Israeli-Run Prison

Israel's divisive tactics pit Lebanese against each other

Ms. X looks too young to be a prison veteran. But she spent two years in Khiam prison, a notorious symbol of Israel's 19-year occupation of southern Lebanon.

Ms. X was never charged with a crime, only tortured for information about acquaintances who might be resisting the occupation by Israel's military forces.

But one thing made her incarceration worse: Like Ms. X, her torturer was also Lebanese - a "collaborator" working for the Israelis.

Now, growing Israeli casualties in southern Lebanon have sparked debate in Israel about pulling out from the zone it has occupied in order to protect its northern towns and villages from attack. But it is becoming clear to those living here that even if a withdrawal comes, it may be this legacy of division - of Lebanese fighting against Lebanese - that will be the hardest to overcome.

Often neglected as neighboring Arab states and Israel search for a Mideast peace, Lebanon's fractured south, occupied by Israelis and their Lebanese proxies who run the prison, could remain unsettled long after Israeli troops are gone.

A daily reminder

Ms. X, for example, sees her torturer and his children nearly every day on the streets.

"The main problem will be collaborators," she says of the eventual withdrawal. "I may hate my interrogator - I see him in the street - but I don't hate his children. I have nothing against them."

Though Ms. X says she holds no grudges, she expects the government of Lebanon to punish those responsible for her torture. If they don't, then her time in jail would be "wasted in vain." Her words are calm but strong, tempered by the several years that have passed since she was behind bars.

"I hate them not because they are Israelis," she says, her fingers still and without emotion, "but because they have taken away part of your own country; because they hire your own people to be enemies against each other."

Ms. X asks to remain anonymous because she still lives in the area Israel calls its "security zone" - which it took over in 1978.

Burned into her memory is the day she was released from prison. Before she was let go, Ms. X was forced to sign a document, which she wasn't allowed to read, that obligated her to inform Israeli agents of anything she might see or hear.

If she didn't, she was warned, she would be locked away for good.

After more than two years of torture, interrogation, and other "pressure" that has earned Khiam a dark reputation, she signed. The Red Cross was prevented from visiting the facility for years.

Of her time in jail, she says: "In the beginning, you have high hopes because you are not guilty." But hope begins to fade, she says, because "month after month there is nothing new."

But later in her detention, the torture - mental and physical - began.

Electrical charges were applied to her fingers. Blindfolded and on her knees, she was threatened with rape if she didn't divulge everything she knew about everybody she knew.

Israeli military authorities have always denied responsibility for abuses at Khiam, where a faded road sign points innocuously toward the hilltop prison. They say that only their South Lebanon Army (SLA) militia allies have information about the 145 or so Lebanese and other Arabs who are inside the walls.

Inmates are mostly anti-Israel guerrillas, and villagers who refuse to pay taxes to the SLA or allow their sons to be conscripted into the militia.

Families have been torn by the conflict, some with sons divided between the Lebanese Army, headquartered in Beirut, and the pro-Israel SLA. Many are forced to join to make money: For every soldier in the SLA, Israel grants his family one permit to work in Israel.

Preparing for a withdrawal

As if in preparation for an eventual pullout, however, Israeli officials are reported to be arranging visas and asylum for SLA security commanders in countries like Canada to protect them from reprisals by their fellow Lebanese.

But the damage the Israelis and their collaborators may leave behind is felt in the anguish of villagers such as Ms. X. She promised herself she would live a low-profile life so she never has to return to Khiam. She lives in "a quiet way," she says.

"You decide not to be so sentimental, to be objective, and realize how important it is to be free."

Still, Ms. X has a recurring nightmare that she is once again locked up at Khiam, forever. She punishes herself for breaking her own promises.

"The physical torture is nothing, you could forget it in a day," she says. "But the period you spend affects your whole life. [The Israelis] are not doing this the right way, because they are using Lebanese against Lebanese."

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