Mohammad Safa: From an Israeli Prison to the United Nations

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Safa recalls the process leading to the Red Cross entering the Khiam Detention Center in 1995. It was his first triumph. (Photo: Haitham Moussawi)

By: Ali Sakka

Published Friday, May 25, 2012

Mohammad Safa is a veteran of Ansar detention center set up by Israel during its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Since his stint at Ansar, he has become one of the most prominent advocates for prisoners, detainees and the missing in Lebanon.

Mohammad Safa is not tired of organizing activities and events on issues that have become to many a mere memory.

Lebanese Prisoner Day on July 14, Arab Prisoner Day on April 22 and Teacher Detainee Day on November 7 are anniversaries that Safa commemorates regularly. He believes that the state should officially celebrate these occasions.

The author of “One Hundred Days in Ansar Detention Center,” written in 1983 under the pseudonym Saadoun Hasan, says that the issue of Lebanese detainees in Israeli prisons is not over yet. “No one can close the file as long as the remains of one detainee are still in Israel,” he insists.

The cases he now follows are no longer restricted to those missing in Israel. They include the missing in Syrian and other Arab prisons, in addition to those who disappeared during the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990).

Safa also holds monthly meetings with mothers of detainees at the Khiam Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture (KRC). The center offers them health and psychological care, in addition to discussing the latest information on their children.

“This file will remain open since Lebanon experiences sectarian strife every now and then,” says Safa. For instance, the UN has requested a conclusive document from the center on the disappearance of [Syrian dissident] Shibli Eisami.

He does not receive any assistance from official agencies on the issue. “Of course not. None of the Lebanese authorities want to open this file. There is no political intention to resolve it,” Safa says.

He adds, “How can political powers that exercised acts of forced displacement, kidnapping and murder and who later rose to power acknowledge their actions?”

In any case, there are difficult tasks that he sought to accomplish but failed due to his modest resources. “Documentation of the struggle experience” is still a dream that has not been fulfilled.

This experiment “requires the creation of an entire foundation for its documentation. We will not be able to document the experience on our own. It spanned over three decades, since the first Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1978,” he says.

“Nevertheless, the center has in its collection thousands of handwritten documents that constitute a vast source of information if such a documentation project gets under way, especially after the destruction of Khiam Detention Center in July 2006,” Safa explains referring to the infamous Israeli jail near the southern Lebanese town of Khiam.

Safa’s recalls a long history of advocating for the issue of detainees, starting with the “Meeting for the Support of Ansar Detainees” in 1983. After the civil war, he went on to set up the “Follow-Up Committee for the Support of Lebanese Detainees in Israeli Prisons” in 1992.

A few years ago, he established the KRC where he continues to contribute to granting the issue of detainees an official and popular momentum after it was forgotten.

He recalls the process leading to the Red Cross entering the Khiam Detention Center in 1995. It was his first triumph.

Access to the detention center allowed for the exchange of letters between the detainees and their families as a first step. Later, permission was granted for family visits once a week.

Safa also followed the case of liberated detainees and pushed for legislation that would help them with their post-detention lives.

As a result, children of former detainees were exempted from registration fees at public schools and some were employed at ministries. The struggle did not end after liberation in 2000. Shortly after, he founded the Detainee Home in the south.

Currently, Khiam Center delegates also enter Lebanese prisons and offer health, social and psychological care for male and female prisoners.

Furthermore, the center was granted consultative status from the United Nations. This provides it with access to the UN in order to hold seminars and file reports about the conditions of prisons, detainees and the missing.

“After a long struggle, we now enter UN offices without permission, which has made Israelis very angry,” Safa quips.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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