Lebanon: Tales from Behind the Bars

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A prisoner watches over the graduation ceremony for 97 inmates who had enrolled in study courses, in Roumieh prison. (Photo: Marwan Tahtah)

By: Radwan Mortada

Published Friday, September 28, 2012

In the hallways of Roumieh prison, the nature of the inmates crimes are soon forgotten, save for the collaborators. There are some who profess their innocence and bemoan the injustice done to them, and others who readily admit their guilt.

Visiting Roumieh prison with a group of reporters, the inmates constantly approach us, trying to grab our hands to get our attention. Each one of them was vying for our time. They all had stories they wanted to tell.

The graduation ceremony for 97 inmates who had enrolled in study courses – including literacy, computer, skills and drawing courses – dragged on in the prison courtyard. The student-prisoners were sitting on a stage, dressed in blue graduation robes. Some of them were silent, preoccupied with their thoughts, while others chatted or sat listening to the speeches.

The speakers here included, among others, the chairman of the Association of Justice and Mercy Father Hadi al-Ayya, the warden of the Roumieh Central Prison Colonel Amer Zeilaa, and the Minister of Social Affairs Wael Abu Faour.

On the rear side of the stage there were other prisoners, trying to avoid the camera lights, although they still wanted to talk about their concerns and problems.

One inmate was unhappy about having the ceremony, which he saw as “pompous drivel.” Another prisoner spoke up and tried to prove in numbers and figures what he termed “the extravagance and wastefulness” of the event.

He claimed that the stage must have cost a lot of money, even if it were rented. He went on to say, “The buffet alone must have cost $5,000.”

We asked him, “What does it bother you so much, maybe it was a gift or a donation?” So he cut to the chase and said, “The water and sewage pipes have been broken for a while, and it wouldn’t cost more than $200 to fix them.” Then he added, “Why does no one donate some money to repair them? Let them give up 2 kilos of sweets if they have to.”

Another told us that most prisoners had refused to come down to the ceremony because they were sick of exploitation by the media without getting anything in return.

When we asked him to elaborate, he said, “Last time, we told Minister Abu Faour that all that we wanted was cockroach and rat poison, as these vermin are everywhere.” Abu Faour promised to get them what they wanted, but then “months went by, and the minister still sent nothing.”

They complained that “rats now outnumber the inmates in the prison’s corridors.”

We tried to retake control of the conversation, as some went on long diatribes about their personal problems, especially since they all spoke together at once; but we failed.

We then left, shaking their hands, and resumed our tour. A Syrian inmate asked us to tell the warden to stop bringing in smugglers who take weapons to the Syrian opposition and regime opponents, “because we do not want them in our midst.”

We asked whether there were any prisoners from the radical Islamist group Fatah al-Islam among the graduates. An inmate replied, with an air of disgust, “There are collaborators [with Israel] among them. Look, there is Mahmoud Rafeh and Jawdat al-Hakim.”

Another prisoner interjected to say that he was supposed to be among the graduates, but that he refused to sit with them after learning that there were going to be 15 convicted collaborators among them.

One of them pointed us in the direction of Mahmoud Rafeh, but he refused to take us to him. “He is a spy for Israel, and his kind are outcasts here,” this prisoner tells us confidently, although he is Syrian – not Lebanese.

Only a few meters separated us from the Israeli spy Mahmoud Rafeh, one of the most notorious Lebanese collaborators. Rafeh had not changed much since he appeared in military court. He just lost some weight.

For a few hours, we became the prisoners’ guests in one of Roumieh courtyards. The reporters asked them many questions about their lives in prison, but none of the prisoners bothered to ask about the outside world.

They seemed to be up to date on everything. They watch all kinds of TV shows, and they follow up on anything and everything in the media. The journalists and prisoners got to know one another, in some cases exchanging phone numbers to stay in contact.

To the left of the courtyard, one prisoner was sitting alone. His solitude intrigued us. Unlike his peers, he seemed uninterested in the visitors. We deliberately passed nearby him, pretending to take a look at the prison windows where blankets and clothes belonging to the prisoners were hanging.

Without turning to us, the prisoner started talking. “Look at Minister Abu Faour. He became a minister and I – a prisoner.”

We asked him whether he knew him, and he answered, “He was with me in the same class at La Lycée Franco-Arabe.”

“Why don’t you go greet him then?” we asked. “I am a scruffy prisoner. He wouldn’t be able to recognize me. It would not be right,” he replied. But a few seconds later, he changed his mind, and asked us, “Can you tell him I want to shake hands with him?”

We took him to the minister. The prisoner identified himself, “My name is Abdul-Moneim Awad, my brother and I went to the same school as you. We were together in the seventh grade.”

The minister laughed, and exclaimed, “I do not remember you.” Then he asked him the name of the school. Awad told him, but Abu Faour said, “I never went to that school.”

As the Minister of Social Affairs was about to leave, another inmate stopped him, and pointed to the roof where water was leaking: “The sewer pipe is killing us, why can’t you fix it?” The minister replied, laughing, “I have water leaking in my house too.”

The colorful stories did not end there. One prisoner sat with his injured leg stretched out on a chair. He told us he is a member of the so-called military wing of the Mokdad clan.

When we asked him about the others, he told us that Maher and Hassan Mokdad were being held in a room by themselves in the same building.

“What about the rest of the Mokdad prisoners?” we asked. “They are all here, and they are all fine,” he replied.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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