Free, scarred and barred from talking

People hold up posters with the pictures of four men.

Relatives of the four men abducted in Egypt in 2015 protest at the Rafah border for their freedom. The men were released earlier this year after four years.

Stringer APA images

When Abdullah Abu Jabin, 26, called me to sit with him by Gaza’s sea in time for sunset I didn’t hesitate.

Abdullah had been my neighbor in Jabaliya refugee camp. He was also the younger brother of one of my best friends.

Mostly, I was hugely curious to hear him tell his story. After all, at the time of the call, he had only been free for a couple of months.

Abdullah was among four members of Hamas’ armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, abducted by unidentified gunmen in the Egyptian Sinai in 2015 from a bus heading to Cairo International Airport.

They became known in Gaza as the four abductees and they were finally released in February of this year along with four other prisoners. Yet as I was to find out, a condition of their release – which had been mediated between the Egyptian authorities and Hamas in Gaza – was that they would not speak to the media about their detention.

That, of course, suggested that their detention was not a random act in the lawless Sinai, where the Egyptian military has been battling an insurgency for years, but an act of the state.

And while Abdullah and the other three who were detained with him – Abdeldayim Abu Libdah, Yasir Zannoun and Hussein al-Zibdah – were unwilling to talk on the record about their years in captivity, others were much less hesitant.

“I want people to know”

Along with the four abductees, the Egyptian authorities also released another four prisoners who had been held on criminal charges: Wasim Abu Jalila, Abdel Rahman Mustafa, Salem Sheikh al-Eid and Abdel Aziz Abu Khatla.

Wasim Abu Jalila, 27, works in the cigarette trade.

Unlike Abdullah, and because release conditions didn’t pertain to him, Wasim was not shy to talk about what happened to him.

“I want people to know, even if it causes me to never leave Gaza again,” he told The Electronic Intifada at home one day some three months after his release.

He was referring to the possibility that the Egyptian security services might not approve any future travel request through the Rafah crossing in the south, the main exit route for most Palestinians in Gaza.

Wasim was arrested in August 2018, he said. He spent 210 days in two separate Egyptian prisons after being accused, but never convicted, of weapons smuggling.

He denies the charge, but that did not stop the Egyptian authorities from sending him to what he described as a secret military intelligence prison for 140 days of solitary confinement.

This secret prison also had a secret wing that even most of the guards didn’t know about, Wasim claimed. He said he learned about this from an Egyptian officer with whom he struck up a relationship during his imprisonment.

“Most of those who worked in the prison didn’t know about the secret prison inside the place except for some Egyptian officers.”

Wasim also alleged he had been tortured during his incarceration, including with electric shocks.

The account of his imprisonmment and torture comes from Wasim. But Egypt has long been censured by human rights organizations for “systematic, widespread” use of torture, including the use of electric shocks and even rape.

Wasim said his left shoulder was broken and his right shoulder was dislocated. He spent, he said, nearly three months, with his hands tied behind his back, released only to eat.

“There were no mattresses,” Wasim told The Electronic Intifada. “I slept on the floor. The room was very dark and I never saw sunlight.”

He was given two bottles, he said, one for water, another for urinating in. He had one meal a day, usually a plate of pasta and a piece of bread.

The prison grapevine

While he was there, Wasim heard news about the four abductees.

A fellow prisoner with a Libyan accent, charged with drug smuggling, was known to him only as Abu Jamal. He told Wasim that a special area had been prepared for the four abductees.

According to Abu Jamal, the four had been held in the same prison, separately from other prisoners, before being sent elsewhere.

“They were detained alone and no one got close to them,” Wasim told The Electronic Intifada.

From time to time, the prisoners heard the noise of airplanes, and according to the prison grapevine, the prison was regularly visited by foreign intelligence agencies.

A prisoner accused of being a member of the Islamic State group, by the name of Abu Saber, told Wasim he was certain he had been interrogated by American CIA officers.

While these claims could not be verified by The Electronic Intifada, allegations of prisoners being interrogated by CIA officers are not new. For years after the 11 September 2001 attacks, Egypt was a favored destination for the CIA’s rendition program and its long reach.

A Qassam Brigades source, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Electronic Intifada that the Brigades believe Israeli officers handled the interrogation of the four abductees during their detention because they were suspected of being members of a special Qassam commando unit about which Israel has little information.

He added that the Qassam Brigades believe the arrests in the Sinai occurred at the behest of Israel.

Under Abdulfattah al-Sisi, the Egyptian president who came to power in the 2013 coup, Egyptian-Israeli military cooperation has reached new heights, especially in the Sinai. Israeli jets have reportedly been involved in more than 100 airstrikes inside of Egypt on behalf of the Egyptian government.

And while Israeli interrogation of suspects in Egyptian detention has not been reported before, Israeli officials have told media that they’ve never had a more “pro-Israeli Egyptian leader” in Cairo.

Whatever happened in questioning, according to Wasim’s account, the detention of the four Qassam members was brutal. Prison rumors abounded that the four had been subjected to mental and physical torture so bad the authorities had to rehabilitate them before they were released.

The February release came, said the Qassam source, as part of a deal between Hamas and Egypt that saw Hamas pass some 150 suspected members of the Islamic State group to Egyptian custody.

Finding his bearings

Wasim said it was his responsibility to talk about his time in detention. Newly married, he said that in the future he would not spare his children what he saw then nor avoid mention of how his health deteriorated and he ended up in the Egyptian General Intelligence headquarters at al-Marj in Cairo.

“I’ll tell every person that asks. I was arrested for something I never did. I work with cigarettes, not weapons.”

Abdullah Abu Jabin is finding it much harder to return to a normal existence. When he got out, he was pale. Most of his teeth were broken.

He invited me to the beach not to tell me for publication what happened to him. He is prohibited from doing so under the terms of the agreement between Egypt and Hamas. He invited me because he wanted my help to write a personal account of his time in Egyptian detention.

The document is to remain private until such a time as it might be published, if ever.

From that day on, we’ve sat together regularly. Abdullah notes down some random memory of his time in captivity, and I help him work it into prose.

He often says he feels he needs “20 years to write what happened to me in four.”

I am sympathetic. Though I can’t reveal much, having reviewed Abdullah’s diary, I can tell you the savagery he suffered is shocking.

He has permitted me to convey some sense of what happened to him.

“Imagine,” he once said of his time in detention, “hearing a man, an adult, a man in his 40s, in a room next to you crying. Just crying. You know it is because of torture. Now imagine that you know that at any moment, you are next.”

Abdullah is trying to live a normal life. In July he married, and now his wife is pregnant.

“I can’t believe I’m free,” he told me one day, not in a manner suggesting joy at his liberty, but one suggesting genuine perplexity.

“I can’t believe I am married and that, soon, I’ll be a father. All of this was just a dream while I was in prison.”

The Bermuda desert

Traveling through Egypt has become a dangerous business for Palestinians from all walks of life.

Reports of detentions in Egypt have become commonplace, though many are afraid to talk to the media for fear that they will never see their relatives again.

The online Hamas-linked news site al-Resala has documented some of these cases, and others have received quite a bit of attention.

Some, like Ahmad Muhawesh, will never return. The father of two, a member of the Qassam Brigades who was injured in a 2007 Israeli attack on Maghazi refugee camp in the central Gaza Strip where he lived, was found dead in the Sinai in March.

His body showed signs that he had been murdered, his brother Muhammad told The Electronic Intifada. Muhammad said he believes his brother had been arrested by the Egyptian military.

“We lost connection with Ahmad for a week before he was found. A source told us that he had been arrested.”

And a number of Palestinian graduates from Malaysia, many with doctorates, have also been detained. Those released to Gaza generally refuse to talk about their detentions.

The Electronic Intifada found one person who would talk, but on condition of anonymity.

A professor of engineering, who had just completed his PhD in Malaysia, evaded arrest only by chance when he stayed at a friend’s apartment in Cairo in 2016 on his way back to Gaza.

The man took no chances when he understood how close he had come to being detained. He immediately booked a ticket back to Malaysia, where he remains to this day.

“There’s an Egyptian policy of arresting Gazan graduates from Malaysia in some specialties. Many students here in Malaysia are afraid to return to Gaza,” the professor told The Electronic Intifada.

For Palestinians then, the Sinai has become like the Bermuda triangle: Once Rafah has been crossed, you don’t know what will happen or if you will ever return.

Abdullah did return. He is scarred but determined to process his experience.

Wasim also returned. He is angry. And he’ll tell you and anyone who will listen.