"We will not be satisfied with empty talk. It is not sufficient, that the Arab and Islamic world stands in solidarity with us in words alone. The tongue does not liberate anything...
As for the Western regimes – there is nothing worse. Look at the UK. They know what has been going on here and are the original cause of our plight... Of course, to all those who speak about civilization and are for human rights, and who ask that there be an end to injustice in the world, we ask that they stand with [us]."
After 33 years in captivity, Fakhri Barghouti returned to his people and his family as part of the Gilad Shalit deal in September 2011. He shared with Al-Akhbar the painful memories of a lifetime of loss, struggle, hope, and defiance.
Toufic Haddad: How did you get involved in the national movement? What were the motivating factors in your life that led to this life choice?
Fakhri Barghouti: No one starts off being a national devotee. It's not like this is something that comes pre-packaged, but is rather something that takes place slowly with the accumulation of experience as one's individual awareness of life under occupation comes into focus...
This is one of the most difficult things for a human to do – to force himself not to eat, even though the prison administration puts food right in front of you. It is a much more difficult form of struggle than being in an active front, where you shoot or what not.This was our family's situation, which seemed constantly unstable, and which began to develop within me. I began to feel that had it not been for the Israeli occupation and all that it did in terms of oppressing us – how they took our land, how they arrested and killed, how their policies affected old and the young - none of this would have happened. This is how I became conscious of the national issue growing up, and also how I saw it as an avenue through which I could do something about it.I began to get involved in various nationalist activities, often related to commemorative nationalist occasions, doing what I could. At the time, I had a relative named Abu Assef [Omar Barghouti], who I grew up with and was very close to. He helped find a way for me to get to Lebanon and get some military training with one of the groups up there. It was there that I learned what I needed to, and I returned to Palestine after about a year with a little experience, and a clearer agenda for work. I began working more concertedly on the social level, opening up associations, coordinating with unions and different groups.
At one stage we decided to take it to another level, and engaged in a military operation where I was involved in a cell which killed an Israeli military intelligence officer near the village of Nabi Saleh [near Ramallah]. The army closed off the entire village, which bore the brunt of the oppression, as we hid in nearby undergrowth. But as it got dark, and because it was January and raining, we were able to escape, owing to the fact that the army could not trace our path of escape. We left and were able to return to our village.
After six months and various other developments, we were eventually arrested: Abu Assef, Abu Nour [Nael al-Barghouti] and myself. Abu Assef was given a life sentence and 48 years, while Abu Nour and I were given one life term and 17 years a piece. I was 24 years old when I was arrested [in 1978].
TH: Can you describe how your life changed? Did you think that you would remain in prison your whole life?
FB: Everything changed. It was a new life, new thinking. Daily life became preoccupied with how to survive under the new conditions that prison imposed -- how to keep yourself sane and how to help others cope. We needed as political prisoners to be able to remain united and focused, and not allow for chaos to reign, especially amongst the new prisoners. You have no option but to try and remain steadfast and to preserve yourself. We did this by organizing educational sessions, setting up a physical fitness routine, and setting up a social routine to get to know the other prisoners, and hear their concerns...
The right to smoke every cigarette in prison was only won through struggle. You need to remain steadfast. You need to preserve your dignity no matter what the cost. Because if you lose your dignity, it's not a commodity that you can just replace. If you lose your dignity, everything is lost. So your whole existence in prison is oriented around not breaking. As much as they try to break you, you resist, and preserve your dignity and honor. Thank God, I feel, I was able to do that.
TH: Can you speak of the transformations that took place in prison throughout the long period that you remained there? How did life compare before and after the Oslo peace process?
FB: Up until around 1990, the morale of the prisoners was very high, measured in their dedication to the cause and to remaining self-consciously organized. But when Oslo came, and the leadership came from abroad, and the political situation appeared to be opening up, the prisoners stayed in prison. This had a strong impact upon us. We felt it was us, who had paid the price for the leadership to return, but we were abandoned by them...
TH: Can you speak of how prison affected your family personally?
FB: I was put in prison when my eldest son [Shadi] was 11 months old, and when my second [Hadi] was in the womb of his mother. When the army came to take me, they ransacked Shadi's crib where he was sleeping and turned over everything in the house. From the beginning the pressure was great.
The kids grew older and Hadi married and had two children of his own while I was inside. I left Shadi behind in prison. The two most difficult of times in my life were when I first met my two sons in prison after each were arrested, and they were placed in the same cell as me; the second was when I had to say good-bye, and leave Shadi behind.
I really got to know my sons as men, only after they joined me in prison, because after each became16 years old, the prison prevented them from being able to come on family visits. One morning the prison administration approached me at 7am and told me that my two sons would join me at four o'clock in the afternoon. Between those hours, all time stopped moving. Other prisoners asked me, 'how do you feel,' and I refused to respond, because the pain and heaviness was too great. My nerves were hyperactive, and my head was spinning. How was I going to react? What was I going to feel? I tried to control myself but I could do nothing, as the feelings overwhelmed me.
Everyone knows in conflict situations that before any negotiations after a cease-fire takes place, the first issue addressed is the question of prisoners. It is never put on the back burner while all other issues are negotiated.When four o'clock came, and I heard the guards begin to open the first door, it was my heart that was opening, not just the door. When they opened the second door, my nerves gave way and I collapsed losing all ability to control myself. I felt I was in a pool of water, as the sweat was dripping off of me. The other prisoners tried to calm me, but for naught. All the prisoners in our division began to cry. No one could bear the situation. It was very, very difficult. Till today, I don't like to talk about it, because I feel it negatively affects me personally...Before that point, I had not seen either of them for the previous six years, when they had been allowed to visit me.When it came time to leave prison, I knew I had to leave Shadi behind [Shadi is serving the eighth year of a 28 year sentence, and is alleged to have been involved in plans to capture an Israeli soldier to use in a prisoner exchange; Hadi had been released after three and a half years of detention]. It was as though matters, instead of starting over again from the beginning, were now starting from the end.
When I was about to be set free and it came time to say good-bye to him, I wanted to get it over with quickly so I could maintain a sense of balance. So I kept it short, and he walked with me the last 150 meters. I didn't want him to walk with me, but he did. I tried to remain strong, until we got to the door that I needed to depart from. That was the moment most difficult in my life. He got down on his knees and began to kiss my feet....
When I first got into prison, I could see them occasionally on the visits they were permitted when growing up as children. Then I saw them when they were in prison with me. But, when I was about to leave I felt I was never going to see Shadi again, because I knew I would be prevented from visitation. I feared, that in truth, it might be the last time that I see him...[weeps]
Every human has his point of weakness...The essence of being human, is remaining sensitive. If one cannot feel for ones family and those closest to you, how can you feel for others? If a person allows his sense of feeling to be taken away, then you are no longer human.
TH: The Arab and Islamic world, together with large parts of the 'third world,' largely support the Palestinian cause. But the West knows little of the people here. What is your message to them?
FB: We will not be satisfied with empty talk. It is not sufficient, that the Arab and Islamic world stands in solidarity with us in words alone. The tongue does not liberate anything. And the tongue also has many twists. We want a position from the Arab states and the Arab people in general, that supports the clear, original, and historic principles of our movement as an Arab and Islamic cause, and that they undertake their responsibility in this regard.
The Arab regimes today are all preoccupied with maintaining power and destroying their oppositions – and have nothing to do with taking any positions vis-a-vis our cause, be it on a nationalist, Islamic, or moral basis. But eventually they will all be kicked out. Hopefully what they call the "Arab Spring" will be able to accomplish this.
As for the Western regimes – there is nothing worse. Because they know the truth, and it's not as though they are ignorant. Look at the UK. They know what has been going on here and are the original cause of our plight. The US too, knows everything great and small about what goes on here, even better than the Palestinians themselves. But it is they who have interest in the situation remaining as it is.
Of course, to all those who speak about civilization and are for human rights, and who ask that there be an end to injustice in the world, we ask that they stand with those whose land, nationhood, and resources are stolen every day. We ask that they stand with us, for the purpose of liberating us from this. Because we are the last people on earth who are under occupation. They need to hear this and take a firm stance to end this.
Original article by Toufic Haddad in Al Akhbar 15 November 2011