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Vanunu: my story

Vanunu interview, Sunday Times (London)
30 May 04

THE INTERVIEW

Eighteen years after he was kidnapped and jailed for revealing Israel's nuclear bomb to the world, Mordechai Vanunu has given his first interview, reliving the terror of his abduction and the anguish of solitary confinement, which he suffered for more than a decade.

Under the terms of his release from prison, he spoke to an Israeli journalist, Yael Lotan, as he is barred from talking to foreigners.

The former technician at Dimona, Israel's nuclear centre in the Negev desert, vividly remembers the events of September 1986, after he had given his story to The Sunday Times. Growing increasingly frustrated as the newspaper checked out his disclosures before publication, he feared that Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, was closing in. Yet when the net was cast in a street in London's West End he fell into it.

When I arrived in London I thought to myself: be careful, don't engage or try to find any woman. But after two or three weeks I got interested in one. It was a honey trap. She was standing at a place to buy cigarettes when I saw her. She looked like a very nice woman, American, a little bit of a beauty, not tall or short, blonde hair.

We both walked on and came to a crossroads, where she stopped and I spoke to her. After crossing the street she went in one direction and I went in another, but after 50 yards I asked myself if she was interested in me. Go and ask her what she wants, I said to myself.

I caught up with her and asked her: who are you and what are you doing? We started talking. I was suspicious, and I asked her if she was a Mossad spy. "Oh no, no," she replied. "What is Mossad?"

She asked me my name. I said George, because that was the name I had registered under at the hotel - George Foresty.

"Oh you're not George," she replied.

So I told her who I really was and what I was doing in London.

I felt it was not about betraying Israel; it was about saving Israel from a new holocaust, because if they used nuclear weapons then their enemies would retaliate. By publishing Israel's nuclear secrets, the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons, you are preventing them from using them, because all the world will know and no one will let them use them.

My point was to bring the subject to the public, to open debate in Israel too, and to prevent any future war and make it very clear that war is not the way to solve problems - you have to solve the problem by peace.

Cindy - that was her name - said she was a tourist from Philadelphia, 26 years old. She was working as a beautician, and her father was a writer and her mother also a writer. Her parents were divorced.

When I told her about the delays by The Sunday Times she told me: " Come with me to New York, and I will help you with lawyers and good newspapers."

We started meeting day after day. We went to the cinema and saw a film, Witness, about a child who saw a murder case, and we went to a play, 42nd Street.

The Sunday Times knew I had found this woman. Peter Hounam, my main contact on the paper, told me many times: "Be careful, I don't trust her." Everyone was warning me, but I didn't understand why I should be suspicious of her. She was good company and affectionate. She used to kiss me a lot - all the time.

So another Sunday came and The Sunday Times still didn't publish the story. Cindy said she was going to Rome to visit her sister, and she wanted me to go with her.

I said no, but I changed my mind. I thought the Mossad was looking for me in London. If I went to Rome they would lose me, and I would come back to London after a few days. I decided not to tell Peter or the others on the newspaper.

She bought the tickets. We met in Victoria station and from there we took a taxi to the airport. I was not suspicious, nothing at all. I never suspected her because I was sure that if they wanted to kidnap me or do something they could do it in London. At that time I didn't understand that Italy was an open state. During the cold war many people were kidnapped there, and there were many spy games there. London was a harder place for Israel to act.

We landed in Rome, where she said her sister and a friend would meet us. Instead I saw an Italian with flowers coming towards us. We got into his car and he started driving us towards Rome very fast. We sat in the back. She diverted my attention with a lot of kissing until we reached a small house, not in Rome but maybe in a suburb.

As I followed her into the house two people jumped on me. They were behind the door; I didn't see them. One hit me in the stomach and, as I bent over, they got me to the ground and shut my mouth. A woman injected me. Cindy had disappeared.

I lost consciousness. I awoke on a large bed in my underwear. One man was on the left and the woman was on the other side trying to inject me. They couldn't find a vein. I pointed out the vein in the crook of my right arm. We didn't speak at all; I just pointed with my finger, no language.

They injected me again. I passed out once more. When I awoke they gave me my clothes, but I was drugged. I could walk and see, but I was not in control.

We left the house and returned to the car. I sat in the back between the two men. The woman who had injected me was in the front with the driver. Through the fog of the drug I decided that, when I woke up, I would try to cause some trouble. Maybe people who saw us fighting would try to stop the car.

After 20 minutes or half an hour I could feel the drug wearing off. The car came to a small village. When the driver started slowing down I jumped on him and tried to stop the car by causing an accident. Immediately the two men jumped on me; one hit me in the stomach again. I started shouting for help but one of the men said in Hebrew to the woman: "Inject him twice."

"It is very dangerous," she said.

"Do it."

She injected me and I passed out. I regained consciousness again when I felt the car driving over pebbles. The car stopped and I saw sea and a yacht, and a small commando boat coming towards us. It was night time.

From the commando boat six Israeli soldiers appeared. They put me on a stretcher, took me to the commando boat and ferried me to the yacht. I heard someone shouting in Hebrew: "Put him in the deputy's cabin."

In the morning I found myself chained by my hands and legs, and by another chain to the bed. When they brought me breakfast I told them to undo the chains so I could eat. They refused. I did not eat for 48 hours.

After two days I started eating and asked them: "Who are you? Where is this ship going? I want to meet the chief of this ship."

One said: "I am the chief." He said: "We here are French people, English and Israeli." But I was seven days on this boat and only saw three people - the two men who were with me in the car and the woman who injected me.

One was Israeli but we spoke in English. The other one was a Frenchman, not understanding English. I spoke to him a few words because I knew French. He had a scar on his left hand, maybe damaged in some activity or burnt. They didn't inject me any more. They even gave me a book I had in my bag, The History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell.

The ship took seven days to get back to Israel. In my view they didn't know what they were going to do. Maybe they were just sailing around, waiting to see if The Sunday Times would publish the article. I was also wondering what the paper would do. Were they going to publish it or not? I didn't know what would happen. Was this suffering going to be worth it?

[The Sunday Times had no idea that he had been kidnapped. While Hounam tried repeatedly to contact him, the newspaper completed its checks on the story and decided to go ahead and publish.]

On the Saturday night I felt the boat make a U-turn and get under way. Perhaps that was when The Sunday Times published the article, and they decided to bring me to Israel. We arrived at a beach, I think at Caesarea between Tel Aviv and Haifa - at least I saw the Roman wall there on the beach.

Two officers of Shin Beth [the Israeli security service] came to the boat, handcuffed me and took me away by stretcher.

They put me in a car, on the floor. The two men sat on the seats and started talking to me. One of them told me to thank God I was still alive. I don't know if he wanted to frighten me. They asked what The Sunday Times had given me. How much money had I received? (None.) Why had I become a Christian? I told them I didn't want to answer any questions without my lawyer.

We drove straight from the beach to Ashkelon prison where I was taken before a Shin Beth investigator. After a few minutes he put The Sunday Times on the table and said: "Look what you did."

The Sunday Times had at last published my revelations. At first I was very happy to see that I had succeeded. My mission was accomplished. Details would be in the papers all over the world. On the other hand, I knew they could take revenge against me.

I was kept in a very secret part of the prison. Nobody knew about me. They kept me for five days in a small cell without windows, only a mattress and nothing else. They didn't let me go outside to walk or see the sky.

The interrogation lasted only three days because I confirmed what I had done and why. I said I wanted to inform all the people of the Middle East, Arabs and Israelis, that Israel was producing nuclear weapons. I wanted them to know, and to prevent the future use of nuclear weapons.

They brought a nuclear scientist with whom I had worked at Dimona. We sat down and I decided to tell him everything I had published in the hope that I would make it clear to them that these secrets were out. He wanted to know what else I had told The Sunday Times, and I told him everything.

After one week in the prison I told the Shin Beth I wanted to meet a priest. That made them more angry and they started laughing and making me angry. I made it clear I was going to keep my Christianity. I asked for the Mezuzah [the religious symbol attached to the doorpost of Jewish homes] to be taken from my cell doorway.

They did not let me meet a lawyer for two weeks, and it was about five weeks before a judge forced them to admit they had me in custody. Since the kidnapping nobody had known where I was. They had wanted to keep me under "administrative arrest", which would have meant they could keep me in silence for one or two years. Now that it was out in the open that I was in Israel, I was moved from Shin Beth's hands to the main prison.

The Israeli public had no idea what had happened to me, so I decided to try to publicise my kidnapping. I wrote about it on my hand the first time I went to court, but then I thought there might be no journalists to see it so I erased it. It turned out that there were reporters there, so I wrote the message again on my next visit to court. On my palm I wrote that they had hijacked me in Rome, and on the underside of my fingers I wrote that Israel has plutonium, lithium, tritium, all the materials I told The Sunday Times about. But then I thought it was too much and would make them angry so I deleted it and left only the kidnapping message.

The prison guard checked but didn't realise there was anything. When I came to the court I pressed my hand to the window of the prison van and the journalists were surprised. They didn't know what was going on.The manager of the prison got very upset. Before going to court I had asked him to give me a pen. So he thought I had used it to write the message. I told him I hadn't. The prison authorities became very angry. They decided that every time I was going to the court to put a helmet on my head, a crash helmet. They shackled my hands to guards. I thought I would die without air in the helmet. I raised this in the court to the judge many times, but he didn't support me.

The first time I went to the court I had grown a beard. I then shaved, and they tried to get me to grow it again by not giving me a razor. They said I could use it to commit suicide, but it was really to force me to grow a beard. According to their psychology, if you grow a beard and cover your head you will become a rabbi. The people who saw me outside would think I was a Jewish man, a rabbi.

YL: You spent such a large chunk of your life behind closed doors and the first 11½ years in solitary confinement. How does one survive that?

I was charged with aggravated espionage and high treason. I was very disappointed and angry. I was not a traitor; I did not go to any enemy with my information. I didn't receive orders from any spy organisation. I didn't work as a spy. So I felt they just wanted to take revenge and to punish me as much as they could.

To move from being a free man, walking in the streets of London, to finding oneself in a cell is a huge fall - like falling from a very high building to the ground. You lose everything. But my case was also special. They put a lot of restrictions on me from the beginning. It was very hard to be alone - not to speak to anyone, to be under these restrictions. I decided I should do everything I could to keep my sanity. I told myself in the first days: "Whatever I do, I shall get out of this prison as strong in mind and body as I am now."

I gave myself another mission target, which was to survive. I dealt with any problem I faced in this situation. For example, I saw in the first few days that I could not speak with anyone. So I decided that I could speak by reading. I used to take the Bible in English to read it in a loud voice, or I prayed in a loud voice, or I was singing, humming. I decided to continue learning English, to listen to the BBC. I received a radio and used to receive the BBC World Service. I was already a vegetarian and decided to continue with this: to eat eggs but not meat. Also doing exercises in my cell.

Ashkelon prison had only Palestinian prisoners at that time. There were 600. I would walk in the courtyard when they were back in their cells. When I went through their sections to the courtyard I would see them in their cells and they would ask how I was. They used to leave me some tea and coffee and sent me some baklava each Ramadan. They gave it to the manager and the manager would bring it to me. So we established a very good relationship but we had no contact.

Most of the time my aim was to be alert. I was afraid that I would be under psychological brainwashing - that they could change my mind, put some new idea, a little idea here or there. So for 24 hours a day I was alert for what was happening and suspecting anything. That was my way to survive. The cell was about two metres by three metres, with a shower place and toilet there. It was in a part of the prison where many guards were coming and going - a lot of noise every night. It was a very narrow, small cell without air. The air only came from the window into the corridor. It had no other window to let in fresh air.

You had nothing to do every day, for 24 hours you were alone. You cannot go anywhere; you cannot come back. The first time you confront this situation is that you wake up in the morning at eight o'clock. You put on your clothes and shoes and you are not going anywhere. You are sitting on the bed eating your breakfast, and you realise your body cannot go.

Your mind does not understand this situation; it takes a long time to cope. You are wearing your clothes and shoes and not going anywhere, just sitting on the bed trying to read.

When I started a hunger strike it convinced the manager of the prison that I was going to commit suicide, so they wanted to protect me from myself by watching. They put a light on in my cell for 24 hours a day for two years. I could not sleep well with a light on all night and with a camera watching. After the light was turned off the games of the Shin Beth continued. It they wanted to disturb my sleeping, sometimes they sent a guard to check me every half hour - to come with a light to see if I was there, or if I had run away or would commit suicide. Disturbing sleep is one of the big ways of damaging the human mind.

We presented many petitions to the court about these conditions but Israel continued to demand I be in solitary confinement.

YL: Did you know your brother Meir was mounting an international campaign?

Yes. I received a lot of support and mail and information from him and others telling me what was going on. But it was very difficult. All that mail and support is no substitute for freedom - to walk free or see flowers, or eat as a human being, to speak to a human being.

After 11-1/2 years in solitary confinement your life is very difficult. You forget the past. Your brain is empty of all the images you have of the past. Watching only walls all day can damage the brain. I was very close to suffering damage to my senses, my reality.

Shin Beth and Mossad use a lot of psychology, very sophisticated brainwashing to destroy a man and damage his mind. They even cause damage by food. They know you are alone and you have no substitute for freedom, so they send you a lot of food to eat. When you are alone in the cell you can satisfy your anger by eating a lot of bread, eggs, cheese, fat, chocolate.

They send things that could destroy your health in the hope you get a heart attack or some other illness.

I noticed all this. Everything was under my suspicion. I survived by questioning why they did this or said that. But in spite of all my attempts to fight back, the lack of open space and fresh air was damaging my health. So they decided they couldn't keep me like this for 18 years. After 11½ years and two-thirds of my sentence, they decided I should be free to walk outside in the general prison area. That was my first feeling of freedom, freedom to go outside to see flowers, to see green and just to walk. Not just going round and round in the courtyard.

Now I could go 200 metres with no one stopping me. That is a good feeling. To see the sky. Smell the air and hear the birds. See people walking. I was not yet free but my body had at least become free.

The criminals were now there. I didn't have good contact with them because all of them were Jewish Zionists. When they are in prison those drug users and criminals become very patriotic, anti-Vanunu, anti-Arab. I had many arguments with them in the beginning. Later I decided it was not worth talking to them and I isolated myself from most of them. A few were very friendly and tried to support me. Two or three brought me food and things like that.

I never imagined I would spend almost the whole sentence in prison. I always believed that next day, next month, next year I was going to be free. I didn't accept I was a spy sentenced to 18 years and I hoped that something would happen, that I would wake up and someone would say it is a mistake, you should be free. And each time I would continue to wait and wait.

I imagined myself, my life in that cell, like a man in a station. He is waiting for a train to come to take him, and I was in this station waiting for that train of freedom to take me. Waiting, and I believed the train was coming - today, tomorrow, the next hour. And the train didn't come until the end of the sentence. When they told me it was 18 years I did not believe I would stay until 2004. In 1986, to think about 2004 is a very, very long time.

The 'incriminating' notebooks that had lain in my cell for 13 years

A month before Vanunu's release, notebooks were found in his cell in which he had written details of his work at Dimona.

These are now being used as evidence that he has more secrets to reveal - hence the restrictions placed on him, banning him from talking to foreigners or going abroad. This is his explanation to Yael Lotan:

Until June 1991 I used to pray and read in a loud voice every day and did a lot of exercise in the courtyard. I used to run for two hours, and then take a cold shower. In June 1991 I felt there was something wrong with my health. I really thought I was going to die from too much exercise and poor nutrition. I stopped reading out loud, changed from vegetarian to eating meat and everything, and I decided to check what was in my bare brain - what was going on in there, if it was still good or not.

I decided I would sit down and write all I remembered about the Dimona reactor. For a month I wrote down all that I had worked on, full details in English. It was a mental exercise. I found that I still remembered a lot; my mind and brain worked very well.

I then put the work aside, and it stayed in my cell. If they had checked the cell in 1992 or at any time they could have found it. So it stayed there until one month before my release when they checked the cell and took these notebooks.

The restrictions on me now - I think they are stupid and not reasonable. I did what I did and it ended with the Sunday Times article. Since that article was published there are no more secrets.

Much more important, it is 18 years since that happened. What Israel has been doing for the last 18 years is its problem, not mine. I have no more inner secrets. I think they should lift these restrictions and let me start my life abroad.

I have no regrets in spite of the fact I have paid a heavy punishment, a large price.


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