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Why I had to tell Israel's big secret

Vanunu interview, Sunday Times (London), part 2
June 6 2004

Mordechai Vanunu interviewed by Yael Lotan.

How did Mordechai Vanunu become the nuclear whistleblower jailed for 18 years for treason and espionage? In his first interview since his release from prison, he tells Yael Lotan what made him a rebel.

I was born in Marrakesh on October 13, 1954. I used to have a very strong memory of my life in Morocco; since prison my memory is not as strong as before. My parents used to move from house to house and street to street. My father had a store selling food, a grocery store, and I used to go there and sit with him, see people and listen to them.

In June 1963 we moved to Israel. We knew nothing about Israel. We just knew what was written in the Bible, and we expected a very nice place with mountains and water, green and trees; (but) they sent us to the south, Beersheba. It was a desert. It was too hot and it wasn't what we expected. After three months we were given a much better house. Then my father started working in a job, we started going to school, and we started to become Israeli people.

I went into the army in 1971. I expected to have an interesting job but they put me in an engineering unit. After the army I applied to study engineering, but they only let me study physics. I tried to study but I did not do well, and I found an advertisement in the newspaper to work at Dimona (the secret nuclear weapons centre in the Negev desert).

YL: Did you know what sort of place it was?

We knew from the news that Dimona was involved in nuclear secrets but no-one said about the production of nuclear weapons. I was aware Israel must have some nuclear weapons; I believed they might have one, two, three.

They appointed me to work in Machon 2 (a plutonium reprocessing plant) at Dimona. After a year I realised it was a routine job, doing the same thing every day. This was not a future career for me.

I decided that maybe I could work and study at the same time, keep working at Dimona as a place to earn money but (also) return to university. I chose economics, geography and philosophy. I used to work at night, or afternoon, and come to the university every morning like every student.

With the studies opening my mind, I used to think a lot and try to decide what was my own way, not the way my parents had chosen for me. I had to make my own decisions. That is part of the philosophy of existentialism, that you choose your way, your target for life.

When the Lebanon war began in 1982, they called me to serve (as an army reservist). I tried to avoid this but they continued to call me until I went to Lebanon. I was only there one week and then told the senior officer I was willing to serve as a "serviceman" not as a fighter. I would serve in the kitchens, in garbage, anything. So after another week he said: "We do not need you. Go home."

My private way started with the Lebanese war, thinking it was not a real war, it was an invasion, and they had given us a lot of propaganda to justify it.

In 1983 I took part in a student election and I became involved in the politics of the student union at university. I found myself identifying with the Arab side.

In April-May 1984, the head of security at Dimona called me. He said: " We want you to stop this activity and be careful." I said: "Oh, don't worry." Then next year the elections came again and I was elected. And again he called me and said: "We are warning you to stop."

He took me in his car to the Kirya (the defence ministry compound in Tel Aviv). There they have some Shabak (Shin Beth, the internal security service) place. In the room there were two men, one a lawyer. They said: we are warning you not to continue these activities and we are worried that if you continue these activities you will be breaking the law and you can receive 15 years.

They gave me a paper and said: "Sign this paper that we have warned you." I said I am not signing. I said maybe you want to use it for dismissing me from my job. He said no, if we want to dismiss you it is not a problem. I said I am not signing any paper, and I left them.

(In 1985, Vanunu was included in a list of compulsory redundancies at Dimona. He protested but, after the list was withdrawn, accepted voluntary redundancy. Before leaving, he took photographs inside the underground nuclear plant, intending to publicise its secrets.)

I used to come to work every day with the bag I used to take to university. It was full of books so it wasn't such a big problem to put the camera in there. They checked but they trusted you were a good worker and you are trusted not to take a camera.

I took (photos) when I was alone. There were times when you were alone there in the control room, when others went to take showers, or go to eat, you could stay there for a few minutes or half an hour. That's when I took them. At the same time I entered other places that I wasn't allowed to enter. I didn't work there but I knew they were very important and could prove what they were producing there. So I took photos there.

I also went to the roof of the building and took photos around the building, and saw there was a tower with a guard there. I was afraid maybe they were watching me but nobody watched me.

When I took the pictures I was worried someone would see me and ask me some questions. In fact someone watched me walk in to some of the places I should not go and I gave him some explanation.

YL: When you took those pictures and you took that film home, you didn't feel you were betraying Israel?

I believed I was going to serve the human people, the Israelis, and the Arabs, and the Palestinians. Because nuclear weapons kill everyone; they do not take regard of nationality or religion or state. Nuclear weapons destroy boundaries.

After leaving the job in October 1985, I was ready to act. It was clear I could not do it in Israel. If I was to speak to anyone about Israel's nuclear secrets, I would be arrested. So I should go abroad and see what I could publish there. I decided to see the Far East, because I had been to the United States and Europe; now I was interested to see Asian people: to see their religion, their food.

At that time, I wasn't religious. I was out of Israeli Judaism. I decided it was not for me any more. But I was interested to learn more of other religions, to understand what Christianity meant, what they are doing, what they are practising, how they are praying.

I was also very close to Christianity, because in the 1980s I started listening to classical music, hearing Bach and opera. I visited many churches during my visits in Europe so I became very close to Christianity. I also used to hear the BBC. So I was very open to the possibility in the future that I might become a Christian.

I decided I was going to the United States by the Far East for about six months. I travelled by sea from Haifa to Greece. On the way I met a Canadian who told me he was writing a book about nuclear weapons tests by the United States in the Solomon Islands in the Pacific Ocean. I told him about my job. I told him I worked in the Dimona reactor and that I was ready to talk and speak to anyone. He said that when we got to Athens we would find Newsweek magazine or Time magazine and get them to publish. But we could not find them.

He gave me the name of the Newsweek man in Bangkok. I tried to find him but I also hesitated. I wanted to enjoy my trip, to see the Thai people, to explore Buddhist places. Sitting in cars and buses, I was thinking what I was going to do: what is good for me, what is good for them? Am I serving myself by publishing this or saving the world a lot of questions? And most important, am I ready to sacrifice my freedom, my life? Because I knew it was going to cause me a big problem if it was published.

I met some Israeli tourists in Nepal - a young couple. We were sitting in a restaurant and I told them I was working in Dimona and was producing plutonium. Then after Nepal we returned to Bangkok and that week was the Chernobyl event in Europe. We met many people flying from Europe afraid of the radioactive fallout. That made me more aware and ready to speak about the Dimona reactor.

Then I decided I should go to Australia. I landed in Sydney and enjoyed it, and I decided to stay for a few months. One reason was to improve my English, second was to enjoy seeing Australian people.

After two days in Sydney - it was Friday night - I was walking in the street and there was a church with the door open. I heard classical music coming out. I entered and I enjoyed it. I found good people there, like a young priest, David Smith. We sat and talked. He was studying philosophy and interested in existentialism, Kirkegaard and Nietzsche, who I was also interested in learning about. We became friends, and I started coming every Sunday, and I liked it.

It was part of my new life to become a Christian. I was not interested in Judaism any more. I had set myself free from the faith of the Jewish people and my family. And I was enough of an educated man to decide what was good for me.

(Vanunu met Oscar Guerrero, a Colombian, at the church. He told him about Dimona and had his photographs processed. They approached local journalists, including Newsweek's correspondent, but Guerrero's highly exaggerated version of Vanunu's story was unconvincing. Guerrero took the photos to Europe, hoping to sell them.)

When I developed the photos I knew the story had begun. I thought we should (act) very quickly; otherwise it would be leaked to Israeli spies and they would find us. So, since the photos were developed, it was clear I should move very fast to find someone to publish it; otherwise it could be stopped.

I called back the man from Newsweek and went to his home. I showed him the photos and sat with him for an hour and gave him all the details about the Dimona reactor. He said: I will send this information to New York and they will give you the answer. After two weeks I asked him what was going on and he said we cannot do anything here; when you get to New York we will review your story.

Guerrero rang me from London telling me The Sunday Times were ready to publish. After a few days he came with Peter Hounam (the reporter). But later I realised he told them some lies. He told them I was a very old scientist. When I introduced myself as only a technician not a scientist, Hounam was surprised but he was glad to see I had not cheated.

I gave him all the details about Dimona. I told him: I don't need money. It was more important for me to publish the story. The only thing I was worrying about was my photo appearing. But he said: we must have the man behind the story, the name and the photo. I was ready to sacrifice my privacy to help this story go out.

He said: we need you in London to answer questions from nuclear scientists who understand all this.

(After three weeks in London he was lured to Italy and kidnapped by Israeli agents. Vanunu told his interviewer he understood the risk he was taking.)

There was nobody else who could come out of Dimona with photos and knowledge and ready to speak.

I was thinking, I don't want to sacrifice my life. I don't want to be in prison. I want to enjoy life; but, since there is nobody in all the world or in Dimona, in Israel, who would do such an act, it had become my responsibility, my own mission.

Copyright ©Mordechai Vanunu and Yael Lotan

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