“ I saw myself as free.”
JERUSALEM: “I believe I survived because I made up my mind to see myself
as a free man. My brain and my soul were somewhere else,” says Mordechai
-translated into English
by Jeanie Shaterian
What do you do to survive 18 years in prison? Mordechai Vanunu has been speaking for almost two days about his life in Israel’s Ashkelon Prison. He speaks seriously, often ironically, providing concrete details of his daily life. For the first few hours he barely smiled, and I wondered whether he had a sense of humor, but as time passed gradually he came into his own.
I met Vanunu in East Jerusalem. He lives in the guest house of an Anglican cathedral, a lovely and idyllic spot five minutes from the Old City. The first evening we sat together in The American Colony, a legendary hotel where journalists and diplomats have been meeting for half a century.
I asked him to tell me how things had been for him in prison. His daily routine, when he would got up, the people he spoke to, how had it been to sit there hour after hour, year after year? And most of all—what had he done to survive psychologically and keep from going crazy?
“ The routine was simple. All prisoners were awakened at 6:00 each morning to be counted. Afterwards I took a shower, shaved, and prayed. At 7:00 I got breakfast. They opened the door and set the food on my table. Often an egg, a little bread, olives, cheese, cucumbers, and tomatoes.”
“My room had a sink, a toilet, a shower over the toilet, a bed, a table, and a chair. The walls were white, the floor cement. There were two flourescent lights on the ceiling. I had no heat in the winter or fan in the summer. There were 600 Palestinians in the prison, 2-3 Israeli spies, and me.”
“I spent every day between 10 and 12 outdoors in a 10-by-20-meter courtyard. The walls were 4-5 meters high, with no windows, and covered by a wire mesh, so I saw just the sky, nothing else.”
“When I came back from the courtyard, I would read aloud from the New Testament for half an hour. I’m a Christian, but I also did that in order to practice speaking out loud, hear a voice, learn English, and so that the guards would realize they couldn’t break me. At 1:00 I got lunch, usually rice, soup, salad, fruit, water, and tea.”
“After lunch I slept for an hour or as long as I could. They often tried to disrupt my sleep at night. I could hear the guards the entire time, so it was easy for them to wake me. I tried to sleep as much as possible during the day in order to make up for the nighttime sleep deprivation.”
“Then I’d answer letters and read books. People sent me books and I was allowed to receive as many as I wanted. And I listened to the radio, to BBC World, and after five years I was allowed to watch Israeli TV.”
“At 7:00 I got dinner. Salad, eggs, soup, rice or potatoes. Afterwards I’d read some more. Then I walked back and forth in my cell for 1-2 hours. Sometimes longer, it depended on what sort of mood I was in and how angry I was, and what year we’re talking about.”
“At 10:30 they turned off the light. It was dark.”
Saw myself as free
Vanunu looks physically strong, in good shape, and younger than his 50 years. He’s a calm person and speaks calmly. In the two days we spend together, he never gets worked up, never swears or shows irritation. He gives the impression of someone with great self-control.
“The worst time of day was right after I got dressed in the morning. After I’d put on my socks, pants, shirt, and shoes, I was ready to go out, only to discover that I wasn’t going anywhere. The realization was horribly painful every single day.”
“In the beginning I believed I’d be let out quite quickly. I was after all no spy. I’d merely gone to a paper to tell what I’d had to tell.”
Vanunu tells how he missed having someone to talk with and how he missed having contact with women, even the slightest caress. And how much he missed seeing the outside world. He saw nothing from the prison, just the sky.
“The most important basis for my survival, I believe, was my determination to see myself as a free man. Even though I was in prison, my brain and my soul were somewhere else. All those years that determination was what I depended on to keep myself going.”
“For example, I refused to leave the cell for six months in order to demonstrate to myself and others that I had free will—even if I placed myself under harsher conditions than necessary. I did the same thing when I went on hunger strikes. That way I felt I had control over my own life.”
“Many prisoners try to obtain things to cut themselves with. That would have been the worst thing I could have done. The guards were waiting for me to do that the entire time I was there, but it was something I never once considered. And I never thought of suicide, not for a second. From the very first I determined that I’d win out, that I couldn’t show any weakness.”
“ I was never physically abused. A guard struck me only once. But they used other means to try to break me. For one year, from 1987 to 1988, the lights were on 24 hours a day. They claimed I was suicidal, which was utter nonsense. And they kept me isolated in solitary confinement. There were no cells on either side of me. I was all by myself and had no contact with other prisoners.”
“From January 4 to February 7, 1987, I went on a hunger strike to end the isolation. I lost six kilos, but didn’t achieve a thing. From June 1987 to January 1988 I refused to leave my cell for the same reason. From September of the same year to May of 1989 I refused once more to leave my cell, this time in order to have the Supreme Court examine my case once more. But nothing happened that time either.”
“From 1995 on I went on many small hunger strikes, but I eventually gave them up. I realized I was the only one being harmed by them. But once I did succeed. That was in 1993 when they made my cell a meter wider because they wanted me to share it with another man. I was certain that it would be someone working for the prison authorities. I managed to prevent that after prolonged protests.”
Ignored the guards
Vanunu tells how he had as little as possible to do with his guards. He never shook their hands. There were always two guards watching him, who were changed at regular intervals.
“They all wanted to show that they had power over me, so we ‘fought’ each other until they understood that they couldn’t break me down. But then they’d change the guards and new ones would come on, and the battle would start up all over again. It was that way the entire time. I tried to ignore them. They’d be late in bringing me my meals or come late to take me to the courtyard in the hope that I’d get angry and yell at them. I believe everyone in a prison grows dependent on his daily routine. One tactic they always used was to delay sending out and bring me my mail. They could put off doing it for months, but I managed to control myself.”
“Up till 1996 I had my own guard, Mr. Bukara, who brought me my food and took me to the courtyard. He worked during the daytime. He was a very patriotic and religious man who hated me, saw me as a traitor, and always tried to get me to angry.”
“I told him that his wife was a whore and slept with other men. That was my revenge. Then he shut up. He couldn’t bear hearing me say negative things about his family. To distance myself from the guards I looked on them as prisoners who got paid and treated them as my servants. I never thanked them and never said hello to them.”
Vanunu did all he could to survive psychologically and had many different survival strategies, depending on what time period we’re speaking of.
“The first years I walked round and round my cell for hours, often while reading. But early on I got it into my head that I should begin to run. I ran for the two hours that I was in the courtyard and then ran around in my cell. From time to time I was so angry that I ran and ran like a horse for hours.”
“From the summer of 1989 I took three cold showers every day. In November it got too cold, but I began again in March. I continued to run, if it was raining I’d run with a blanket around my shoulders. But in June 1991 I felt physically very bad. I was scared and believed I was dying. Then I decided to completely change my routine. I stopped running. From then on I would simply walk and spent my time reading and studying. I changed what I was eating and asked my brother to bring some books on nutrition. I knew that they were trying to destroy my health by giving me unhealthy food. They often gave me three eggs a day and masses of chocolates. From then on I always paid attention to what I was eating.”
“I stopped reading out loud from the Bible. I was worried that all the repetition year after year would drive me crazy. I gave up all my old habits. I was afraid I’d become like a horse, like a mindless animal.”
Rejected by his father
Vanunu was allowed to receive half-hour visits every other week from his father, mother, sister, or brother.
“I wasn’t allowed to touch them.”
“In addition, my father came to visit only once. My mother managed to visit in 1996. She cried the entire time she was with me. The guards often made her wait for hours before they’d let her in. Only my brother Meir visited me till the very last day in prison and was steadfast and supportive the entire time.”
“I still haven’t seen my parents, even though they live in West Jerusalem, 15 minutes from where I live. My brother’s told me that they wish I’d visit them, but I don’t want to. If they want to see me again, they’ll have to come here.”
“My parents are Orthodox Jews, very rigid in their beliefs, and can’t accept the fact that I converted to Christianity. My father visited me that one time to convince me to return to Judaism. When he realized I was unshakable, he broke with me for good. My mother did the same in 1996.”
“From May 1989 I had contact only with a priest and lawyer. Never with the Red Cross or Amnesty International.”
“During the years 1987-92 I was allowed to ‘talk’ with a priest. ‘Talk’ is an overstatement, there was always a glass plate between us. I wasn’t allowed to hear his voice. We looked at each other, prayed together, but we couldn’t hear each other. We communicated on slips of paper the guards passed between us. The priest had a lot to say to me and I loved him for what he meant to me.”
“In 1992 I didn’t want to meet him in this humiliating way any more, with a plate of glass between us. I asked to be allowed to meet him in my own room, but I wasn’t allowed to do that. So that put an end to his visits. Later he went back to Australia and died there.”
Letters were the high point
Apart from the short visits with his priest and brother, the letters he received were greatest source of light in his existence. He wrote 10-15 letters a week. At first short letters of a couple of pages, later the letters got longer, at times up to 20 pages.
“To start with I wrote about who I was, why I was in prison, and about my beliefs. Later the letters were about everything that was on my mind. New ideas I had about love, about people, and about every possible question having to do with life.”
“I was lonely for a woman the entire time I was in prison, and I tried to find one in the letters I received.”
“I wasn’t allowed to write about nuclear weapons or about why I was in prison. But I paid no attention. I wrote as if I was a free man. It was important for me and a means of survival. After I wrote the letters, they censored them and made me cut out everything I wasn’t allowed to write about. That’s why my letters were full of holes.”
Over 100 people from around the world wrote to Vanunu regularly. From Norway his correspondents included the leader of the international Vanunu committee Fredrik Heffermehl and the writer and academic Johanna Schwartz. Vanunu exchanged letters with Heffermehl for over 16 years and the two of them are close friends today.
“All of them were good people who wanted to be supportive. Some sent books, chocolates, or Cds. The letters and packages were sources of light for me and immensely important. I was always longing to get new letters and looking forward to them.”
Cake on Sundays
“What did you look
forward to day by day? What were the high points of the day?”
“I was most upbeat that day in 1987 when I was taken to court for the second time and managed to show the photographers the palm of my hand. I’d written on it how I’d been taken prisoner. I was perhaps at my lowest point in 1990 when the Supreme Court confirmed my 18-year sentence.”
“In March 1998 my solitary confinement came to an end and I was allowed to move freely within the prison grounds during the day. But I wasn’t allowed any contact with the Palestinian prisoners, just the Israeli ones. By that time I’d served two-thirds of my sentence. The prison authorities began doing more and more in hopes that I’d cooperate with them and stop criticizing them. Among other things, in 1997 I received permission to met my brothers in the prison warden’s office and put my arms around them for the first time since 1986. But I never let any of that affect me.”
“In 1999 I papered my walls with pictures of women and nature that I’d cut out of the London Sunday Times. Up till then I’d had my walls white, almost no pictures at all, just cardboard boxes full of letters, Cds, newspapers, books, and so on. But now I wanted to look at something beautiful.”
Wants to leave Israel
He has now been out of prison for eight months, under heavy restrictions. But he doesn’t feel free and confines himself to East Jerusalem, the Palestinian part of the city. When we walk around the streets, many people greet him, and he’s looked on as a hero.
“I’m tired of all this politics. I want to leave Israel. I can’t stand being here any longer. Everything’s politicized,” he says.
“I cannot and will not go to West Jerusalem. I stay in this area, between the Old City, The American Colony Hotel, and the Pilgrim Guest House. I hope I’ll be able to leave and be spared ever having to see Israeli soldiers again. Here every day some dumb 18-year-old soldier can provoke me by asking to see my identity card.”
“Is 18 years in prison
- Copyright Dag og Tid and Mordechai Vanunu