Palestinians tackle the trauma of imprisonment

Long after they are released, Palestinians struggle to break free from the trauma of serving time in Israeli prisons.

Magazine-DO NOT TOUCH//Imprisoned 2

Muhammed Nasrullah, 23
Beit Jabrin Refugee Camp, West Bank

“When I am walking around at night, any noise makes me jump. I am always looking over my shoulder.”

Muhammed Nasrullah served two years in an Israeli prison. He was released two years ago. He says:
Muhammed Nasrullah served two years in an Israeli prison. He was released two years ago. He says: “Other guys who’ve been to prison are the only ones I can relate to” [Abed al Qaisi] 

Muhammed Nasrullah woke up in an instant as the butts of guns were thrust into his abdomen. A yellow light blinded his sleepy vision.

At first he thrashed, trying get away, but there were too many of them. So he did the only thing he could: wrapped his arms around his head and curled into a ball.

The next thing he knew he was being dragged out of bed by his feet.

That is when he saw them – the soldiers.

“Suddenly the soldiers came into view,” he explains from his cramped home in the Beit Jabrin refugee camp. “There were 30 or 40 of them. When they were done beating me they picked me up off the ground and put the handcuffs on.”

His family, who had been woken by the commotion, gathered, but were blocked by the wall of soldiers that separated them.

“I stood there beaten in front of my family in handcuffs, but I didn’t cry,” Nasrullah remembers. “My dad was upset and my mum was crying and screaming, but I knew what was happening then and I knew I couldn’t let them see me be weak.”

“My only thought after that was when would I be back here? When would I be back home?”

That was four years ago, when Nasrullah was just 19. But the events of that night continue to haunt him.

It marked the beginning of two years he would spend in prison; charged with rock throwing, which is now an offence punishable under Israeli law by up to 20 years in prison.

The Council for European Palestinian Relations estimates that 40 percent of all males in the Occupied Palestinian Territories have spent time in Israeli jails for a variety of offences that break at least one of the more than 1,500 Israeli military regulations imposed on Palestinians.

The two years Nasrullah spent in prison were the hardest of his life, but the first night when he was beaten and dragged from his bed is the memory that torments him the most.

Today, Nasrullah lives a simple life surrounded by just his closest friends and family, many of whom have also spent time in Israeli prisons.

“I thought when I got out that things could go back to normal, but they didn’t,” he says. “Everyone looked at me like I was different and I looked at everyone else like they were different than me.”

“Other guys who’ve been to prison are the only ones I can relate to.”

For the first three days after he was released, Nasrullah didn’t sleep. He says his body was free from the prison, but in his mind he was still there.

Now his greatest fear is being arrested again.

“When I am walking around at night, any noise makes me jump; I am always looking over my shoulder. Even when I am at home alone, I will get up and check every time I hear something even though there’s never anything there,” he says. “I don’t actually feel safe anywhere.”

But if he was starting to find some kind of limited peace of mind that was all shattered a year after his release, when, during the summer of 2014, the conflict in the Occupied Palestinian Territories intensified.

In June 2014, three teenage Israeli settlers were kidnapped and found dead in a field outside of Hebron in the southern Occupied West Bank.

Soon after, Israel’s Gaza offensive started.

Tensions were high.

Clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli forces became a nightly occurrence on the main street outside of the Beit Jabrin camp, as did night raids inside the camp.

“The first night the Israeli soldiers came into the camp last summer I ran,” Nasrullah says, shaking his head. “I hadn’t done anything, I wasn’t at any of the protests, but I freaked out and I just ran and ran until I was far away from the camp.”

To run was pure instinct. But afterwards he realised just how dangerous that could have been and how suspiciously he might have been viewed.

Now, instead of running, Nasrullah hides in his home during night raids, his body gripped with fear until neighbours give the all-clear indicating that the soldiers have gone.

“Even after things calmed down from last year the soldiers still come to take people every now and then, and every time they come, every time I see an Israeli soldier near my home I have this feeling like I am sure they are coming for me again. I can’t get rid of this feeling like they’ll be back for me.”

Muhammed Jafari, 16

Dheisha Refugee Camp, West Bank

“I just kept screaming ‘I want to go home, I want to go home.”

Muhammed Jafari spent six months in an Israeli prison. He was released a few months ago. He says: “I didn’t do anything, but that didn’t matter” [Abed al Qaisi] [-]
Muhammed Jafari spent six months in an Israeli prison. He was released a few months ago. He says: “I didn’t do anything, but that didn’t matter” [Abed al Qaisi] [-]

Muhammed Jafari had been walking in the middle of the street near his home when he was surrounded, arrested and bundled into the back of a military jeep. He had just turned 16 a month earlier.

He describes the men who took him as “Israeli commandos”.

At an Israeli interrogation facility Jafari was accused of throwing Molotov cocktails at protests, a normal occurrence at demonstrations in the Occupied West Bank, but a crime he insists he didn’t commit.

“I go to school and come home and hang out with my friends like a normal kid. I don’t get involved in political things, I didn’t do anything, but that didn’t matter,” he says.

Jafari’s mother wasn’t informed of her son’s arrest until he was already at an interrogation facility and Israeli authorities allowed him a phone call home.

“My mother started crying on the phone when I told her where I was,” Jafari says, his tone despondent. “She told me that it was time to be a man now, and that I had to be strong to be a man.”

He didn’t know what to do with that advice at the time, he reflects; he just wanted to go home.

Around 700 Palestinian children from the Occupied West Bank are prosecuted as adults in Israeli military courts every year, according to prisoners’ rights group Addameer.

Under Israeli military law there are no provisions that require an attorney or family member to be present during an arrest or interrogation of a Palestinian minor.

Jafari didn’t see his mother again until two weeks after his arrest when he was taken to a judge for sentencing. He was tried as an adult and given a sentence of six months in prison.

When he arrived at the prison he cried for the entire first day, he says, and didn’t leave his room.

The next day a group of older men arrived in his cell. He was terrified when he saw them, not knowing what to expect.

The men told him to sit down, because they had news from his family. His cousin had been shot dead by Israeli forces on the roof of his home.

“I lost it, I started banging on the doors and the walls and screaming, I just kept screaming ‘I want to go home, I want to go home,’ and hitting the door of my cell,” Jafari says, punching the air to mimic the banging.

“That really p****d off the guards, they came and they told me I wasn’t going home and that because I’d made a scene they would lock [me in] my cell for 24 hours by myself and I wouldn’t be allowed family visits for a month. I didn’t make problems after that.”

For the first month, Jafari was the youngest prisoner among his prison mates – then a 12-year-old boy, who he refers to as Ahmad, joined him in his cell.

Under Israeli law, children 12 and older can be tried as adults in a military court.

Jafari says Ahmad’s family was told that they would have to pay a fine for their son’s freedom, and that their son would spend three weeks in prison if they didn’t.

But, Jafari says, Ahmad’s family couldn’t afford the fine.

“Things were a bit better then, I had someone else to take care of, and it made me think less about myself,” Jafari reflects.

For three weeks, he watched out for Ahmad like he was his younger brother.

As the months passed, Jafari grew accustomed to his situation, so much so that when he was released it was hard to adjust.

“I kept waking up at four in the morning when I got home, like the guards were coming to check my room,” he says. “There were so many times when I felt I should be doing something like I was supposed to do in prison, I felt like I was going crazy at first.”

When Jafari’s high school approached him about completing his final exams, he says life began to feel slightly more normal. He had missed six months of school, but his teachers said he could study for the final exams and, if he passed, would be permitted to start the following school year in the next grade.

Jafari struggled to concentrate on the material – something he says was never previously a problem. But he eventually passed and has spent the summer feeling a mixture of excitement and anxiety about soon starting his junior year in high school.

He is worried he won’t be as good in school as he used to be.

“This year I will go back to school for the first time since I was arrested. I still have a lot on my mind from the prison, and I don’t know how it will be, if I will feel normal or what. It seems weird to be going back to high school after I’ve been to prison.”

Islam Daajna, 24

Beit Jabrin Refugee Camp, West Bank

“When I got out it was hard to remember who I was before the prison.”

Islam Daajna spent three years in an Israeli prison. She was released four years ago. She says:
Islam Daajna spent three years in an Israeli prison. She was released four years ago. She says: “I was tied to a chair once for 24 straight hours with my feet locked behind the legs. That’s not something other people can relate to” [Abed al Qaisi]

A week after Islam Daajna was sentenced to three years in prison, her father died of a heart attack. She believes the stress of having his daughter behind bars was too much for him to take.

“I was only 17, and he couldn’t stand that there was nothing that he could do to help me, he died because it was too much – his heart just stopped,” Daajna says.

Before his death, Daajna says she was trying to come to terms with her fate and to figure out a way of making it through her three year sentence. After she got the news, she says she simply stopped trying and shut down.

“It was already difficult for me to be in the prison, I was a child, but after my father died everything changed. I stopped speaking to anyone, my life changed, I was so depressed. Today I still don’t like to speak to people much.”

Daajna says she wasn’t given any counselling or extra family visits after learning of her father’s death. Neither was she allowed to attend the funeral. In fact, it was almost two months until she was able to see her family.

“If my father would have died when I was free of course things would have been different, but being in prison, knowing that’s why he died, and then having no one to speak to about it was too much to take. My mind just switched.”

Daajna served her three years quietly, keeping to herself as much as she could.

By the time she was released she felt like a completely different person to the funny, sociable girl who was a good student and looking forward to university when she went in.

“When I got out it was hard to remember who I was before the prison,” Daajna says, sitting beside her husband in the couple’s small home.

She recalls being overwhelmed by all the people waiting to celebrate her release when she got home.

As the car pulled up outside her house, it was surrounded by hundreds of people who had gathered to greet her. But if, at first, she was happy to see so many familiar faces, it quickly overwhelmed her.

“I wasn’t used to speaking with people anymore, and there were all these people who wanted to hug and kiss me and speak to me and I couldn’t handle it. I knew then from the feelings that I was having that things were going to be difficult.”

About a week after her release a counsellor from the local YMCA approached Daajna about coming in to speak with someone. She immediately said yes and signed up for treatment.

“It is easier for women here, no one is looking at you with this pressure to be so strong,” Daajna reflects. “Still I kept it quiet, but I wasn’t afraid to go speak to someone the way men are.”

Four years after her release, she still keeps to herself.

“I was tied to a chair once for 24 straight hours with my feet locked behind the legs. When they let me out they expected me to walk, they were pushing me to walk but I couldn’t feel my legs so in the end they just dragged me by my arms to my cell. That’s not something other people can relate to,” she explains. “Of course I needed help.”

Today, Daajna is married with two children, but she continues to see her psychologist from time to time.

“I am very thankful for her, she has helped me so much and now we keep in touch like friends,” she says. “Anytime I am feeling bad or get overwhelmed I call her and she can calm me down. There are things I sometimes need to speak about that I wouldn’t burden my family with, but she knows everything. I think it’s important to have that.”

Muhammed Nasrun, 21

Aida Refugee Camp, West Bank

“If I’m honest, by the end of it I was really thinking about killing myself.”

Muhammed Nasrun spent two-and-a-half years in Israel prison and was released six months ago. He says
Muhammed Nasrun spent two-and-a-half years in Israel prison and was released six months ago. He says “I’m not normal now, I know that” [Abed al Qaisi]

Twenty-one-year-old Muhammed Nasrun fidgets as he speaks; his right leg vibrating while he chain-smokes cigarettes.

“I’m not normal now, I know that,” he says, taking a long drag. “I remember every step I took and every person I met from when I was arrested until I was released, and that’s mostly what I think about, even now. That can’t be normal.”

Nasrun was released from his two-and-a-half year stint in Israeli prison six months ago. Since then he hasn’t reconnected with his old friends, and doesn’t leave his house much.

Two local organisations approached him in the weeks after he was released, offering to help him get psychological care. But he turned them both down, afraid of what his community would think if anyone found out that he had sought help.

“Here we need to be strong. I served my country when I went to prison, people respect me for that, and they respect my family,” he reflects. “If anyone found out I was seeing a doctor for my head then I would not just lose that respect, it would be worse than that. Everyone would say I was crazy.”

Dr Mariam Abuturk, a local psychologist who is working on social programmes to normalise mental health issues, has dealt with former prisoners like Nasrun before, and describes his fear of seeking psychological care as quite typical.

“There is this whole stigma attached to psychological treatment and counselling in Palestine. Our communities don’t understand how important treatment is for these prisoners, they will quickly judge them and say they are crazy for trying to get help, but what people don’t understand is the deep trauma prison has on people, especially Palestinians in Israeli prisons,” Abuturk explains.

“Many prisoners have been tortured physically and psychologically, and they need help more than anyone. I try to teach them there is nothing to ashamed of in admitting that, but unfortunately that is not yet popular opinion.”

When Nasrun was arrested he was taken to an interrogation facility for six weeks where he was beaten and questioned about his political involvement. Five of those weeks were spent in solitary confinement.

“I actually felt like I was losing my mind after a while, I don’t know how long,” Nasrun says, avoiding eye contact. “I just tried to exercise and kept telling myself stories. If I’m honest, by the end of it I was really thinking about killing myself.”

For five weeks in between random interrogations Nasrun slept, ate and tried to keep himself busy in a room barely large enough to lie down in.

He says those five weeks in solitary confinement affected him more than the entire two-and-a-half years in prison.

Since his release he hasn’t been able to stand small spaces, large crowds or the friends he had before he went to prison. He suffers from anxiety and feels depressed most of the time.

“I saw a lot of things in the prison that affected me, and went through a lot of things, and I am fighting myself to deal with my feelings. Every day is a fight, but I have faith that eventually I will be okay,” he says.

While Nasrun believes he will be able work through his issues and come to terms with spending more than a quarter of his teenage years behind bars, Abuturk doubts that it will be easy for him to deal with such deep issues alone.

“The culture has put this red circle around people who have sought treatment for their mental health and it is so detrimental to the greater society. A mind is just like a brain or lung, if there is a problem you can’t just will it away, that’s what people don’t understand,” Abuturk says.

“These guys think they are too tough to seek treatment but really they are just hurting themselves and often their families and friends as well while they struggle with this alone.”

This article appears in the September 2015 issue of the Al Jazeera Magazine. Download it for iPads and iPhones here and for Android devices here.

Source: Al Jazeera