One Samouni brother comes home in Gaza, recalls months of Israeli torture

His younger brothers are still held by Israel, while he came home exhausted and in pain after months of torture.

Faraj al-Samouni
Faraj al-Samouni with his mother Zahwa, left, his wife Shifaa, to the right of Faraj, and children [Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

Deir el-Balah, Gaza – Faraj al-Samouni, 39, sits in a tent in a makeshift camp in Deir el-Balah, surrounded by his family who can hardly believe he is alive after months of Israeli captivity.

“My brothers didn’t recognise me when I was released,” he says. He is diminished, he lost 30kg (66 pounds) in captivity, 30 percent of his body weight.

It does not matter to his mother Zahwa, 56, who sits beaming next to him, welcoming visitors, many of them families of other prisoners seeking information about their detained relatives.

Faraj spent more than six months in captivity after he and his two brothers were arrested while walking down the so-called “safe corridor” on November 16 on their way to the south of Gaza.

In December, Al Jazeera spoke to Zahwa and her sister-wife Zeenat just after Faraj and his brothers Abdullah, 24, and Hamam, 16, were taken.

Abdullah and Hamam, who are Zeenat’s sons, are still held, with their fate unknown.

Tortured, interrogated, starved

“It was a shock when I was arrested. I’m a farmer with no political activity,” Faraj says.

“I was walking through the safe corridor with my wife and children, carrying my daughter. Israeli soldiers called Abdullah over, Hamam was upset, and the soldiers called him over too,” Faraj recalls.

“I was upset and protesting that they had my brothers, so they noticed me. Abu blousa hamra [man in a red shirt], come here,” the soldier said.

“I handed my daughter to my wife and approached. They made us strip completely and handcuffed us.”

Faraj and roughly 75 other men remained handcuffed and blindfolded as soldiers beat them before transferring them somewhere he could not identify.

“They were barracks, the severe torture began there,” he says.

“The beatings focused on sensitive body parts. Female soldiers stomped on our heads with their metal-toed boots.”

Then came interrogations where Faraj was pressured for information about Hamas, its members, rocket launch sites, and details about October 7.

“When I denied any connection to Hamas or any military or political activity, the interrogator would go crazy, screaming: ‘You’re a liar!’ and beating me more.”

Faraj estimates he spent 30 days being in the barracks – fractures in his lower back and neck from the torture keeping him from resting.

“We were only allowed to shower once, and they wouldn’t give us food or water for days. They’d give us one loaf of bread for three people, and if you asked for anything, you were beaten.”

Faraj al-Samouni
‘My brothers didn’t recognise me when I was released,’ Faraj says, showing a photo of what he looked like before he was taken [Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

One day, he says, three young men returned from interrogations bleeding from their bottoms, unable to move.

They had been beaten and raped with sticks.

“We tried to support them as much as we could, demanding treatment. The only response was to give them half a paracetamol pill.”

‘Welcome to hell’ in the Naqab

Eventually, Faraj was transferred to a Naqab Desert (Negev) detention facility.

“The guards greeted us sarcastically: ‘Welcome to hell,'” he says.

“I was stripped and tied to a chair with a hole in the bottom. The interrogators tortured us by applying pressure and direct beatings on our sensitive body parts in the extreme cold.

I stayed like that for days, defecating in a bucket placed under me.”

According to Faraj, the kind of torture the jailers used depended on the prisoner’s luck.

“When they brought me back to the cell, I saw prisoners whose skin had melted … burned by hot water poured directly on their bodies.

“They screamed day and night in pain, but none got any treatment.”

The prisoners were moved to tents surrounded by barbed wire, about 30 prisoners crowded into each tent.

“Comfortable sleep was just a dream. We were allowed to shower once every few weeks, all of us within a one-hour window from 8am to 9am.”

Rashes and skin diseases like scabies spread among the prisoners.

“We had one towel for 30 people, which we divided into little pieces. We had one uniform, the same one we arrived in. I got scabies several times.”

One day, Faraj got angry and demanded treatment.

“That day, I was dragged and into solitary for three days … the torture was so bad.”

With no treatment at hand, Faraj says, the prisoners used what they had, squeezing a little tomato water onto their skin to relieve the itching.

They were given one tomato to be shared between four prisoners, but the discomfort was severe enough to make using it on their skin worthwhile.

The torment of not knowing

Despite the daily pain of captivity, the day Faraj remembers most was when an officer told him his wife, children and mother had been killed in a bombing on December 30.

“I was shocked, especially since he told me a date and showed me pictures of dead people and body parts, claiming they were my family,” Faraj recalls.

“I pretended to be calm in front of him, but I fainted when I returned to the cell.”

Faraj had no way to check what he had been told, nor did other captives who were told their families had been killed.

Faraj al-Samouni
A stream of visitors was coming in to see Faraj [Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

Another method of psychological torture was telling prisoners they were being released, only to take them to solitary confinement.

“When I was told I was being released this time, I didn’t believe it until I arrived in Gaza,” Faraj says.

“More than once, they told me I’d been released. I would celebrate and say goodbye to my cellmates, only to return after days of torture in solitary.”

Faraj’s biggest fear was whether his family was alive while his family had also lost hope of him returning alive.

“The day before his release, I had a nervous breakdown,” Zahwa says.

“Every day, I’d walk to connect to the internet and check who was released … I lost hope. But by God’s will, he was released.”

“Me, his wife, and his children were screaming with joy … we woke the whole camp up. Everyone thought Faraj had been killed, but we told them he was alive and free.”

Faraj al-Samouni
Faraj has lost 30 percent of his body weight but is trying to return to his everyday life [Abdelhakim Abu Riash/Al Jazeera]

Having gone through the torment of uncertainty, Faraj gave up his desperate need for rest to speak to relatives of other prisoners.

Even as he spoke to Al Jazeera, relatives of missing people called and visited, seeking any information about their loved ones.

A visitor came to ask Faraj about his brother, saying his mother and other brothers had been killed in an Israeli bombing and he desperately needed news of his missing brother.

Faraj recognised and tried to reassure the man, but his features changed as he searched for words, eventually collapsing into tears.

The man, panicked, demands: “Did they torture him? Did they amputate his limbs?”

Faraj tried to reassure him, saying his brother was fine.

Later, Faraj says: “What could I tell him? That his brother lost his mind in prison and is unconscious now?”

There’s a moment of tearful silence.

Faraj says quietly that prisoners entrusted him with messages, telling him to share their suffering.

“All I can say is that death is a million times more merciful than prison.”

Source: Al Jazeera