Lebanon: after years in jail, Mahmoud returns home and finds love
After 15 years in an Indian prison, Mahmoud is back with his Palestinian family in Lebanon. He has been able to start a new life, and remembers fondly the ICRC delegates who gave him "a window of hope".
Mahmoud story is an unusual one – even by the standards of someone born into a family of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. The civil war there triggered a double exile, followed by a long spell in prison. Today, at 51, Mahmoud is back in a refugee camp in Southern Lebanon and recalls his eventful life.
“It was on the day I was going to the dentist, close to Srinagar, that the Indian army arrested me,” says Mahmoud. That was of course not at all the idea when he got to Indian-administered Kashmir in 1986. “I was just an immigrant who was trying to get a job to survive,” he recalls.
As a very young man in the early 1980s, he had already gone to look for a new life, in Germany, when Lebanon was engulfed by civil war. Kashmir was his next stop. “Being a foreigner, I stood out,” he says, explaining how he was recruited by an armed group fighting the Indian authorities.
His subsequent arrest led him to spend 15 years in jail, suspected of being a “foreign fighter”. And this is how Mahmoud met the ICRC, in a New Delhi prison. “It is hard enough to be a foreigner. So you can imagine how hard it is to be a foreign prisoner, thousands of kilometers away from one’s family,” he adds. While he speaks, his wife Atidal, her young and cheerful face framed by a blue hijab, treats visitors with coffee and an abundance of homemade sweets.
Window of hope
In that terrible void, these ICRC delegates “who came from many countries” provided more than moral support – they became “real friends”. “I felt someone cared for me and was looking after me, when the whole world seemed to have forgotten me,” he recalls.
When a visit was announced, “I would clean my cell to receive them as if I was receiving friends. They used to understand my life in prison and they made me feel I existed. These visits were my window of hope.”
And it was the ICRC that made all the necessary arrangements, when Mahmoud was released, for him to travel back to Lebanon. This finally happened in May 2007, more than 25 years since he had first left the country.
In the Maachouk refugee camp, close to Tyre, he found a father who “had lost his mind” and who died a few months later. Mahmoud’s mother was already dead, in spite of her dearest wish. “Every time I visited, she would tell me how she prayed to stay alive until her son got back,” says Riad Dbouk, the ICRC field officer who regularly kept the family informed about Mahmoud when he was in prison.
Support from the family
Under such circumstances, one would expect Mahmoud to be a bitter, broken man. But he is surprisingly positive about his new life, which he attributes to the constant support of his family. “Al Hamdullilah (thanks be to God), when I came back to my home I found all my family around me,” he says in his Indian-accented English, punctuated by a shy but warm laugh. “I have the feeling they all love me, my brother, my sister. They were doing things with me, walking around with me, to make me forget my time in prison and my problems.”
Despite his fragile health, impaired by his 15 years in captivity, Mahmoud manages to make a living as a daily labourer. But the brightest spot in this brand new life is undoubtedly Atidal, his smiling wife, who ceaselessly attends to the visitors in the couple’s minute sitting room.
Bread and olives
Other women, says her husband, would have asked for bride money and the traditional gift of gold jewellery. “She doesn’t ask. She tells me ‘I’ll live with you on bread and olives. I don’t want anything’.”
Atidal was a poor orphan, says Mahmoud fondly. But now “she has found me. I am her father, her mother, everything for her.” And she in turn, has “helped me in my life, to be happy and forget everything. To go on in life.”
The couple brought their few meager possessions to the house they now share with one of Mahmoud’s brothers - the very place where he was born. They hope to have children. For Mahmoud, there is no point in dwelling on a bitter past. “It is much better to take from the present,” he says. He laughs, shyly, and there is a warm light in his eyes.