ICRC detention visits: ex-detainees share their experiences
Visits by ICRC delegates to those deprived of their freedom during armed conflict have been made to people all over the world since the height of the First World War. Here, former detainees express their thoughts and feelings about the ICRC's role in letters, interviews, speeches and other written testimonies.
The archives of the ICRC are overflowing with examples of the progress achieved and the improvements made as a result of its behind the scenes approach.
Letters from people like Ali Najab, a Moroccan held by the Polisario Front for 25 years until his release in 2003.
" It is thanks to the ICRC that we found our dignity as human beings...it is the work of the ICRC that always gave us hope. "
Or from Soha Bechara, a Lebanese woman, who spent ten years in Khiam prison i n South Lebanon and describes her experiences in her book " Resistance. "
" The ICRC had won a first, hard-fought victory. Through their stubborness, they had finally gained families the right to visit their detained relatives. "
And Mike Durant, a US pilot held in Somalia in October 1993, who recalls the emotional and practical impact of the visit made to him by an ICRC delegate.
" I came away with a tremendous respect for the people who work for the ICRC, the risks they take and the things they do for unfortunate individuals like myself. "
Or the words of Ricardo Gadea Acosta, a Peruvian journalist held in the 1990s.
" Through these visits, I realised that the police and the military were controlled by the presence of a such a prestigious international body as the ICRC. "
These testimonies bear witness to how effective the ICRC's strategy can be and the essential role it plays as the only international organization to have such an extensive presence in detention places worldwide.Read how delegates see their work with detainees. Read more about the ICRC's mandate to visit people deprived of their freedom in connection with conflict.
Few people can have as firm a grasp of the scope of the ICRC's activities in the field of detention as Abdul Halim Rahimi, a former Afghan detainee who now runs Kunduz Central Prison.
Arrested in 1988, Rahimi spent two years as a detainee at Pul-i-Charkhi prison in Kabul and got to know the ICRC when the organisation came to register him.
Now, as manager of Kunduz Central Prison, he is happy to grant the ICRC full access and believes its delegates make a valuable contribution to the efficient management of his facility.
" If there is something wrong, they will tell me. I wish the best possible conditions for the detainees and that way I can improve them. "
In addition to Kunduz Central Prison, the ICRC in 2003 visited almost 2,700 detainees in 88 places of detention under the responsibility of the Afghan authorities or US forces. It also facilitated the exchange of more than 10,000 Red Cross messages between detainees and their familes.
Read the full article about Abdul Halim Rahimi first published in the ICRC's Afghan newsletter
Detention authorities throughout the world do not always welcome delegates from the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as warmly as the director in Kunduz Central Prison does. Abdul Halim Rahimi - a former detainee himself - knows from his own experience what difference a visit from the Red Cross can mean to many prisoners and is thankful that the organisation visits the people detained in his prison. At the age of 28, he was detained in the Pul-i-Charkhi prison in Kabul in 1988 where he spent two years.
When the ICRC came to register him it was his first meeting with the organisation he had heard about ever since he went to school. " The ICRC brought us some very basic items such as soap, shampoo and clothing to improve conditions a little bit. I was lucky to be visited by my family, but I knew lots of other detainees who only managed to stay in contact with their relatives through Red Cross messages, " says Abdul Halim Rahimi.
His experience from when he was detained in the late 1980's is part of the reason that he warmly welcomes the ICRC in the central prison of Kunduz today. " I have been a detainee myself and I know what it is like to be deprived of your freedom, " he says. Being on the other side of the table, Mr. Rahimi today believes that every detainee - no matter what the reason for his or her detention is - should be treated humanely. He struggles to provide the basic needs with very little funding. Some prisoners receive assistance and visits from their families - others don't.
" Medicine and winter clothing are examples of assistance which make an important difference for the detainees. With the funding I get at the moment I haven't got the budget for all the basic needs, " explains Abdul Halim Rahimi.
In Kunduz Central Prison, the ICRC has access to register and see all detainees, to interview them indi vidually and carry out repeated visits. Mr. Rahimi says that he does not in any way find the presence of the delegates as interfering with his job - on the contrary.
" I am very pleased to let the ICRC see every single detainee. If there is something wrong, they will tell me. I wish the best possible conditions for the detainees and that way I can improve them, " says Abdul Halim Rahimi.
Since March 2003, the ICRC has visited more than 12,000 prisoners of war, civilian internees and other detainees held by the Coalition Forces in Iraq to register and monitor their treatment and conditions of detention. Until May 2004, it had also facilitated the exchange of more than 23,000 Red Cross messages between detainees and their families.
One of those visited was 30-year-old Ahmed Hadi Abdul-Hadi, arrested in June 2003 and held for eight and a half months.
After his release Hadi Abdul-Hadi told the ICRC how he was held at various detention centres including Um Qasr in Basrah and Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad.
He says he first met ICRC delegates in Um Qasr where he welcomed the chance to write a Red Cross message to his family to reassure them that he was alive and in good health.
Hadi Abdul-Hadi was later transferred to Abu Ghraib where ICRC delegates saw him on two occasions. Initially, he says that the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib changed for the better only whilst the visits were being conducted, but lasting improvements came, he adds, when the ICRC began to have a more regular presence in detention centres across the country, approaching the Coalition Forces with requests for corrective mea sures.
Transcript of the interview (from the original Arabic) between an ICRC staff member in Baghdad and former Iraqi detainee, Ahmed Hadi Abdul-Hadi
Can you introduce yourself please?
My name is Ahmed Hadi Abdul-Hadi. I was born in 1974. I was arrested on 7 July 2003 in Al-Mansour district. The number of my registration card is 7951.
How long were you detained?
About eight and a half months. I cannot recall more precisely the duration.
Did you spend all the time at the airport detention facility?
Firstly, I spent a period of time in the Airport prison. Then I was transferred to Um Qasr detention facility where I spent about three and a half months. Then I was transferred to Abu-Ghraib prison after which I was released.
How many times did the Red Cross visit you while you were in detention?
At the time I was arrested, the conditions were not stable. When matters became stable in June, I was transferred to Um Qasr. There, the Red Cross paid me a visit. I met the ICRC delegates. In Abu-Ghraib prison, I met them twice. I wrote a Red Cross message during their first visit in Um Qasr. I met the ICRC about three to four times. But the ICRC delegates used to regularly visit prisons, or at least the camp where I was held.
What was the importance of the Red Cross message? Did it have a positive impact on your family?
Definitely, the Red Cross played a very significant role. The Americans arrested me without prior notice. Therefore, my family and the people whom I work with had no idea about my whereabouts. They thought that I had been robbed and kidnapped. Through the Red Cross messages, which were delivered free of charge directly to my family, my family knew where I was detained. The message, which I wrote, was sent to my house. This by itself is a very important thing, because at that time you could not transmit a message to your family unless via other detainees who were released. But the surest and most reliable way was to transmit a message through the Red Cross. As soon as they received the Red Cross message, my family was reassured that I was still alive and my condition was fine – the ICRC being a well-known body. A Red Cross car and employees of the ICRC delivered the message to the house.
Did you receive a reply to the message?
Honestly speaking, I did not receive a reply, because at that time, though we were imprisoned we could hear the news, and we heard that the Red Cross was attacked and that the overall situation was unstable. For instance, looting reached its highest levels. It was very good that the Red Cross delivered my message, bearing in mind that no one was able to go out in the streets for security reasons.
Did you notice that there were changes in the treatment and the conditions of detention during and after the ICRC's visits to the detention places?
Definitely, during the presence of the ICRC delegates, the treatment of the detaining authorities differed. But when the Red Cross used to leave the premises, the treatment was the same as before. Such things were especially obvious during the first days of detention. Then, matters became more stable because the Red Cross started to visit detention places regularly. The conditions inside the prison began to improve slightly.
Can you give me some examples about the actual improvements, which occurred inside prisons after the ICRC visits?
For example, in winter, every detainee used to have two blankets. One to lay down on, and the other to cover himself. They were not enough. There were no clothes either. Some people were detained while they were wearing their home clothes. The Red Cross delegates to whom we expressed our problems were concerned about our conditions. They transmitted our problems to the highest authorities. Changes never happen on the same day, they occur a little bit later. But they tried to fill the gaps that were present in the prison. Conditions changed afterwards. They played an important role. Let God preserve them and keep them safe during these unstable conditions.
Today, Zuher Sahadad Dibbeh is the head of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs for the northern West Bank district of Nablus. He has a relationship with the ICRC that dates back 30 years.
First arrested in 1970, he served a total of seven years in Israeli detention centres and first encountered an ICRC delegate while being held for interrogation.
" When all you see are other detainees and interrogators, the arrival of an ICRC delegate is a blessing, " he says.
At first, he adds, it was common for detainees to think of the ICRC as an ally of the authorities but this perception changed over time as their conditions began to improve due to delegates'visits.
The ICRC has been permanently present in Israel and the Occupied and Autonomous Territories since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
In the current climate of violence, it monitors the situation of the Palestinian civilian population, carries out visits to detainees and makes representations to the relevant authorities, both Israeli and Palestinian.
It provides direct assistance to Palestinians whose houses have been demolished and people wors t affected by curfews, closures and other restrictions in West Bank and Gaza towns and villages.
It also supports the activities of the Palestine Red Crescent Society (PRCS) and the Magen David Adom (MDA).
The full article on Zuher Sahadad Dibbeh written by an ICRC delegate in Jerusalem
" When my parents fled their home in 1948, they had to cross from Lod to Ramallah on foot. My mother, who was pregnant with me at the time, used to tell me that the Red Cross had been there and that it had saved our lives by providing drinking water. As you can see, I had met the ICRC long before my first arrest " says Zuher Sahadad Dibbeh with a laugh.
Today, as the head of the Ministry of Islamic Affairs for the northern West Bank district of Nablus, Mr. Dibbeh is a frequent interlocutor of the ICRC. Locally known as Abu Islam, he is an ordained imam who has been preaching in his district's mosques for the past two decades.
Mr. Dibbeh was first arrested in 1970 and served a total of seven years in various Israeli detention places. Like so many Palestinians, it is within the confines of a cell, while under interrogation, that he first met an ICRC delegate. " When all you see are other detainees and interrogators, the arrival of an ICRC delegate is a blessing " he says. " Even if you don't quite understand what he is doing, he immediately becomes a small window of hope " .
Mr. Dibbeh says that it was common for new detainees to perceive the ICRC as collaborating with Israel. " But by visiting us regularly, by listening to our problems, by enabling us to communicate with our families and fighting for concrete results, ICRC delegates gained the trust of our group " he says.
Within a few years, Mr. Dibbeh became a shawish , a detainee representative. " From then on, I had a privileged relationship with ICRC delegates. I spoke with them openly about all our problems each time they visited. And sometimes, small things did improve " .
As he learned about life in prison, Mr. Dibbeh also came to understand the limitations of what the ICRC can achieve in a detention place. " ICRC delegates carried pens and paper but guards carried sticks and guns. We knew this so we accepted that they could not respond to all our demands " , he says. " Of course the ICRC could not release me or end the occupation of my land but today, as a Muslim, I see the water the ICRC gave my mother or the assistance it brought me in prison as holy gestures " .
As a preacher, Mr. Dibbeh sees the action of the ICRC as embodying the most fundamental principles of the world's great religions. " I think three words define the ICRC best: humane, conscientious, and moral. These three concepts are central to any religion. They certainly are to ours: to respect human dignity is a central tenet of Islam. By experience, I know that this is what the ICRC stands for " .
by bringing us mail and visitors,
changed our lives."
In her book, " Resistance " (pub. J-C Lattes, 2000) Bechara tells of her time in prison, including the role played by the ICRC in improving the way the authorities treated the prisoners.
The forbidding Khiam prison was created in 1985, explains Bechara, and, at that time no international organization, not even the ICRC, was allowed access. The prison regime was tough and apart from long periods of solitary confinement, Bechara recalls how inmates also had to fight against crushing boredom with no books, writing materials or mail permitted .
Step by step, she recounts how the ICRC won concessions from the detaining au thorities, gaining the right to family visits, letters and the delivery of parcels containing food, soap and shampoo.
Later, ICRC staff, including medical delegates, began making regular visits to Khiam prison, eventually winning more concessions to make the prisoners lives more bearable.
bringing messages and parcels during their twice-yearly visits
Imagine being detained for 25 years: this was the fate of Ali Najab, a former pilot in the Moroccan air force captured by the Polisario Front in 1978. In a letter to the ICRC's President at the end of 2003, Najab expressed his gratitude to the ICRC and its staff who visited him during this period.
ICRC delegates based at the regional delegation in Tunis visited Ali Najab in the Western Sahara where the Polisario Front held him captive at Tindouf detention centre.
In his letter, Najab thanks ICRC delegates for gradually improving conditions in the camp. He says the ICRC acted as an " umbilical cord " between prisoners and their families, bringing messages and parcels during their twice-yearly visits. The days when the ICRC came, says Najab, came to be viewed as holidays by the detainees.
He praises the ICRC delegates for being both compassionate and professional and says that, thanks to the ICRC, the detainees regained their dig nity as human beings. He says ICRC staff were always appreciated as a source of hope.
Najab, writing shortly before the dawn of the New Year, ends his letter to the ICRC hoping that the organization's work will always be " crowned with success. "
My name is Ali Najab and I am a fighter pilot with the grade of captain in the Moroccan air force. I was recently repatriated from Tindouf, where I spent 25 years in the hands of the Polisario....But rest assured, the purpose of this letter is not to discuss politics but to pay tribute to the organization over which you preside.
The ICRC’s regional delegation for North Africa in Tunis regularly visited us in Tindouf and it has continued to visit the remaining prisoners to this day. I would like to say how deeply grateful I am to your delegates for their dedication and abnegation. Their trips to Tindouf were not always easy.
Despite the enormous difficulties they faced – and I speak as an eye witness – they were always able to alleviate the situation and, thanks to the tact and patience they showed, assist us, comfort us and act as an umbilical cord between prisoners and our families by means of Red Cross messages...It wasn’t easy for them to bring in parcels, but they managed to do so despite all the obstacles in the way.
Thanks to the understanding they had of our concerns, they were often able to satisfy our slightest whims. They always showed compassion while at the same time remaining professional. Their visits, which took place twice a year, were always joyous occasions for us.
We were aware if our situation had gradually improved, it was thanks to their sustained efforts. It was thanks to the ICRC that we had recovered our human dignity. But words will never be strong enough to express the gratitude we feel towards your organization.
Please be so kind, therefore, as tell your delegates on our behalf how much we admire and respect them. It was thanks to the ICRC that we were given shelters with roofs.....It was the ICRC that always gave us hope.
Since we are on the threshold of a new year, allow me to extend my best wishes to you and all your staff members and to express the hope that the noble work you carry out the world over will always be crowned with success.
Ricardo Gadea Acosta is a journalist by profession and was 53 years old when Peruvian police arrested him in 1993 and accused him of treason against the state. He spent several months in various detention centres. From Spain, where he eventually resettled, he sent a letter to the ICRC expressing his thanks.
In the letter, Gadea Acosta describes the months he was in prison as extremely hard, not knowing whether he ever be freed and doubting his ability to tolerate the tough prison regime. He obviously held the visits made by ICRC delegates in a very high regard.
" In these conditions, it was invaluable for me and the other prisoners to receive the ICRC's support...the only organization able to access the prisons and the bearer of a humanitarian aid that was absolutely essential. "
The ICRC followed Ga dea Costa as the authorities moved him from prison to prison, ensuring that he remained visible. In addition, it provided medical help to prisoners suffering from tuberculosis or other illnesses and injuries.
Material assistance was also highly valued and he remembers how much the inmates appreciated the mattresses and blankets provided.
He ends his letter by thanking the ICRC for the work it conducts for victims of war around the world.
Spanish Red Cross
Càceres, 16 October 1996
D. Francis Amar
Head of operations for the Americas
I am writing from the town of Càceres in Extremadura, Spain, where I am working for the provincial assembly of the Spanish Red Cross (international cooperation department). My name is Ricardo Gadea Acosta. I am 56, a journalist, of Peruvian nationality. I have been living in Spain for two years as a political refugee, along with my family.
I have decided to write to you directly – and through you, to the International Committee – as I am a direct witness and beneficiary of the prison visits programme that the ICRC operates in numerous countries. I was held prisoner in Lima for two periods between June and September 1993.
I went through some very difficult periods during these m onths in jail. At times, I wondered whether I would ever be released....Under such conditions, the support of the ICRC – in the form of its offices in Peru – was invaluable to me and to everyone else held on similar charges. The ICRC was the only organisation with access to the prisons, and it is a matter of objective fact that the humanitarian assistance provided by the ICRC was absolutely vital.
ICRC personnel visited and interviewed me every month in the various prisons where I was held, and carefully monitored the situation of people imprisoned....These visits showed that police and military authorities were influenced by the presence of a prestigious international body like the ICRC....Follow-up visits were supplemented by the provision of urgently-needed medicines and medical treatment.
Throughout this time, I slept under sheets and blankets which, I later discovered, had been provided by the ICRC....
Despite the time that has elapsed since then, and the different conditions in which I now live, I wanted to send you this personal testimony and, via you, to express my deepest thanks for the valuable work the ICRC is doing in prisons around the world in its efforts to reduce the suffering and abuses to which the victims of war are subjected. Modestly but sincerely, I wish to encourage the commitment to solidarity and humanitarian assistance of your organization.
With kind regards,Ricardo Gadea Acosta
For the next 11 days Durant would be held captive in Mogadishu, becoming the centre of international attention and, for a short time, the world's highest profile detainee.
The period immediately following his capture and the first few days that Durant spent in captivity were, in his own words, terrifying and are described in his 2003 book In the Company of Heroes (Penguin 2003).
The book also recounts his meeting on 8 October with an ICRC delegate who was given just five minutes notice that she would be permitted to see him.
Durant told the ICRC in a recent interview that he would never forget the moment that the delegate walked through the door of where he was being held and the emotional impact the visit provoked.
The impending visit also produced an improvement in Durant's conditions of detention as the Somalis cleaned up his cell and gave him a change of clothes and a bed to sleep in to replace the concrete floor. Durant is convinced that the ICRC's involvement made his captors more careful with him and more aware of their accountability.
Most appreciated was the opportunity to write Red Cross messages to family and friends – described by Durant as " tremendously uplifting " .
Durant says he left Somalia with a great respect for the work ICRC delegates do and that he understands that the ICRC's neutrality has to be maintained if it is to continue to help those detained, as he once was, during the course of armed conflict.
In 1963, the ICRC began seeing people deprived of their liberty by the South African apartheid government. Its first visit was to Robert Sobukwe, the former President of the Pan African Congress held at Robben Island.
Over the next decades, the ICRC would support prisoners by bringing them family messages, clothes, reading materials, sports equipment and medical supplies. It also brought pressure to bear on the authorities to improve conditions at Robben Island and other detention centres.
This is how some of the veterans of the anti-apartheid movement recall the ICRC's involvement.
" The improvements in the conditions of our imprisonment at Robben Island were to a large measure due to the pressure that the mere presence of the Red Cross brought to bear on our jailer-regime. It says much for the moral weight of the Red Cross that even the apartheid regime, which was in so many other respects indifferent to world opinion, found itself cowed and p ressurised by this organisation. " Nelson Mandela, former president of South Africa, in a speech in London, 10 July 2003.
" Once the ICRC started visiting, we had someone to listen and bear witness to our situation. Being buried up to the neck and prisoners simply vanishing from inside the prison started to become things of the past. " Johnson Mlambo, imprisoned at Robben Island, 1963-1983.
" The ICRC also contributed sporting material – for boxing, table tennis, rugby – that also helped with our physical well-being. You know the rugby especially got so good, the warders used to bring their families to watch. " Bishop Stanley Mogoba, imprisoned at Robben Island, 1963-1966.
" The majority of us are alive today largely because of the visits and treatment by the ICRC. " Solomon Mabuse, imprisoned at Robben Island, 1963-1978.
" The work you do is as important today as it was then. This is especially true in light of the ongoing situations in Iraq and the Middle East. " Philip Silwana, imprisoned at Robben Island, 1966-1976.
Read the full transcript of Nelson Mandela's speech at the British Red Cross Humanity Lecture in London on 10 July 2003.