Thursday was a day of madness. It was a day filled with preparations, anticipation and emotion for the family members and friends of the former Lebanese detainees held in Israeli prisons.
Thursday was the day of their liberation, the day they would finally return home and join their loved ones, after years of separation, uncertainty and even despair.
For Nabih Awada, it was without question one of the most hectic and exciting days of his life. Awada was a former prisoner of war who had been released in a previous exchange in 1999. His joy about his regained freedom had been endless. But in his heart, he remained sad.
For though Awada was a free man, his best friend and comrade had remained behind to rot in the Israeli prison of Ashqelon. For nine years, Awada had shared the prison cell with Anwar Yassin. They had lived moments of joy and of despair together. And most important to their survival in those dark years, they had shared a wonderful friendship in very difficult circumstances.
“The last moment before my release was also (spent) with Anwar,” Awada recalled Thursday before Yassin’s own moment of freedom. When they broadcast his name in the prison, Awada was watching a World Cup soccer match from his cell, while Yassin was cooking rice for everybody.
“Anwar calmly left the rice and said to me: ‘Take these things to my family and prepare your things and yourself to leave,’” he recalls.
“I was astounded and watching television. I didn’t know what to do. He was the one who helped me with preparing my belongings and packing them. And he was the one who started saying his goodbyes, in order to help me leave quickly.
I was then released.”
Although the moment of release should have been one of the happiest moments of Awada’s life, it was one of the hardest situations he had ever faced.
“I felt awkward about dealing with the situation with Anwar,” Awada says. “He was happy and he was laughing. The thing that bothered me the most is that I was not able to look at him after they closed the door. He was inside and I was outside. I couldn’t turn around and look.”
“Anwar called me many times, ‘Nabih, Nabih.’ I didn’t respond and continued making my way, because it was very difficult for me seeing him inside and me outside, because we spent nine years day and night in the same room.”
Both friends had been comrades: they had fought as militia men for the Lebanese Communist Party, and were caught by Israeli soldiers while they were executing an operation in South Lebanon. That was back in 1987. Yassin was only 17 years old at the time. Nobody could hold him back. He was determined to fight for his ideals. Instead, he was to become one of the first Lebanese prisoners of war. He stayed in jail for 17 years half of his life, and basically his entire youth. He is now 34.
“Inside prison, Anwar acted as a leader,” Awada said. Yassin had been the one to initiate hunger strikes, in order to fight for the detainees’ basic rights. One of these rights consisted of being allowed to take pictures of themselves, so that they could send these to their families in Lebanon. In most of the pictures, Yassin wears a T-Shirt with a Che Guevara icon on it. His ideals hadn’t changed much over the course of the years, it seems.
For Yassin’s mother, it hadn’t always been easy to accept her son’s determination, although she claimed that if someone had given her a gun, she would also have fought against the enemy. But after all, Yassin had been her baby, her youngest son. The years of separation from him have left deep wrinkles in her face.
“I didn’t know if he gets to see the sunlight. Maybe he didn’t get decent food,” she wonders. “After all, I’m a mother.”
“All his memories were always in my heart,” she continues. “And in my mind, and in my eyes. I couldn’t sleep at night, until I turned to his pictures and talked to him: “My love, my love, my love. I miss you. I want to hug you. I want to see you before I die.”
After so many years of separation, the mother was finally able to see her son Thursday in what has proved to be a historic moment in Lebanon’s bloody conflict with Israel.
And the two old friends Awada and Yassin finally met. Once Awada had come back to Lebanon, they had maintained contact via telephone over the internet only despite the fact that it is illegal to call Israel from Lebanon and vice-versa.
Words couldn’t describe Awada’s feelings during the day of Yassin’s release. Awada tried to meet his friend in the airport, but at the last moment, the authorities didn’t allow the former detainee to go into the VIP room with the family members. So he planned to meet him somewhere outside the airport. Then, he changed his mind again and followed the crowd to Dahie, where Hizbullah received the former detainees. Also there, they prevented him from meeting his friend. They just had eye contact and talked over the mobile phone, both desperately anxious to meet.
After the reception was over, the two friends could finally fall into each other’s arms. They then went on to the headquarters of the Communist Party, where hundreds of comrades awaited them, including the head of the party, Ziad Saab.
Awada was somehow reliving the same situation as in 1999 during his own release: crowds of politicians, journalists, family members and friends had been waiting for him and the other released prisoners. When they were taken back to their family houses, crowds of people waited there, too, as well as photographers and television crews. Interview after interview followed during the next days.
And then came the moment that Awada’s feet had to touch the ground of reality again. He had to find a job. He wanted to build a family. And he wanted to stay active in politics.
Awada succeeded in all three aims in a very short time. He was offered a job by a telecommunications company for which he works as a technician until today. He found a wonderful wife and is the proud father of very cute 2-year old twins, a boy and a girl. He is building his own home. And he started to participate in a leftist movement. He achieved all this in the time during which his best friend was still in jail.
On Thursday, Awada had decorated his car with flowers, as if he was receiving his bride. Instead, he was welcoming Yassin. The two could finally make their way to Yassin’s native village of Rmeileh, just North of Sidon.
When they arrived at his home, hundreds of people were waiting for them, greeting Yassin with fireworks and cheers. Security forces had to battle against the crowds to allow Yassin go to his house. But there, it didn’t get much better. Journalists, party members, neighbors and friends all jammed into his parents’ living room.
Finally, Yassin made it to the sofa, surrounded by his father and his mother. There was not much time for quiet talk and the crew of New TV didn’t quite get the sound bite they had expected to get. Yassin just said that he was happy, greeting everybody, and added some words about the resistance.
By now, it was 3am. After a long, long journey, Yassin had finally arrived back home. But the day was far from being over.
“He wants to visit the family of Samir Qantar,” his friend said. “He had promised him to do so during the first day of his arrival in Lebanon.” A nice gesture for a family who wasn’t so happy Thursday, since their son is among those detainees who was not released. And no matter how tired Yassin was, he kept his promise. As always he was accompanied by his friend Awada.