When Israeli artist Rafram Chaddad visited Libya to document its once-thriving Jewish community, he was accused of espionage and put in jail. Now free, he tells of his five months in captivity.
After Chaddad had spent 12 days in prison, his interrogators were apparently not satisfied with his answers. “It’s not exactly easy to explain to the Libyan security services that you are a contemporary artist working for an Israeli NGO,” Chaddad says. His captors decided to increase the pressure and pain. “They wrapped a thin turquoise blanket over my head so that I couldn’t see what was happening. Then they told me, ‘You are going to have a rough three days, so you better tell us everything you know.’ ” Chaddad could not have imagined how right they were: For the next 72 hours he underwent a grueling series of physical and psychological tortures. He was forced to raise his limbs and hold heavy objects for hours at a time. He was not allowed to sit or lie down and was prohibited from relaxing his muscles. “All this time my body is aching and I keep asking them, why, why, why?” he says, pausing momentarily as if to gather strength. “The final day was the worst. They tied me up again and began to hit my soles and knees with an iron pipe. After that, they made me take my clothes off, and sitting in my underwear, they connected a car battery to my fingers and administered electric shocks. All I wanted to do was sit down. I literally lost any sensual experience.”
It was then, on the brink of Chaddad’s collapse, that the interrogator formally announced: “Welcome, you are in custody of the Libyan secret police. We are the worst secret police in the world. If you had heard stories about us, you would kill yourself now. You are all alone. No one knows you are here. We told the Tunisian embassy that you died in a car accident. So you better cooperate with us.” When the torture finally subsided and he was allowed to return to his now totally empty cell to lie down on the concrete, the ever-optimistic Chaddad found himself on the verge of despair. “I couldn’t eat, sleep, or even cry. I didn’t want anything. My feet were drenched in blood, and I could barely walk. I didn’t know who I was anymore.”
While still recuperating from the blows, Chaddad was once again and without warning blindfolded and transferred to another prison, where he would spend the next four months. But rather than the beginning of a new nightmare, this move turned out to be the beginning of the end. With the Libyans apparently realizing Chaddad’s innocence, he was taken to a new holding facility where he would remain in solitary confinement until the diplomatic moves being made on his behalf played themselves out. In the four months he spent there, Chaddad quickly established a rigid routine: He awoke with the muezzin at dawn and exercised by running around his cell and lifting his water bottles. In the afternoon, he would have an hour of what he called “urban fantasy” by strolling in Paris in his mind; at night some erotica. In addition, he gradually began to reengage his aesthetic inclinations and made art from the tinfoil and plastic trays in which his meals were served. “I decided to rebuild my life and said to myself that this is my chance to become a better person,” he recalls. “Like [Natan] Sharansky, I built a chess set from bottle caps, made a calendar, and decorated my cell.” Still confident that eventually he would be released, Chaddad kept telling his interrogators, who by now were summoning him barely once a week, “Just bring me to Qaddafi, and everything will be OK.”
Chaddad was eventually brought in front of someone who was introduced to him as a judge—the man was wearing jeans. Even so, Chaddad maintains that he was never actually charged with anything despite myriad allegations that included heading a counterfeiting ring and performing espionage for Israel, Tunisia, Italy, and al-Qaida. In retrospect, he has learned a valuable lesson about Libya that he wishes he had known beforehand: “The police there don’t arrest you because of any specific reason. They just do it because they can.” Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam has since publicly admitted that Chaddad was actually not suspected of espionage because “Israelis don’t send other Israelis to spy on their behalf.” Instead, Saif al-Islam explained that the Libyan authorities knew Hadad was on a “cultural mission,” and the Libyans had simply decided “to reap benefits.”
Chaddad’s release came just as fast and unexpectedly as his detention. In August, five months exactly after his arrest, Imad suddenly presented Chaddad with his Tunisian passport and told him to count the money that was in his wallet and sign a document confirming that all his belongings were accounted for. These actions were filmed. Although Imad refused to say whether Chaddad was being released, some of the more sympathetic guards seemed to confirm this. Considering the previous deceptions he had experienced, Chaddad’s sense of hope was immediately tinged with paranoia. Thrown into a car yet again and blindfolded, Chaddad’s imagination got the better of him. “I actually wished for an accident, because I could not undergo any more torture,” he says.
As the car drove on, Chaddad heard the surprising noise of a plane’s engine with the sound of waves in the background. Imad asked him how he felt. “Like crap,” Chaddad said. “How do you think I feel?” Removing the blindfold, Imad said, “You should be happy. There is a plane here to take you home.” Then Chaddad saw a familiar-looking man coming down from the plane bearing an Austrian flag. “Hello, I’m Martin Schlaff,” the man said. “Do you want to get on the plane?” Chaddad boarded but remained disoriented. Schlaff reassured him. “Everything is now OK,” he said. Schlaff’s tearful assistant photographed Chaddad, explaining that the commemorative picture was for his daughter, Lilly.
Despite the beatings, torture, psychological mind-games, and nearly 150 days in solitary confinement, Chaddad seems to show no anger. Instead, he exhibits an almost unfathomable sense of complacency toward his captors, with a degree of understanding, warmth, almost respect, that seems uncanny. This might explain why the last thing he did just before boarding Schlaff’s plane, was turn back to Imad, give him two jocular slaps on the cheek, and wish him an easy Ramadan.
His stoic ability to calmly embrace his fate not only helped Chaddad survive his Libyan captivity; it actually allowed him to learn something from it. He is currently compiling an eclectic memoir about his experiences that will exhibit the various art works and recipes that he was inspired to come up with while in prison. Despite the trauma he underwent, he assures me that things have almost returned to normal for him, all too fast. As we parted, I asked Chaddad if his Libyan captivity was a life-changing experience. “It wasn’t really,” he hesitantly remarked, as if still pondering the question. “But it was definitely one hell of an experience.”
Correction: Mr. Chaddad prefers the Hebraized spelling of his surname, rather than Hadad, which this article originally used. It has been changed to reflect his preference.
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