No passport, no country, no home, no life...

Robert Fisk meets two men trapped in a bureaucratic limbo between Israel and Lebanon
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Naqqoura, southern Lebanon - Kahmis Khodr and Mohamed al-Gulani do not really exist any more. With neither passports nor identity papers, they live in a converted military police cell at the UN headquarters here, a pile of poetry books, videotapes of Wyatt Earp and Thelma and Louise and endless walks round the UN compound to pass the time.

But the two Palestinians - thrown out of Israel, rejected by the Lebanese, given a paltry £100 each by the PLO, for whom they spent a total of 35 years in prison - can go neither back nor forward. Kafkaesque, of course, is the word that comes to mind; Beckett might be nearer the mark. But Waiting for Godot has nothing on this.

The Israelis freighted them north a month ago with black bags over their heads and plastic handcuffs on their wrists, two ex-prisoners with no homes to return to. According to Mr Gulani, Israel's local militiamen told them to walk north into Lebanon with the words: "Come back and we'll kill you."

But the first Lebanese troops to stop them handed the Palestinians over to the security police in Sidon, who also put black bags over their heads, drove them south and told them to return to Israel. Just short of the Israeli occupation zone, three mystified Fijian United Nations soldiers offered them protection until UN officers, unwilling hosts to the Middle East's oddest deportees, gave them beds, food and a television set inside their headquarters.

Both were once members of Yasser Arafat's Fatah guerrillas, in the days before the PLO leader was transformed from "super-terrorist" into "super- statesman" by the "peace process" that should have provided both men with a home.

Mr Khodr - 56 now, but a young Arafat loyalist in the late Sixties - crossed the Jordan river with a rifle to attack the Israelis when they occupied the West Bank. Captured with two other men, he was sentenced to 23 years' imprisonment.

He divorced his wife after five years - so she could "start a new life" before she grew old - and lost touch with his two sons in 1978 when both were fighting with the PLO against Israel's first invasion of Lebanon.

He completed his sentence in Beersheba central prison, in Ashkelon jail, where he saw the lonely Israeli nuclear scientist, Mordechai Vanunu, taking his solitary exercise, and other prisons, only to be given, without reason or explanation, two more years in captivity.

Mr Gulani was caught by the Israelis in 1985 while transporting a car loaded with explosives near the West Bank town of Ramallah, apparently betrayed by fellow Palestinians. He spent 10 years in Beersheba and Ashkelon.

"What I did was a long time ago," Mr Khodr says, sucking on cigarettes the UN has given him. "That was another time, another life. I don't know why I spent an extra two years in prison. I have a brother in Jericho [now under Mr Arafat's Palestinian jurisdiction] but the Israelis wouldn't take me there. So they put me in an underground cell with Mohamed al-Gulani and then sent us both back to Beersheba."

According to Mr Gulani, both pleaded to be allowed to find relatives. "I have four brothers in Amman and I would like to join them and help run their shoe store. The UN let me telephone them from here and they are trying to help. But I can't even leave the UN headquarters, because the Israelis control this area, and the Lebanese won't let me go to Beirut. When we were let out, they wouldn't even give us identity papers."

Not that the PLO was much help. Apart from the £100 each, Mr Arafat's men showed no interest in the fate of their former comrades. To its credit, an Israeli human-rights group began campaigning for the two, demanding an investigation into why Mr Khodr was held for an extra two years. The Fijian troops at Naqqoura have befriended the lost prisoners, teaching Mr Gulani football and inviting them to share meals. Faced with the Israeli army's refusal to help, the UN has had to refer the two men's case to headquarters in New York.

"Our interest in them is purely humanitarian," says Timur Goksel, the UN's spokesman at Naqqoura. "They are our guests and we've been in touch with the organisations that could help to find a solution. I would have thought that recent developments would have offered other means to solve this problem." By "other means", Mr Goksel was referring to the Israeli-PLO accord.

The UN thinks Mr Gulani might be allowed to go to Jordan. Mr Khodr's future is another matter. "I'd like to find my ex-wife and if she hasn't remarried, I'd like her back," he says. "If she's married, I'd like to find a new wife. I'd like to know if my two sons are still alive. As for Arafat ..." And here Mr Khodr puts down his cigarette and clenches his fists. "As for Arafat, I am behind him whatever he says or does."