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No pictures please


by Barbara Geary

You aren’t allowed to take pictures in prisons. The jailers become nervous, with apparent good reason, that the images will find their way into the hands of those who might like to escape or help someone escape. That can sometimes be a shame, though, because from time to time there are beautiful moments in prison, moments that beg to be photographed.

I tried to explain that once to a prison worker. We were standing next to each other in a small space between a wall and a row of six young men seated with their backs to us. The men were dressed identically in brown shirts and trousers and each one leaned their arms on the small counter in front of them. They faced a grilled partition behind which were members of their families.

I told the prison worker what a wonderful picture the scene in front of us would make: that smiling girl talking to her older brother, the 18-month-old baby passing a sweet back and forth through the partition to his uncle, the old man kissing his son through the metal. “I’m sorry,” he replied, “you’ll just have to convey it all in words.”

But to do that, to describe those moments, that emotion, I would have to go back. I would have to start at five o’clock on the same morning in the pre-dawn of a street in, as it happens, East Jerusalem. I would have to describe the mood of the people, mostly women and children, all very quiet, standing waiting for a bus.

They hold plastic bags. Some are full of food for the trip which will take the whole day. Some have clothes or books or tea for the ones they are going to visit. They don’t say anything much. It is early. Maybe they are tired. There is a sense of restraint in the air, as if they are trying not to get their hopes up. Any number of things may happen between now and the time they get to see the prisoner they love.

They board the old bus and the driver, shifting into first gear, reaches behind him for the plastic sign that says “Family visits to detainees organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross”. He places it in the window.

The sun comes up as the bus winds its way through the beautiful hills that lead to Jericho and the Jordan Valley. Slowly, the passengers begin to speak in hushed tones and to take their breakfast: bread, cheese, felafel.

The bus becomes quiet each time it reaches a checkpoint. There are four on the way to the prison and at the final one, just before the passengers descend from the bus, there seems to be a collective taking in of air – as if they will hold their breath until they can pass from the West Bank into Israel.

They stand in the sunlight in a field next to the checkpoint without speaking. Then a signal from a soldier sends them back into the bus, now smiling. When the doors close, there is the unmistakeable resumption of normal breathing: everyone relaxes, begins to talk in normal tones, laughs even. They offer half an orange to the foreigners in the front seat – maybe the checkpoint procedures went smoothly because of them.

The bus reaches the prison just before 9 a.m. and the passengers file out and mill around the parking lot where they will spend the next five or six hours. There is a small play area for children in one corner of the lot and the little ones head for it to swing or slide or run around together. In another corner are two toilets, one very dirty but functional, the other unusable. Outside the toilets is running water.

In front of the lot is the prison itself: imposing, serious, barbed wired, fortified. Soon a loudspeaker begins to call names and about 20 or 25 people line up in front of a white metal door. They are visibly tense now, just before facing the captors of the people they love. The metal door opens and they file into a security area where they hand over the items they’ve brought for the prisoners and submit to a required search of their persons.

Then it happens. Another door opens and they pass into the small partitioned room. There is a kind of explosion – as if they have been swimming all this way from East Jerusalem, swimming up from the bottom of a deep pool of water, working their muscles against pressure in a murky shadow, and now they’ve reached the surface, broken through, are splashing around in the water, playing, laughing.

There is light in their eyes. Their voices sparkle. Everyone seems to be talking at once. The air is filled with a relief and a joy that elevates this experience – so simply referred to as a “family visit” – to a place where nothing can spoil it: not the bars, not the guards, not the harsh realities everyone in the room faces.

In the last ten minutes of the visit, one of the partitions is opened and the children come tumbling through to find the laps and arms of their brother or uncle or father. That is quite a picture. If we could take it, we would see the mingling of all that is most essential in life with all that is most painful. We would see people separated from each other reunited and, for a few moments, we might even glimpse freedom and hope from inside a prison.

The ICRC arranges or finances family visits to security detainees held far from their homes or across front lines. At present it organises such visits in Israel and the occupied territories, southern Lebanon, Kuwait, Indonesia/East Timor, Philippines, Peru and Colombia.

Barbara Geary
Barbara Geary, a Federation staff member, accompanied a family visit organised by the ICRC in April 1995.



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