Baalbeck, Lebanon, Asharq Al-Awsat – The five hostages, “headed” by Hassan Nasrallah, arrived in this eastern city late on Monday night and were met with celebrations, as family and friends flocked to hug them and congratulate them on returning to safety. They had spent twenty days in Israeli captivity, after the Israeli army carried out a commando raid in the Al Assira neighborhood, east of Baalbeck on the 1 August, and seized the five men as they played a gamed of cards.
The returnees are Hassan Nasrallah and his son Bilal, Hassan al Barji, Mohammed Shukr and Ahmad al Outa. Asharq al Awsat learned that Lieutenant Abbas Nasrallah from the Amal movement has overseen the men’s release.
“We were released by the Grace of God. Without his grace, we would have remained in Israel,” said Bilal.
Describing the men’s ordeal, Bilal said, “After heavy bombing of al Assira, a few houses, including that of my uncle Ahmad al Outa, which we sough refuge in, remained intact. We refused to leave the neighborhood. Late on 1 August, we heard the roar of warplanes and helicopters over Baalbeck. We then started to hear the sound of explosions nearby. We thought this was normal.”
“Suddenly, the front door was kicked in; we heard voices speaking in Arabic and a fierce light was shun toward us. I felt terrified. It was really scary. When they shot at us from the room nearby, we realized we were being kidnapped. There were about 500 commandos as well as 10 helicopters. They forced my 13 year-old brother Mohammed and I to go up to the second floor. They made us walk for two hours east of al Assira, in an area known as al Tayyara, while warplanes hovered above. They moved us to helicopters and released my brother, after asking him if he knew how to get back home.”
Bilal believes the men were flown by helicopter to a beach in northern Israel but is unable to pinpoint the exact location, as he was blindfolded and handcuffed for the duration of the trip. “When I was handcuffed, I hit three times on my face. Mohammed Shukr’s dentures broke because he was hit very hard. We heard camera flashes and people speaking in Hebrew. I believe we were presented to the local press. We were then taken by car to a different location. We were put in five different rooms and told, “You are in Israel. Do you know why you’re here?” We said no.”
The Israeli army, it turned out, was looking for Hezbollah’s General Secretary, Hassan Nasrallah, and had mistakenly thought it had captured his son, Bilal. “They compared our names to a list on the computer. They believed I was a prominent figure in Hezbollah and Nasrallah’s son. They insisted on this issue. I felt the kidnapping was a media stunt in which the Israelis sought to boast about seizing Hezbollah’s Secretary General and his son.”
After the initial investigation was complete, the men were moved to jail between Afoula and Nazareth. “They put all five of us in a single room with a toilet. We stayed like this, handcuffed and blindfolded, and couldn’t hear anything except the voice of our guard.”
It was only when the men were assigned a lawyer to represent them that they found out a ceasefire between Hezbollah and Israel had been agreed. “We were under huge psychological pressure. Our lawyer told me that we were kidnapped for publicity purposes because of our names. We are not members of Hezbollah.”
“They used to interrogate us individually. When we were kidnapped, we felt the Israeli soldiers knew the roads around Baalbeck better than we did. We didn’t hear nay news about our families or Lebanon . The head of the prison service told us Lebanon had been completely destroyed.”
“Our release is a miracle,” Bilal added.