ALGERIA: WE ARE BILLETED IN AN ARMY BARRACKS
The crew returned to the stairs properly dressed and proceeded down. We were asked to enter a large police car intended for detainees and were driven to the terminal. There, we were ushered into a large room which served as the lobby of the Air Traffic Control office, the office where pilots hand in flight plans and other forms required to receive clearance for a domestic or international flight. There was a table surrounded by a large number of chairs. We were asked to sit and I was given several forms which requested information about our identity, purpose of our visit to Algeria and why we got there without obtaining prior air traffic clearance or diplomatic clearance. I asked which language I should use and was asked to use English. I made a very detailed report and did not forget to state that our hijacking was an extremely dangerous act, criminal in every respect. Meanwhile, my crew asked the Algerians who were standing by for cold drinks, and these were brought to us immediately in large quantities. Having finished my report, I handed it to the man who met us at the foot of the stairs and who, as we found out later, was a high-ranking official of the Algerian Civil Aviation Authority. At about 4 AM, we were taken, in the same car, to a different part of the airport and were asked to enter into a small building which contained a guest room, in which we found a couch, armchairs, a table and a couple of benches. We were asked to please sit and wait.
We were very tired. We sat down and tried to doze off. The only one who succeeded in falling asleep was Yonah Lichtman who lay down on one of the wooden benches and was fast asleep within minutes. Yonah had escaped the holocaust in Hungary. As a child, he had gone through many hardships, surviving the horrendous Nazi regime by sheer luck. He knew what hardship and danger really meant and considered the hijacking as just another punishment from heaven–another hardship to overcome. Yonah’s philosophy was as follows: When they let you sleep, sleep, and when they let you eat, eat, and do not waste the good times which are given to you. Unfortunately not everybody was experienced and wise as Yonah. I, myself, could not fall asleep. I was sitting on a chair which was not very comfortable and my brain was buzzing with many different and strange thoughts. We stayed many hours in this small building. We stayed there actually until mid-afternoon. Next to our room was a bathroom with a cold water wash-basin. When morning came everybody woke up and I told our Purser Jacques Machluf (Yaakov Meirav) who was born in Egypt and spoke Arabic as well as French, English and Hebrew to ask the soldiers who were standing guard at the door to please bring us coffee and some breakfast.
It is quite strange, the thoughts that go through one’s head at times like this. Since they had brought us into this small living room, I had been musing. My anger about missing my vacation with the family had passed. My thoughts led me from my pilot’s cockpit to the place where I found myself now. It seemed important to me that I should know as much as possible about this place and its people. I started searching my memory and the first thing which came up was the man Miguel De Cervantes Saavedra. The wonderful writer who wrote “Don-Quixote”, “Galatea” and “Novelas Exemplares” (I read the first in Hebrew and the other two in French ). I remembered that Cervantes was captured by Berber sea-pirates from North-Africa when the ship on which he sailed, the “Sol”, sailed by the islands of Les Trois Maries not far from the port of Marseille. The pirates took him to Algier where he was sold as a slave, and he remained in slavery until 500 gold-ducats ransom were paid to his master Hassan-Pasha who was Viceroy of Algier on the 19th of September 1580. Cervantes spent 5 years in captivity!
Although the entire length of the North-African coast technically belonged to the Turkish-Empire, a huge territory, which included Tripolitania, Tunis, Algeria and Morocco, was, as early as the 16th century, governed by bandits, part of whom were sea-pirates. These bandits and pirates formed anarchist military states ruled by Raiss’s (Chiefs). 10% of the loot that fell into the hands of sea-pirates and land-bandits was paid to the Pasha, who carried the title of “Bey”, and was the so-called ruler appointed by the Sultan of Turkey. This assured and perpetuated the rule of these bandits and pirates. The entire length of the wide North-African coast (which reached south as far as the Sahara desert) was called Berberia and was named after the Berbers who made up the majority of the population. The bandits and pirates reached the height of their might during the 17th century. During this time there were in Algiers itself 20,000 slaves who were captured abroad and kept as prisoners or slaves. During the 18th century the pirates and bandits began weakening as a result of the strengthened naval activity of the European Powers, but it was only during the 19th century that sea-piracy and the rule of bandits over North-Africa finally ended. Their total annihilation was not easy and began at the start of the 19th century by military sea and land operations performed by the USA, which sent its navy and its newly formed Marine Corps (remember the words of the Marine Corps hymn: “…to the shores of Tripoli…”) against the pirates and bandits of Tripolitania with great success. After this successful operation the British tried, twice, to wipe out the Algirian pirates and bandits to no avail. It was France who finally put an end to piracy and anarchy when, in 1830, it conquered the whole of Algeria and ruled it for almost 150 years.
“Well, well,” I said to myself, “nothing much has changed here. History repeats itself and now that Algeria has won its independence from France, it has returned to its naughty habits. There is not much difference between the Berber sea-pirates and the skyjackers of the “National Front for Free Palestine” (as our skyjackers presented themselves) led by their “Rais” Doctor George Habash. Hopefully these bad habits which have become second-nature in Algeria will be remembered by some statesmen and journalists throughout the Western world, and they will present Algeria with a reminder of their heritage which they, apparently, decided to renew.”
Our guards brought us some lukewarm French-style coffee with milk, and time dragged on until the afternoon. The crew finally broke the silence we had maintained since disembarking from our airplane. Some of them started guessing how long we would be kept captive here; how long until we would be released and could return home. The stewardesses turned to me and asked me my opinion. I did not want to raise false hopes and had no real clue, but I decided to base myself on the story of the two British pilots who were captured with Tshombe. I thought it would be best to prepare the crew for a very long period in captivity and if I ended up being wrong, well, then they’d of course be happy with a shorter stay. Therefore, I told the crew that I propose that we should all be prepared to spend at least six months to two years in Algeria. I then added that I sincerely hoped that we would not be transferred to another country or to another authority but, would remain here until we are released. The crew was far from happy to hear me say all this, and the stewardesses in particular were visibly distraught. Judy Abend was utterly shocked when she heard me say that we might spend months if not years as captives.
At about 3 PM an officer arrived with the familiar police van and transferred us to a two-story building on another side of the airport. Each floor had several large rooms connected by a long corridor at the end of which, on both sides, were the entrances to the building. At one end of the corridor was a large washroom with several sinks, showers and oriental toilets (no seats). There was no hot water, only cold. Nor were there soap and toilet-paper.
When we entered the building we were met, in the corridor, by 12 of our passengers who were in a state of great excitement. They immediately told us that after all passengers had disembarked (35 were left after the Algierians took the 3 highjackers away first), they were taken to one of the airport’s lobbies where a “selection” was conducted: the passengers’ passports were checked and they were split into two lists: One list with the passengers with Israeli passports and the other with the rest. Those 23 passengers with foreign passports were embarked on a flight of “Alitalia” which already left for Rome. The 12 Israelis were brought to this building. I understood that the Algierian government had decided to avoid complications with countries which had nothing to do with the Israeli-Arab conflict, and to release all non-Israelis regardless of religion or sex (none of them were asked if they were Jewish), sending them back to their airport of origin, namely Rome, within 24 hours of their landing in Algieria. As Captain of a passenger airplane on an international transport flight, I was happy that most of my passengers had returned to safety and were treated correctly and fairly. As an Israeli, I hoped that Algerians’ treatment of the foreign passengers was an indication that we might endure sufferable treatment during our non-scheduled visit here.
The 12 Israeli passengers were comprised of five men, four women, and three young children. Three of the men were paying passengers and two were El-Al employees. Two of the women were the wives of these El-Al employees, and the other two were paying passengers. The three children belonged to one of the El-Al employees and his wife.
Three Algierians were milling among the passengers. Two of them were in uniform and the third wore civilian clothes: He wore his shirt over his trousers and had slippers on his feet. There were armed guards at both entrances to the corridor, and another two stood by both stairs to the upper floor. Now that we were all together in this corridor I noticed that the two uniformed officers were addressing the Algierian civilian with great respect. This made me believe that he might be their commanding officer or a high official of sorts. The next day, I found out that he was indeed the commanding officer of the military unit which was posted to guard us, and his rank was Major.
The three Algierians tried to calm down the excited passengers and show all of us our new lodgings. My First-Officer, Maoz Poraz was wounded. He suffered great pain from the blows which he had received on his head, and yet he had not complained in the long hours since the hijackers first broke into our cockpit. When we were still in the room of the small building across the airport, I had suggested to him that I ask the guards to take him for medical treatment, but he refused vehemently. Now, the Algerian civilian approached him and asked him how bad was his wound and how he felt. He spoke to Maoz in French so I approached them in order to translate and told him that I request that Maoz see a doctor who would examine his wound and give him the necessary treatment. The man agreed immediately, pointed towards the last room in the corridor and said: “Our clinic is right here and so is the doctor.” Maoz continued to refuse. He suspected that if he would be separated from us he would be given an injection of Skopolamin so as to make him talk whilst they investigate him. I did not think so, and therefore ordered him sternly to get medical help. He finally gave-up and did so.
Maoz went into the clinic. A female military doctor disinfected his wounds and gave him some of the same disinfection fluid in case he would need it. The Algierian civilian then turned to me and, in a perfect French accent, explained to me that here there were several rooms with beds that would accommodate all of us. He then asked how I wanted it done. I told him that I would like the 12 passengers to occupy one large room and the 10 crew to occupy another large room. Both these large rooms had a dividing wall in the middle which divided it in two whilst leaving a passage on both ends so as to enable to pass from one half of the room to the other half. This enabled us to have the women as well as the stewardesses in one half of each room while the men occupied the other half. The man said that he also thought this was a good solution and added that if we wanted to make any changes to it we were free to do as we pleased.
There were iron bunk beds in the rooms. The beds had simple but comfortable straw mattresses. Each mattress had a sort of a bed-sheet which was in shape of a large and comfortable sack which ended at the top with something of a cover for the head of whoever slept in it. This sack was made of a material which we called “Arab cloth”. The floors in the rooms and the corridor were very dusty but to our joy the beds were clean and had no fleas or bed bugs.
About one hour after we went into our rooms several soldiers brought metal containers with trays bearing dinner which was identical to that served to the passengers on board flights of “Air Algerie”, the Algierian national airline. The food which we expected to be warm enough was almost cold and of poor quality. The meat was tough and very fat, but we were hungry so that we ate it all without complaining.
The treatment which we received thus far and the food which was brought to us from the airline’s kitchen encouraged the crew a bit, especially the stewardesses. We left Israel on what was supposed to be a short flight to Rome and return. We all took with us a small bag containing whatever we would need throughout one day only. When we disembarked all of us took our bags with them. We now realized that we would need several more items. We did not have towels or underwear. The girls started complaining that they must get clean underwear and various toiletries. I told Jack Merav to ask the soldiers who were standing guard over us if we could get certain items. Shortly one of the two uniformed men which we met when we entered the building appeared. He said that he was a First-Sergeant or Master-Sergeant and that he was appointed to take care of all our needs and of our contact with the higher command. He also told us that his name was Lashmi. When he heard what we required he said that soon somebody from “Air Algerie” would come and we would be able to ask them for whatever we needed.