Hijacked to Algiers — Part 5

OUR MEETING WITH THE ARAB MEDIA. THE TERRORIST ORGANIZATION CHIEFS COME TO SEE THEIR CATCH.

Next day, after our morning coffee, Sergeant Lashmi came in and told Monsieur Jacques that we were to go out for a morning walk. They took all of us–crew and passengers together–and led us a short distance from our building to a small, neglected garden with several fruit trees which apparently had not been cared for properly since Algeria gained its independence. Next to the trees was a square pool. The pool was dry and there was some goat dung at the bottom, likely from a small number of goats which grazed nearby, exterminating what was left of the grass and vegetation which had survived. Also near the pool was a small square, which apparently served as a place of rest and for sunning. The square was full of newspaper journalists and reporters, as well as a smaller number of photographers. There were also a few television reporters and photographers. I understood very quickly that they were all Arabs representing the Arab media: The press, radio and television in Arab countries. As we arrived by the pool we started strolling around it in the hot summer sun and the reporters pounced on us, asking questions which turned slowly into ideological and political discussions on the Israeli-Arab problem of Palestine/Israel. The crew initially stayed out of this, but as the discussions heated up, they, especially the stewardesses, joined the foray. I succeeded in getting away from all this noise and strolled near the pool whilst listening to the very loud and heated discussions.

After a short while I realized that the discussions were taking very undesireable and inadvisable turns. The reporters had succeeded in snaring mainly the stewardesses into the trite political back-and-forth of, “this land is all mine,” “no, for it is all mine”. I thought that it was not adviseable that the passengers and crew be drawn into political quarrels with personal declarations, statements, and creeds. I quickly approached the main group which was conducting their quarrel in English and said in French, in a loud and authoritarian voice,”Listen gentlemen of the media – what you are doing to us here is not fair: We are prisoners of the Algerian Authorities and not free people. Free people can conduct free conversations and say whatever they wish to say. Not so people whose basic human right to freedom has been denied to them. We are not politicians but regular citizens of our country. You should direct your questions to the politicians of our country and they will give you qualified answers.” The whole place went silent. I took advantage of this silence and turned to the crew to say in Hebrew, “I forbid you from discussing anything with the media. You may pose for pictures freely.” I approached the passengers and told them, “I strongly recommend you stop talking and being interviewed with the media. Please allow them to take as many pictures as they wish.”

After a moment of total silence the gentlemen of the media regained their wits and turned to me in unison, “And who are you Sir?” “My name is Oded Abarbanell, and I am the Captain of Flight 426 of El-Al Israel Airlines,” I responded. “Why did you surrender to the highjackers and continued the flight according to their instructions?” During our first night, after I finished writing my report for Air Traffic Control and the Civil Aviation Authority of Algeria, and whilst I spent the night sitting on that chair in the small room while my crew was trying to get some sleep, once I ended musing about Cervantes, pirates, and Algeria, I had asked myself what could be the aim of the hijackers and why was Algeria chosen as the destination of all Arab countries? My conclusion was that the aim of this hijacking was just for propaganda purposes: The Palestinian problem was almost completely forgotten after the 6-Day War. Neither the UN nor the world media said or wrote anything at all concerning this problem or about the Palestinian Organizations. They had to carry out some spectacular operation urgently in order to remind the public of their problem and existence. How better to do so than to highjack a large Israeli passenger airplane and land it in a major Arab country? I therefore decided that altough I would not be drawn into any political discussions, I shall endevour to do one thing: I shall present this highjacking as a criminal and irresponsible action which could easily be performed by any criminal who was either irresponsible or insane, to undermine any attempt by the terrorists to paint this as an act of heroism carried out by freedom-fighters. I therefore said, “A civil passenger airplane is not a battlefield or war front but a means of transportation for peaceful passengers who want to get to their destination. It is my duty to see that these passengers do indeed get there safely and there is no heroism in disturbing their peace by a savage act as this. When I am being threatened with pistols and grenades and shots are fired in the cockpit I am quite ready to land not only in Algier but even in some old lady’s flower garden.” The reporters gobbled up these last words of mine and published them, out of context, all over the Arab media. The Western media, meanwhile, published the entire sentence and not only the last part. The free Western world and the intelligent Arab population understood my message clearly. Having said that, I refused to continue the conversation. About one hour after we’d been taken out, we were returned to our rooms and when it was time for lunch, we received the same tasteless, lukewarm food from Air Algerie. The menu did not change.

After dinner–which was again identical to all the meals which we had received since we arrived in Algiers–at about 9 PM, a group of about six civilians appeared at our door accompanied by Sergeant Lashmi, the Commandant who was the Major in command of the unit which guarded us, and one more officer with a bad-looking expression. Sergeant Lashmi was wearing his uniform. We later found out that the other officer was the second-in-command and his rank was Captain.The whole group entered the room, but remained close to the door. I had a feeling that this was some kind of VIP visit and so I got up and approached them while snapping towards the crew in Hebrew, “Only short answers to basic questions!” The six civilians stood in a line. All of them were smiling and looked very happy. The Commandant said a few words to them in Arabic. It seemed that he presented me to them. Most of them shook their heads towards me and some of them started speaking to us in English, asking basic questions such as, how were we and how did we feel (!), how long had we been working for El-Al and in what capacity, where did we live, and where were we born? The crew spoke very little and acted as I told them to. I answered most of the quwstions. In front of me stood a man who was as tall as myself and of about the same weight. His hair and mustache were reddish and it was clear that this was not his natural hair color. Both his hair and mustache had been artificially colored recently, and since he already had some white hair, the resulting hue was that of a carrot. I noticed that some of the other men wore wigs. They were not made up successfully!

The man in front of me seemed familiar. I scoured my memory and then remembered that I had seen his picture, several times during the last years, in the Israeli newspapers. It was Doctor George Habash, chief of the “Popular Front For The Liberation Of Palestine,” whose men highjacked us three days ago. I resolved not to forget how he looked, and after my release I checked, and found that it was indeed him. He turned to me and, smiling in a most friendly wa,y asked me those same questions, and then asked where were my parents born. I answered all these formal questions without hesitating. As soon as Doctor Habash heard that my mother was born in Jaffa and my father was born in Kremenchug, Ukraine he said, “When we get Palestine back, you and your mother will be allowed to continue living there, but your father as well as your wife who was born in Turkey will have to return to where they came from.” I smiled broadly as if I enjoyed his wise declaration and said, “Very interesting indeed!” This visit did not last long. 15 or 20 minutes later, these VIPs and their escort left. The crew started guessing who they were. Judy, in particular, wanted to know not only who they were but what they wanted, and the purpose of this visit. I told the crew right away that I believed these were some of the chiefs of the Arab terrorist organizations (but I did not mention the name of Doctor Habash) which came to see the rare birds, which they caught and trapped in their cage.

The spirit of the crew was quite depressed after this visit. Judy Abend lay down on her bed and started crying. Her weeping grew more intense from minute to minute and turned hysterical. I sat next to her on her bed and started talking to her. She was very distressed since the meeting with the “VIPs” strengthened her feeling that we would remain in captivity a very long time. This threw her into deep despair and complete loss of her senses. I explained to her that it was too soon to know how long we would remain in captivity and told her that I did not believe that they would keep the children and their mothers captive long and that it is quite possible that when they release them they will release all females – passengers and stewardesses alike. This finally calmed her.

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