THE ALGERIANS FIND OUT ABOUT THE IDF’S INTENTIONS AND WE ARE RELOCATED. AN EXTORTIONER TRIES TO DEFRAUD INES. LOVER-BOY SHOWS HIS HAND.
On the 20th day after our arrival, at about 10 at night, after we had finished our dinner and the meal-duty-detail had aleady cleared the table and returned the containers to the guards which were outside, a sergeant which we had not yet encountered came in and told Monsieur Jacques that we should start packing since we would be moving. Monsieur Jacques asked him, “Where to?” but he did not reply.
In our situation, we could only expect the worst, and so we did. This did not seem like good tidings. Indeed, it sounded downright bad! Yona Lichtman, who had gone through thick and thin in his lifetime, was especially worried. He suspected we would be taken to a real prison and placed in individual cells. Passenger Pitel was also utterly frightened. Even I was discouraged: Every change in our situation eroded any advantage we’d so carefully amassed by making irrelevant the details we’d assembled about our captors’ habits and our surroundings. I decided to see the Commandant. I asked Jacques to tell the soldiers which were standing guard by the corridor door that I wish to see the Commandant and, soon enough, the same Seargent returned and led me to the small building where we spent our first night and met the men from IFALPA.
The small sitting-room was brightly lit and the Commandant was sitting in an armchair, dressed in civilian clothes and wearing his slippers. Officers and Seargents were running around in haste. The place was very busy indeed. It seemed to me that the soldiers were also surprised by this order that had fallen upon us. I addressed the seated Commandant and asked where we were going and why. He must have read the worry in my face, which I probably could not have hidden had I tried, for he said, “Please do not worry. You are moving to a much better and more comfortable place. I will continue to be responsible for your well-being. We shall remain together there, too, and the men of my unit will guard you.” Then he added, again, “Please do not worry.” His words were said honestly and in a friendly fashion. I had already formed a certain measure of trust in this Commandant, so I thought to myself, “This time you are indeed being tested by me! We shall see how truthful you are.” I thanked him and returned to our room. Everybody was ready. Several Sergeants and soldiers arrived and we were asked to go out to the yard. We found a military bus parked there with its windows painted with a kind of blue paint which enabled us to see out but apparently prevented anyone from looking in. We were asked to board the bus. I took the second row on the right. Pitel sat near me and it was clear that he continued to be deeply frightened despite the fact that when I got back to our room I reported in detail what the Commandant told me. The bus departed.
The bus did not go into the city, but started climbing towards the hill which stretched all along the city’s south side. After driving for at least half an hour along the main road, we turned to a side road which ran between one and two story buildings which looked like villas surrounded by large gardens and high stone walls. Suddenly I spotted flags of different countries flying from the tops of some of the houses and surmised that these must be the residences of the ambassadors of the various countries which had diplomatic embassies in Algeria. The bus turned into a driveway and we passed a wide, locked gate with two armed Algerian soldiers standing beside it.
Through the gate, at some distance, I saw a nice, two-story villa. At the top of its roof flew the Japanese flag! We drove another 300 meters and the bus stopped before a much narrower gate, which was open. Here, too, stood two armed soldiers, as well as a young Second-Lieutenant. We were asked to get off the bus and enter through the gate, into a small yard, at the end of which stood a small villa which also had two stories. The door was open. The lights in the villa shone everywhere. As I entered the house, I saw the Commandant and the men of his unit, all busy getting situated in this new place with their new orders.
Entering the ground floor, I found, on my left, a guest room containing a sofa and armchairs, a television set, a record-player with no records, and a bar without drinks. On my right, there was a dining-room, with a long table in the middle and 12 chairs around it. Opposite the entrance to the dining room was a door to the kitchen. At the side was another door leading to a small salon containing a round coffee table with four chairs around it. The whole place was clean and pleasant. Stairs led from the ground floor to the upper floor, where, on the left, there was a small bedroom with a queen sized bed in it. A door led from this room to a bathroom containing a washbasin, and a bathtub with a handheld shower. There was also a toilet-seat. Another entrance on the left led to a second bathroom, slightly larger and containing the same items, and which served two large rooms at either end of the corridor. Both rooms contained beds with regular matresses and woolen blankets.
The large rooms could hold six beds but would then be very crowded, and I did not see why the men should be so cramped, so I asked First-Officer Maoz Poraz if it would suit him to share the queen-sized bed in which I was to sleep, in the small bedroom. Maoz agreed, although he was sorry to leave the jolly company of the others. I then placed the five passengers in one room and the crew in the other. After three days, Maoz decided to join the rest of the crew, as sharing the queen bed was not very comfortable. The men installed a sixth bed in the room and seemed quite happy to be packed together.
There was a white teblecloth spread on the table in the dining-room and each of us had a white napkin. During meals, the cook used to lay down the plates, forks, knives and glasses next to each seat. We used to sit and eat together: I sat at one end, Monsieur Jacques sat at the other, and five of our men on each side. The cook, who was a soldier with the unit which guarded us, and whose trade was cooking and baking, used to bring out the food, which was laid nicely on silver-plated trays. We would pass the trays around the table, each of us taking his portion. The food was identical to the food which we had received from the soldiers’ mess when we had stayed at the barracks. The quantity and the quality were identical; this mess-food was filling and quite tasty. We did not require our own daily meal-detail here but we still needed the daily cleaning detail since nobody else came to clean the house. Instead of a meal-detail, we encountered a different problem during meals: Our young Junior Steward, Yaakov Weiss had a healthy appetite but lacked table-manners, and when the tray used to reach him, he used to take more than his share, so that when the tray reached the last two persons, it was bare! Although it was not very pleasant for us, both I and Monsieur Jacques, who was in charge of the Stewards of this Crew , had to rebuke him and teach him some table-manners. The tablecloth and napkins were never changed, and soon became quite dirty.
In the large salon with the empty bar and the record-player with no records, the television did function, but the only channel we received was Algiers. Since no one was interested in watching, I was able to spend several hours over the next few days, watching and listening to concerts of the Constantin Symphony Orchestra, which had traditional Arab instruments as well as European instruments, and which used to play classical Arab music. I thus had a chance to get acquainted with this foreign genre. It was very interesting and even quite pleasant.
During our first night at this villa, before I fell asleep, I started thinking about our transfer from the barracks to the villa: Why were we moved? I reached the conclusion that, most probably, Algerian Intelligence obtained some information on an operation which was being organized in Israel to release us, and, in order to foil the Israelis, who would cetainly come looking for us at Dar-El-Beida Airport, they brought us here to the villa. It was much easier for the Algerians to defend this place from invaders.This place was not as susceptible to a violent military assault as the airport, both due to the mountainous topography and the fact that we were surrounded by the houses of foreign Ambassadors, which were according to international law, Ex-Territory and not Algerian territory.The Israelis would no doubt refrain from hitting these places and this would make it very difficult to carry out even a restricted operation. All this led me to realize that, most likely, our people did not yet know where we were, and to resolve to make it easier for our Intelligence Service to discover our whereabouts.
Next morning, after we had our usual breakfast of black bread and jam, I looked out of the wide-open entrance door to the house, and when I saw that the guards outside did not object, I went out. I turned right from the small yard and discovered a regular tennis court with a reddish dirt surface, and a net in perfect condition. Next to this court, there was a small garden of shrubs and trees. The whole area was surrounded by a three meter high wire fence, except for the front, which had a stone wall of the same height. On the other side of the wire fence was a grove of Mediterranean pine trees. When I returned to the house, we discovered, in the large salon, a number of tennis racquets, tennis balls, and even several pairs of tennis-shoes. I assembled the men and told them that as of today, every day after lunch, all of us without exception must come out to the tennis court and stay there at least two hours. Those who play tennis will play and those who do not will walk around. I then added, “So as to be seen,” without any further explanation. I also added that I had no objection if anyone wanted to go for a stroll, exercise, play tennis, or just relax in the yard any other time; indeed I recommended that the men stay outside in the fresh air as long as possible. I was hoping that we would thus make it easier on whoever was looking for us to find our new location. When I got back home to Israel, I found out that this really did help, although it took a full week from when we were moved until we were located.
In the meantime, unbeknownst to me, my wife Ines was experiencing adventures of her own, which I also learned about when I returned home. About two weeks after the hijacking, she received a handwritten letter in poor English, on letter-paper of some hotel in Brussels. It bore an Israeli stamp and was mailed in Israel. Whoever wrote it said that he could provide Ines with news about me, and even cause my early release if she followed the instructions which would be sent to her soon. Ines was suspicious–the letter looked very odd–so she immediately went to see our friend, the Commanding Officer of the IAF, Major-General Motty Hod. He contacted the Shabak (Israel’s internal intelligence agency; our FBI or MI5) immediately, and they took on the case.
A week later, Ines received a second letter instructing her to meet whoever wrote it at the “El-Al” building on Ben-Yehuda Street in Tel-Aviv, on a given day and hour. The writer advised her that he knows her and will approach her as long as she goes there entirely by herself. The Shabak instructed Ines to go to this meeting and follow the writer’s direction. They would send a section of men who dispersed in the vicinity to observe the meeting and protect her from harm. Before the meeting, the Shabak and Ines coordinated on hand signals which they could use to communicate.
When the time came, Ines went to the meeting place. She stayed there for about an hour, but she was never approached, though she told me that she saw a fellow who came and strolled around suspiciously. When she got home, the Shabak told her that they had identified the fellow who wrote the letters–a notorious extortioner–and that he had indeed come to the meeting place and hung around the vicinity, but, for some reason, did not approach her. They said that since they knew his identity, they would locate and arrest him. Until then, they would post several guards at our house in Tsahala, to protect the girls day in and day out. After a week, the Shabak informed Ines that they had located and arrested the devious fellow. The guards left, and Ines heard nothing more from the man or the Shabak, and her attentions returned to our family and those of the rest of the hostages.
Our house in Tsahala continued to serve as the meeting place for the hostages’ families. The wives of those of us who were married would come, sometimes with their children, usually in the late afternoon or early evening. They’d get the latest news, talk with each other, and thus comfort each other. A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved. Some days, Ines was not in contact with Benny Davidai of El-Al; not every day bore news. The women were worried. The Slapak family, especially–not only Avner Slapak’s wife, but also his parents–were convinced of the worst and the most terrible developments. Ines later confided that Avner’s father complained constantly about everybody and everything. I suppose each must cope with the stresses of life in his or her own way. Across the Mediterranean in Algeria, Avner was the happiest, most optimistic fellow amongst us. He would sing us funny songs and refrains, constantly making us laugh, and he’d always contrive clever numerologies to convince us that our release was imminent. The apple sometimes rolls far from the tree.
Back in the villa, our life soon became regular and tedious. We learned more about the unit that was guarding us, while playing tennis, or walking around the yard and nearby garden. The soldiers who previously guarded us at the airport were standing at the entrance to the villa, and around the wall and fence. But we soon discovered more men, lurking in packed bushes and trees in the wood on the other side of the fence, where a few of our tennis balls ended up after a wild shot. There were men in civilian clothes, whom we guess were detectives or members of the Algerian Secret Service, as well as soldiers with automatic rifles or sub-machine guns. The Officers had pistols. So did the men in civilian clothes who lurked in the wood. It was difficult to count the exact number, but I estimated there to be 10 soldiers and five civilians; a total of 15, possibly more. Moreover, near every house in this neighborhood there were two armed soldiers, and there could easily have been another military unit posted somewhere nearby. We took note of all this, but were not preoccupied by it. I did not even consider attempting an escape with the entire group from this location.
Three days after we arrived at the villa, shortly after we sat down to have lunch, we were once again visited by the well-dressed fellow who had been introduced to us as the “Secretary” of the Algerian Secret Service. He was accompanied by the same fellow who had investigated me. Because of his elegant attire, his slim figure, and his handsome face, we had nicknamed him “Lover Boy” (although I thought it should be “Playboy”). As soon as he and his company arrived, I rose from the table. Lover Boy asked me to go on with my lunch but I insisted on delaying my lunch to receive these “VIPs” so as to hear what they had to say. We sat in the small salon and they asked the usual polite questions about how we were and if we felt well. Then they asked me again, as they did every time we met, “Are you a psychologist?”
“Do you have any qualifications in psychology?”
“Did you ever study psychology?”
I had noticed quite soon after our arrival at the barracks that the Algerians keep wondering about the high morale which we kept and about the short time that it took us to get used to our situation. My leadership role and our general success in coping with the situation must have motivated these questions.
After this, Lover Boy asked if we had everything we needed. I hastened to answer that we still had not received more towels, and that we needed them badly. Then I added that, soon, we would have to obtain warm winter clothing, and to start heating our rooms and the water in the bathrooms. I said all this matter-of-factly, without adding, “if we are still here by winter.” I and Monsieur Jacques had brought these issues up before, and I had noticed that each time we did so, implying that we were staying long-term, the Algerians cringed. They seemed to shrink a little, as if scalded. This time, too, Lover Boy shrank a bit, and immediately responded with the usual, “Nonsense! You will be released and sent home very soon!”
This time, I insisted, “Yes, yes, we shall no doubt be released when we are released, but meanwhile, it would be best if we prepared for the future and did not leave things for the last minute, so that we do not further impose on you.”
Lover Boy was apparently feeling talkative and responded, “No no, this time your release is really near. Serious negotiations about your release are being conducted and all that is needed now is for your government to show good-will, and thus end this case.” I understood very well the meaning of “good-will” in a case like ours. This was a euphemism for releasing a large number of dangerous terrorists who were incarcerated in Israeli jails.
In fact, I understood a lot more than I’d let on, and had a good guess as to why he’d visited us that day. We’d heard over our radio receiver the previous night that IFALPA had sent an ultimatum to the Algerian Government: If we are not released by midnight the next day, IFALPA would enforce a complete boycott of all flights in and out of Algeria, as well as any ship or boat in or out of Algerian sea-ports. This ultimatum was seconded by IFATCA (the International Federation of Air Traffic Controllers) and the WLO (the World Labor Organization, which included the stevedores and loaders at sea-ports and airports). Algeria considered this warning seriously and reduced its demands in its negotiations with the Italians, who continued to mediate on our behalf. I therefore said to Lover Boy, brazenly, “I do not believe that Israel will free men who carried out murderous terror acts in our country. If they do, this hijacking business will become a common and frequent act: Every time that you wish to release some criminal, you will highjack an airliner!”
Lover-boy laughed and said, “It will not be so easy. We heard that you installed a guillotine over the door to the cockpit and you intend to chop-off the head of anybody that would try to get in without permission!”
This time it was I who laughed. The mere fact that the Arabs were already worried about what would occur to them if they tried another skyjacking was in itself very amusing.
Before they left, Lover Boy said to me with a smile, “Anyhow, next time do not come here. We will not give you landing clearance in Algeria.” This last phrase revealed more than he intended: This adventure, which had at first seemed like such an excellent opportunity to enhance Algeria’s importance amongst Arab nations, had turned out to be a terrible headache.
I went back to my lunch and although the food had already cooled completely, it tasted delicious.