FREEDOM AT LAST. WE RETURN TO ROME.
The only thing worth mentioning after our meeting with the delegates of IFALPA is the end to the quarrel between Elkana Shemen and Lashmi. Elkana, on his own initiative, decided to beg pardon from Lashmi and did it the day after the meeting with IFALPA. Both hugged and kissed in the best Arab tradition to show that there was no more animosity between them and I learned about this happy event from Monsieur Jacques. I immediately rescinded the punishment which I had given Elkana and he was excited that he could now join us on our daily walk.
At the end of this week, on the 30th of August, after dinner, the Commandant arrived dressed in civilian clothes and with slippers on his feet. He entered our room and sent away those who accompanied him. He sat on my bed and said, “I came to say farewell. Your release is very close. I hope that you are satisfied with the way we treated you. We tried to do as best as we could for you. I hope that when I shall be with you, I shall get the same treatment as you received from us.” We shook hands warmly. I wanted to rise from the bed and accompany him to the door but he put his hand on my shoulder, asked that I remain seated, and left the room as quietly as he came in. After he left, Monsieur Jacques and I looked at each other with astonishment. It was very strange to hear the Commandant’s last words. It sounded as if he expected that in near future he will be taken prisoner by us, and he was hoping that he would then get the same fair treatment that we got here. I, of course, did not wish him to be taken prisoner by anybody. This Commandant had been a perfect Officer and gentleman, and I would be thrilled to meet with him again under different circumstances–as two free men–to reminisce about the past.
At seven o’clock next morning I awoke from a deep sleep: It was Lashmi who arrived and woke all of us up. Right behind him, Lover-Boy arrived, beautifully dressed as always. He asked us to pack our belongings and get dressed–we were being released. I asked him how much time we had and he answered, “10 minutes!” I jumped out of bed, dressed, packed my bag and ran to the bathroom to wash my face and comb my hair. All this took five minutes. The others were ready just as fast, and five minutes after we’d been awakened, they were standing, ready, in the corridor.
Lashmi returned and told us to load our bags onto the minibus in the yard and to come with him to the small building which had served as our regular meeting place. This time, we met the Italian Ambassador, the First-Secretary of the Italian Embassy, and the Red Cross representative. The usual Algerian representatives were there, as well as a crew from the Algerian television and radio. The Italian Ambassador asked if we were all well and told us that in an hour we would depart with the regularly scheduled Alitalia flight to Rome. He told me that the Italians were the mediators between us and the Algerians and had conducted the entire negotiation for our release. I gathered from the very short conversation which I had with him that he had maintained a daily interest in our welfare, and had been kept informed by the Algerian authorities, and therefore had no need for personal contact with us.
Next, we met with the Red Cross representative. This meeting seemed like a tasteless joke. One month before our release, the Algerians told us that we may write letters to our families, and that these would be delivered by the Red Cross as was the practice with prisoners of war. We all wrote short letters home and I added a short letter to the El-Al President Mordechai Ben-Ari. When we got back home, I found out that all the families received our letters, but the one I wrote to Ben-Ari was not delivered. This was the only time that we were allowed to write letters home. We never received any letters or parcels from home as was the accepted procedure by the Red Cross. Now, less than one hour before our departure, the Red-Cross representative appeared for the first time in 40 days and handed us letters from home which were dated from four weeks before! To add insult to injury, he then handed Marco Cahiri the medicine which he needed so badly, and which we had requested 20 days ago! I was very angry and told the Red Cross fellow, in presence of the Italian Ambassador, that I was disgusted with his organization. I told him I was surprised that we’d never had the privilege of a personal visit from him during our entire captivity, and that I was furious that he did not take the trouble to deliver Cahiri’s medicine long ago. The man stammered something incoherent, but I did not find it necessary to waste any more time on him.
Throughout our meetings, the Algerian television and radio crews never stopped photographing us together with the Italians and the man from the Red Cross. Then, they started asking us questions in French. The passengers and crewmembers obeyed my earlier order and did not utter a word. I decided to be very parsimonious and give very short and uncompromising answers. They mainly asked if we were happy to be freed and if we were treated well during our stay in Algiers. I answered that we were very happy to be free and that we actually were not supposed to be here, but since we were forced to redirect, we should have been released immediately and not after 40 days. I then added that we had been treated “correctly”, choosing this word carefully.
15 minutes later we took leave of the Ambassador and the First Secretary, boarded the minibus which was waiting for us outside, and were driven directly adjacent to the “Caravelle” airplane of the Italian National Airline Alitalia. I was sorry that it was not the Commandant who accompanied us but his deputy, the evil-looking Captain. I did not want to take my parting from him in any fashion but since the Algerians kept our passports, seemingly hoping that we would forget about them, I had to turn to him and demand them. They were brought over immediately and returned to us. All the regular passengers were already on board the airplane. I instructed the passengers and crew to board, but remained on the ground myself, so that I would board last. There was a tall mast nearby with an Algerian flag at its head. I saluted the flag, then turned and boarded the plane.
The Italian cabin-crew received us with blank faces and seated us in First Class. After take-off we requested and received champagne, toasted each other with long life and said, “blessed be God who kept us alive and provided for us and brought us to this day.” Yona Lichtman, who, when we were captive, had promised to read us the “Song of the Sea” from the Bible when we were freed, did so now excitedly. But we did not even get a smile from the Stewards and Stewardesses throughout the entire flight, nor did any of the pilots come out of the cockpit to greet us. Strange.
When we arrived at Rome Airport, some officials of the Italian authorities waited for us at the foot of the steps. They sort-of received us officially, and “delivered” us to the local El-Al Station Manager, Nissim Zarug and his Deputy. It was quite early and the Station-Manager suggested that we go to his house and wait there for the arrival of the El-Al special flight which was scheduled to arrive from Israel in the afternoon carrying all the VIP’s as well as members of the media in order to fly us back to Israel. Before we left the airport, a scheduled El-Al flight landed and as soon as the airplane got to the parking area and the passengers disembarked into the terminal, the crew disembarked too with Captain Eli Bahat. We all hugged and kissed happily and excitedly.
Two journalists were already waiting for us at the Station Manager’s house: Yeshaayahu Ben-Porat and Uri Dan. The two were sitting on the sofa, their faces clearly displaying great anticipation. They seemed to me like two birds of prey. Both started asking me questions and made some interesting offers to me in return for sitting next to them and telling them the whole story, from beginning to end. I knew that it would better be to keep mum and not to publish anything about what we endured because this might enable terrorist organizations to plan and carry out future skyjackings more successfully. I warned the other crewmembers and passengers, even though I no longer had jurisdiction over them. Most of them understood this well and refrained from being interviewed, so the journalists left Nissim Zarug’s house very disappointed. I then received a phone call from Israel. It was Haim Yavin, Israeli television’s “Mr. News”. He, too, asked questions regarding our highjacking and captivity. I told him that I was very glad to hear his voice on the phone and that we were all well and happy to return home, but in response to the rest of his questions, I said just two words: “No comment.” At that time, this expression was new in Israel and several journalists liked it and published it in the media. I had no time to shave before we left Dar-El-Beida and used the time I had now to do it so as to look prim and proper again.
In the afternoon, we went back to Rome Airport. Our special flight arrived and brought our Transportation Minister, Moshe Carmel, El-Al’s President, Mordechai Ben-Ari, and Captain Les Easterman, who was the Superintendent-of Flying at the Division of Flight Operations. Meanwhile, a large number of media representatives from around the world gathered in one of the halls at the Airport and Ben-Ari asked me to meet them and answer their questions. I asked him what I should say. He replied, “the less the better,” thus verifying my prior intuition. The fellows from the media barraged me with questions, and I again responded that the Algerians treated us correctly and added that they did not harm us physically. I summed things up by saying that they treated us like Prisoners-of War. I also confirmed, when asked, that I did indeed say that if threatened and shot-at in the cockpit, I would be ready to land in any old lady’s vegetable garden. I used this question to explain that what our hijackers did was not a deed of bravery and was actually an act that endangered not only the airplane which they highjacked and the people in it, but air navigation in general. I added that it was possible to skyjack not only Israeli airliners but foreign airliners as well, even Arab airliners and those that were registered behind the Iron Curtain.
After my meeting with the foreign media, the crew and passengers met with the Minister of Transportation, the El-Al President, and Easterman. The Minister of Transportation asked us not to speak with the media about our highjacking and captivity, and, most of all, that we should not praise the Algerians regarding our treatment, since the fact was that this was an international crime and our relatively genial treatment was a direct result of immense international pressure which coalesced immediately following the hijacking. Without it, we’d have been subject to much worse conditions. These words from Carmel substantiated the conclusions which I had independently reached while we were captive, and I felt justified in the decisions and policies I had adopted.
At about 4 PM our highjacked Boeing 707 arrived at Rome Airport.The Algerians agreed to return it as part of the deal. In the end, Israel paid a cheap price: In exchange for the release of the airplane and all 12 highjacked men, Israel released 31 imprisoned terrorists which were either suffering from a chronic illness or were more than 50 years old. The real reason for the Algerian agreement to return the airplane was not the release of these terrorists, in whom the Algerians had no interest at all, but their great fear that if they do not return the airplane and instead hand it over to one of the terrorist organizations who demanded it continuously, Israel will highjack or destroy the entire fleet of the Algerian National Airline, Air Algerie. In order that this would be quite clear to them, Mordechai Ben-Ari passed this message on to Air Algerie’s President through the good offices of the President of the International Airline Transport Association (IATA). The Algerians agreed that the French send to Dar-El-Beida Airport a crew of mechanics and technicians that would check the airplane, refuel it, and make it airworthy to be flown by a crew of two pilots and one flight-engineer back to Rome Airport. All these men were employees of the French National Airline Air France, however, the French agreed that we slip into this group two gentile French mechanics who were employed by El-Al at the Paris International Airport of Orly. The airplane remained in Rome until next day so that our men could check it thoroughly before preparing it for the flight back to Israel.
Towards evening, our Station-Manager told us that we were all going to Ostia (west of Rome, by the Mediteranean) to have a festive dinner with our VIPs.The food was delicious but we were too excited to really enjoy it. Toasts were made and many greetings were expressed. I understood meanwhile that the reason Captain Les Easterman was present, and not Captain Tom Jones, who was VP OPS, or Captain Zvi Tohar, who was Director of Flight-Operations Division, was because both were removed from their positions several days after our skyjacking. It was decided to remove them due to their negligent handling of the Shabak’s warning of an imminent skyjacking of an El-Al airliner.
After dinner, we drove back to the Airport. The airplane which brought the VIPs and members of the Israeli media was ready for our flight back to Israel. The Captain was my old friend, Danny Arber. The cabin was full of Israeli newspapermen and radio and television reporters. The Israeli television had started broadcasting that same year (in black and white) and had very few, relatively poor programs. The reporters all pounced on us with questions and tried to squeeze out information. I went on declining to answer any question with anything more than, “no comments,” while telling them to direct their questions to the Minister of Transportation and the El-Al President. We landed at Lod Airport 2 hours and 45 minutes later. The men from the media were very frustrated and we were dead tired. The airplane arrived at its parking place at 5:50 AM.