Thirty-six years after he fell prisoner during the first Lebanon war, Ephraim Talabi decided to track down one of his captors, a man he has never forgotten and who he says saved his sanity throughout the traumatic experience — through simple acts of kindness.
Talabi was captured by a Palestinian cell during fighting in southern Lebanon, and was held for 10 days.
Muhammad Amin a-Sati, a Fatah man who fought against the Israeli incursion in 1982, “treated me like a human being” during those dark days, Talabi recalled in a report aired Wednesday by Hadashot TV news.
A-Sati was himself captured by IDF soldiers while watching over Talabi, and their roles were suddenly reversed: Talabi was freed and a-Sati became a prisoner.
In the decades since, Talabi has dreamed of locating a-Sati, his captor-savior.
That finally happened in recent weeks, when a-Sati was located after an exhausting three-month search by Hadashot’s Ohad Hemo in the West Bank, Gaza and Jordan. He was found living in the Jordanian city of Zarqa, a suburb northeast of Amman.
Talabi was excited to meet. At the border crossing to Jordan, he confided, “The truth is, this is the first time I’m in an Arab country after Lebanon. There’s a tension. Who am I going to meet after so many years?”
As Talabi approached Zarqa, Muhammad gave his cab driver directions to his home over the phone. He stood waiting in the street, then embraced Talabi as he walked up to his front door.
“I thought about coming to Tel Aviv to meet you,” a-Sati joked.
The Hadashot report on the two men showed news footage from 1982, in which Talabi told the reporter that a-Sati “treated me like a human being. When there was water, he’d bring it to me, clean me. He always asked how I was doing.”
“You saved my life,” he told a-Sati in English in the archival footage of their meeting after a-Sati was captured.
“Another time, we’ll sit down and be happy,” a-Sati responded, smiling.
Back to 2018 in Zarqa, the two met smiling and hugging, and recalled those days.
Sitting in a-Sati’s living room in a dilapidated part of Zarqa, Talabi recalled, “This is what brought me back to sanity, to my real life — the fact that you treated me like a human being.”
“I wasn’t in the cell that captured him,” a-Sati related. “I was in charge of watching over him until we could hand him over to Abu Ammar,” the nom-de-guerre of then-PLO leader Yasser Arafat.
“Why didn’t you kill him?” asked Hadashot journalist Hemo, who accompanied the visit and helped translate.
“Kill him while he’s prisoner?” a-Sati asked, surprised. “I’d kill myself first. That’s not up for discussion.”
According to a-Sati, Talabi didn’t abandon him when their situation was reversed. “What Ephraim did [for me] was greater than what I did [for him]. He was wounded in his left arm. When he saw me there handcuffed [lying prostrate on the ground], he picked up my head [with his one working hand] and put it on his knee. He asked me quietly, ‘What do you need?’ I said, ‘A cigarette, that’s all.’ He gave me a cigarette.”
A-Sati explained that he had to leave Lebanon after the war and was persona non grata in the West Bank.
“There was a cruel campaign against me. It wasn’t because of the story with Ephraim, but they made it out that way. They said I handed Ephraim back [to the Israelis] and handed my cell to the IDF.”
Asked by Hemo if he was accused of spying for Israel, he said, “Yes. Because of Ephraim. But despite [the campaign], I went to Ramallah to find out who was spreading these lies. I said to them, ‘I’m divorcing you. Come find me in Jordan.’”
A-Sati’s postwar troubles were new to Talabi. He lost his father and brother, and regrets never marrying or having children. He told Talabi he moved for several years to a West Bank village to live with his grandfather.
Talabi, a married father of two, confided to Hemo, “Only now do I understand what he’s been going through.”
On the journey to the border crossing on his way back to Israel, Talabi reflected that he was “very happy I found him, I feel I came full circle.”