Bagram to Kandahar | Prisoner 345 | My Six Years in Guantánamo

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I remember the moment when the plane took off from Bagram to Kandahar; it was January 23, 2002. After roughly an hour and a half of turbulence, we arrived. The soldiers met us with beatings, then we were shoved to the ground. Dogs were barking and the soldiers were screaming and jumping on our backs; they would stand on the back of a prisoner and then jump from there onto the back of another prisoner.

I felt that my breath would stop flowing from the pressure of the soldiers’ feet on my back, from which torrents of blood flowed. They continued beating us and covering us with insults.

They asked if we spoke English. I told them I did. A prisoner near me, a Saudi man whose name I later learned was Shakir, told them he did, too. They beat him and said: “Tell the others that they are in our custody now. As for your mothers, your wives, your sisters, we will …” They said things that don’t bear repeating, cursing our mothers and sisters, exceeding all limits.

They told him to tell the prisoner next to him what they wanted to do with his sister or mother. When Shakir refused to repeat this filth, they beat him until he translated it for the man next to him and translated the man’s answer into English. If he didn’t answer, they beat him. If the other prisoner answered with something they didn’t like, they beat him.

One by one, they took us off somewhere, our eyes blindfolded, when it was my turn, two soldiers took me and brought me to a big aeroplane hangar like the one in Bagram. I found a group of officers standing there, each with a table in front of him.

The first asked me: “What is your name? What’s your nationality? What language do you speak? How old are you? What’s your job?” I replied as was appropriate to the questions, though I told him that I only spoke Arabic. When I told him my profession, he was impressed: “We have a journalist with us here?

“What kind of journalism do you do?”

“I work at Al Jazeera,” I said, and he slapped me across my face. He insulted Al Jazeera and called it all sorts of indecent things. Then slapped me again.

“OK, so you’re fighting us,” he said, “and you hate America and are fighting against it.” He pushed me to the next person.

They stripped the entire group naked, cutting off our clothes with scissors, then asked us: “Do you have anything to complain about?”

When they saw the blood flowing from my back, they asked: “What’s this blood?”

I didn’t answer because I didn’t know what to say. He pushed me on to someone else who checked over my body in a humiliating way. Then I was pushed to the next person, whose role was to take photos of the prisoners.

Another man appeared, he plucked hairs from my beard and put them into a bag, then took a saliva sample. The next man cut my hair and shaved a cross onto my head, something the prisoners told me about later on since I couldn’t see my head without a mirror.

The last one pushed clothes and shoes towards me. They were too small for my feet, and when I told him, he said: “If you can’t put them on your feet, shove them in your mouth!”

The soldiers brought me to a cell with a group of prisoners in it, eventually, they brought all us new arrivals in. This time our hands and legs weren’t restrained, but a strong light shone in our faces, as it had in Bagram. They gave us blankets and we did the same to fight off the extreme cold, we spread one blanket underneath us and used the other as a cover, then huddled together to keep warm.

I woke up that first morning after the sun had risen. Some of us wanted to pray, and others needed the toilet. For a toilet, we had a bucket in our cage with us. We were stunned! How did they think we could do our business inside there, with all the other prisoners watching?

A prisoner suggested that we shield the prisoner using the bucket with a blanket, but the soldier standing on watch shouted: “You’re breaking the rules! You do that, you lose your blanket!”

All we could do was turn our backs on whoever was using the bucket as we used it in turn. We heard the male and female soldier watching the scene laughing as they described the size of the private parts each prisoner. I refused, as did the others who understood English, to translate what was being said to our fellow prisoners, it didn’t bear repeating.

One day they brought an Afghan in and beat him in front of us, his head was injured and bleeding, his clothes were bloodstained. It looked like he had fought them hard, with all the strength of his heavy-set, muscular body. They put him in with us and he raised his head and asked: “Are you Arabs?”

We nodded, and he said: “Save me, those men are assaulting me.”

We couldn’t reply, and he burst into tears of futility. Some of us cried with him, although we couldn’t move an inch, we were a renewed picture of man’s defeat.

After Fajr prayers one day, the soldiers came every hour or so and took one of us away. Those taken didn’t come back, and soon my turn came. They called me by my old number and gave me a new one: 448.

They took me and restrained me as usual, then took me, shackled, into a tent where I was sat down on the ground. A soldier began the routine interrogation: What is your name? Where are you from? Date of birth? Place of birth? When did you come to Afghanistan?

He had an interpreter who spoke in the Egyptian dialect. We went on for half an hour, the interrogator asked me again about filming bin Laden, and I replied with a “no” again. At the end, he closed the file and said as he was walking out: “Listen, your Lord is no use to you or anyone else here, unless you tell the truth. If you don’t, we’ll bury you where you sit!”

A group of soldiers put a black sack over my head and took me away, keeping my head bowed until it almost touched my knee. They walked me, restrained and uncomfortable, to a place where heard people speaking Arabic, music to my ears! They opened a door, pushed me to the ground, took off the hood and removed the restraints from my hands and legs. They ordered me not to move, and left quickly, locking the door from the outside.

I heard the voices, encouraging me to stand, so I stood and saw that I was in a big tent with around 20 other people. I walked towards the Arab prisoners there, they embraced me, and I was overcome with emotion. I embraced them and cried; we all cried.

After the warm embrace, my fellow prisoners tried to help me treat my knee and swollen leg. They supported me as I moved around the tent, and we got to know each other better. They told me what they knew of the prison regime; I learned that we were near Kandahar airport, prisoners were kept in tents which were arranged in rows of three, and there were still some empty tents when I arrived. Only three people were allowed to move around or speak at any one time, even inside the tents.

There were people in the tent I recognised from Bagram: The two Sudanese men from the military prison in Pakistan, and the people who had been with me in Chaman on the bus transport to Quetta. Whenever they brought new prisoners into the tent, we had to go to the other side and line up, kneeling with our hands on our heads. Our movements in the tent were observed by a soldier watching through the barbed wire around the tent, just as there were soldiers in towers who observed every movement inside the camp.

The swelling in my legs was worse, and my knees were even more painful. I was only able to stand with great difficulty, so imagine how agonising it was to bear the soldiers’ games where they would entertain themselves by beating and kicking us.

One day, soldiers called my number and moved me to another tent where I met a Bahraini man called al-Murbati. He told me he’d been in the tent for the past three days. He explained the rules that older prisoners had explained to him. It was very similar to Bagram, but here we would get two meals a day, not one: One at midday, the other at midnight.

Before they distributed food, the guards would call out our numbers to confirm that everyone was present. We would queue in front of a soldier flanked by his colleagues who would call our numbers one by one. We’d repeat our number, turn so the soldier could read the number on our back, and walk to the tent. After this, meals would be placed in front of our tents according to the number of those inside. You had to finish eating within fifteen minutes since the soldiers would gather up the dishes whether or not you had eaten.

There was a heavy, cold rain one night as they served our meals, we were hungry and freezing cold, yearning for the warmth of home. But we couldn’t even dream of that in the ugliness of our surroundings. I was hungry, thirsty and exhausted, so I picked some of what was in the meal and ate, chatting with al-Murbati. He told me how he got there: He was picked up while he was proselytising (da’wa) with the Tablighi Jamaat. When the war began in Afghanistan, Pakistani authorities arrested him and handed him to the American forces.

He asked me my story; I told him about my work and the circumstances of my arrest. He gave me advice on how to handle Americans, saying that he had travelled to America and dealt with them in Bahrain. He advised me to try to win them over, explaining when to get angry, when to smile, when to show goodwill and so on.

As we sat chatting, a soldier shouted angrily at him: “Why didn’t you clean this tent?” and ordered him to his knees with his hands above his head.

Luckily, the soldier didn’t extend the period of punishment beyond an hour. It wasn’t unusual that one of us be punished like that, and the soldier who ordered the punishment would – deliberately or not – forget and go off shift, leaving you there. The order couldn’t be rescinded except by the person who gave it.

After al-Murbati completed his punishment, he said: “It’s as if God wants to dissuade you from my advice. That rabble doesn’t use mind or logic. I was wrong trying to win them over.”

In the middle of my second night with al-Murbati, soldiers called my number to take me to another tent where I found nine Arab and three Pakistani prisoners. I got to know the Arabs – one Yemeni and eight Saudis. Among them was Majid al-Farih from Mecca who had come with me from Chaman, but we had been separated.

Majid was no more than eighteen years old. He, too, had come to Pakistan for the Tablighi Jamaat. They were travelling between villages after war broke out and Pakistani police arrested the whole group. He was handed over to the Americans after his money and papers were seized. The Americans asked him for his passport, which is when he found out that the Pakistanis hadn’t handed over any of his documents.

There were Moroccans and Tunisians in the tent next to us. Multiple nationalities, languages and faces had been brought together for this torture, united by anger and injustice, and common among them all was Islam. How pathetic were those Pakistanis who salivated at the prospect of money and sold their consciences to the forces of oppression and injustice, handing people over after taking a few dirhams in payment?

During my early days in Kandahar, a delegation from the Red Cross came to visit, I was so excited to tell them what we were going through, the beatings, harassment, humiliation and starvation. We told them everything we could, all the rights we had been denied. One of the Red Cross delegation members spoke French and he tried to get us to speak to him in French so the American soldier couldn’t understand. The only French speaker among us was an Algerian man who had spent his whole life in France, but he didn’t speak a word of Arabic, so we couldn’t tell him what to say to the Red Cross officials.

I spoke to one fellow on the delegation who said that they would take our home addresses and bring us paper and pens to write home. I told him about random inspections in the middle of the night and the humiliation of being ordered to our knees with our hands on our heads for inspection or punishment. And the constant curses, insults, and beating, whether with their hands or the butts of their guns.

Sadly, I also realised after talking to the delegation that there didn’t seem to be a system for the prisoners so far, and the only solution at the moment was these camps. I asked for paper to write two messages: one to my wife and the other to Al Jazeera. I didn’t receive any replies to the letters I sent, but when I asked the Red Cross delegation, they simply said they hadn’t received any replies. That didn’t diminish my resolve, I kept sending messages.

The worst thing about Kandahar was the roll calls. In the winter they would have them in the frigid night, and in the summer, they were in the sweltering daytime. The discomfort caused by the weather was only compounded by the abuses and intimidation by the soldiers.

We also weren’t allowed to clean ourselves for four months, neither for ritual purity nor general cleanliness. They gave us bottles of water for drinking only.

Dirt was baked into us, and lice infested our clothes, hair and bodies. I will never forget the suffering, degradation and humiliation they put us through.

Life went on in Kandahar, and the surprise inspections did, too. They would have training exercises where they simulated that the prison had been overrun by a rebellion and they had to end it. Hummers and small armoured cars barreled in. Gun-toting soldiers in body armour entered to loud blaring music and stormed one of the tents, surrounding the others. For their training, they focused on the tent where the sick and wounded were.

These exercises were part of the ongoing psychological war against us, which the Americans seemed obsessed with, as obsessed as they seemed to be with painting their “war on terror” as some kind of extension of the Crusades.

Shaving the cross into prisoners’ heads in Bagram and raising a big wooden cross high above the watchtowers in Kandahar, as if that would mortally wound us, the Muslim prisoners. None of us took issue with the cross in any form, rather what hurt us more were the obscene things said by the female soldiers who made lewd comments to humiliate and psychologically torment us.

 

About the Author: Sami Alhaj

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