Cell Number 40 | Prisoner 345 | My Six Years in Guantánamo

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In cell number 40, my first cell in Guantánamo, I was put in with Afghans who were the victims of crimes carried out by American forces against the Afghan people, with the help of their ally, Rashid Dostum. Their arrest in Afghanistan by General Dostum began at the time of the American air strikes and seemed coincidental at first. They were placed in Sheberghan prison, which belonged to Dostum’s forces.

They told me of the frightful conditions there. The prison building didn’t protect them from the harsh weather, and when it snowed, snow fell on them in their overcrowded cells where they never had enough food and water. Every prisoner got less than a quarter of an Afghan loaf of bread a day, and two small cups of water.

There were seriously wounded prisoners among them, too, some with severed limbs and open wounds, but there was no treatment available. They suffered, untreated, until many passed away from their injuries. Thousands of corpses are buried in mass graves around many Afghan cities, they died in American aerial bombardments or to artillery shelling by Dostum’s forces, or because of their suffering in Sheberghan prison.

This was confirmed by a forensics official from the United Nations, William Haglund, who discovered the mass graves. He disinterred three corpses to perform an autopsy, after which he concluded that the cause of death was strangulation. “It was impossible,” he said, “to count the number of bodies contained in that mass grave, but the estimated number approached thousands.”

He also indicated that Dostum’s forces had handed over or, rather, sold, people they detained to the Americans for five hundred dollars per prisoner. They convinced the Americans that those prisoners were Taliban or al-Qaeda
fighters to seal the deal, and the Americans deposited them in prison in Kandahar. They were interrogated while being made to kneel with guns pointed at their heads, punched and kicked the whole time.

After interrogations, the prisoners were transported to Bagram and Camp X Ray (later Delta X) in Guantánamo to continue the torture, degradation and humiliation that was contrary to all laws and international customs.

I remained in cell 40  They consulted among-st themselves and spoke with the administration, then decided to punish me with a three-day confiscation of all my things. They moved me to an empty cell without even the small plastic mat that I uses as a cover when using the toilet.

I requested to speak to the official in charge. He came after a while, and I said: “You are preventing me from praying. Is prayer now forbidden here?”

“No,” he said. “It isn’t forbidden.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “You confiscated my mat. I can’t go to the toilet and am not able to pray on the metal floor. I need the mat, at the very least.”

He told me he’d speak to his higher-ups, but when he returned he said that they wouldn’t give me any of my things unless I accepted the vaccination, but I refused. That was my very first punishment.

The war machine in Afghanistan drew in inexperienced US military personnel (many with no more than sixteen weeks of training and no military experience) who relied on translators from private companies to interrogate and doom thousands of innocents. These wretched souls were caught up in the Northern Alliance’s dragnets (under General Dostum’s leadership) that rounded them up and sold them to the inexperienced Americans, who in turn panicked and hurled them into the abyss of Guantánamo.

During my first four months in cell number 40, the meals they gave us seemed to have been prepared in the early 1990s: the “cake” was rotten and had layers of bacteria on it. We weren’t sure what the ingredients were either, so it was considered lucky to get a bag of beans or some fish. Everything was eaten cold, which didn’t improve its taste or feel.

Twice a week, we got ten minutes to walk in the sun and take a shower. It was all calculated with precision so we didn’t exceed the time even by a second.

We showered as fast as we could so we could have as much of the ten minutes as possible outside.

We had to whoer under the eye of a soldier, male or female, depending on our luck that day. If you were embarrassed being naked in front of a female soldier, you showered in your trousers, not removing them until you returned to your cell. Shaving was equally unpleasant, done once a week with rusty blades, no cream or soap to help us shave.

Every camp had a special block for the most special punishment, isolation. But our section had two: November and Oscar. They were steel containers converted into entirely closed-off cells, so you couldn’t see who was next to you.

The cells were kept extremely cold, and intense lights glared at us in a black-painted room. The solitary confinement cell … Oh, Allah!

These cells sent you into distress, anxiety and panic. All your things were taken away from you, leaving you in the harsh cold and total isolation. They would reduce of our food – in spite of its deficiency – as a punishment. You had
only five minutes to finish eating, and if you didn’t manage it, they’d take your meal anyway. There were also the repeated sudden inspections every night, when they would wake you up, often beating you for no reason.

I didn’t receive any messages during that period and did almost nothing except for the interrogations that were continuous, most revolving around Al Jazeera.

In that darkness, a warm surprise came to me from the east, giving me joy in Guantánamo for the first time. That day will remain carved into my memory.

It was September 20, and a message arrived from my wife, Umm Mohammad, via the Qatari Red Crescent. It came in the military post system and contained a picture of my son, Mohammad, and good news about the family and the world. I won’t hide from you that I was overwhelmed by happiness and reduced to tears.

I had seen a vision of this in a dream before the message arrived. In it, a soldier stood in front of my cell, asked me for my number and handed me a message from my family. I was delighted by the dream and waited for that day, which came on September 20.

The person who came to me was the same person who I had seen in my vision, down to the last detail. I was sleeping when he called out to me, so I was bemused for a few minutes when I woke up and saw him; then I looked at his hand to see if he had come bearing letters.

He asked for my number, and I told him what it was, then he opened the grate in my cell and passed me the message. I was delighted, and when I opened it and found it was from my wife with a picture of my son, it was impossible to stop myself from bursting into tears. I cried for a long time, and my neighbors started crying with me, although they didn’t know what was going on. They asked me and I told them I had received a letter from my family that included a picture of my son from whom I had been separated for more than a year.

I knew from my wife’s message that she was in Doha and they knew what had happened to me. They were comforting themselves by pleading with the Almighty to release me. They reassured me that I would be released soon and that they were confident that I wouldn’t do anything that would justify my continued imprisonment.

Umm Mohammad reassured me that Al Jazeera was giving them a regular stipend and they were provided for. They were in contact with their family in Azerbaijan and with my colleagues from Al Jazeera, who were in touch often to reassure them.

A few days later, a delegate from the ICRC came and handed me an exact copy of the first message which had reached me through the prison. It also came with a photo of Mohammad.

There had previously been some confusion with my messages. When I was still in Kandahar, I had written messages addressed to the Doha headquarters of Al Jazeera, telling them my situation and that I was hoping to be released at any moment. I got no reply.

When I reached Guantánamo, an ICRC delegate was supposed to meet me upon my arrival, but that did not happen. Two months later, a delegate finally came to see me, and I asked him why I hadn’t received any replies to my messages.

“Didn’t anyone meet you?” he said.

“No,” I said.

“I’ll set up a meeting for you,” he said.

After less than a week, I met the ICRC delegation in their office inside the prison. They gave me a serial number for my case, and I asked them about my messages. Their response was interesting: They said none of my messages had been delivered because they were under the impression that I didn’t want anyone in Sudan to know about my detention.

I responded: “Who told you that? I didn’t ask anyone to hide anything.

Actually, I want the opposite. I want my country know about my case. Why would I have written messages? You’re playing games with us, and I will no longer cooperate with you.”

They apologized and told me that now that the situation was clarified, they would inform their Geneva offices to deliver my messages.

About the Author: Sami Alhaj

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