Free At Last | Prisoner 345 | My Six Years in Guantánamo

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The lead-up to my release returned to me; I was still on hunger strike, and with each of those final days, I felt my strength waning, my body degrading and becoming less substantial. The Americans pressured me to end the strike and continued force-feeding me, making me feel that there was more to their pressure than simply wanting the strike to end.

Then April came, and at the beginning of the month, a Sudanese delegation came to see me. They confirmed that I would be released, along with two other Sudanese men. But, they told me, the Americans wanted me to end my strike.

“I will not end my strike,” I told them, “until I am back in my country. As long as I am here, on this oppressive island, they are the oppressors. I will not end this strike, even if kills me!”

They tried to convince me, but I was determined to continue. I asked them for news from Sudan and about my family, and they told me some news and that my family was fine.

I understood why the Americans were eager to fatten me up after my starvation, to care for me after long neglect and humiliation before they released me. But I had my doubts. I had become accustomed to their dirty games and lies. So I didn’t allow myself to get too optimistic about leaving until things actually started happening.

Certainly, there are things I need to explain, as Allah is my witness. Not all the soldiers were oppressors; some of them didn’t torment us. As you are no doubt aware, Americans are made up of classes. Some feel injustice; they understand oppression and inequality, especially African Americans. In our oppression, they saw something resembling their own, especially in someone like me with the same skin colour. We found that some of them treated us fairly, or at least did not participate in the monstrous torture.

They are the ones who brought us news sometimes, and one of them informed me that I would be released soon, supposedly in the middle of April. They told me this while the Sudanese delegation was in Guantánamo, so, feeling
cautiously optimistic, I told the Sudanese about the supposed date.

“The timing isn’t set,” they said, “but in any case, you’ll be released soon.”

On April 28, 2008, they brought me to interrogation for the first time in eight or nine months. The interrogator began to speak.

“We want to ask you a question,” he said. “What will you do if you leave Guantánamo?”

“That’s a difficult question,” I said. “You didn’t allow me to follow world events, and I won’t be able to decide what to do next until I understand what has been happening outside. Right now, I’m not in a place where I can specify what I will do.

“Most of my focus will be on my family. I’ve missed them for so many years. I will work to compensate my family, my son, in particular, for the long time we spent apart. I will strive to teach my son so he will be a just Muslim who is not oppressive. I want to raise him to be a person committed to his religion and the benefit of society.”

“Where will you find work?” they asked. “How will you support yourself?”

“Allah was our provider here in prison,” I said, “and He will provide for us once we are free.”

“That’s not good enough,” t Then they informed me that the review committee had decided I didn’t represent a risk to the USA! I laughed out loud, and they asked me why I was laughing.

“I knew I wasn’t a threat seven years ago,” I said. “There wasn’t a day when I posed a danger to the United States of America. You claimed I was a danger.

Now you tell me I’m not.”

“The American government has decided to hand you over to your country, Sudan. Do you have any objections to this?”

“I don’t have any objections,” I said. “On the contrary, it’s what I wanted for the past seven years.”

Afterwards, they began a series of medical tests, then they fingerprinted me, as the CIA, FBI and military intelligence had done previously. Each time they took three prints well as a scan of my eyes, followed by a photo. They brought me to a room and asked me my size in clothes, then gave me some clothes and returned me to a cell. Instead of returning me to Delta block where I had been staying with the other hunger strikers, they brought me to Charlie right next door.

They put me in a cell, and I spoke to my block-mates through the door. I found eight people: two Sudanese – Walid al-Sudani and Amir al-Sudani – Sayid alMaghribi and five Afghans. Altogether we were nine: three Sudanese, a Moroccan and five Afghans.

A day before I travelled, they brought me in to interrogation again and told me: “So now you’re going to leave. When al-Qaeda contacts you, what will you do? Will you contact us and let us know?”

“What are you talking about?” I said.

“We mean that Osama bin Laden will call you on your mobile,” they said, “and he will say, ‘I am here in the hotel. Come and meet me here.’”

“Are you that naive?” I said. “Do you think Osama bin Laden is living in a hotel? If that were the case, you would have arrested him before I got in touch with you!”

“Fine,” they said. “Let’s say he was somewhere, and he sent you a message to meet him. Would you inform the Americans?”

“I would not inform the Americans,” I answered.

“Why not?” they asked. “You said you’re against terrorism and want peace.”

“Because I am a journalist, not a spy,” I said. “A journalist remains within the scope of the profession. We don’t cooperate with police forces whether we agree with them or not. We engage with them through our work, respecting their opinion and the opinion of others.”

“Osama bin Laden wants to kill.”

“Who said that?” I said.

“We know what he wants …” they said.

“What does bin Laden want?” I asked them.

A female interrogator answered: “Bin Laden wants to coerce people into becoming Muslims.”

“I have never heard bin Laden saying that unless he said it while I was in prison!”

“OK,” she said. “If a message from bin Laden reached you saying that he wanted to meet you, what would you say?”

“I would wholeheartedly meet with him,” I said. “Why not? This is a risk that many journalists have taken before me. Osama bin Laden is a well-known global personality, and any journalist would wish to meet him. Even you, an interrogator, would love to meet him.”

“No,” she said. “I don’t want to meet him.”

“Let me ask you,” I said. “There are two doors, behind one is George Bush, and behind the other Osama bin Laden. And you could choose a door to meet the person behind and take a picture with him, would you choose the door with bin Laden?”

“No,” she said. “I would choose Bush. But why wouldn’t you say the same?”

“Because you can interview Bush in his office,” I told her. “You can meet him in the dustbin of history after the end of his term of office, at any time. But you won’t always be able to meet Osama bin Laden! The CIA hasn’t been able
to pin down his location for seven years, so your meeting with bin Laden would be more of a feat than meeting Bush.”

The second interrogator said, “You’re right. I would meet with bin Laden.”

“That’s right,” I said.

“Do you have anything else to say?” they asked.

“I wanted to ask,” I said. “Why such a rush to release me? I’m in no rush to leave. You’ve done me a huge service, in spite of the mental and physical pain my detention has caused my family and me.

“Don’t you realise that every journalist around the world wants to enter Guantánamo and talk to its prisoners? You won’t allow them, but you’ve let me, rather, forced me. Please pass my thanks to your superiors. Tell them:

‘Prisoner number 345 thanks you for your hospitality over the years; he will not forget it.’

“Before my detention, I was unknown to many. Now, you’ve turned me into a celebrity, a hero. Journalists work fifty years for enough material to write their memoirs. But me, after Guantánamo, I reckon many people will want to read mine.

“Guantánamo is part of history’s black pages; and I will record it. The world will know the heinous crime you committed against humanity. Give me your addresses, I’ll send you a copy of the book I’m going to write. You guys are addicted to films; you’ll see a film about Guantánamo, you will see more than one insha’Allah after I leave here.”

They laughed, and I left. Later, as I was getting onto the bus, I saw them and laughed, calling out: “Which room would you have entered, the one for bin Laden or Bush?” The soldiers pushed me onto the bus, and I didn’t hear the interrogators’ answers.

The next day they came and brought me to see the Red Cross delegation who gave me my papers so I could leave. After three days on the transport block, we travelled on the evening of the fourth day, Thursday night, April 30, 2008.

Some soldiers came to see us in the mid-afternoon that day, among them was the one who had told me the date when I would travel. He always called me “Al Jazeera”.

“Hey, Al Jazeera!” he said, “Is it true you refused to change your clothes?”

I was wearing the orange overalls that I had worn during my hunger strike, not the white overalls of the soon-to-be-released prisoners. They had punished me in these clothes. I answered: “Who told you that?”

He repeated his question: “Tell me! Did you refuse to change your clothes?”

I repeated: “Who told you?”

He shook his head and said, “Now I get it!” and left.

Half an hour later, they came and took me for my force-feeding appointment.

They still cuffed my hands and legs while extracting me from my cell, and still strapped me into to the “torture chair” with the 12 straps, in spite of my great weakness.

As the nurse was getting ready to insert the feeding tube into my nose, the soldier who called me Al Jazeera entered with a more senior official; they were holding bags of clothes and shoes for the trip.

The administration did not bring travelling clothes to the prisoners until half an hour before they left so they wouldn’t know they were travelling. On that day, they came earlier, at around one or two in the afternoon. The soldier told me to take the clothes and go to the bathroom: “Wash yourself and change your clothes.”

“After the force-feeding?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “Go Now!”

He winked at me, and I winked back. The attendants took me off the chair, undid the restraints and brought me to the bathroom. As usual, there were guards in the bathroom, but my friend, the soldier, ordered them to move, saying, “I’ll take over watch.”

“Wash yourself,” he said. “After that, I’ll give you your new clothes to wear.”

“Why?” I said. “What happened?”

He leaned close and said: “There are those who don’t want you to travel. They told the administration prisoner number 345 is refusing to change his clothes, wanting to delay your departure. But I’ll stay with you until you leave.”

I changed my clothes and returned to the feeding chair. After I was done, I returned to my cell to wait in the extreme heat. I was tired and dehydrated, and lay down until it was time to leave.

At six or seven in the evening, we prayed Maghrib and Isha’ prayers together and left with the soldiers. We walked together, connected by a chain. My friend soldier was still there, even though his shift had ended. He stayed with the observers until he saw me get on the bus when he waved to me as we drove away. We were driven about an hour to the end of the island, where we got on a ferry that took us to another island with an airport.

There was a military cargo plane there for us. After loading their cargo, they put goggles on our eyes, masks on our mouths and earphones on our ears.

Then they sat us on chairs and bound us to the floor with steel restraints.

Again, we weren’t allowed to move during the flight.

I asked to go to the bathroom during the flight, and they brought me there, but when I asked them to remove the goggles from my eyes, they refused.

“How am I supposed to go to the bathroom with my eyes closed?”

“We will place you on the seat so just sit down. We will help you.”

I refused and said: “I want to close the door.”

“There isn’t a door to be closed,” they said. “The place is completely exposed.”

I asked them for something to cover myself with, they refused, so I asked them to return me to my seat. They did, and I informed the other Brothers what happened. We had taken precautions for a situation like this. I was on a full
hunger strike, and my stomach was empty, I had no critical need for the toilet.

More than anything, I had wanted to know if their treatment of us had changed. But nothing had changed, as always we spent the 18-hour flight thirsty, with only a couple of small swallows of water each.

We landed in Iraq as planned, and there they put us on different planes. The five Afghans went to Afghanistan, and I went with the Sudanese and the Moroccan to Khartoum.

The plane touched down at 1am on Friday, the blessed day, and we praised Allah for the blessing of being released.

About the Author: Sami Alhaj

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