Guantánamo, Island of Torment | Prisoner 345 | My Six Years in Guantánamo

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The night bird stays perched on the window sill, singing the beauty of the Arabian night.

A tender palm touches me, and a kind voice asks: “Sami. Why are you sitting here, awake? Is anything the matter?” My wife, whom the torturers had robbed me of for all those years.

“It’s nothing,” I say, “I’m happy to be at home with my family, and I’m trying to recall what happened during those terrible days which passed with the support of Allah.”

“Hmmm … but I don’t see you writing yet. God has granted you the strength to remember those difficult days, so it’s up to you to make a record of every moment.”

“You’re completely right, my dear wife.”

She leaves and returns with paper and pens, sets them down and sits beside me. I begin to write, and after a few minutes she gets up and leaves the room…

Dear reader, have you experienced lying naked, restrained, against the roughness of the solid floor?

Have you tried sleep deprivation night after night?

The hours of your day become a continuous nightmare in which the visible and invisible become ghosts, bringing forth more ghosts. Until madness becomes the only sanctuary.

Many of us in Guantánamo lost their minds, suffering a break with reality that perhaps was their only way out of the constant torment; in fact, I am surprised that my mind did not choose the sweet oblivion that madness offered.
For men like us, from strong, traditional societies where dignity and honour were prized above all, Guantánamo destroyed everything. Proud men who led their families, fathers who sheltered and guided their children, or young men who were just on the path to becoming the pride of their families, all of them were ground under the merciless wheels of Guantánamo, the never-ending humiliation and “enhanced interrogation techniques”.

At one point during my time in Guantánamo, my lawyer gave me case papers to read and I found among them an interesting report about a US military programme, “Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape”, created to train soldiers on what to do if they were captured by enemies. It introduced military personnel into the torments the authors feared soldiers may face if they were captured by enemy forces, and to me, it sounded very close to home.
One of the tortures trainees were taught to “resist” was the abuse of religion and religious icons by enemy forces to destabilize the “prisoners”. Trainers would torture the trainees by defacing the Bible and shouting curses like: “Curse your God and Jesus, they are useless!”.

Instructors would also storm into the cells and kick over food trays, shouting and flashing lights to frighten the trainees. The same things were being done to us, but in our case, we weren’t lucky enough to have a hot shower and a big meal with colleagues so we could laugh about our “training” when it was done. No, Guantánamo was our reality, even if the methods used on us were straight from the pages of a training manual for a fantasy camp.

I can recall two feelings from my time in Guantánamo: complete isolation in my pain, and the bitter cold. My jailers would turn the air conditioning in my cell to its highest setting and the temperature would drop to what felt below
freezing. I would shiver, naked but for a light pair of shorts. For me, raised in the heat of Sudan, the cold was true torture.

I set my mind to remembering Bilal and those men of history, which infused my spirit with tremendous energy. I felt an ease in my limbs, giving me – as God is my witness – a sense of warmth flowing into every cell in my body. I am not exaggerating when I say that, by the grace of Allah, the cell was sometimes filled with warmth for ten or fifteen minutes.

If I could say only one thing, it would be what British historian Arnold Toynbee said, that a human being is a being you cannot conquer. But I would add that whoever’s heart is filled with faith will be able to bear whatever is thrown at him.

The guards added to the cruelty of Guantánamo; they maliciously worked to keep us terrorized day and night. They would storm our cells in riot squads, seven soldiers in protective gear, never with any cause. They would beat us mercilessly, almost happily, in any event. Even more so, if they were trying to scare those of us who were demanding justice into on our abandoning our solid resolve.

An eighth member of the squad would come in with a tear-gas canister; we called him the pepper man. He would approach me, speaking calmly at first, then suddenly bring the canister to my face and spray it. When I closed my
eyes or turned away from the pain, the seven others would grab my arms and legs and plunge my face into the toilet bowl. Then, they would beat me again.

Strangely, it seemed to be out of fear; all seven armed men, they seemed to fear me. But the reason they beat me doesn’t matter, only the fear, pain and damage they left behind.

Another of their weapons may not seem that harsh, but imagine the debilitating anguish that builds in your soul when you are no longer able to clean your body. Dirt gathered on our bodies and destroyed our humanity as they cut off water to break our spirits. Bodily cleanliness became a luxury, and soon our spirits wallowed in filth. We were disgusted at our dirt and griminess, separated from our dignity.

During my hunger strike, I often returned to my cell after force-feeding covered in vomit caused by the feeding tube. To humiliate me, the soldiers would turn off the water in my cell so I couldn’t wash my vomit- and dirtstained shorts. For a long time, I wore just those shorts, caked in filth as they were, they were the only thing between me and freezing in my cell.

If I had to choose though, the sense of isolation was possibly harsher that the physical and mental degradation of our spirits and dignity. Even worse than the sexual violence of their purported “searches” of our persons. Prevented by my jailers from communicating with my family at all at first, I came close to madness as worry and longing ate away at me.

In Guantánamo, the world knew there were soldiers carrying out torture and officers ordering them to. Many worked tirelessly to bring these soldiers and officers to face justice for their crimes, to bear responsibility for what they have done. A British journalist who visited Guantánamo said: “This place is truly hell.”

And it was. It was a hell where the flames of hatred raged, molded over ugly human faces, where the snarling heads of dogs guarded us day and night and where mistreatment became as normal as the constant humiliation. We were transported like animals, in chains, to be thrown into metal cells with concrete floors in the most notorious American prison camp, to foreseeable futures of humiliation and torture.

Guantánamo is a 116.55sq-km US naval base on the southeastern coast of Cuba. Some accounts say the US won the base as spoils of war when American forces beat the Spanish – who had colonized Cuba – in 1898. Others Cuba gave Guantánamo to the US in 1903 as a gesture of gratitude for American support during their resistance against the Spanish. The annual rent was two thousand pieces of gold, at that time amounting to a sum of $4,085.

After the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro repeatedly asked the Americans to leave the island, refusing to accept “rent money” for it. The Americans refused Castro’s request, citing the previous agreement, and it remained a main point of contention between the two countries.

The US administration made Guantánamo a dirty, secret place for those they detained as “terrorists”. A high-ranking official in the Pentagon who had worked with former-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld disclosed: “Legal advice had come that we could do what we wanted with them there… outside the legal authority of any court.”

President Bush confirmed this when he issued a National Security Presidential Directive in November 2001, announcing that “Al-Qaeda terrorists” would be judged by special military commissions not subject to restrictions imposed by civil courts. He also confirmed that they would be treated as unlawful combatants, not prisoners of war, removing them from the protection of the 1949 Geneva Convention that covered the rights of prisoners of war. And thus, we were stripped of the protections offered by US law to prisoners in American prisons, and of the weak protections offered by international law.

The US administration’s decision to consider the detainees enemy combatants surprised Americans as well, disregarding as it did US and international laws. Colin Powell argued to the administration that this was a violation of America’s policy for more than a century, that it would undermine the protections American soldiers enjoyed under international laws of war and lead to weakened European support for America. The administration paid no heed, he was a lone voice speaking against a coalition determined to violate human rights.

Determined to do it, and equally determined to cover it up; preferring to window dress Guantánamo, the president told the media: “As a political matter, the armed forces of the United States will treat prisoners humanely and, to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva.”

I was moved around a lot during my time in Guantánamo, so while I didn’t stay in all the camps or cell blocks, I saw enough to tell you they were all built along the same lines. The logic behind its architecture was cleverly utilized by our captors to keep prisoners apart, keep them under control, and to punish or reward them for how well they behaved.

There were six main camps, which were numbered, in addition to two smaller camps, Camp Echo and the infamous Camp X-ray, which was later transformed into Camp Delta. Camp X-ray was where they held the prisoners they considered high risk, while Camp Echo was where we could meet with our lawyers. In addition, there was a cluster of shipping containers that had been retrofitted to contain 48 cells.

Camp 4 was the nicest; the administration used it to hold prisoners who were about to be released. There were eight prisoners to a cell, moving around freely, unbound. They could eat and pray together, and shower and clean
themselves in a dignified manner. They even had entertainment; I think they had a football and a ping-pong table. It had four long blocks arranged around a courtyard instead of a thick cluster of blocks like other camps.

Camp 1 contained eight cell blocks: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo (Echo block, not to be confused with Camp Echo that had other uses), Golf, Hotel and the infamous India. India block was where punishments happened, including isolation. It was made up of open cells, about one-by-two meters square, divided only by steel columns. The cells held a metal washbasin and cot, with a small hole between them for us to relieve ourselves. Camp 2 was only about one hundred meters away, with blocks: Kilo, Lima, Mike, November and Oscar. Camp 3 included: Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra and Tango. When I first arrived, I was placed in cell 40 in Lima block.

The cells had no furniture, everything was replaced each month. There was a Styrofoam cup, bottle, mattress and a simple plastic mat that we used for prayer and to cover ourselves when we used the toilet. This was the standard issue that they gave us when we arrived, as well as a sheet, blankets and towels.

Soon, we were introduced to their system of levels, however, that they used to reward or punish our behavior. Those at the highest level, level 1, could keep all their things, but those who misbehaved were put on lower levels and started losing things. Soon these basic items turned into privileges that only the obedient could keep.

At level 2, they took our mattresses and water bottles, at level 3, they took the mattress, bottle, cup and one of the blankets. On level 4, they left only a blanket and the plastic mat – even the toothbrush, toothpaste and soap were gone. Still not satisfied, they added a new level where a prisoner could lose everything in his cell, keeping only the clothes he wore.

The levels became a way of classifying prisoners by the interrogators. They applied the levels depending on how happy they were with you, the level of cooperation you offered.

The harshest punishment was when they sent a prisoner to “isolation” in a solitary confinement cell. The cells were painted completely black with air conditioning blasting and bright lights on around the clock. Prisoners who sent there would have their heads, beards and moustaches shaved completely, and everything they had been issued would be taken away.

The soldiers worked diligently to maintain our fear, and we knew they hoped for promotion, but promotion to what? To higher sadism than this, which came close to murder already?

The principal architects of the physical and mental torture we lived through in Guantánamo though were the doctors, who excelled at devising new ways to inflict cruelty and pain.

They actually told us: “We will torture you until death. But we won’t let you die. You will live in the space between life and death.”

These were doctors who served pain, not healing, in spite of their Hippocratic Oath. To think of the years of preparation, the support from their families, until they were qualified, only to become part of this ugliness. They relished coming up with new ways to inflict pain. Expired or “misprescribed” medicines, such as ear drops for eyes, were almost the norm.

There were three categories of medical pain that we had to survive (although not all of us did survive).

First, there were the “medical mistakes”, an ugly, common phrase heard far too often in Guantánamo. I read once that there are 150,000 medical mistakes in the US each year, despite technological advancements and the American fear of lawsuits. So you can only imagine what it was like in the hospitals of Guantánamo, with no checks or repercussions and evil manifest in its ugliest form.

Brother Abd al-Rahman al-Masri’s leg was amputated so gruesomely that it would have been better if he had done it himself. Instead of leaving 15cm of the leg intact under the knee, as they could have, they left only five. In fact, they removed flesh so zealously that the bone was left painfully exposed. The wound would tear open whenever it touched clothing or restraints or the floor of his room. The pain nearly destroyed him. Second, there were the failed operations, which they intended to fail. This happened to Brother Ansar al-Pakistani, who had been the strongest of men, straight-backed with a commanding gait. He had so many “failed operations” performed on him that he was left almost totally paralysed, only a shell of who he had been.

Third, there were the frivolous operations, inflicted either as punishment for protest leaders, or to train new medical personnel. Amran al-Ta’ifi had twenty surgical procedures performed on him to make it more difficult for him to lead protests. These random operations were usually scheduled and performed abruptly, even though the Americans claimed they were “ordinary surgical procedures”.

They also enjoyed forbidding medicines. As per Guantánamo’s rules, an interrogator could prevent detainees from receiving medicine until they divulged information he wanted. He could order the hospital not to treat a detainee, no matter how ill. Detainees would be crying out in pain, begging for treatment, and the doctor would reply: “Ask the interrogator for your treatment!”

This happened to Brother Ali al-Wa’ili, who had excruciating pain in both ears. I ask you, dear reader, to imagine the pain. I saw him writhing, unable to sit still from the pain. The soldiers only said: “Ask the interrogator.”

It’s hard to tell if leaving the prisoners untreated was crueller than the nexttrick they relished: coercing prisoners into addiction. They did this in two ways: 1.Giving narcotics to the sick until they became addicted, then stopping, turning it into a torturous method of exerting pressure. They did that to anyone they wanted information from. I saw one addicted prisoner, spinning maniacally around his cell, unable to stop until they gave him pills. Of course, he told them what he knew, and whatever else they wanted.

2.Forcibly injecting sedatives to the most zealous prisoners, to stop them from protesting and leading the prisoners. One prisoner they did this to spent six months out of his mind, unable to distinguish night from day or to recognise anyone. He stayed in his cell, madness eating at his mind and body.

It is a great testament to many Brothers that they withstood these torments in silence, not telling the other prisoners what they were going through. They hid their pain as not to demoralise their fellow Brothers while they themselves were in greatest need of sympathy and support.

About the Author: Sami Alhaj

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