In Solitary Confinement | Prisoner 345 | My Six Years in Guantánamo

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The sound of my wife’s footsteps reaches my ear, drawing closer.

“You’re still up, Sami!” she says. The night bird on the windowsill is startled by her voice.

“Yes,” I say, “It seems that tonight my memories are coming to me easily.”

“OK,” she says, “Hand me the pen and paper, tell them to me. Your hand must be worn out from writing.”

“No,” I say, “Please go back to bed. I’m fine, and there are still things that I haven’t written.”

Our conversation seems to have disturbed the night bird. It spreads its wings, beats them and flies away. My wife says: “No, let me help you. Tell me, and I will write. I know Arabic and can write well.”

She is insistent, but I don’t want to exhaust her by making her stay up all night. However, I crave her company, too, and in the end, I say: “Fine. Take the pen and write …”

We heard of the departure of the first batch from Guantánamo, mostly Afghans. By the mercy of God, one of them was Hajji Faizullah – he must have been over eighty – who was my neighbour in Lima block. A frail old man, he’d been with us since we arrived. He couldn’t open his food packs, or do anything else for that matter. Even the soldiers wondered: “That man can’t even help himself, how is he an enemy combatant? How did he end up here?”

The Hajji also couldn’t clean the place where he sat. When he left his cell to go to the bathroom or anywhere else, some of the Brothers would ask the soldiers to allow them to clean his cell for him. May God reward them!

After that batch left, I stopped answering the interrogators’ questions. They asked: “Why aren’t you answering?”

“You promised I would be the first to leave Guantánamo,” I said. “But the first batch left, and I wasn’t among them.”

They said that group was Afghans only, that there would be one for Arabs and I would be in it. I didn’t believe them any more that day than I had any other day.

A few days later, some soldiers were harassing a prisoner they had found sleeping. They woke him up and made him do silly things like moving a bar of soap around, or following ridiculous orders shouted at him. They searched him, then a soldier beat him mercilessly where a man should not be beaten. I couldn’t bear the sight, so I protested, and I was promptly dragged to solitary confinement.

The solitary confinement block – Oscar – was extremely isolated; it was my first time there. They shaved my head, beard and moustache and left me there for roughly two weeks. There I met people I spoke to only through my cell
door, we couldn’t see one another. There was someone from Canada there, someone from Australia, and some Saudis: Abu Ziad al-Ghamadi and Sultan al-Madani.

We got to know each other; sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of them when their cells were opened. They would bring our food in the evening, leaving the windows open, so we were able to talk. The window was small, three by five inches, allowing only a small plate through.

Two weeks later, they transferred us to another solitary confinement block; that was so they could bring in one prisoner, Shaker from Medina. I knew Shaker from Kandahar and Bagram. We’d arrived on the same plane from Kandahar, but I hadn’t seen him since. He was an activist who lived in England with his family, married to a Pakistani woman. He spoke English fluently and understood the Americans’ tricks. They brought him in after they cleared the block, but we realised who it was when we heard him shouting as the soldiers dragged him.

When we found out who he was, we undertook our own disobedience, striking the metal doors. An officer came to find out what was going on and we told him we were protesting Shaker’s transfer to a block on his own. We kept the pressure up until they brought him to join us, and we remained there together for a while.

After a couple of days, Shaker told us he had heard the soldiers saying a word they only used in cases of serious trouble and that he’d try to find out what happened. After dinner, he called out: “Brothers, it seems that one of the prisoners has died. They say he was a Saudi who was in India block, solitary confinement. The Americans are claiming he killed himself.”

That day, the windows were left open. The soldiers made their rounds of the cells, peering into the windows, watching closely, maybe they were listening to what we were saying amongst ourselves. An officer came to us and said: “Your colleague is in an external hospital. The translator can explain more about his condition; he saw everything.”

The translator came a little later: “Your colleague is Saudi. He hanged himself.

They tried to rescue him, but he was clinically dead. He is currently on life support and in extremely critical condition in intensive care.”

We talked about the incident, and we agreed that we had to confirm what happened. I don’t know if the soldiers heard our conversation, or it was pure coincidence, but they brought in a prisoner who had been on India block at the time of the incident. His name was Ahmad al-Maghribi Abu Omran, and he told us what happened:

“It was Mash’al, the young man from Medina. He was fiercely protective and proud of his religion, a Saudi from the Harb tribe. The soldiers were bringing a new person into India block where Mash’al was being held. The new prisoner was a man called Hammad al-Turkestani, and he was carrying a copy of the Quran. At the door of his cell, opposite Mash’al’s, the soldiers took the Quran away from him and threw it on the ground. They pushed the man on his face as he cried: ‘They defiled the book of Allah!’

“That was all it took for the prisoners to start beating their doors. The soldiers spread out in the block and turned off the lights. They stormed Mash’al’s cell; he was the principal witness. Within fifteen minutes, the medical team took Mash’al out on a stretcher, blood flowing from him. Some prisoners saw that, and the noise increased as they kept protesting, beating on the doors so prisoners in other blocks would know something had happened.

“The riot police came in and beat the prisoners brutally; three were transported to hospital after Mash’al. The next day, an investigative team entered, all in white. They drew the scene of the incident and sealed off the room. Then, they emptied the block of prisoners.”

It was after that that prisoners began talking about taking collective action in support of Mash’al. The administration was trying to bury the truth; they told the media that Mash’al had tried to kill himself and the soldiers had intervened to save him. They thought they had succeeded in falsifying the truth, however, our weapons were starting to take effect. Our strikes, protests, speaking to journalists about the truth and telling them of the extent of humiliation and torture practised in the prison. As the truth came out, it took serious work on the part of the administration to try to balance that ugly picture.

They started easing up and created Camp Four, the nicest camp where those about to be released would go to relax, to silence global public opinion. They filled the camp with the weak minds they had convinced to spy for them. They tempted prisoners by parading the others being transported to Camp Four in front of them. They won over a few who fell into that trap and spoke to the media about how they were happy with the American administration. They were shown on TV, wearing white and playing and having fun, a small minority that didn’t represent the prisoners, not by a long shot!

They also brought false witnesses to act like they were cooperating fully with investigators. All to cast doubt on those were still left resisting. Reality refutes that, what they did was scheming and attempts to distract the world. I wanted everyone to resist their games to foil their plans. What happened to Mash’al still seethes in our minds.

Given that what had happened to Mash’al was instigated by defiling the Quran, we decided to hand in our own copies rather than run the risk that they be defiled. The prisoners agreed, but the administration started to worry that their assault on the prisoners’ Qurans would be made public and issued a directive forcing every prisoner to take a copy.

Unbelievably, the riot squad began going into cells and leaving Qurans there.

They would beat the inmate and pepper spray his face, then drag him out and leave a Quran in the cell. This was the same administration that had prohibited Qurans during Ramadan because they said they eased mental pressure on the prisoners. In reaction to these unusual measures, we organised another protest… We fought as best we could, and our protests continued.

About the Author: Sami Alhaj

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