The Strongest Weapon | Prisoner 345 | My Six Years in Guantánamo

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My solitary friend, the night bird, rustles its wings, a subdued, weak flutter. In that weakness though, there is strength; I have known that in weakness there is strength my whole life, they are like the two sides of a coin. Together, they help you work, through the night if need be. They make you refuse to surrender; they become your weapon.

Our weapon in Guantánamo was our hunger strikes. They were a potent weapon, a weapon that everyone possessed, a weapon that didn’t need money or power. You couldn’t buy it. Many of us used it: Some, including Ahmad alMaliki and Abd al-Rahman al-Madani, persisted in their hunger strike for two years, others for shorter periods. We suffered indignities and torments as the administration tried to break our strike, but with Allah’s support, we were able to resist.

There was the “Old Prison Strike”, which went a long way to improving life in the camps; after it, we were allowed to talk to one another, prayers became easier and food quality improved. The symbols of those strikes, the heroes who stood until the very end, holding up the standard, were: Abdul al-Aziz alKuwaiti, Shaker al-Madani, Reza al-Tunisi and Muhammad Rajab al-Yemeni.

While I was on hunger strike, I was moved from my block to another for forcefeeding. One day, when I was brought back to my cell, I heard that Camp 4 was in an uproar as the Brothers had begun a hunger strike in protest against the situation of prisoners in Camp 5.

Camp 5 was where the prisoners considered to be the most dangerous were held. It was made up of two floors of solitary confinement cells and electric doors. It was common knowledge that Camp 5 was for those who would remain on the island forever.

Interrogators would threaten uncooperative prisoners, trying to make them implicate others by lying about them. Those who resisted would be moved to Camp 5, and it would be their final move in Guantánamo. There, prisoners were so desperate and hungry that they were eating banana and orange skins, and things only got worse when the cold began. To protest their suffering, they went on hunger strike, and soon other camps went on strike too, spreading to the entire prison.

The number of hunger strikers increased and the clinic and hospital were overwhelmed. The administration became extremely embarrassed after the strike expanded to all the camps, 1 to 4. It fell back on trying dialogue with some prisoners, undertaking improvements to their situation. The prisoners responded, albeit grudgingly: They gave the administration what they considered to be one final chance to keep its promises.

Perhaps the best-known hunger strike in Guantánamo was the “Strike of the Tubes”, undertaken in support of Brother Hamza from Tunisia, who had been beaten severely on the head with a chair by an interrogator. It began on August 10, 2005, ten days or less after the truce for the Camp 5 hunger strike had been agreed upon. It was one of a kind, the participants utterly convinced of their cause, and their demands clear. They were determined not to negotiate from that day forward until the matter was dealt with.

After a battle with the Defense Department (to be specific, with the Medical Corps) that lasted six months, the hunger strike was broken, and the protest came to an end. However, three heroes persisted despite all difficulties: Ahmed al-Makki, Abd al-Rahman al-Madani, and Salah al-Salami, may Allah rest his soul in heaven.

Those were the men of the season; everyone was fascinated by them. The doctors tried every means possible to torture and break them, but eventually, the doctors surrendered because to continue would have been to kill the prisoners outright. When the medical intervention and force feeding became too much for some strikers, they resorted to secret strikes, which they were convinced the only remaining way for them to resist injustice.

One night during the strike, we were served a special meal for dinner in celebration of a large group of Saudis being scheduled to leave the next day.

We were overjoyed to see our Brothers leave in such large numbers, and we celebrated their release that night.

The next morning we were surprised to hear the soldiers crying out for help.

Within minutes, paramedics arrived and transferred Brother Yusuf al-Shahri to the hospital in critical condition. He had been on a secret hunger strike.

The guards began an inspection of the cells and asked to search his copy of the Quran. The others refused to hand it over but were told by the translator that this was an order from the administration, that there had been suicide attempts and the administration wanted to investigate everything related to that.

We know – and they know – that there was no purpose for these actions except to humiliate the prisoners and threaten the Quran, creating problems on the wards.

As I told you, violating the Quran was one of their favourite tactics, as they searched through the holy books with all the disrespect they could muster.

Eventually, the prisoners protested and demanded that a military administration officer come with the soldiers when they entered the cells. An officer showed up, and the Brothers delegated me to speak. I told him that more than 90 percent of the problems between prisoners and administration stemmed from their abuses of the Quran.

“We don’t want these problems,” I said. “Take our Qurans. Collect them yourself and take them away so there won’t be any problems.”

“I can’t take a decision of this magnitude,” he said, “until I go back to the administration.”

It was the middle of the night, and he asked that we break until morning, but when I asked my fellow prisoners, they insisted that he return with an answer  immediately: either remove the copies of the Quran or forbid the soldiers from touching them.

The officer returned after a short while and said: “I spoke to the general and informed him of what’s going on. He decided to completely stop searching copies of the Quran.”

I told my fellow prisoners the decision, and they returned to their cells that night, happy. But the guards returned and searched the Qurans again anyway.

Around May 18, 2006, they conducted a full search of Camp 4, and I heard when they reached Uniform block, where I was. One of the Brothers told me:

“They want to search the Qurans. They’ve reneged on their promise and are insisting on doing it, by force if they have to.”

“If they search them,” I said, “they must take them away and not bring them back.” And that is what happened, we exited our cells to insist that they confiscate them, and they did.

The same thing happened on Whiskey, while on Zulu block the prisoners and soldiers clashed, and the emergency alarms were turned on, and soldiers came streaming in, armed with rifles they used to rain rubber bullets on the prisoners. One of our Brothers from Afghanistan was hit in the back, causing him immense suffering later. We all fought back and smashed the contents of our rooms, as well as the cameras that were in each cell. In short: a full mutiny broke out in Camp 4, and they transferred everyone out.

I was sent to Bravo, where I heard from the men in Alpha that while some of us had been moved to Camp 1 (Alpha, Bravo and Charlie blocks), most had gone to Camp 3, filling it to capacity. We heard, too, that a number of the Brothers had been transferred to the hospital because they had been seriously injured. We waited anxiously to hear how they were doing.

Matters worsened after that day, and the noose tightened around the prisoners. Soldiers were granted broader authority to do what they wanted.

Those were the worst days in the prison, and the starvation, beatings, humiliation and mockery of our religion intensified.

It was like a night where the dawn never came. That was when I decided to take the strongest weapon into my hands and began a struggle to regain our self-respect, of which we had been robbed. I brandished the hunger strike in the face of our executioners. My own fierce battle lasted for a year and a few months. I suffered. Of course I did, but throughout, I found the strength of the oppressed and it pushed me forward, helped me persevere and roar in the face of the administrators of that wretched, wretched place, Guantánamo.

About the Author: Sami Alhaj

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