On July 19, 2002, the CIA flew Mohamedou Ould Slahi to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan. This first excerpt is his account of that time.
Detainees were not allowed to talk to each other. The punishment for talking was hanging the detainee by his hands with the feet barely touching the ground. I saw an Afghan fellow detainee who passed out a couple of times while hanging from his hands. The medics "fixed" him and hung him back up. Other detainees were luckier; they were hung for a certain time and released. Most of the detainees tried to talk while hanging, which makes the guards double their punishment.
Now I am sitting in front of a bunch of dead-regular U.S. citizens; my first impression, when I saw them chewing without a break: "What's wrong with these guys, do they have to eat so much?" Most of the guards are tall, and overweight. Some of them were friendly and some very hostile. Whenever I realized that a guard (was hostile), I pretended that I understood no English. I remember one cowboy coming to me with an ugly frown on his face.
"You speak English?" he asked.
"No English," I replied.
"We don't like you to speak English, we want you to die slowly," he said.
"No English," I kept replying. I didn't want to give him the satisfaction that his message arrived. People with hatred have always something to get off their chests, but I wasn't ready to be that drain.
On Aug. 4, 2002, Slahi was hooded, shackled, diapered and drugged, and put on a flight with 30 other Bagram Air Base detainees for a 36-hour journey to Guantanamo. He arrived depleted from his nine-month ordeal in Jordan and Afghanistan; official documents record that Slahi, who stands 5-foot-7, weighed just a little over 109 pounds when he was "inprocessed" on Aug. 5. His account picks up there.
I considered the arrival to Cuba a blessing, and so I told my brothers, "Since you guys are not involved in crimes you need to fear nothing. I personally am going to cooperate, since nobody is going to torture me. I don't want any of you to suffer what I suffered in Jordan." I wrongly believed that the worst was over, and cared less about the time it would take the Americans to figure out I am not the guy they are looking for. I trusted the American justice system too much, and shared that trust with people from European countries. We all have an idea about how the democratic system works.
The other fellow detainees, for instance from the Middle East, didn't believe it for a second and didn't trust the American system. Their argument rested on the growing hostility of extremist Americans against the Muslims and the Arabs. With every day going by, the optimists lost ground, and the interrogation methods worsened considerably as time went by. As you shall see, those responsible in GTMO broke all the principles upon which the U.S. was built.
I was terrified when I stepped into the room in (redacted) building, because of the CamelBak on (redacted) back, from which he was sipping. I never saw anything like that before; I thought it was a kind of tool to hook on me as a part of my interrogation.
(Redacted) wanted me to repeat to him again my whole story, which I've been repeating for the last three years over and over. I got used to interrogators asking me the same things. Before the interrogator even moves his lips I knew his questions, and as soon as he or she started to talk I turned my "tape" on. When I came to the part about Jordan, (redacted) felt very sorry!
"Those countries don't respect human rights. They even torture people." I was comforted because (redacted) criticized cruel methods during interrogation; that means that the Americans wouldn't do something like that. Yes, they were not exactly following the law in Bagram, but that was in Afghanistan, and now we are in a U.S.-controlled territory.
After (redacted) finished his interrogations, he sent me back and promised to come back should new questions arise. During the session with (redacted) I asked him to use the bathroom.
"No. 1 or No. 2?" he asked. It was the first time I heard the human private business coded in numbers. In the countries I've been in it is not customary to ask people about their intention in the bathroom, nor do they have a code.
The team could see very obviously how sick I was; the prints of Jordan and Bagram were more than obvious. I looked like a ghost. On my second or third day in GTMO I collapsed in my cell. I was just driven to my extremes. The medics took me out of my cell; I tried to walk the way to the hospital but as soon as I left (redacted), I collapsed once more, which made the medics carry me to the clinic.
Although I was physically very weak, the interrogation didn't stop. But I nonetheless was in good spirits. In the block we were singing, joking, and recounting each other stories. I couldn't tell whose story was more saddening, but the detainees were unanimous that my story was the most saddening. I personally don't know. The German proverb says, "Wenn das Militar sich Bewegt, bliebt die Wahrheit auf der Strecke" — when the military sets itself in motion, the truth is too slow to keep up, thus it stays behind. The law of war is harsh; if there is anything good at all in a war, it is that it brings the best and the worst out of people. Some people try to use the lawlessness to hurt others, and some try to reduce the suffering to the minimum.
For his first several months in Guantanamo, Slahi was interrogated by agents from the FBI and the Navy's Criminal Investigation Task Force. Both the FBI and CITF favored conventional "rapport building" interrogation methods; throughout the fall, both agencies clashed repeatedly with Guantanamo's commanders over the military's increasingly abusive interrogations. Declassified documents show that Slahi's "special interrogation" began when he was transferred to an isolation cell near the end of May. Here is his memory of that time.
You don't know how terrorizing it is for a human being to be threatened with torture. One becomes literally a child. An Arabic proverb says, "Waiting on torture is worse than torture itself." I can only confirm this proverb.
In the block the recipe started. I was deprived of my comfort items, except for a thin iso-mat and a very thin, small, and worn-out blanket. I was deprived of my books, which I owned. I was deprived of my Quran. I was deprived of my soap. I was deprived of my toothpaste. I was deprived of the roll of toilet paper I had. The cell — better, the box — was cooled down so that I was shaking most of the time.
I was forbidden from seeing the light of the day. Every once in a while they gave me a rec time in the night to keep me from seeing or interacting with any detainees. I was living literally in terror. I don't remember having slept one night quietly; for the next 70 days to come I wouldn't know the sweetness of sleeping. Interrogation for 24 hours, three and sometimes four shifts a day. I rarely got a day off.
"We know that you are a criminal."
"What have I done?"
When I failed to give him the answer he wanted to hear, he made me stand up, with my back bent because my hands were shackled with my feet and waist and locked to the floor. (redacted) turned the temp control all the way down, and made sure that the guards maintained me in that situation until he decided otherwise. He used to start a fuss before going to his lunch, so he kept me hurt during his lunch, which took at least two to three hours. (redacted) likes his food; he never missed his lunch. I was wondering, how could (redacted) have possibly passed the fitness test of the Army? But I realized he is in the Army for a reason.
On Aug. 2, 2003, a military interrogator posing as an emissary from the White House visited Slahi carrying a letter saying that Slahi's mother was in custody and would soon be transferred to Guantanamo, where the U.S government could not guarantee her safety. His account continues.
"Welcome to hell," said the (redacted) guard when I stepped inside the block. I didn't answer, and (redacted) wasn't worth it. But I was like, "I think you deserve hell more than I do, because you're working dutifully to go to hell!"
The torture squad was so well trained that they had been performing perfect crimes, avoiding leaving any obvious evidence. Nothing was left to chance. They hit in predefined places. They practiced horrible methods, the aftermath of which only manifested later.
If I get nervous I always start to rub my hands together and write on my body, and that drove my interrogators crazy. "What are you writing?" shouted (redacted) "Either you tell me or you stop the f---," but I couldn't stop anyway, it was unintentional.
I was "Criminal No. 1," and I was appropriately treated. Sometimes, when I was in the rec yard, detainees shouted, "Be patient. Remember Allah tries the people he loves the most." Comments like that were my only solace beside my faith in the Lord.
(redacted) came around 11 a.m., escorted by (redacted) and the new (redacted). He was brief and direct.
"My name is (redacted). I work for (redacted). My government is desperate to get information out of you. Do you understand?"
"Can you read English?"
(redacted) handed me a letter he obviously forged. The letter was from DoD and it said, basically, "Ould Slahi was involved in the Millennium attack and recruited three of the September 11 hijackers. Since Slahi has refused to cooperate, the U.S. government is going to arrest his mother and put her in a special facility."
I read the letter. "Is that not harsh and unfair?" I said.
"I am not here to maintain justice. I am here to stop people from crashing planes into buildings in my country."
"Then go and stop them. I have done nothing to your country," I said.
When Slahi wouldn't tell them what they wanted to hear, his captors took him on a torture cruise. On Aug. 24, 2003, Slahi was taken on a three-hour boat trip into the Caribbean, where he was beaten and threatened by U.S. military personnel and two Arab interrogators. Here is what he remembers.
I barely finished my meal, when all of a sudden (redacted) and I heard a commotion, guards cursing loudly, "I told you, motherf—-er . . . ," people banging the floor violently with heavy boots, dog barking, doors closed loudly. I froze in my seat. (redacted) went speechless. We were staring at each other, not knowing what was going on. My heart was pounding because I knew a detainee was going to be hurt. Yes, and the detainee was me.
Suddenly a commando team of three soldiers and a German shepherd broke into our interrogation room. (redacted) punched me violently, which made me fall face down on the floor, and the second guy kept punching me everywhere, mainly on my face and my ribs. Both were masked from head to toe.
"Motherf—-er, I told you, you're gone!" said (redacted). His partner kept punching me without saying a word; he didn't want to be recognized. The third man was not masked, he stayed at the door holding the dog collar, ready to release it on me.
As to me, I couldn't digest the situation. My first thought was, they mistook me for somebody else. My second thought was to try to look around, but one of the guards was squeezing my face against the floor. I saw the dog fighting to get loose. I saw (redacted) standing up, looking helpless at the guards working on me.
"Blindfold the motherf—-er! He's trying to look-" One of them hit me hard across the face and quickly put goggles on my eyes, earmuffs on my ears, and a small bag over my head. They tightened the chains around my ankles and my wrists; afterward I started to bleed. All I could hear was (redacted) cursing, "F-ing this and F-ing that." I thought they were going to execute me.
The other guard dragged me out with my toes tracing the way, and threw me in a truck, which immediately took off. One of the guys hit me so that my breath stopped and I was choking. I felt like I was breathing through my ribs.
Did I pass out? Maybe not. All I know is that I kept noticing (redacted) several times spraying ammonia in my nose. After 10 to 15 minutes, the truck stopped at the beach. My escort team dragged me out of the truck and put me in a high-speed boat. (redacted) never gave me a break; they kept hitting me.
When the boat landed (redacted) and his colleague dragged me out and made me sit cross-legged. I was moaning from the unbearable pain.
""We happy for zat. Maybe we take him to Egypt, he say everything," said an Arab guy whose voice I'd never heard, with a thick Egyptian accent. I could tell the guy was in his late 20s or early 30s based on his voice, his speech, and later on his actions. His English was both poor and decidedly mispronounced.
Then I heard indistinct conversations here and there, after which the Egyptian and another guy approached. Now they're talking directly to me in Arabic.
"What a coward! You guys ask for civil rights? You get none," said the Egyptian.
"Somebody like this coward, it takes us only one hour in Jordan until he spits everything," said the Jordanian. Obviously he didn't know that I had spent eight months in Jordan and no miracle took place.
"We take him to Egypt," said the Egyptian, addressing (redacted).
"Maybe later," said (redacted).
Usually I wouldn't talk when somebody started to hurt me. This is a milestone in my interrogation history. In Jordan, when the interrogator smashed my face, I refused to talk, ignoring all his threats. You can tell I was hurt like never before, that it is not me anymore, and I will never be the same as before. A thick line was drawn between my past and my future with the first hit (redacted) did to me.
They put on a kind of thick jacket, which fastened me to the chair. It was a good feeling — however there was a destroying drawback to it. My chest was so tightened that I couldn't breathe properly. "I c.a.n.t. b.r.e.a.t.h.e!"
"Suck the air," said the Egyptian wryly. I was literally suffocating inside the bag around my head.
The order went as follows: They stuffed the air between my clothes and me with ice cubes from my neck to my ankles, and whenever the ice melted they put in new hard ice cubes. Moreover, every once in a while, one of the guards smashed me, most of the time in the face. The ice served both for pain and for wiping out the bruises I had from that afternoon. There is nothing more terrorizing than making somebody expect a smash every single heartbeat.
Slahi continued to be interrogated in complete isolation. On Oct. 17, 2003, a GTMO interrogator emailed a military psychologist to report, "Slahi told me he is 'hearing voices' now. ... He is worried as he knows this is not normal. ... Is this something that happens to people who have little external stimulus such as daylight, human interaction, etc???? Seems a little creepy." The psychologist wrote back that "sensory deprivation can cause hallucinations, usually visual rather than auditory, but you never know. ... In the dark you create things out of what little you have."
To be honest, I can report very little about the couple of weeks that were to come because I was not in the right state of mind. I had been lying on my bed all the time, I was not able to realize my surroundings. I tried to find out the Kibla, the direction of Mecca, but there was no clue. Confessions are like the beads of a necklace, if the first bead falls, the rest follow.
They dedicated the whole time until around 10 November 2003 for questioning me about Canada and Sept. 11; they didn't ask me a single question about Germany, where I really had the center of gravity of my life.
Whenever they asked me about somebody in Canada I had some incriminating information about him, even if I didn't know him. Whenever I thought about the words, "I don't know . . ." I got nauseous because I remembered the words of (redacted): "All you have to say, 'I don't know, I don't remember, we'll f—- you,' " or (redacted): "We don't want to hear your denials anymore!" So I erased the words out of my dictionary.
"We'd like you to write your answers on paper, it is too much work to keep up with your talk, and you might forget things when you talk to us," said (redacted).
"Of course!" I responded. I was really happy with the idea because I'd rather talk to a paper than talk to him. At least the paper wouldn't shout in my face or threaten me. After that, (redacted) drowned me in a pile of papers, which I duly filled with writings. It was good to let out my frustration and my depression. "(redacted) reads your writing with a lot of interest," said (redacted).
I kept praying in my heart, and repeating my prayers. I took the pen and paper and wrote all kind of incriminating lies about a poor person who was seeking refuge in Canada and trying to make some money so he can start a family. Moreover, he's handicapped. I felt so bad, and kept praying silently, "Nothing's gonna happen to you, dear brother ..." and blowing on the papers I finished. Of course it was out of the question to tell them what I know about him truthfully because (redacted) already gave me the guidelines. "(redacted) is awaiting your testimony against (redacted) with extreme interest!"
I gave the assignment to (redacted), and after the evaluation I saw (redacted) smile for the first time. I felt bad for everybody I hurt with my false testimonies. My only solaces were, one, I didn't hurt anyone as much as I did myself; two, I had no choice; three, I was confident that injustice will be defeated, it's only a matter of time; four, I would not blame anybody for lying about me when he gets tortured. Ahmed was just an example. I have been writing more than thousands of pages about my friends with false information. I had to wear the suit U.S. Intel tailored for me, and that is exactly what I did.
After the violent interrogation dragged on through the fall of 2003, Slahi remained in complete isolation in Guantanamo's Camp Echo. He writes that he remained in "the secret place" until August 2004. His account continues.
In a matter of weeks I developed gray hair on the lower half of the sides of my head. In my culture, people refer to this phenomenon as the extreme result of depression.
Then, slowly but surely, guards were advised at the same time to (1) give me the opportunity to brush my teeth, (2) give me more warm meals, (3) give me more showers. (redacted) was the one who took the first steps, but I am sure there had been a meeting about it. Everybody in the team realized that I was about to lose my mind due to my psychological and physical situation. I'd been so long in segregation.
"I brought you this present," he said, while handing me a pillow. I received the present with a fake overwhelming happiness — not because I was dying to get a pillow, but because I took the pillow as a sign of the end of the physical torture.
I had nothing in my cell. I had been counting the holes of the cage I was in: There are about 4,100 holes. When they gave me a pillow as a first reward, I kept reading the tag over and over.
No matter how bad your interrogators are, a family-like relationship develops. This family relationship is just a family relationship, no more, no less, with all the advantages and disadvantages.
In late 2003, the Marine lawyer assigned to prosecute Slahi before the military commissions started to wonder why the prisoner had suddenly become so "prolific." Lt. Col. Stuart Couch pieced together the circumstances of Slahi's interrogation and concluded that he had been tortured. Couch then refused to prosecute Slahi's case, citing his belief as an evangelical Christian in "the dignity of every human being." By 2005, Slahi's situation had changed completely. Since then, he has been granted unusual privileges, living with one other detainee in a fenced-in compound where they are allowed to write, paint and garden, growing sunflowers, basil, sage, parsley and cilantro. But he is still at Guantanamo.
"Your job is done. I am broken," I answered (the guard).
(redacted) always yelled at me and scared me, but he never hit me. He wanted to gather knowledge about terrorism and extremism. I think his dream in life is to become an interrogator. What a hell of a dream.
I both hated and liked when he was on duty. He started to give me lessons and made me practice them the hard way. The lessons were proverbs and made-up phrases he wanted me to memorize and practice in my life. I still do remember the following lesson: "(1) Think before you act. (2) Do not mistake kindness for weakness … etc."
I felt somewhat relaxed and gained some self-confidence. Now, the guards discovered in me the humorous guy and used their time with me for entertainment. They started to make me repair their DVD players and PCs; in return I was allowed to watch a movie.
We slowly but surely became a society and started to gossip about interrogators and call them names. In the mean time, (redacted) taught me the rules of chess. Before the prison, I didn't know the difference between a pawn and the rear end of a knight, nor was I really a big gamer. I find in chess a very interesting game, especially the fact that a prisoner has total control over his pieces, giving him some confidence back.
When I started playing, I played very aggressively in order to let out my frustration. Chess is a game of strategy, art, and mathematics. It takes deep thinking, and there is no luck involved. You get rewarded or punished for your actions, your moves.
The ultimate goal of an interrogator is to get intel from his target, the nastier the better. However, interrogators are human beings with feelings and emotions. There are all kinds of interrogators, good, bad, and in-between.
Besides, here in GTMO Bay everything is different.
It's very funny how false the picture is that Western people have of Arabs: savage, violent, insensitive, and cold-hearted. And I can say with confidence that Arabs are peaceful, sensitive, civilized, and big lovers, among other qualities. (I told) (redacted), "You guys claim that we are violent, but if you listen to Arabic music or read Arabic poetry, it is all about love. On the other hand, American music is about violence and hatred, for the most part." During my time with (redacted) many poems went across the table; I haven't kept any copies, (redacted) has all the poems.
One of my poems goes:
The next one and a half pages are redacted.
U.S. Air Force Col. Morris D. Davis was appointed chief prosecutor of Guantanamo's Office of Military Commissions in September 2005. In October 2007, he resigned in protest over plans to allow testimony gained through waterboarding into commission proceedings. Right now, about 100 of the 166 inmates at Guantanamo are participating in a hunger strike against their conditions and indefinite detention. Twenty-one have been "approved" for force-feeding. As for Slahi, though he won a habeas corpus victory in 2010, the Obama administration appealed the judge's decision. Later this year Slahi's attorneys will once again be arguing his habeas petition in federal court. He will testify by video link from Guantanamo, and his testimony will likely once again be classified. Of Slahi, Col. Davis says:
I don't know what the plan is; I don't know if Mauritania wants him back, or if another country would be willing to take him. But I think we've got some obligation to figure out some solution for him. I mean, the guy's clearly been mistreated and spent more than a decade of his life in prison, so it would be kind of tough just to walk him out to the gate and say, "Have a nice life." We owe him some help in having a life.