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May. 28 2009 - 7:02 pm | 226 views | 2 recommendations | 0 comments

Think you know how bad Gitmo really was? A teenage detainee’s story, part III


Prisoner transfer at Guantanamo Bay

Prisoner transfer at Guantanamo Bay

Two Bush-Cheney torture program developments since the last post. One, Democratic senators have said they are open to the possibility of releasing Guantanamo’s Uighur detainees. That’s swell, since the Uighurs never had anything to do with Al Qaeda. They are Muslim traders from Xinjiang Province, in northwestern China. They arrived in Afghanistan with cheap leather goods to sell, having first passed through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzystan, and Tajikistan.

In my Rolling Stone article on Omar Khadr, I explained how this could have happened. Some background: Khadr’s brother, Abdurahman, who was also captured near bin Laden’s compound in Afghanistan, later became an informant for the CIA, and for a few months posed as a prisoner in Guantanamo Bay. (He was never housed with Omar.)

During the course of their research, [Khadr’s lawyers] learned that the CIA had pulled Abdurahman out of Guantanamo … because so few detainees knew anything about Al Qaeda or the Taliban … Abdurahman told his CIA handlers how utterly the United States had failed, in its military sweeps in Afghanistan, to distinguish between the guilty and the innocent. The U.S. offered cash rewards for suspected Al Qaeda members that were sometimes equivalent to several years of local wages. The American military thus made every Arab-looking person in Afghanistan vulnerable to opportunists. Criminal gangs rounded people up and brought them en masse to American authorities. Others were turned in to settle grudges, or because they had once associated with someone from Al Qaeda. U.S. intelligence apparently took criminals and mercenaries and underpaid soldiers at their word … Abdurahman Khadr concluded that only ten percent of the detainees at Guantanamo “are really dangerous.” The rest, he said, “are people that don’t have anything to do with it.” He told the story of an innocent detainee turned in by his own son for $5,000 … When the government recently prepared Summaries of Evidence for every one of its 517 detainees in an attempt to justify its “enemy combatant” designation, only eight percent were “definitively identified” as Al Qaeda fighters. Sixty-six percent have no definitive connection to Al Qaeda at all. The detention camps of Guantanamo Bay are filled with shepherds, taxi drivers, farmers, small businessmen, drug addicts, homeless people, and children.

(Andrew Sullivan was all over this story at the time; his trenchant commentary spoke for many of us.)

Also, the Daily Telegraph (UK) is reporting that the unreleased Abu Ghraib torture photos include scenes of rape—many different kinds of rape. (The source is apparently a former U.S. general.) Abu Ghraib is, of course, a direct descendent of Guantanamo. General Geoffrey Miller, overseer of “enhanced interrogations” at Guantanamo Bay, was later sent to Abu Ghraib to “Gitmo-ize” it. As I wrote in Rolling Stone, Omar Khadr had the misfortune of being at Guantanamo when Miller arrived:

[Khadr’s] statements [about torture practices] correlate exactly with the methods President Bush commissioned from General Miller. From the endlessly corroborated statement of [Khadr’s fellow detainee] Shafiq Rasul: “[Things changed] after General Miller. That is when short-shackling started, loud music playing in interrogation, shaving beards and hair, putting people in cells naked … moving some people every two hours depriving them of sleep, the use of A/C air. People would be kept [in isolation] for months and months and months. We didn’t hear anybody talking about being sexually humiliated before General Miller came.”

Part III

On March 31st, 2003, Omar Khadr’s security level was downgraded to “Level Four, with isolation.” Everything in his cell was taken, and he spent a month without human contact in a windowless box kept at the approximate temperature of a refrigerator.

When he was not being tortured or held in isolation, Omar spent virtually every waking minute of his captivity alone in his cell, first in a facility called Camp Delta and then in one called Camp V. His left eye, injured in the gun battle in Afghanistan, had gone blind and become immobile. Except for a Koran, there was nothing in his cells to occupy his mind. During his first year and a half at Guantanamo, Omar was permitted to exercise only twice a week for fifteen minutes, in a cage slightly larger than his own. Conversation between cells was possible, but prisoners had become so unstable and fearful of one another that they tended not to say much; there were no friendships. Omar tried to talk to his guards, about anything, but they were unresponsive. They often covered their nameplates with tape before entering detention facilities.

As Guantanamo was imposing heavy stagnation on Omar Khadr, it was also instilling in him an abiding sense of vulnerability and disequilibrium. The call to prayer was usually played five times a day, but sometimes it stopped, or changed. Exercise could come at any time of the day or night. If the guards woke you at 3:30 a.m. and you didn’t present yourself quickly enough to please them, you didn’t get to exercise. The timing and character of interrogations followed no pattern. Sometimes prisoners were woken up and moved from cell to cell for half the night for no apparent reason, a tactic so common it became known among guards as “the frequent-flier program.”

Meal portions were usually small enough to keep the prisoners in a state of low-grade hunger. Several times Omar found powder or partially dissolved tablets in the plastic glass he got with his food. The drugs produced dizziness, sleepiness or hyper-alertness. Tasteless and invisible, they were not detectable beforehand. Omar was never told what they were or why he had been drugged.

Once, when he was being transferred, Omar learned that his brother Abdurahman was in an adjacent prison yard. Abdurahman, forced by the CIA to choose between life imprisonment and cooperation, had chosen the latter. Omar had no idea that his brother was in Guantanamo to spy on detainees.

“How are you? How are you?” Abdurahman yelled, in Arabic.

According to Abdurahman, Omar told him to stick to the story the family had agreed upon—the Khadrs did charity work, and knew nothing of Al Qaeda.

“But how is your health?” Abdurahman yelled.

“It’s OK,” Omar yelled back. “I’m just losing my left eye and all. They don’t want to operate on it.”

It was the only time they encountered one another. Guards and interrogators continually reminded Omar that no one in the world knew where he was. No one would know if they decided to kill him. He was frequently threatened with physical harm and sudden execution. He heard gunshots. He heard the sounds other prisoners made when they were dragged back from interrogation rooms. Around the time of Omar’s arrival, detainees watched as guards rushed into the cell of a prisoner named Jumah Al-Dousari. As a detainee later described it:

[The first guard] ran in and did a knee drop onto Jumah’s back just between his shoulder blades with his full weight, which must have been about 240 pounds … The others came in and were punching and kicking Jumah … [One] was kicking his stomach. Jumah had an operation and had metal rods in his stomach clamped together in the operation … [A guard] grabbed his head with one hand and with the other hand punched him repeatedly in the face. His nose was broken. He smashed [his face] into the concrete floor. There was blood everywhere. When they took him out they hosed the cell down and the water ran red with blood.

It was the kind of beating Omar witnessed regularly.

In July 2004, when Omar was seventeen, he was moved to Camp V. In his new cell, the fluorescent ceiling lights stayed on twenty-four hours a day. Sometimes he went for weeks without seeing daylight. The temperature of the cell hovered around fifty eight degrees. Omar spent a lot of his time trying to stay warm: balling himself up, covering his extremities to the extent it was possible, making the best use of his blanket and mattress pad when they hadn’t been confiscated. His metal cot was a problem: It briskly gave away his body heat.

After a day in his Camp V cell, Omar had nothing new to see, touch, taste, hear or smell. He was accompanied only by his ow disordered thoughts. He tried to sleep the time away, but the cold was inimical to sleep, and the incessant lighting had divested him of his feel for night and day. Over the course of any given month, Omar did not know whether he would get to see the sun, have a conversation with another human being, or be allowed to wear clothes. For the past four years, Guantanamo has held him dead-still in the vacuum of his cell without ever allowing him to come to rest. The institution has made it clear to him that this will remain, for untold years, the form of his life.

[Next: Omar Khadr’s mental health unravels.]


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    When I was in college I ran across an anthology called The Literary Journalists. I’d already begun doing painfully reverent imitations of writers like Joseph Mitchell and Alec Wilkinson and Joan Didion—but the book's editor, Norman Sims, was even more reverent: he had collected their work and declared it to have as much value as any other kind of writing. I had a come-to-Jesus moment. I first got published in extremely well-camouflaged journals like The Cream City Review. Eventually, with the requisite amount of luck, I got into The Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, The New Yorker, Rolling Stone. I'll keep writing for those magazines and others, but I'm happy to be telling stories here. (You can read any of my posts anytime! They don't age that fast!)

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