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Detainees in Despair

By MOURAD BENCHELLALI
Published: June 14, 2006
Lyon, France

benchellali"In your country, Mourad, there are rights, human rights, and they mean something," he said. "In mine they mean nothing, and no one cares. So when you're free, don't forget what you've been through. Tell people that we are here."

I now know that this Yemeni was not among the three prisoners who committed suicide at Guantnamo last weekend, but since then his words have been echoing in my head. Although I'm now a free man, the shared pain endlessly takes me back to the camp.

In the early summer of 2001, when I was 19, I made the mistake of listening to my older brother and going to Afghanistan on what I thought was a dream vacation. His friends, he said, were going to look after me. They did - channeling me to what turned out to be a Qaeda training camp. For two months, I was there, trapped in the middle of the desert by fear and my own stupidity. As soon as my time was up, I headed home. I was a few miles from the Pakistani border when I learned with horror about the attacks of 9/11. Days later, the border was sealed off, and the only way through to Pakistan and a plane to Europe was across the mountains of the Hindu Kush. I was with a group of people who were all going the same way. No one was armed; most of them, like me, had been lured to Afghanistan by a misguided and mistimed sense of adventure, and were simply trying to make their way home.

I was seized by the Pakistani Army while having tea at a mosque shortly after I managed to cross the border. A few days later I was delivered to the United States Army: although I didn't know it at the time, I was now labeled an "enemy combatant." It did not matter that I was no one's enemy and had never been on a battlefield, let alone fought or aimed a weapon at anyone.

After two weeks in the American military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, I was sent to Guantnamo, where I spent two and a half years. I cannot describe in just a few lines the suffering and the torture; but the worst aspect of being at the camp was the despair, the feeling that whatever you say, it will never make a difference.

You repeat yourself over and over again to interrogators from the military intelligence, the F.B.I., the C.I.A. The first time you hear "Your case is being processed," your heart, seizing on the hopeful possibilities in those words, skips a beat. After months of disappointment, you try to develop an immunity to hope, but hope is an incurable disease.

I remember once an interrogator warming me up during several sessions for a polygraph test I was going to take, that was, according to him, infallible. After I took the test, I was left alone in the interrogation room; an hour later, the interrogator returned. "Congratulations," he said grimly. "You have passed the test." And he gave me a box of candy.
In the outside world, I thought, the difference between telling the truth and lying, between committing a crime and not committing it, is the difference between being in jail and being free. In Guantnamo, it is a box of candy. I was eventually released and I will go on trial next month in Paris to face charges that I've never denied, that I spent two months in the Qaeda camp. I have a court date, I'm facing a judge, and I have a lawyer, unimaginable luxuries in Guantnamo. I didn't know the three detainees who died, but it is easy for me to see how this daily despair and uncertainty could lead to suicide.

During my captivity, I saw many acts of individual rebellion, from screaming to hunger strikes and suicide attempts. "They are smart, they are creative, they are committed," said Rear Adm. Harry Harris, who commands the camp. "They have no regard for life, neither ours nor their own. I believe this was not an act of desperation, but an act of asymmetrical warfare waged against us."

I am a quiet Muslim - I've never waged war, let alone an asymmetrical one. I wasn't anti-American before and, miraculously, I haven't become anti-American since. In Guantnamo, I did see some people for whom jihad is life itself, people whose minds are distorted by extremism and whose souls are full of hatred. But the huge majority of the faces I remember - the ones that haunt my nights - are of desperation, suffering, incomprehension turned into silent madness.

I believe that a small number of the detainees at Guantnamo are guilty of criminal acts, but as analysis of the military's documents on the prisoners has shown, there is no evidence that most of the 465 or so men there have committed hostile acts against the United States or its allies. Even so, what I heard so many times resounding from cage to cage, what I said myself so many times in my moments of complete despondency, was not, "Free us, we are innocent!" but "Judge us for whatever we've done!" There is unlimited cruelty in a system that seems to be unable to free the innocent and unable to punish the guilty.

Mourad Benchellali has written a book about his experience in a Qaeda camp and at Guantnamo Bay, with Antoine Audouard, who assisted in the writing of this article and translated it from the French.

Photo:
Matt Rota
Copyright The New York Times Company



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