Selections from Hier spricht Guantánamo, by Roger Willemsen
These are selections from the interview of Abdul Salam Zaeef that appeared in Hier spricht Guantánamo: Interviews mit Ex-Häftlingen (a collection of five interviews with former Guantánamo prisoners published in 2006 by Zweitausendeins Verlag, Frankfurt am Main). The present interview was carried out in 2005 in Kabul, Afghanistan, one month after Mr. Zaeef's release from Guantánamo. The interviewer was Roger Willemsen. Mr. Zaeef's internment serial number was 306. This interview of Mr. Zaeef was translated into English on behalf of CHSRA by Marcella Livi.
What were the prison conditions there [in Bagram]? Bad, they were bad. An inhuman atmosphere reigned. There was nothing. When they pulled us out of the airplane and handed us over to the soldiers, they threw us in a cell. Everyone that came beat us, and no one asked who it was and why they were beating. One guy beat on the head, one beat on the shoulder and the next one beat into the stomach. They beat this one guy for about two hours. My shoulder broke and one guy beat me on the ear. To this day I can’t hear well and it hurts. My ear hasn’t been treated to this day. It kept bleeding for an entire month and no one took care of it. That was the deal.
Besides the shoulder and the ear [injured in Bagram], were you at that point [on the flight to Guantánamo] healthy again? No. No. I was not well. I had the worst time of my life during that transportation. When I got there, my hands were so swollen that you could not see the hand cuffs and I could not move my hands well for about three months. They were swollen for three months and my fingers were numb for three months.
What did the cell to which you were brought [in Guantánamo] look like? It was a cage.
How many hours a day were you in that cage? That was my place. I was in the cage the whole time. At the beginning I was only allowed to leave the cage for fifteen minutes a week. After two to three months it went up to thirty minutes twice a week.
Have you yourself experienced desecrations of the Qur'an or have you ever heard of something like that? Yes, that happened a lot and those difficulties still exist today in different ways. They often came to inspect the Qur'an and then threw it around. When I was still in Kandahar I spoke to the Red Cross and asked who had brought the Qur'an. They said, "We brought it here." I answered then that they could take the Qur'an back because we did not need it here. We knew that it would not be treated with respect here. American soldiers then came and said, we will order the soldiers not to throw the Qur'an around again. It nevertheless happened again. One morning, when I was the prayer– leader, and when we were in the middle of praying, American soldiers came in and wanted to take one of the prisoners for interrogation. While we were kneeling down, they opened the doors and took the person for interrogation! We were not supposed to stand up during that prayer. When we complained about such occurrences with the Red Cross, the Americans threatened us because we had complained. Then the doctors came and asked what had happened and whether we had hurt ourselves. We complained and the Americans threatened us because we had complained. We were cursed at because we had talked to the Red Cross. Then the doctors examined us and something happened to the Qur'an in that time. They let dogs into our cages. They examined our cages and got closer to the Qur'an. On another day, a soldier distributed meals to the prisoners and said that we all had half an hour for consumption. There was a prisoner in our midst who was ill and had a tooth ache. When the soldier came he [the prisoner] had not finished yet and he said to the soldier, "I need more time because I have a tooth ache." The soldier commanded him to go to the door, punched him on the mouth with his fist and asked, "Why didn't you eat your food?" Following that we all refused food for two days. That's what solidarity was like between prisoners, no one ate. Then the Americans responsible for it arrived and I translated. They wanted to know what the problem was, why weren't we eating? I told them, as the representative of the prisoners, what had happened two days prior: when we had problems eating and were unable to eat, they beat us which was why we now did not want to eat. The ones in charge promised that it would never happen again. We should start eating again and the soldier that had committed the act would be punished. We did not know whether they had actually punished that soldier or not. Two days later I was woken up by the crying of several prisoners. I asked, why are you crying, and what happened? They said that the same soldier had taken the Qur'an and thrown it into two or three garbage cans that were standing around. It was the same soldier. I witnessed all of that. That was in Kandahar. When we got to Cuba, the Qur'an was treated dishonorably there as well. They examined it and threw it around. We then started a hunger strike so that they would take the Qur'an back. It lasted a few days and then the Americans that were in charge came and asked what our goal was and why we wanted to give the Qur'an back. They refused to take the Qur'an back. Our condition was that we would only keep the Qur'an if no one else touched it. That's when we started eating again. But they still touched the Qur'an a few times. Once we heard that they had written unseemly words in the Qur'an. I heard a few times that they had examined it again, but I have not witnessed it myself.
Were you confronted with physical violence? Very often, but in my case it was more psychological violence that manifested itself in my soul, for example in the form of depression. In Arabic, there’s this word “Estebsa”. Estebsa has the following meaning: If they are inside, I will close the doors, close the windows, draw the curtains because I want to smother them. So that they become ill, and become claustrophobic and kill themselves or hurt themselves. That’s how they did it.
Did they use heat and cold against you? Yes, they did. But they didn’t primarily torture us physically. They would frustrate us so much that we would harm ourselves in all sorts of ways under that type of pressure. That’s why there were prisoners that would attempt suicide every day. On this one day, there were 28 people that tried to commit suicide, without success. They hanged themselves. But someone always came right away in order to prevent it from happening. It was frustrating because there were no laws, only force. This one soldier came and asked, “Why do you have this cloth? Give it to me.” It was unbearable, they constantly harassed and frustrated us. How was one supposed to live that way?
Did you notice any psychological illnesses among the other inmates? Everyone was confronted with it. No one was free of it. But there were different levels. Some became crazy and lost their mind. Everyone was psychologically ill. I am to this day, but the symptoms become weaker.
What symptoms do you mean? While I speak, I think that I may not have control over what I want to say and what I don’t want to say. I could not sleep for a really long time. I was awake two to three days in a row. That’s over now. At times, when I did not want to yell, I would anyway, and did not have control over it. I would get sad or furious when the smallest thing didn’t go my way. I felt so frustrated.
If a hunger strike drags on, it's only a matter of time before the first prisoner dies... Why did we start the hunger strike? We wanted to improve the situation; we wanted respect for Islam, the Qur’an, prayer, and human rights. It is forbidden to work on the holiday and it is also a breach to shave head and beard. They would do things like that. And if someone committed a crime they would take his clothing away and leave him naked in the cage. What was important to us was respect for human rights, good behavior and respect for religion.
Are you once again able to work? […] In the past four years I have not read a book, or held a pen, or advanced my education. I have not heard or read anything. I was, furthermore, cut off. My memory and my head don’t work since my only occupation during that time was reflection. Of course a man becomes crazy if all he can do all day and all year is think about his life. It was torture for the soul.