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Next, he has to get Gitmo out of him

St. Petersburg Times
by Meg Laughlin
September 7, 2008

DOHA, Qatar — Sami Al-Haj is home. But he's not here.

It is mid July — nearly two months since he emerged from a Guantanamo cell — and Al-Haj is somewhere in this city of skyscrapers and white stucco. He's training for his new star role as human rights commentator for the TV network Al-Jazeera and being filmed for a documentary. He is under­going hospital tests to pinpoint the problems with his knees, his back, his intestinal tract. He is with his family, struggling to reconnect with a wife and a son he hasn't seen in six years. He is shaking someone's hand; there is always a hand reaching out to touch Sami Al-Haj.

"He is a national hero here," Ahmad Ibrahim, an Al-Jazeera documentary producer, told me.

In some respects, Sami Al-Haj is an odd candidate for national hero, even in a country of less than 1-million that has almost no celebrities. Young and Muslim, he wasn't so different from the 770 other men who have been held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But his case was always different. He was the only journalist ever imprisoned there and that gave him a certain notoriety. Over the years, hundreds of detainees were freed without fanfare to resume their mostly anonymous lives.

Not Al-Haj. This spring when he stepped off the plane in Sudan, his home country, there were parades.

But the famous Sami Al-Haj is not here, where I am, where I have been waiting, for three days, to interview him, to ask him what happened to the man I once knew.

A war story

Seven years ago when I first met Al-Haj in Islamabad, Pakistan, he was just another young camera­man — going in and out of Afghanistan to cover the first weeks of the U.S.-led war to topple the Taliban. His Al-Jazeera colleagues used to kid that he cared more about eating and sleeping than he did about getting the story. But, the joke ended when he was detained on the border of Afghanistan by the U.S. military.

I didn't learn what became of him until this January when I read an Associated Press story about a letter from an "enemy combatant" held at Guantanamo. Struck by the writer's despair, I checked the Internet for a photo of him. To my amazement, it was the young Al-Jazeera cameraman I had known in Pakistan.

He had been held on the Afghan border because of a passport misunderstanding, which had morphed into allegations that he had ties to al-Qaida. Though the allegations never became formal charges, he was held as an "enemy combatant" for six years. Human rights groups said he had been tortured.

"Sami Al-Haj is as dangerous as my grandmother," his lawyer told me.

The story I wrote for the St. Petersburg Times in February was not the first story on Sami Al-Haj, but it was a story in a mainstream American paper that struck a chord with people who had not paid much attention to Guantanamo. Many contacted their congressmen to protest Al-Haj's treatment.

Over the next few months, the years of effort to get him released gained traction until finally on May 1 he was freed.

The video I saw of Al-Haj being carried off the plane in Sudan was shocking. He bore little resemblance to the man I remembered. Gray whiskers partially covered protruding cheek bones. He was too weak to walk and looked about 20 years older than his actual age of 39.

His brother Yasser told me in a phone conversation from Sudan that Al-Haj was not the same. He had dropped 70 pounds, but he had lost more than weight.

"He is distant and never laughs," he said. "I just hope he recovers and comes back to us."

When he arrived in Doha a month later, his Al-Jazeera colleagues also noticed the change in him.

"For years, Sami lived between the brackets, barely existing. He has a strong, resilient character, but I fear Guantanamo has changed him irrevocably," said Abdelhaq Sadah, who was with him in 2001 when he was arrested.

I asked what he meant. "Sami is very focused and very much here," he said. "But also distant."

An hour later, after three days of waiting to meet with Al-Haj again, I am sitting in a paneled Al-Jazeera office when a tall, rail-thin man in a khaki suit walks in. He is leaning on a cane. His smile is just as I remember.

"Sami Al-Haj!" I shout.

He reaches out and shakes my hand warmly. Within minutes, his chauffeur is driving us to lunch.

"Slowly, I am coming back," he tells me.

Relentless questioning

Al-Haj and I sit on thick red cushions at a Doha seafood restaurant and he talks about what he endured in captivity. With the exception of his own TV network, this is the first time he has spoken to a reporter.

In Afghanistan, where he was held first, he said he was hit in the face, chained to the ceiling of his cage with his feet barely touching the ground and frequently knocked to the ground and kicked. If he survived the torture, he thought he would freeze or starve to death.

"I kept telling people in U.S. military uniforms that they had made a mistake, but they didn't listen," he said.

In June 2002, he was flown to Guantanamo, where he was interrogated about 130 times in the first few years, he said. Almost all of the questions were about filming Osama bin Laden (he never did), and the belief that he could link his employer to al-Qaida.

"I kept saying I knew of no such link, but they wouldn't drop it," he said. "They would force me on the ground, drag me out of my cell in shackles and ask the same questions over and over."

Living on memories

Almost a year after his arrest, Al-Haj was finally allowed to get a letter from the outside. It came from his wife, Asma. What she wrote, he said, made a huge difference to him.

"I was disappearing, but her letter brought me back," he said.

She wrote: "I get our son to drink his milk by telling him you always drink milk. He will do anything to be like you. You are very much alive to him."

Asma included a smiling snapshot of their 2-year-old son, Mohammed.

"That photo became my solace," Al-Haj said. "I would sleep with it under my head."

When guards confiscated the photo because he had thrown uncooked rice on the floor, he said he wept and thought he would lose his mind.

"I believed it was the only thing tying me to reality," he said.

He can see now how mentally unstable he became from prolonged solitary confinement. He developed a fondness for a fire ant that showed up to eat a grain of rice on the floor. Every night, he saved a tiny bit of food for it.

"I got so I loved that ant," he said.

Before his arrest, he was not religious. But at Guantanamo, he said talking to God was all he had. He has a permanent bruise on his forehead from hitting his head on the floor, in prayer.

"I needed the closeness of someone," he said.

In six years, he was allowed to send out a handful of letters.

In one letter to his son, he wrote: "Smile-of-my-life, I hope to see you soon." In another letter, he told the boy they would go to the carnival and ride the rides, and eat their favorite candy. At the end, he drew a picture of a goofy Love Bug jalopy and asked the boy in a cartoon bubble, "Do you like our car?"

But his letters to his lawyer were full of pain: "When I hear pigeons cooing in the trees, hot tears cover my face … My oppressors ask me to spy on my country­men. … They offer me … freedom to go where I please. Their temptations seize my attention like lightning in the sky. But their gift is an empty snake."

He would spend hours reliving every minute of his life with Asma and Mohammed: what they were wearing, what they watched on TV, what they had for dinner.

He and Asma had been married only months when she became pregnant. Mohammed had just celebrated his first birthday when Al-Haj took the Afghanistan assignment. But he replayed every moment in detail, counting the tiles on the floor, tracing the design of his son's shirt, saying aloud exactly what he and Asma had said.

"My mind's eye saved me," he said.

A slow death

In the summer of 2005, many of the prisoners went on a hunger strike to protest harsh conditions in solitary confinement.

"I decided it was better to die as a human being than live as a broken animal," he told me.

Guards confiscated mattresses, blankets, toothbrushes, photos, eyeglasses, letters and cups from all who participated, Al-Haj said.

The hunger strike ended after a few months when Guantanamo officials promised detainees they could buy supplies and call their families for money.

But Al-Haj said the promises were broken. "It was very difficult for the well-meaning officers to have their way," he said.

In January 2007, with no release in sight, he went on another hunger strike.

"I expected to die," he said.

But guards force-fed him Ensure twice a day, pushing a 43-inch tube down his nose to his stomach while he was strapped in a chair with 12 restraints.

"Do you know what a loss of self comes from not even being able to choose to live or die?" he said.

Last fall, a psychiatrist in Texas read Al-Haj's letters and notes and concluded this: "Mr. Al-Haj is no longer capable of contemplating any redemption from his present situation. … He is becoming a case of passive suicide."

When his freedom finally came, it had less to do with public outcry than a private deal.

A glitch at the docks in Sudan had slowed down the renovation of the American Embassy there. According to Ibrahim, the Al-Jazeera producer, the Sudanese government agreed to release building materials held at the dock if Al-Haj's "transfer" was part of the deal.

"We'd all like to believe he got released because somebody wanted to do the right thing," Ibrahim said. "But, unfortunately, that's not the case."

A new man

In his prison drawings Al-Haj had portrayed himself as a bloated corpse with no face. Suddenly, he was the face on Arabic television around the world.

A man who had been imprisoned because officials thought he was important, was now important because he had been imprisoned.

Al-Haj said he knows he has opportunities he never would have had without Guantanamo.

As Al-Jazeera did while he was imprisoned, the company continues to pay his salary and living expenses. He recently went to Geneva to a human rights conference. He is training to do weekly five-minute segments on human rights abuses around the world for Al-Jazeera. He knows his deep passion for stopping human rights abuses would not exist if he had not suffered.

"Guantanamo gave me meaning, and I'm thankful for that," he said. "I went from zero to here."

But he also knows the road in front of him will not be smooth: "You can't go through Guantanamo and not be damaged."

On top of the physical ailments, Al-Haj has seen a psychologist to overcome what he calls "Guantanamo paranoia."

"I had to find a place deep inside that they couldn't get to and I still go there," he said.

At work, he plays a video on his computer over and over. It is of his first meeting with his son in a Sudanese hospital, right after his release. A man strides toward an adorable little boy in a plaid shirt. He sweeps the boy into his arms, caressing him, pressing his cheek against his, and staring at him as if he cannot believe what is happening.

"I watch it and cry because it reminds me I'm a real person with real feelings," he said.

When he gets home at night, he sometimes hears his son announce, "Sami Al-Haj has arrived!"

For Al-Haj, the pronouncement is both charming and worrisome. It shows, he said, that his son is impressed by him, which amuses him. But it also tells him that the boy isn't yet comfortable with him as his father.

"I have learned patience," Al-Haj told me.

Asma fixes chickpeas and rice while Sami and Mohammed arm wrestle and play hide-and-seek. After dinner they all watch TV together, lounging on the sofa and talking until they go to sleep.

But in the night, Guantanamo often comes back. Al-Haj dreams he's back in solitary and can't get out. He sits up in bed and yells.

"It's all right," Asma whispers. "You're here now."

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