My Life With the Taliban (Excerpts)

Below are excerpts from Abdul Salaam Zaeff's book My Life with the Taliban. New York, Columbia University Press, 2010.


Initial Capture and Imprisonment

Barely five minutes had passed when other men arrived with handcuffs and a piece of black cloth. They shackled my hands and the cloth was tied around my head covering my eyes. This was the first time in my life that I had been treated in this way. They searched my belongings and took the holy Qur’an, a digital recorder and some money I still had with me. As they led me out of the building, they kicked me and pushed me into a car. None of them had said a word so far. We drove for almost an hour before they stopped the car. I could hear the sounds of the rotating blades of a helicopter nearby. I guessed that we were at an airport where I would be handed over to the Americans. (p. 172)

Even before I reached the helicopter, I was suddenly attacked from all sides. People kicked me, shouted at me, and my clothes were cut with knives. They ripped the black cloth from my face and for the first time I could see where I was. Pakistani and American soldiers stood around me. Behind these soldiers, I could see military vehicles in the distance, one of which had a general’s number plate. The Pakistani soldiers were staring as the Americans hit me and tore the remaining clothes from my body. Eventually I was completely naked. (pp. 172-173)

I was still naked when a callous American soldier gripped my arm and dragged me onto the helicopter. They tied my hands and feet, sealed my mouth with duct tape and put a black cloth over my head. That was in turn taped to my neck, and then I was shackled to the floor of the helicopter. All this time I could neither shout nor breathe. When I tried to catch my breath or move a little to one side, I was kicked hard by a soldier. (p. 173)

I was glad when the helicopter landed, and allowed me to hope that the torment had come to an end, but a rough soldier took me and dragged me out of the helicopter. Outside, a number of soldiers beat and kicked me. They behaved like animals for what seemed like hours. Afterwards, the soldiers sat on top of me and proceeded to have a conversation, as if they were merely sitting on a park bench. I abandoned all hope; the ordeal had been long and I was convinced I would die soon. (p. 173)

The next morning I looked out from my cage and saw a soldier guarding the door. There were three other cages around mine, all covered in rubber. It dawned on me that I was in a big ship, one of the ships used in the war against Afghanistan off the Pakistani coast. I could hear the loud rumble of the ship’s engine throughout the night and morning, and I was sure that this was one of the ships that had launched missiles at Afghanistan. (p. 174)

After five or six days on the ship I was given a grey overall, my hands and feet were tied with plastic restraints and a white bag was put over my head. I was brought onto the deck of the ship along with the other prisoners. We were made to kneel and wait. The restraints cut off blood to our hands and feet. Some of the other prisoners were moaning because of the pain but the soldiers only shouted and told them to shut up. After several hours we were put into a helicopter and we landed three times before we reached our final destination. Each time we landed the soldiers would throw us out of the helicopter. (p. 176)

On our penultimate stop when I was thrown to the ground, one of the soldiers said, “this one, this is the big one”. And while I could not see them, they attacked me from all sides, hitting and kicking me on the ground. Some used their rifles and others just stomped on me with their army boots. (p. 176)

I had not eaten for six days because I was not sure if the military food rations they gave me were halal. For nearly one month they kept me in the small run-down room, and all I had for food was a cup of tea and a piece of bread. The soldiers would not let me sleep. For twenty days I lay in the room with my hands and feet tied. I was interrogated every day. (p. 177)

On 24 January 2002, six other prisoners were brought into my room, most of whom were Arabs. They stayed for a few hours before they were taken away again. They returned the next day and I asked them what had happened. They told me that Red Cross representatives had come to inspect the camp, register prisoners and collect letters for their families. They said that they did not know why they were being hidden away. We talked some more, and food was brought, the first time I had had enough to eat. (p. 177)

Once again we were tied up, kicked and beaten, dragged through the mud and made to wait outside in the cold. Many of the prisoners screamed and cried while they were abused. The same happened when we arrived after the brief flight. I was hit with sticks, trampled on and beaten. Five soldiers sat down on me while I lay in the cold mud. (p. 178)

They ripped my clothes to shreds with their knives. I thought I would be slaughtered soon. Afterwards they made me stand outside; even thought it was extremely cold I felt nothing but pain. They dragged me into a big tent for interrogation. There were male and female soldiers who mocked me, while another took a picture of me naked. (p. 178)

The soldiers would abuse prisoners on the way, run their heads into walls—they could not see—and drag them over rough ground. (p. 178)

Each prisoner got a bucket of water and was forced to take his shower naked in front of the other prisoners. We were allowed to shower once a month. No water was provided for ablutions. We received bottled drinking water from Kuwait and sometimes prisoners would use it to wash their hands and face, but as soon as the guards noticed the prisoner would get punished. (p. 178)

There was no real food [at Kandahar prison]; all we were given was army rations, some of which dated back to the Second World War. (p. 179)

We were all given a number; I was 306. Until the time I was released I was called 306. (p. 179)

I did not see any representatives of the Red Cross at Bagram because the Americans had also hidden me from them, but when I was transferred from Bagram to Kandahar, I saw the Red Cross on the second day I arrived. (p. 180)

We could not complain about the situation, because right in front of their [the Red Cross representatives’] eyes the Americans were taking us to interrogation, they were dragging us along the ground, sometimes with two or three soldiers on top of us. The Red Cross delegates saw this, but they were unable to help. (p. 180)

Our guards changed shifts twice a day and many of the low-ranking soldiers misbehaved, bearing ill-will towards Muslims. Every time they would appear, we had to stand in a row looking at the ground, and if the number of a prisoner was called he had to say ‘welcome’. Any prisoner who disobeyed these orders was punished. (p. 181)

Not all of the soldiers were the same, but some would command us to stand there for half-an-hour before they took the attendance register and almost two hours afterwards. No one was allowed to sit down or stand in the shade, no matter what his condition. May Allah punish those soldiers! (p. 181)

The soldier kept repeating his question. “Don’t talk. I will fuck you up,” he screamed at me. I was forced to kneel with my hands behind my head for several hours; from time to time he would kick or push me to the ground. There was no point in complaining about the behaviour of the soldiers; it would only make the punishment even worse. I will never forget the treatment I suffered at the hands of these slave rulers. (p 181)

When [the old man] came back I sat down to talk to him. He said he was from Uruzgan province and that he lived in Char Chino district. He told me he was 105 years old, and eventually he was the first man released from the Hell of Guantanamo. (p. 182)

Every day prisoners were mistreated in the camp. A Pakistani brother who had a bad toothache had only been given Tylenol by the medic in the camp. Eating was painful and difficult for him, and he could not manage to finish his food in the thirty minutes allocated for each meal. When the soldier came to collect his plate, he asked to be given more time because of his teeth. The soldier took him to the entrance and hit him in the mouth while the rest of us watched helplessly. After we saw how they treated the Pakistani brother, we decide to go on hunger strike. Word spread quickly and soon the entire camp had stopped eating […] Even though we were subject to harsh conditions, this was the first hunger strike to have taken place under the American invaders’ custody. (p. 183)

Some abuses were worse than others and affected everyone in the camp. One afternoon I woke up to the sound of the men crying. All over the camp you could hear the men weep. I asked Mohammad Nawab what had happened. He said that a soldier had taken the holy Qur’an and had urinated on it and dumped it into the trash. We had been given a few copies of the Qur’an  by the Red Cross, but now we asked them to take them back. We could not protect them from the soldiers who often used them to punish us. The Red Cross promised that incidents like this would not be repeated, but the abuses carried on. The search dogs would come and sniff the Qur’an and the soldier would toss copies to the ground. This continued throughout my time in Kandahar. It was always the same soldier who acted without any respect towards the Qur’an and Islam. (p. 183)

There were many other incidences of abuse and humiliation. Soldiers were conducting training with the prisoners as guinea-pigs: they would practice arrest techniques–all of which were filmed–and prisoners were beaten, told to sit for hours in painful positions. The number of such stories is endless. (pp. 183-184)

The next day a group of soldiers came to our tent throwing a bunch of handcuffs towards a group of prisoners. After they put on the handcuffs, they were tied together and led away […] they all were brought back a few hours later. Each and every one was shaved–their beards, hair and eyebrows. Every single hair was gone. This was the worst form of punishment. In Islam it is forbidden to shave one’s beard. It is considered a sin in the Hanafi faith. It is better to be killed than to have one’s beard shaved. I was in the next group that was led away to the barber. I asked the barber not to shave my beard; he replied with a hard slap to my head. I did not open my eyes for several minutes while the pain rushed through me. Later, when a doctor asked me what had happened to my face and I complained about the barber, I received another slap from the doctor, telling me I should not complain about the American invaders. (p. 184)

During one interrogation session, I was asked if I knew Mr Mutawakil […] I doubted that he had been arrested and asked where he was and how I could meet him. A few moments later he entered my room. He had brought me a packet of Pakistani biscuits, but my hands were tied and I was unable to eat them. Nor was I allowed to take them with me. (p. 185)

Guantánamo Bay

We were brought to another waiting area; the black bags were replaced with black goggles and plugs were put into our ears. Before we were brought to the plane, we were photographed again, and given a set of red clothes and red shoes. Our mouths were covered with a mask and hands and feet bound with two different kinds of chains. Once in the plane, our feet were locked to a chain on the ground, and our hands were bound behind our backs and locked to the metal chairs. It was impossible to move, not even an inch. It was a painful position and soon after the plane took off some of the prisoners started to struggle with their chains, screaming and moaning in pain. They remained chained in this position for the entire journey, and weren’t allowed to use the bathroom. (p. 187)

We were locked into these positions four hours before the plan even took off and we still remained there three hours after it had landed. We spent close to thirty hours locked in those chairs. The chains cut off the blood supply to our hands and feet. After ten hours I lost all feeling in them. Our hands were so swollen that it was difficult for the American soldiers to open the handcuffs, which had sunk deep into the flesh. The airplane landed once during the flight before arriving in Cuba. (p. 187) 

My cage was in the Gold block of the Guantánamo prison camp. The soldiers treated us better than in Bagram or Kandahar, and we were allowed to talk to each other. Even though it was lonely in the cage, there still was a sense of freedom after the months imprisoned in Afghanistan. (p. 188)

The cages were four feet wide, six feet in length and were lined next to each other. Each cage had a metal board to sleep on, a water tap and a toilet. There were no real walls, just metal mesh which separated the cages from each other. It was very uncomfortable having to wash and use the toilet in front of the other prisoners. (p. 188)

Among the prisoners in Guantánamo there were two men who had lost one of their legs. One was Abdul Rauf, the other was Suleiman. (p. 190)

[W]hen we complained to the Red Cross delegates that we were not being given enough food, they passed our complaints to the Americans, who got angry. The following week the menu would be even worse. (p. 190)

I remember I had a pain in my left lung and an earache. I was really suffering, and I asked the Red Cross to help me. Once the Red Cross representative examined me, and told the American doctors about my problems. But the doctors did not treat me; I didn’t get any medicine, nor was I examined. Every week I would complain about the pain and my health but no one helped me. (p. 190)

The three main groups at the beginning had either a tree, a cross or a moon on their badges. The group with the tree sign treated us the best. They did not discriminate between us, and treated us well. They served us enough food and at times they even brought us fruit. We were not disturbed during our sleep by them, and if a prisoner needed to see a doctor they would take care to relay the information as soon as possible. In turn we tried to cooperate as best we could with them. Sometimes when a brother was very tired or disappointed, we would persuade him not to complain about the soldiers, because they were good people and we made sure to treat them with sympathy and respect as is written in the holy Qur’an. The soldiers with the cross sign were very strict, and made sure to enforce every rule and law of the camp. At times they were discriminating and abusive and we would often not get enough food to eat. Nevertheless, a few soldiers among them were good and decent people. The group with the moon-like sign, in contrast, was rude and discriminating. They never gave us enough food or even adequate clothes. During the night they would make sure to disturb our sleep. They were quick to anger and to punish prisoners. (p. 192)

The soldiers with the key sign were wild animals. They were still stationed at the camp when I was released. They were rude, had no respect for Islam and would go out of their way to make our lives as difficult as possible. They conducted night searches, disturbed us whenever we slept. They falsely reported prisoners to the authorities and would abuse us and the holy Qur’an at times. (p. 192)

The worst group of all, however, was the one with the number 94 on their badge. They abused the prisoners and the Qur’an; prisoners were punished for no reason by them. The animosities between group number 94 and the prisoners grew, and the prisoners in turn started to disobey them whenever they could. They would throw water at them, not answer their questions and be as uncooperative as possible. (p. 193)

When the second camp was built and the general who had been in charge was replaced, the conditions for us changed. We were divided into categories and the punishments got worse. The number of cells increased to three hundred, the Qur’ans were taken away, we were shaved again and prisoners were increasingly abused during interrogations. (p. 194)

The name of the new general was Miller; he was later transferred to Iraq and took over Abu Ghraib prison there. He established Camp Echo, a very dark and lonely place. There were different places for detention within Camp Echo, one of which was a cage inside an average room with a bathroom in front of it. The room and doors were operated by remote-control and prisoners were monitored 24/7 with video cameras. Inside the room you could not tell whether it was night or day, and several brothers who were detained in these cells suffered from psychiatric disorders afterwards. (p. 194)

Finally he [Ahmad Rachidi] broke down and started to suffer from some psychiatric disorders because of the difficult situation in detention. But instead of being helped he was punished over and over again and I remember him fainting several times. HIs condition got worse when he came to Guantánamo. At some point he was brought to the cage next to mine; all night long he would recite the holy Qur’an and poems. He would proclaim over and over again that the Mehdi (PBUH) would return this year. He was consoling himself. One day he hit a soldier with his food plate. He was transferred to Camp Echo and spent three years there. Ahmad was well-educated but the detention made him lose his mind. The soldiers were well aware that he was suffering from the very final stages of depression, but he was still abused and not helped. (p. 195)

There were numerous people who suffered from psychiatric disorders, like Dr. Ayman, Tariq or Abdul Rahman. (p. 195)

The soldiers who handed out the food decided how much each prisoners would get served but it was cooked in a manner that made it tasteless. It was served in small quantities and we were often hungry. (p. 195)
When the third camp was built, our circumstances deteriorated. We were served less food, the quality worsened and punishment increased. Cube block [Cuba Block?] was an example; newly made, the living conditions were very hard. Prisoners were left to live in open cages in their underwear no matter what the season, not being able to cover themselves even for prayers. Very little food was served and the soldiers would abuse the prisoners. The toilet was visible to all and the cages weren’t big enough for prisoners to lie down and sleep. (p. 196)

In the winter it was very cold; prisoners would jump up and down just to get warm. One of the worst things was when the toilets became blocked. The smell of dirty water and faecal matter would blanket the whole block. We were not given toilet paper or water to clean ourselves after using the toilet; only our hands could be used, but could not be washed afterwards. The prisoner had to use those same hands to eat his food with afterwards. This is how those who claim to defend human rights made us live (p. 196).

A separate block was built for psychiatric patients; most of the prisoners detained there were suffering from severe depression and wanted to kill themselves. At the time I was there, there would be suicide attempts even on a daily basis. They were chained afterwards and given injections of barbiturates to calm them down; many of them became addicted to the injections. (p. 196)

[In Camp Five] food was served through a small window in the door, but we were not allowed to face the window while the food was handed over. (p. 197)

Mullah Fazl was detained in Camp Five; he was suffering from a gastric disease and so asked for treatment for over one year but was only transferred to the hospital after he went on hunger strike and lost consciousness. (p. 197)

Each brother who spent time in Camp Five looked like a skeleton when he was released; it was painful to look at their thin bodies. When Abu Haris returned from the camp, I did not recognize him; there was no resemblance between the man who had been taken away and the body that was returned. I was so scared by his appearance that sometimes I would even dream of him and would wake up screaming. (p. 197)

Camp Four was made to hold prisoners who would soon be released from Guantánamo. Prisoners were well rested and adequately fed; the idea was that they could regain their weight and strength and get back to normal again. Prisoners lived communally at Camp Four; they ate together and prayed in congregation. Games and sports were allowed, prisoners could shower several times a day if they liked, and once a week a film was shown. Some elders had received school lessons. In addition to the normal meals, we were given dates, honey, cake, tomato ketchup and other things, while prisoners in other camps were dying just to get a loaf of bread. There was a football field, a volleyball court and a ping-pong table, and we were permitted to exercise. Many journalists, senators and other visitors came to Camp Four; videos were made and pictures were taken, but we were not allowed to talk with them. (p. 197-198)

We approached the senior officer, telling him that they should respect the holy month of Ramazan and that only one prisoner had misbehaved while now they were punishing all of us. His answer was negative: “this is the way of the military”, he said. “The group gets punished for the mistake of any one member”. (p. 199)

Gas was fired into the cells knocking the prisoners unconscious. Soldiers rushed in and took each prisoner out. (p. 199)

I learnt that soldiers had beaten an Arab brother called Mashaal so severely that many believed he had died. All the prisoners were demanding information about brother Mashaal and threatened to create a crisis in the camp. The Americans first reacted by increasing security measures, but then announced that Mashaal was still alive but in critical condition. Two months later, we found out that he had been completely paralyzed. He could not sit or walk or move himself in any way. He could not even talk. He stayed in the hospital ward of Guantánamo for two and a half years. His condition did not improve and he was finally handed over to the government of Saudi Arabia. (p. 200) 

Mullah Fazal was punished for forty-one days because he did not answer the questions during an interrogation. During the nights he remained chained up in the interrogation room with the air-conditioning unit on full blast. The soldiers made sure to keep him awake. During the day they forced him to walk around so he wouldn’t fall asleep. (p. 200)

Visitors were always brought to Camp Four, and never saw the real Guantánamo, just a few metres away. (p. 200)

Prisoners are the weakest people in the world. A detainee in Guantánamo, however, is not even a person anymore. He is stripped of his humanity as each day passes. (p. 200)

Mukhtar from Yemen and Yousuf from Tajikistan had been in Qala-ye Jangi, in Kunduz, among a large group of Taliban fighters who had surrendered to the Uzbek militia. They thought that they had negotiated the surrender terms, and that they would not be harmed. But the Uzbek fighters ignored their promises. The Taliban were beaten, and many were killed or tortured. Then they were pressed into metal containers, hundreds at a time, many in a severely injured state. At Qala-ye Jangi they were thrown onto each other, beaten once again and even forced by the guards to fight among themselves. They weren’t given anything to eat or drink. At the time they wished that they had been killed. (p. 201)

Yousuf Tajiki told me that while one soldier rummaged through his clothes, robbing him of anything of value, another noticed a gold-capped tooth at the back of his mouth. Yousuf pleaded with the man, and explained that the tooth was not made of gold, but he tried to rip it out. It was stuck deep in the jaw and the soldier got a piece of metal and tried again. He only let go of Yousuf when some other soldiers said that they also thought the tooth was worthless. (p. 201)

They [the Taliban] were forced into shipping containers. He said that there were about three hundred people in the container when it was sealed up. They were transported for four days; from time to time they stopped and the doors were opened. People would be pulled out and beaten without any reason and then forced back again. Finally the container was set down. The militiamen closed the doors for the last time and left. For three more days they were locked inside. People were screaming for help. Some said that they saw the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH). When the doors were opened again most of the prisoners had died and he had to climb over their bodies. A representative of the Red Cross was the first person he saw, but then he was blindfolded and brought to a prison in Jawzjan. (p. 202)

There was no rule in the camps. The interrogators that came and went behaved however they wanted, just like the other camp authorities and even the soldiers in the individual blocks. There was no rulebook; no way to know how one soldier would act. They did whatever they pleased, punishing us and abusing prisoners as they felt was appropriate. In the end, even when a prisoner complained or an investigation was conducted, only the soldiers would be consulted with the general idea being that they would not lie. Prisoners, even those involved, were hardly ever consulted, and whatever they said was presumed to be a lie if they were asked. (pp. 205-206)

The hospital was filled with starving patients. The doctors were so busy with the emergency cases that other patients had to wait to be treated. The doctor-in-charge refused to force-feed the prisoners, so five other doctors were brought. The problem continued until 19 January 2006. (p. 209)