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Selections from Hier spricht Guantánamo, by Roger Willemsen

These are selections from the interview of Mr. Timur Ischmuratov 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 a year after  Mr. Ischmuratov's release from Guantánamo (but shortly after being released from a Russian prison, which is where he landed some time after being released from the Cuban base). The interviewer was Roger Willemsen. Mr. Ischmuratov's internment serial number was 674. This interview of Mr. Ischmuratov was translated into English on behalf of CHSRA by Kirsten Harjes.

What did you see inside [the Guantánamo base]? I don’t really know. Immediately after the medical examination, I was taken to be interrogated. Only later I found out that the flight I had just taken [to Guantánamo] was twenty eight hours long. After that was the shower, the medical examination, and the interrogation, all of that without any sleep at all. Then, the official investigators came in, and when I sat there like that, falling asleep in the chair, the soldiers came in and shook me and simply didn’t let me sleep. The room was very sparse. It had a cement floor, there was a chair for the person to be interrogated, your hands and legs were tied, and a chain tied you to a ring in the floor. Across from the prisoner, there was a long table with four chairs for the investigators, and there was a black window on one of the walls, through which you could observe the prisoner during interrogation. There was air conditioning, too.

Did people respect your exercising your faith? Officially, the guards weren’t allowed to come and get us for interrogations during prayer. But they always banged against the bars with some heavy objects and made noises during prayer. When you tried to report that to an officer, they always denied everything and weren’t ever punished.

Did you hear of desecrations of the Qur’an, or see any? In Kandahar I heard they threw the Qur’an into the toilet. And in Guantánamo I saw that the Qur’an was thrown to the ground and trampled on. Mostly that was done by soldiers who felt humiliated or provoked by the prisoners. A soldier could just enter a cell, as if to search it, and throw the Qur’an to the ground. When he was asked about it later, he said: “I just searched the cell and the book fell down.” That way he didn’t get punished.

How did the prisoners defend themselves, you said you protested once? There were actually quite a few protests. You began to beat against the bars, to scream, you started a hunger strike, some even tried to hang themselves. Eventually, we decided to turn our books in, to prevent any damage to the Qur’an. So, they collected the books from the ones who wanted to turn them in. At that moment, the soldiers realized that they had lost a way to intimidate us, and proceeded to hand the Qur’an back to us, whether you wanted it or not. Those who didn’t accept it back just had it thrown into their cells, or it was placed on that person's back so he couldn’t get back up unless he wanted to risk dropping the book. This complicated situation regarding religion and exercising one’s faith really only got incensed once the base commander changed. Under the first commander – I don’t know his name, it was some general – the atmosphere was a lot calmer [1]. The soldiers weren’t even allowed to search the Qur’an even if they suspected something hidden inside. They had to consult a Muslim who searched the book for them.. Then, the commander was replaced by a General Miller. Under him, the situation worsened. He implemented rules that allowed every soldier  to search the Qur’an, and even women were allowed to search us. We protested, at first in vain. We had to go on a hunger strike, supported by the Red Cross, to be heard. Under General Miller, relations between detainees and army were always tense. We were always worried about what we’d have to deal with next.

Did you listen to the American national anthem? Yes, when General Miller came, he decided that we all had to listen to it every morning, first thing. We protested by banging on the bars. One or two months later, they got rid of it, but they also got rid of the prayers.

Did you see detainees who suffered psychologically under those circumstances? Yes.

What symptoms did they show? There were people who just sat around, completely unresponsive. Some suddenly took off their clothes and sat there, naked, no signs of reactions to anything. I remember one such person  well. Some hit their heads against the bars until they bled. Some tried to hang themselves. Others swore at their fellow inmates, screamed around and irritated everyone. One inmate seemed to have gone seriously mad. He took the Qur’an and tossed it around to make his fellow inmates angry. At the time, we figured the interrogation officers had somehow brainwashed him into doing that after he had gone mad. We didn’t have any proofs of that, but we assumed that a Muslim, even after he’d gone mad or crazy, still wouldn’t take action against the Qur’an.

What impression did you get of the guards, of their psyche? There were people among them who you could talk to; it was even pleasant to have a conversation with them. But, naturally, there were also less pleasant people. I know from the guards themselves that they constantly had to watch films about 9/11, which was supposed to help convince them that we were all guilty of doing that, and that we all helped carry out that attack. I saw some guards wearing bracelets with the inscription: “I remember 9/11”. Those were pretty aggressive, and screamed at us from the very beginning. You got the impression that the commander wanted to prevent any type of relationship between the detainees and the guards. It was awkward for the more open-minded soldiers to search the Qur’an, or for the female guards to do body checks. But those were the orders.

Did you notice psychological changes in the guards? I wouldn’t say that. On the other hand, I knew of guards who were not able to stand the situation. I don’t know whether it’s true, but I heard that one of the guards converted to Islam. There were such rumors. [2]

Did you suffer from depression during your imprisonment? Yes.

What symptoms did you have? You didn’t want to do anything, or speak with anyone. I just sat there and looked through the window. Oftentimes, though, other inmates consoled you and helped you through such phases.

Was there anything in the camp to keep you busy, except the interrogations? You could walk up and down, other than that there was nothing to do.

Letters were delivered? Yes, under the first commander of the camp, it went fast. My relatives got my letter within eighteen days. Under commander Miller, it took at least two months, sometimes three to four months. Towards the end, they used the letters to manipulate me: The interrogation officers threatened to not deliver my letters anymore, because I had finally refused to talk to them.

Did the letters get censored? Yes. Sometimes, passages were blacked out: political information or information about what was happening in the world. You were only allowed to relate personal information.

How did you find out that your time in Guantánamo was coming to an end? I have to go back a ways […] Once, when I had to go to an interrogation and refused to walk, I was carried into the courtyard, thrown on my back onto the cement ground, and dragged along by my leg ties about fifty meters. After that, I had large scrapes all over my back. I don’t know who was responsible for this, but the investigating officer or the commander must have given the order to instill fear in us. Later, a guard who had been part of it, talked to me and apologized. He said: “That was an order.” This is an unpleasant story, and to this day I have scars from that. I had it medically confirmed after I was back in Russia.


[1] Brigadier General Rick Baccus

[2] Specialist Terry Holdbrooks was one guard who converted to Islam (click here).