The Battle for Guantánamo

The article "The Battle for Guantanamo", by Tim Golden, was published in The New York Times Magazine on September 17, 2006. Based on interviews with more than 100 military and intelligence officials, guards, former detainees and others, the article included testimony by Rustam Akhmyarov, Shakir Abdurahim Mohammed Ami, Ahmed Rashidi, Abdul Salam Zaeff, Mohammad Finaytal Al Dehani, and a number of unspecified prisoners. These testimonies are gathered here.

(TG1) Every country has its own way of torturing people," Rustam Akhmiarov, a 26-year-old Russian who was arrested in Pakistan and ended up in Guantánamo, told me after his release. "In Russia, they beat you up; they break you straightaway. But the Americans had their own way, which is to make you go mad over a period of time. Every day they thought of new ways to make you feel worse." (Golden 2006).

(TG2) Weeks before he would meet the Saudi prisoner Shaker Aamer, Bumgarner came across a tall, wild-eyed detainee who was screaming at the guards in British-accented English. It wasn't clear what his problem was, but when the colonel asked, the man quickly calmed down. "You are creating these problems by the way you are treating us," the prisoner said […] Prisoner No. 590, Ahmed Errachidi, was a handsome 39-year-old Moroccan who spent 17 years in London. He worked as a chef at a string of restaurants, including the Hard Rock Cafe, before traveling to Afghanistan after the United States began bombing the country in October 2001. The military authorities accused him of belonging to a radical Moroccan Islamist group and training at a Qaeda camp in Afghanistan, charges that his lawyers have disputed. Intelligence officials told me they did not consider him a high-value detainee and noted that he had been hospitalized for manic depression. But the guards, impressed by his influence and sense of self-importance, had nicknamed him the General. Errachidi seemed rather surprised to be sitting down with the commander of the detention group, Bumgarner told me. But in that meeting on June 6 and a second, longer one two days later, Errachidi seized the chance to inventory the prisoners' grievances: The water was foul, he said, and the food terrible. The detainees were angry about the guards' habit of walking loudly through the cellblocks at prayer times and even angrier that "The Star-Spangled Banner" sometimes played over distant naval-base loudspeakers during or right after the evening call to prayer. The General "kept talking about 'the dark ages,"' Bumgarner would later recall. The prisoner complained, for example, that the guards often referred to the detainees in demeaning ways, calling out when they were moving a prisoner that they had "a package" ready. "We are not 'packages,"' Errachidi told the colonel. "We are human beings." After the first meeting, Bumgarner received a piece of paper from a guard. It was a drawing by Errachidi, a sort of map. In one corner, it showed a shaded area labeled "the Dark Ages." From there, a path wound through a thicket of obstacles. They had labels like "No 'packages,"' "Better food" and "Turn the lights down." At the end of the path, Errachidi had drawn what looked like an oasis, with water and palm trees […] Bumgarner set about trying to solve the problems he saw. He instructed members of the guard force to stop referring to the detainees as "packages." On compliant blocks, he had guards start turning down the lights between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m. and stop moving prisoners during those hours to allow the detainees to sleep. To avoid disturbing their prayers, he ordered guards to place yellow traffic cones spray-painted with a "P" in the cellblock halls at prayer times. He asked his aides to see that "The Star-Spangled Banner" recording would be played at least three minutes before the call to prayer (Golden 2006).

(TG3) Former detainees I met insisted that their defiance was provoked not only by their despair over their uncertain futures but also by unnecessarily harsh and arbitrary treatment from the guards. "If people's basic human rights were respected, I don't think they would have had any of these problems," said Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban cabinet minister and ambassador to Pakistan who was the pre-eminent leader of Afghan prisoners at Guantánamo before his release in the late summer of 2005. "There were no rules and no law. Any guard could do whatever they wanted to do." (Golden 2006).

(TG4) Some former detainees told me that early on, they were injected at Guantánamo with psychotropic drugs, a claim that military officials denied. Later, detainees continued to suspect hidden agents of social control in everything from the cloudy tap water to the configuration of their cells (Golden 2006).

(TG5) "Those blocks are designed so that you will not rest," says Mohammed al-Daihani, a government accountant from Kuwait who was sent home last November. "There is metal everywhere. If anyone drops anything, you hear it. If anyone shouts or talks loudly, it disturbs everyone. If there is a problem at the other end of the block, you cannot possibly rest. After two or three weeks, you think you will lose your mind." (Golden 2006).

(TG6) "Do not mistreat us anymore," Zaeef recalled saying. "Be respectful of our religion and our Koran. Respect us as human beings, because we are human beings. If we are criminals, take us to court. But if we are innocent, let us go." (Golden 2006).

(TG7) According to various sources — military officials, former detainees and Aamer's lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith — the detainees were also angered by a few incidents that had taken place over the weekend before the second council meeting. In one case, a prisoner had been forcibly extracted from his cell, only to sit waiting for hours to be interrogated. In another, the questioning of a slight Tunisian detainee by a much larger criminal investigator ended in a violent scuffle involving a cut nose, the possible hurling of a mini-refrigerator and the investigator's being ordered off the island (Golden 2006).

(TG8) On Dec. 5, the guard force ordered five "restraint chairs" from a small manufacturer in Iowa. If obdurate detainees could be strapped down during and after their feedings, the guard officers hoped, it might ensure that they digested what they were fed. Days later, a Navy forensic psychiatrist arrived at Guantánamo, followed by three experts from a Bureau of Prisons medical center in Missouri. Bumgarner said the visitors agreed with him that the strike was a "discipline issue": "If you don't eat, it's the same as an attempted suicide. It's a violation of camp rules." In addition to feeding prisoners in the chair, some of the more influential hunger-strikers were sent off to Camp Echo with the hope of weakening the others' resolve. The number of strikers, which was at 84 in early January, soon fell to a handful. Lawyers for the detainees were appalled. The lawyers quoted their clients as saying detainees had been strapped into the chairs for several hours at a time, even as they defecated or urinated on themselves (Golden 2006).