The Never-Before-Seen Memoir of a Guantánamo Detainee  

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April 30 2013 5:31 AM

The Guantánamo Memoirs of Mohamedou Ould Slahi

He was tortured, beaten, and humiliated, and he remains in prison. Here is his story, in his own words.

A detainee stands at an interior fence inside the U.S. military prison for "enemy combatants" on October 27, 2009 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
This file photo shows an unnamed detainee inGuantánamo Bay in 2009

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

PART ONE: ENDLESS INTERROGATIONS

Mohamedou Ould Slahi voluntarily turned himself in for questioning to police in his native Mauritania on Nov. 20, 2001; a week later, at the behest of the U.S. government, he was placed on a rendition flight to Jordan. Slahi, who had lived in Germany and Canada, was interrogated and cleared by Jordanian intelligence of any connection to the Millennium Bomb Plot, the foiled plan of Canadian resident Ahmed Ressam to explode a bomb at Los Angeles International Airport on New Year’s Eve, 1999. Unsatisfied, on July 19, 2002 the CIA retrieved Slahi from Jordan and flew him to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan.

Detainees were not allowed to talk to each other, but we enjoyed looking at each other. The punishment for talking was hanging the detainee by his hands with the feet barely touching the ground. I saw an Afghan fellow detainee who passed out a couple of times while hanging from his hands. The medics “fixed” him and hung him back up. Other detainees were luckier; they were hung for a certain time and released. Most of the detainees tried to talk while hanging, which makes the guards double their punishment.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi
The Guantánamo Memoirs of Mohamedou Ould Slahi

INTRODUCTION

PART ONE: ENDLESS INTERROGATIONS

PART TWO: DISAPPEARED

PART THREE: FAMILY

SLAHI'S TIMELINE

AN INTERVIEW WITH COL. MORRIS DAVIS

There was a very old Afghani fellow, who reportedly was arrested to turn over his son. The guy was mentally sick; he could not stop talking because he didn’t know where he was, nor why. But the guards kept dutifully hanging him. It was so pitiful; one day one of the guards threw him on his face, and he was crying like a baby.

We were put in about six or seven big barbed-wire cells, called after the operations performed against the U.S.: “Nairobi,” “U.S.S. Cole,” “Dar es Salaam,” and so on. In each cell there was a detainee called “English,” who benevolently served as an interpreter to translate the orders to his co-detainees. Our “English” was a gentleman from Sudan named [ ? ? ? ? ?]. His English was very basic, thus he asked me secretly whether I spoke English. “No,” I replied. But as it turned out I was a Shakespeare compared to him.

Now I am sitting in front of a bunch of dead-regular U.S. citizens; my first impression, when I saw them chewing without a break: “What’s wrong with these guys, do they have to eat so much?” Most of the guards are tall, and overweight. Some of them were friendly and some very hostile. Whenever I realized that a guard [was hostile], I pretended that I understood no English. I remember one cowboy coming to me with an ugly frown on his face.

“You speak English?” he asked.

“No English,” I replied.

“We don’t like you to speak English, we want you to die slowly,” he said.

“No English,” I kept replying. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction that his message arrived. People with hatred have always something to get off their chests, but I wasn’t ready to be that drain.

I had been living the days to follow in horror. Whenever [ ? ? ? ? ?] went past our cell, I looked away, avoiding seeing him so he doesn’t “see” me, exactly like an ostrich. I saw him torturing this other detainee. I don’t want to recount what I heard about him; I just want to tell what I saw with my eyes. It was that Afghani teenager, I would say 16 or 17 years old. [ ? ? ? ? ?] made him stand for about three days, sleepless. I felt so bad for him. Whenever he fell down, the guards came to him shouting, “No sleep for terrorists,” and made him stand again. I remember sleeping and waking up, and he stood like a tree.

On Aug. 4, 2002, Slahi was again hooded, shackled, diapered, and drugged, and put on a flight with 30 other Bagram Air Base detainees for a 36-hour journey to Guantánamo. He arrived depleted from his nine-month ordeal in Jordan and Afghanistan; official Defense Department documents record that Slahi, who stands 5-foot-7, weighed just a little over 109 pounds when he was “inprocessed” on August 5.

The shoutings of my fellow detainees woke me up in the early morning. Life was suddenly blown into [ ? ? ? ? ?]. When I came early this morning around 2 a.m., I never thought that human beings could possibly be stored in a bunch of cold boxes. I thought I was the only one, but I was wrong; my fellow detainees were only knocked out due to the harsh punishment trip they had behind them.

While the guards were serving food, we were introducing ourselves. We couldn’t see each other because of the design of the block, but we could hear the others.

Salaam Alaikum!

Walaikum Salam.”

“Who are you?”

“I am from Mauritania, Palestine, Syria … Saudi Arabia …!”

“How was the trip?”

“I almost froze to death,” shouted one guy.

“I slept the whole trip,” replied [ ? ? ? ? ?].

“Why did they put the patch beneath my ear?” shouted another.

“Who was in front of me in the truck?” I asked. “He kept moving, which made the guards beat me all the way from the airport to the camp!”

“Me, too,” shouted another detainee.

We called each other with the ISN numbers we were assigned in Bagram. My number was 760. In the cell on my left was [ ? ? ? ? ? ?] from [ ? ? ? ? ? ?]. In the right cell, there was a guy from [ ? ? ? ? ? ?]. He spoke poor Arabic, and claimed to have been captured in Karachi, where he attends the university. In front of my cell they put the Sudanese next to each other.

Breakfast was modest, one boiled egg, a hard piece of bread, and something else I don’t know the name. It was my first hot meal since I left Jordan. Oh, the tea was soothing! People shouting all over the place in indistinct conversations: It was just a good feeling when everybody started to recount his story.

I considered the arrival to Cuba a blessing, and so I told my brothers, “Since you guys are not involved in crimes you need to fear nothing. I personally am going to cooperate, since nobody is going to torture me. I don’t want any of you to suffer what I suffered in Jordan.” I wrongly believed that the worst was over, and cared less about the time it would take the Americans to figure out I am not the guy they are looking for. I trusted the American justice system too much, and shared that trust with people from European countries. We all have an idea about how the democratic system works.

The other fellow detainees, for instance from the Middle East, didn’t believe it for a second and didn’t trust the American system. Their argument rested on the growing hostility of extremist Americans against the Muslims and the Arabs. With every day going by, the optimists lost ground, and the interrogation methods worsened considerably as time went by. As you shall see, those responsible in GTMO broke all the principles upon which the U.S. was built.

*

[ ? ? ? ? ?] escort team showed up at my cell. “[ ? ? ? ? ?],” said one of the MPs while holding the long chains in his hands. [ ? ? ? ? ?] is the code word for being taken to interrogation. Although I didn’t understand where I was going, I prudently followed their orders until they delivered me to the interrogator. His name was [ ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?], wearing a U.S. army uniform. He is an [ ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?], a man with all the paradoxes you may imagine. He spoke Arabic decently with a [ ? ? ? ? ?] accent; you can tell he grew up among [ ? ? ? ? ?] friends. [ ? ? ? ? ?] told me that he is from [ ? ? ? ? ?] and that he used to interpret for the [ ? ? ? ? ?].

U.S. military guards move a detainee inside the American detention center for "enemy combatants" on September 16, 2010 in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
U.S. military guards move an unnamed detainee inside the detention center.

Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

I was terrified when I stepped into the room in [ ? ? ? ? ?] building, because of the CamelBak on [ ? ? ? ? ?] back, from which he was sipping. I never saw anything like that before; I thought it was a kind of tool to hook on me as a part of my interrogation. I really don’t know why I was scared, but the fact that I never saw [ ? ? ? ? ?] nor his CamelBak, nor did I expect an Army guy; all these factors contributed to my fear.

The older gentlemen who interrogated me the night before entered the room with some candies and introduced [ ? ? ? ? ?] to me. “I chose [ ? ? ? ? ?] because he speaks your language. We’re going to ask you detailed questions about you [ ? ? ? ? ?]. As to me, I am going to leave soon, but my replacement will take care of you. See you later.”

After the introduction he stepped out of the room, leaving me and [ ? ? ? ? ?] to work. [ ? ? ? ? ?] was a friendly guy; he was [ ? ? ? ? ?] in the U.S. Army who believed himself to be lucky in life. [ ? ? ? ? ?] wanted me to repeat to him again my whole story, which I’ve been repeating for the last three years over and over. I got used to interrogators asking me the same things. Before the interrogator even moves his lips I knew his questions, and as soon as he or she started to talk I turned my “tape” on. When I came to the part about Jordan, [ ? ? ? ? ?] felt very sorry!

“Those countries don’t respect human rights. They even torture people.” I was comforted because [ ? ? ? ? ?] criticized cruel methods during interrogation; that means that the Americans wouldn’t do something like that. Yes, they were not exactly following the law in Bagram, but that was in Afghanistan, and now we are in a U.S.-controlled territory.

After [ ? ? ? ? ?] finished his interrogations, he sent me back and promised to come back should new questions arise. During the session with [ ? ? ? ? ?] I asked him to use the bathroom.

“No. 1 or No. 2?” he asked. It was the first time I heard the human private business coded in numbers. In the countries I’ve been in it is not customary to ask people about their intention in the bathroom, nor do they have a code.

The team could see very obviously how sick I was; the prints of Jordan and Bagram were more than obvious. I looked like a ghost. On my second or third day in GTMO I collapsed in my cell. I was just driven to my extremes. The medics took me out of my cell; I tried to walk the way to the hospital but as soon as I left [ ? ? ? ? ?], I collapsed once more, which made the medics carry me to the clinic. I threw up so much that I was completely dehydrated. I received first aid and got an IV. The IV was terrible, they must have put in some medication I have allergy against. My mouth dried completely up, and my tongue became so heavy that I couldn’t ask for help. I gestured with hands to the corpsmen to stop dripping the fluid into my body, which they did.

Later that night the guards brought me back to my cell. I was so sick I couldn’t climb on my bed. I slept on the floor the rest of the month. The doctor prescribed me Ensure and some hypertension medicine. Every time I got my sciatic nerve crisis, the corpsmen gave me Motrin.

Although I was physically very weak, the interrogation didn’t stop. But I nonetheless was in good spirits. In the block we were singing, joking, and recounting each other stories. I also got the opportunity to learn about the star detainees such as his excellence [ ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?]. [ ? ? ? ? ?] fed us with the latest news from the camp and the rumors. [ ? ? ? ? ?] was transferred to our block due to his “behavior.” [ ? ? ? ? ?] told us that he was tortured in Kandahar with other detainees. “They put us under the sun for a long time, we got beaten, but brothers don’t worry, here in Cuba there is no torture, the rooms are air-conditioned, and some brothers even refuse to talk unless offered food,” he said.

He was captured with four other colleagues of his in his domicile in [ ? ? ? ? ?] after midnight under the cries of his children, and was pried off his kids and his wife; exactly as it happened to his friends, who confirmed the story. I heard tons of such stories and every story made me forget the last one. I couldn’t tell whose story was more saddening. It even started to undermine my story, but the detainees were unanimous that my story was the most saddening. I personally don’t know. The German proverb says, “Wenn das Militar sich Bewegt, bliebt die Wahrheit auf der Strecke”—when the military sets itself in motion, the truth is too slow to keep up, thus it stays behind. The law of war is harsh; if there is anything good at all in a war, it is that it brings the best and the worst out of people. Some people try to use the lawlessness to hurt others, and some try to reduce the suffering to the minimum.

For his first several months in Guantánamo, Slahi was interrogated by agents from the FBI and the Navy’s Criminal Investigation Task Force. Both the FBI and CITF favored conventional, “rapport building” interrogation methods; throughout the fall, both agencies clashed repeatedly with Guantánamo’s commanders over the military’s increasingly abusive interrogations, and fought Pentagon plans for the “Special Project” interrogation of Mohammed al-Qahtani, a 50-day torture regime of extreme sleep deprivation, 20-hour-a-day interrogations, and repeated physical and sexual humiliations.

By January 2003, military interrogators were agitating to make Slahi their second “Special Project,” drawing up an interrogation plan that mirrored Qahtani’s. Declassified documents show that Slahi’s “special interrogation” began when he was transferred to an isolation cell near the end of May.

Things went more quickly than I thought. [ ? ? ? ? ?] sent me back to the block, and I told my fellow detainees about being overtaken by the torture squad.

“You are not a kid. Those torturers are not worth thinking about. Have faith in Allah,” said my next [ ? ? ? ? ?]. I really must have acted like a child all day long before the guards pried me from the population block later that day. You don’t know how terrorizing it is for a human being to be threatened with torture. One becomes literally a child. An Arabic proverb says, “Waiting on torture is worse than torture itself.” I can only confirm this proverb.

The escort team showed up at my cell: “You got to move.”

“Where?”

“Not your problem,” said the hateful [ ? ? ? ? ?] guard. But he was not very smart, for he had my destination written on his glove.

“Brother, pray for me, I am being transferred [ ? ? ? ? ?]." [ ? ? ? ? ?] was reserved by then for the worst detainees in the camp. If one got transferred [ ? ? ? ? ?] many signatures must have been provided, maybe the president of the U.S. The only people I know to have spent some time [ ? ? ? ? ?] since it was designed for torture were [ ? ? ? ? ?] al Kuwaiti and another detainee from [ ? ? ? ? ?], I don’t know the name.

In the block the recipe started. I was deprived of my comfort items, except for a thin iso-mat and a very thin, small, and worn-out blanket. I was deprived of my books, which I owned. I was deprived of my Quran. I was deprived of my soap. I was deprived of my toothpaste. I was deprived of the roll of toilet paper I had. The cell—better, the box—was cooled down so that I was shaking most of the time. I was forbidden from seeing the light of the day. Every once in a while they gave me a rec time in the night to keep me from seeing or interacting with any detainees. I was living literally in terror. I don’t remember having slept one night quietly; for the next 70 days to come I wouldn’t know the sweetness of sleeping. Interrogation for 24 hours, three and sometimes four shifts a day. I rarely got a day off.

“We know that you are a criminal.”

“What have I done?”

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