Notes from a
Guantánamo survivor (*)
I left Guantánamo Bay in a very
similar way to my arrival five years earlier, hands
manacled to the waist, from the waist to my ankles,
and ankles to a bolt in the floor of the airplane.
My ears and eyes were covered, my head hooded, and
although I was the only detainee on that flight,
they drugged me and I was guarded by at least 10
soldiers. This time, however, my track suit was blue
instead of the orange of Guantánamo. Later they told
me that my military flight in a C-17 from Guantánamo
to my homeland’s Ramstein Air Base, Germany, cost
more than one million dollars.
When we landed, U.S. officers
removed the chains before handing me over to a
delegation of German officials. The U.S. officer
offered to handcuff my wrists again with a new pair
of plastic cuffs. But the German official in charge
energetically dismissed that idea, "He has not
committed any crime, he is a free man."
I was not a good high school student
in Bremen, but I remember learning that, after World
War II, the Americans insisted on trying war
criminals in Nuremberg and that the trials helped to
transform Germany into a democratic country. That’s
strange, I thought, while I was on the tarmac and
observed the Germans giving a basic lesson to the
Americans on the law of war.
How did I get to this point? This
Wednesday [January 11] is the 10th anniversary of
the opening of the detention camp on the U.S. naval
base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. I am not a terrorist.
I have never been a member of Al Qaeda nor have I
supported it. I don’t even understand its ideas. I
am the son of Turkish immigrants who came to Germany
in search of work. My father has worked for years in
a Mercedes plant. In 2001, when I was 18 years old,
I married a devout Turkish woman and wanted to
discover more about Islam in order to lead a better
life. I didn’t have much money. Some of the old
people in my city suggested that I should travel to
Pakistan to learn to study the Koran with a
religious group in that country.
I made my plans just before 9/11. I
was 19 years old, I was naïve and didn’t believe
that the war in Afghanistan could have anything to
do with Pakistan or with my journey. So I just went
I was in Pakistan, on a public bus,
en route to the airport to return to Germany, when
the police halted the vehicle in which I was riding.
I was the only non-Pakistani on the bus – some
people joke how my red hair makes me look Irish –
and the police asked me to get off the bus so they
could check my papers and ask me some questions.
German journalists had told me that the same thing
had happened to them. I was not a journalist but a
tourist, I explained. The police detained me, but
promised that they would soon let me go to the
airport. After a few days, the Pakistanis handed me
over to U.S. officials. At that point, I felt
relived to be in American hands; the Americans, I
thought, would treat me fairly.
Later on I found out that the U.S.
paid a $3,000 reward for my person. I didn’t know it
then, but apparently the U.S. distributed thousands
of flyers all over Afghanistan, promising that
people who handed over alleged Taliban or Al Qaeda
members, would receive, according to the text of one
flyer, "enough money to take care of their families,
their village, their tribe for the rest of their
lives." As a result, many people ended up imprisoned
They took me to Kandahar in
Afghanistan, where the American interrogators put
the same questions to me for a number of weeks:
Where is Bin Laden? Were you with Al Qaeda? No, I
told them, I was not with Al Qaeda. No, I don’t have
the least idea where Bin Laden is to be found. I
asked my interrogators to please call Germany to
find out who I was. During the interrogations, they
held my head under water and hit me in the stomach;
they didn’t call it waterboarding, but that’s what
it was. I was convinced that I would drown.
Once they chained me to the ceiling
of a building and I was hanging by my hands for
days. A doctor occasionally checked me over to see
if I was all right; then they would leave me hanging
again. The pain was unbearable.
After two months in Kandahar, they
transferred me to Guantánamo. There were more blows.
Interminable solitary confinement, ice-cold
temperatures and extreme heat, days without sleep.
The interrogations continued, always the same
questions. I told them my story time and time again,
my name, my family, why I was in Pakistan. Nothing
that I told them satisfied them. I realized that my
interrogators were not interested in the truth.
In spite of all this, I looked for
ways of retaining my humanity. I have always liked
animals. I began to hide a slice of bread from my
meals and feed the iguanas that approached the
fence. When the officials found me out, they
punished me with 30 days of isolation and darkness.
I remained confused about basic
problems: why was I there? With all its money and
intelligence, the U.S. couldn’t honestly believe
that I was from Al Qaeda, right?
After two and a half years in
Guantánamo, in 2004 they took me before what the
officials called a Combatant Status Review Tribunal,
during which a military officer said that I was an
"enemy combatant" because a German friend of mine
had committed a suicide attack in 2003, when I was
already in Guantánamo. I couldn’t believe that my
friend had done something so demented but, if he
had, I had nothing to do with it.
A couple of weeks later they told me
that I had a legal visit. They took me to a special
cell and Baher Azmy, a U.S. law professor, came in.
At first, I didn’t believe that he was a real lawyer;
the interrogators often lied to us and tried to
mislead us. But Mr. Azmy had a note written in
Turkish from my mother, which led me to trust him. (My
mother found a lawyer in my native city in Germany,
who found out that lawyers from the Constitutional
Rights Center were representing Guantánamo detainees;
the Center assigned my case to Mr. Azmy). He
believed in my innocence and rapidly discovered that
my "suicide attack" friend was, in fact, safe and
sound in Germany.
Mr. Azmy, my mother and my German
lawyer helped to pressure the German government to
secure my release. Recently, Mr. Azmy made public a
series of U.S. intelligence documents from 2002 to
2004, which showed that both countries suspected
that I was innocent. One of the documents said that
the U.S. military guards thought I was dangerous
because I prayed during the playing of the U.S.
Now, five years after my release, I
am trying to forget my terrible memories. I have
returned home and we have a beautiful daughter. In
spite of everything, it is hard not to think about
my days in Guantánamo and to ask myself how it is
possible that a democratic government could detain
people in intolerable conditions and without a fair
trial. (Taken from the Rebelion website).
(*) All references to
Guantánamo are to the U.S. naval base in the
province, illegally occupied against the will of the