By David Swanson
The guards at Guantanamo are terrified. Even a man with no legs (amputated after being intentionally exposed to extreme cold by American guards in Afghanistan) is treated as a horrifying threat:
“The bandages wrapped around Abdul’s stumps were never changed. When he took them off himself, they were full of blood and pus. He showed the bandage to the guards and pointed to his open wounds. The guards ignored him. Later I saw how he tried to wash the bandages in his bucket of drinking water. But he could hardly move his hands, so he wasn’t able to. And even if he had, where would he have hung them up to dry? He wasn’t allowed to touch the fence. He wrapped his stumps back up in the dirty bandages.
“When the guards came to take him to be interrogated, they ordered him to sit with his back to the door and put his hands on his head. When they opened the door, they stormed in as they did with every other prisoner. They hit him on the back and pushed him to the ground. Then they handcuffed and bound him so he could no longer move. Abdul howled in pain.”
A man with no legs? No, a terrorist with no legs, a mythical evildoing creature with no legs. Hatred? Yes. Bigotry? Yes. But driven by fear instilled through training in the U.S. military, fear of monsters with superhuman powers, fear strong enough to make a team of armored storm troopers fear a legless man in a cage.
The passage quoted above is from “Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo,” by Murat Kurnaz, and reading his account might begin to make the reader, too, view the caged prisoners as less than human, were it not for the skillful way in which Kurnaz intersperses descriptions of his pre-Guantanamo life in Germany.
Kurnaz made the mistake of traveling from Germany to Pakistan shortly after September 11, 2001. He has never been to Afghanistan, except in the custody of American guards who took him there from Pakistan on the way to Cuba. The Americans never alleged any particular crime, but simply declared him an enemy combatant and took away five years of his life. A U.S. military kangaroo-court commission convicted him on two counts. The first was having once been friends with a man who supposedly committed a suicide bombing long after Kurnaz was in Guantanamo and about which Kurnaz knew nothing. The strangest part about that first count is that the alleged suicide bomber is alive and well back in Germany, has never been involved in anything of the sort, and has not himself been charged with anything. The second count was of having accepted free food from a humanitarian group with which Kurnaz was working in Pakistan. How that act made Kurnaz “the worst of the worst” is not clear. While the United States always knew that they’d paid $3,000 to someone to turn Kurnaz in, in Pakistan, on the basis of no suspicion of anything, the tribunal concluded that he’d been arrested as an al Qaeda fighter in Afghanistan. At least that was the conclusion up until the moment the United States set him free, or the moment three years earlier when the United States decided he was innocent but allowed him to be tortured daily for three more years prior to release.
At Kandahar air base in Afghanistan, Kurnaz was deprived of food and sleep, routinely beaten, electro-shocked through his feet, threatened with drowning and his head held under water, and hung from the ceiling by his wrists until he lost consciousness. Kurnaz was in very good physical shape prior to this ordeal, and survived it. He saw others die from these procedures. Kurnaz did not know at the time that the worst still lay ahead for him on a Caribbean island, and he had no idea where he was being taken when they loaded him on the plane for Guantanamo:
“They chained us together and herded us onto a plane. We were bound so tightly we couldn’t move a millimeter. Again, I thought they were taking us to an American military base in Turkey. What else was I supposed to think?
“Sleep would have been the only consolation in such a situation. But the soldiers kept hitting us to keep us awake. I thought about the American movies I had seen in Bremen. Action flicks and war movies. I used to admire the Americans. Now I was getting to know their true nature.
“I say that without anger. It’s simply the truth, as I saw and experienced it. I don’t want to insult anyone, and I’m not talking about all Americans. But the ones I encountered are terrified of pain. They’re afraid of every little scratch, bacteria, and illness. They’re like little girls, I’d say. If you examine Americans closely, you realize this – no matter how big or powerful they are. But in movies, they’re always the heroes.”
Brought to the New World in a transport reminiscent of slave ships, Kurnaz was placed in a small metal cage (six by seven feet) exposed to the sun, rain, spiders, snakes, and soldiers, on a lawless military base in Cuba. And he was better off than most of those around him.
“I know of a prisoner,” he wrote, “who complained of a toothache. He was brought to a dentist, who pulled out his healthy teeth as well as the rotten one. I knew a man from Morocco who used to be a ship captain. He couldn’t move one of his little fingers because of frostbite. The rest of his fingers were all right. They told him they would amputate the little finger. They brought him to the doctor, and when he came back he had no fingers left. They had amputated everything but his thumbs.”
Even in Cuba, one of the torture techniques employed is subjection to extreme cold inside a chilled metal box. Kurnaz provides us an inside account of these experiences, and of the day-to-day life of solitary confinement, beatings, interrogations, and denial of adequate nutrition. Kurnaz was once kept awake for three weeks. He was given extensive stays in solitary. He was subjected to extremes of cold and heat. He was denied oxygen almost to the point of suffocation.
When guards trampled a Koran, the prisoners began a hunger strike and discovered that the General in charge did not want them to die. They discovered that they had some power, and they got organized. In the end, Kurnaz and others were force-fed, and the commander of Guantanamo was replaced with another (General Geoffrey Miller) who seemed not to care at all who lived or died. Prisoners once mixed feces and water and threw it on Miller’s face, and from that point on called him “Mr. Toilet.”
In this environment, Kurnaz found humanity among the prisoners, who shared the little food they were given and cared for each other. And in very rare instances he found humanity in a couple of guards who spoke of their disagreement with what they were engaged in. One can only hope that every man and woman who has served as a guard at Guantanamo reads Kurnaz’s book and adds their voice to the growing chorus speaking truth to unspeakable power.
In Guantanamo, prisoners are sometimes told they are being released, given clothes, placed on airplanes, and then thrown back in their cages. So, Kurnaz was inclined to be skeptical when told of his impending release:
“I was brought to an interrogation room and chained to the floor. But no one came to ask me any questions. Hours later, two soldiers appeared and placed a telephone on the table.
“‘You’ll be getting a call,’ they told me.
“That made me curious. I didn’t know who the caller would be. An interrogator? My lawyer? Maybe the judge?
“More hours passed. What was going on here? Suddenly the phone rang, but no one came to help me.
“I couldn’t pick up the receiver with my hands and feet shackled, but the telephone kept ringing. I threw myself to the floor and tried to drag the table toward me with my feet. Kicking one of the table legs, I managed to dislodge the receiver and knock it down to the floor. I squirmed to get my head as close as possible to the handset. I could just hear a voice on the other end of the line.
“It’s me, Baher. You’re going to be released!’
“‘I know. How are you doing?’
“‘Murat, are you listening? You’re going to be released.’
“‘I know,’ I said. ‘They’re playing a nasty trick on you. How is your daughter doing?’
Yet he was released. And yet we do not all know his name. For five year our tax dollars paid guards to ask him his name and other basic questions endlessly, between beatings. And yet we do not all know his story or feel the shame of it.
All across the United States of America there are university departments that claim to teach philosophy and others that claim to teach politics, and yet there are not a million students and professors in Washington, D.C., every day demanding impeachment. How can this be? Can a German victim of our apathy shake us out of our Good-Germanism?
Can we hear the words of Patti Smith in her song about Kurnaz?
four long years
was I a man
dreaming in chains
with the lights on
nothing to say
at Guantanamo Bay
now I’m learning
born in Bremen
a young apprentice
loved and married
heard the call
is attaining wisdom
a pursuit of fools?
journeyed to Pakistan
to study Koran
taken into custody
no reason why
then a prison camp
no freedom to breathe
branded an enemy
no fault was found
yet do they believe
then flown home
a version of free
chained to the floor
muzzled and bound
a last humiliation
left to endure
they say I walk
that may be so
it’s been a long time
since I walked at all
now I’m learning