A vision of hell at Guantánamo

February 20, 2015

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, a 45-year-old Mauritanian man, has been imprisoned in the U.S. prison camp in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, since 2002. He wrote a memoir titled Guantánamo Diary in 2005, but it remained classified by the U.S. military until 2013, before it was edited by Larry Siems and published this year by Little, Brown and Company. This is the first work to be released by someone still interned in the camp.

Cliff Conner teaches history at the City University of New York Graduate Center and is the author of A People's History of Science and Jean Paul Marat: Tribune of the French Revolution. He reviewed Guantánamo Diary in an article for Red Flag.

THIS IS a book I initially did not want to read. I am not hypersensitive, but the recent official U.S. Senate report admitting and detailing CIA torture practices nauseated me to the point that I felt incapable of further outrage. Nonetheless, the more I heard about Mohamedou Ould Slahi's Guantánamo Diary, the more I wanted to read it. Glenn Greenwald said: "Every American with a shred of conscience" should read it now, and I agree. The ongoing crime against humanity it exposes--representative of so many others like it--is being carried out in the name of the American people.

I first learned of the book's existence from an op-ed article in the January 19 New York Times. Then it was featured on the front page of the following Sunday's New York Times Book Review. Both said that Guantánamo Diary should not be thought of merely as a horror story of unspeakable abuse, because the author's own undiminished humanity offsets the inhumanity of his captors. Again, I agree. Against all odds, Slahi has even managed to preserve a sense of humor that often shines through in his narrative.

Mohamedou Ould Slahi
Mohamedou Ould Slahi

That is not to say that what he has to say is not deeply disturbing. My advice is that you not read it just before going to bed because it may cause nightmares. While the remarkable matter-of-factness with which Slahi describes his ordeal makes it somewhat easier to digest, what he has gone through has been at least as Kafkaesque as anything Franz Kafka could have imagined. (John le Carré has described the book as "a vision of hell, beyond Orwell, beyond Kafka.")

GUANTÁNAMO DIARY reminded me of books and movies like Twelve Years a Slave, which can outrage and depress you by putting extreme injustices "in your face," so to speak. But there's one important difference: Twelve Years a Slave is about atrocities that occurred more than a century ago. The victims and the perpetrators are long dead.

But Mohamedou Ould Slahi is still imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay to this very day! In 2010, U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson ordered his release, but the Obama administration appealed the ruling, and so Slahi's seemingly endless ordeal continues. Yes, that's the same Obama administration that gained office on a promise to shut down the Guantánamo prison.

Review: Books

Mohamedou Ould Slahi, Guantánamo Diary. Little, Brown and Company, 2015, 432 pages, $14.99.

Another extraordinary aspect of this work is that Slahi spoke no English before he arrived as a captive at Guantánamo. He made an effort to learn it so that he could interact directly with his interrogators without having to rely on untrustworthy translators. The English he picked up is so colloquial that he even uses "like" to mean "said"--as young Americans frequently do ("I was like 'how are you?' and he was like 'I'm OK.'").

Slahi produced his handwritten narrative in an isolation cell during the summer of 2005. He then tried for six years to get it published, but as a "war on terror" prisoner with few legal rights or protections, he could not have accomplished that without outside help. Instrumental in bringing it into the light of day was author and human rights activist Larry Siems, who has brilliantly edited Slahi's document. Siems, by the way, has also produced the best account of the aforementioned Senate report, The Torture Report: What the Documents Say about America's Post-9/11 Torture Program.

One salient feature of Slahi's text is how much of it is missing, and how obvious its absence is. On almost every page, there are blacked-out words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes, there are even multipage runs entirely blacked out. The current euphemism for this practice is "redaction," a word that used to be a simple synonym for editing, but which now has taken on the connotation of censorship.

The book's more-than-2,500 black-bar redactions were the work of U.S. military and espionage agency censors, all in the name of "national security." Slahi himself suspected that the censorship was designed less to protect Americans from terrorism than to protect interrogators and their bosses from prosecution for war crimes, and he is surely correct in that supposition. Among Siems' editorial contributions to the book are footnotes he added to fill in at least some of the blanks with information gleaned from Freedom of Information Act documents obtained by the ACLU.

Here is Mohamedou Ould Slahi's story in a nutshell, with euphemisms in quotation marks: In November 2001 he left his home in Mauritania and voluntarily submitted to questioning by Mauritanian "intelligence" agents acting at the behest of U.S. security authorities. He never saw his home or family again.

The Mauritanians interrogated him for a week before turning him over to U.S. agents for "extraordinary rendition" to a "black site" in Jordan, where he experienced Donald Rumsfeld's "enhanced interrogation methods." That lasted eight months. From there he was flown to the notorious torture prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan for two more weeks of "softening up" before finally being flown to Guantánamo, where he has been held ever since.

Over the years that are covered in the Diary, he was subjected to alternating periods of intense torture and less intense forms of interrogation, but the latter also involved a great deal of isolation, abuse, and constant terror in the form of never knowing what was coming next. And how did he manage to find any humor in this? His experience has been filled with so many irrational absurdities perpetrated by so many dimwits that it would be hilarious...if only it were not so horrifying.

Guantánamo Diary presents us with yet another indication of how far the rule of law has been eroded in the post-9/11 United States. No matter how much you think you know about the criminality of what goes on at places like Guantánamo Bay and the black sites, you can still learn a great deal from Mohamedou Ould Slahi. And then you should use that knowledge as motivation for organizing to demand the unconditional release of all who are held captive there.

First published at Red Flag.

Further Reading

From the archives