Web Only / Features » October 16, 2006
Abandon Hope, All Who Enter Here
A falsely accused “enemy combatant” describes his imprisonment in Guantanamo.
Moazzam Begg is a second-generation British Muslim. In 2002, he was arrested in Pakistan and held for two years by the United States as an “enemy combatant.” Below, he describes his arrival and interrogation in Guantanamo after being held at both Kandahar and Bagram. He was released in 2005, and now lives in Birmingham, England, with his family. Today, Begg can lecture only in Britain because, despite the absence of charges against him, his passport was withdrawn as a condition of his release. He hopes to be able to travel and lecture more widely in the future.
It is considered a sin in Islam to despair, but in Bagram, during the worst days of May 2002, I had been unable to hold despair at bay. Here in Guantanamo, in this steel cage with its mesh sides, steel roof and floor, steel bed, steel toilet, all inside a white, new-looking brightly lit room, I felt despair returning as I took in my surroundings for the first time.
All I had in the cell was a sheet and a roll of toilet paper, not even my glasses. I asked for something that I could use as a prayer mat, and they brought a thin camping mat, which became my mattress for the next two years.
I wanted to pray immediately. I asked the MPs which direction was east, but they weren’t sure. That told me there were no other prisoners here, otherwise the guards would have known, since all the detainees would have asked the same question. Or was it that they feared my knowledge of directions could allow me to calculate my position on the island–a potential breach of security? I performed my prayer, and then I sat for a while, thinking. Looking at the paintwork and clean linoleum floor outside, I thought it was obvious that this place was recently constructed, and probably had never been used before.
Then I lay down. I was still feeling quite hazy from the drugs on the plane. They gave me something which they said was a blanket, but which was made of a plastic-type material. There was no cotton or wool or anything like that in it, and it couldn’t keep me warm with the air-conditioning on–which was how the guards kept the room most of the time.
Later on I was told it was a suicide blanket–meaning it could not be torn up to make a noose. I didn’t understand why they gave me that. I didn’t think they understood either. I think they didn’t understand a lot of their rules and procedures; they just followed them because, as many would say, ‘It says so in the SOP’ (Standard Operating Procedure manual).
I lay there, wondering why I was in this place, separated from every- one else. I realized I was completely alone, but I never imagined it would last for almost two years–never allowed to see another prisoner. I thought that they still saw me as a prize catch. They had studied me in all that time in Bagram: I wasn’t a troublemaker, I didn’t go on hunger strikes, I didn’t swear, shout,or hurl things at the guards, but they saw me as very influential amongst the prisoners. They did not understand that because I spoke English, Arabic, and Urdu, and had some education, it was natural that the collection of people they had in Bagram–villagers, young boys, people who had never had contact with Westerners–would look to me to help them negotiate all kinds of things. This time, however, they weren’t keeping me with others.
I slept heavily, the drugs from the plane still in my system. The next morning a guard brought me the first cooked food I’d seen in a year: breakfast. I’d been told to expect cooked meals in Guantanamo. It was a big disappointment. There was tea and awful powdered milk in polystyrene cups. Both were cold. The cooked breakfast was revolting. Rice, green mushy peas, and a boiled egg, all mixed together. I couldn’t eat it. I told the guard, ‘I’d rather just have the cup of tea and that’s all.’
On the evening of the second day the person who had told me that I was going to Guantanamo, Jay, turned up, with another man called George. Jay was an interrogator in Bagram, the one I’d given that long letter to, for the authorities. He had told me, ‘Your letter managed to get further up the ladder than you realize.’ I was pleased to see him, a familiar face, and without the malice I’d encountered from others. When two others came in, however, my heart sank. It was Marti and Niel, the two FBI agents from Bagram.
The guards locked them all into the outer part of the room, then came to my cell, shackled me with the three-piece suit, and brought me out.
I sat down at a table the guards had brought in, facing Jay and George; Marti and Niel. The latter two were both huge, obese, with the style of New York street cops, perhaps Irish American.
Rob, a colleague of theirs, had told me in Bagram how they boasted a combined mass of over 500lb–not something to advertise, I thought. They may have known precisely how to operate on the streets of New York, but they were out of their league here. Also, they knew they weren’t subject to any checks and balances; they didn’t have to worry too much about scrutiny from superiors, or Internal Affairs, as they would have back in the US. They had autonomy to do whatever they wanted; they could extract information from people in any way they liked. That was the way with all of the law-enforcement and intelligence agencies I’d experienced in Kandahar and Bagram. The CIA’s unscrupulous methods rubbed off onto the others. Much later, the FBI tried to paint themselves as the squeaky clean ones, who saw all of this torture going on, and started speaking about it as though they were not involved. From my experience, they were an integral part of the process.
This time I knew these two would not threaten me with Egyptian torture techniques, because Jay was there. In Bagram, when a new batch of MPs had arrived and heard about the Canadian boy, Omar, accused of killing an elite US soldier, it had been Jay’s intervention that prevented them from continuing the abuse they had already meted out to him. In fact ,Jay gave me a little hope once, saying, ‘Guantanamo is going to be the beginning of the end for you. ‘But even my optimism knew better.
‘You’re never going to see your family again.’ Marti’s words in Bagram came back when I saw his face. ‘You could be facing execution by firing squad, lethal injection, or gas chamber.’
In fact they did threaten me again. ‘We want you to read and sign these documents,’ they said, placing six typed pages in front of me on the table. They had written my confessions.
There were three copies–one for me, and on their side of the table, one for Jay and George, and one for Niel and Marti. They told me that if I didn’t sign, several different things could happen, none of them good. They included sitting in Guantánamo for many years before anybody even looked at my case, then a summary trial–a formality before conviction. ‘It’s going to be one very short trial, they’re going to look at the evidence we present, and they’re going to take that on face value. That means you’ll be imprisoned for life, or you could face execution, or both–execution after a very long time.’
I read through the pages in utter disbelief. My first reaction was, ‘This is terrible. The English used here is terrible. Nobody could ever believe that I would write such a document.’ Then I thought, ‘This could actually be good–anybody who knows my style of writing would know that I am not the author, I don’t write like this.’ It sounded uninformed and adventurous, more like the ramblings of a hysterical sixteen-year-old college dropout than what one would expect from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I recalled that during one of the interrogations Marti had said to me, ‘Stop, already! Stop using big words.’ Besides the pathetic English, I read the ‘facts’ with complete amazement. It was full of exaggerations, lies, and presumptions. There were names in there that I hadn’t even heard of, which they knew only too well. The document claimed, amongst other things, that I was a long-standing member of al-Qa’idah; I had trained and taught in their camps; I had financed them, including giving funds that had gone to the 9/11 attackers. When I asked how they had reached this conclusion, they told me that I had already admitted attending and sending financial support to ‘the camps’.
It was maddening to hear them refer to ‘the camps’, as if every training camp in the recent history of the Muslim world had been under al-Qa’idah’s umbrella. Logic and reason, again, seemed to have got lost under an avalanche of assumptions. I actually laughed as I read through the terribly written papers that were so potentially damning.
They were obsessed with the word ‘al-Qa’idah.’ Their document suggested that almost everybody I’d ever met in my life was a member of al-Qa’idah. It said that I’d attended and sponsored ‘al-Qa’idah’s Jamat-e-Islami camp…’ Were they really ignorant enough to assume that Jamat-e-Islami, the third largest political party in Pakistan, was a subsidiary of al-Qa’idah? Had they, maybe, mistaken it for al-Gam’ah al-Islamiyyah of Egypt? Both were part of the Islamic revivalist movements in their respective countries. Both had sup- ported mujahideen forces in the eighties, against the Soviets. But that could be said of hundreds of groups and parties, including the CIA. Or was it a deliberate exploitation of the ignorance of most Americans, a few of whom would be looking at statements like this, but couldn’t tell the difference?
The statement also claimed that I had financed a man I’d never even heard of–involved in a plot to bomb a US airport, in 2000–but omitted to mention how, where and when I’d met him. It said that I had provided ‘housing for terrorist suspects and their families, whilst belligerent acts were committed against the US’, but again failed to mention who these people were, or exactly what they were accused of. I, of course, knew they were referring to an answer I’d given previously to one of their questions, when I told them that some women and children, whose men were presumed missing, had stayed with my family for a few days in Pakistan. They included some of the Kurdish people who had helped evacuate my own family. The statement gave no explanation how these women and children were members of al-Qa’idah, or had been hostile to the US.
Also, it was alleged that my bookshop in England was a recruiting centre for al-Qa’idah, who was our sponsor; though I had thought it was supposed to be the other way round. Hadn’t they just said that I was funding al-Qa’idah? It was ridiculous. Reading it, I thought, this is cloud-cuckoo-land. And then they asked me to sign it.
I looked at Jay, picked it up and said, ‘Have you read this nonsense?’
‘If you’d seen the draft before, Moazzam, you’d have thought we were nuts.’
‘There is no way I’m going to agree to sign this rubbish,’ I protested. ‘First of all, it’s full of lies, and secondly I don’t write like this. These are not my words. So if you want my signature on this, then let me make corrections, add some explanations, remove all the incorrect statements and absolute misrepresentations.’ They allowed me to make some selected alterations, but kept in the most blatant untruths, like being a front-line fighter with al-Qa’idah, and, money I had sent to Kashmiris in 1994 being used in the September 11th attacks.
I felt surprisingly calm. I was imagining the damage this statement could do them in court; it would expose much of their tactics too. However, I didn’t know what the parameters of the law were anymore: everyone had said that after 9/11, new laws had taken immediate effect in the US, and that was frightening. How could American laws apply, in retrospect, to a British citizen, who had never travelled west of Dublin, for crimes that never existed in the first place? Were they going to judge me on what Nathan had said in Kandahar: ‘We’re determining cases based on what we think were your intentions, and on our intelligence reports.’
My mind was whirling, but I still believed there was no way that any competent court in the world was going to look past the first sentence of the confession.
It was comforting that Jay knew exactly how bad it was…and he was prepared to say this in front of the FBI.I really despised those two for the demeaning job they were prepared to do, and this was just more of the same from them. I’d noticed the insidious way that they’d come in: late at night, asking the guards to leave the room, so there would be no witnesses. It was all supposed to be very fast, ‘Here’s the paper and here’s the pen, quickly read through it and sign.’
They took it away after I’d made the corrections. They must have had a computer and a printer in the vehicle, because there was no other building around Camp Echo, as far as I understood. They all went out and told the guards to come. They locked me in the cell again. Then the four were back within ten minutes. They put a new document in front of me, and I went through it again. I made corrections, but this time they wouldn’t allow any. They were getting agitated. ‘Stop playing games with us, we know what you…’I could see the same anger rising that these men had had when they ordered my punishment back in Bagram. I couldn’t forget for a moment that these were the same men.
‘You could be shot by firing squad, Moazzam, do you understand?’ Marti said, seeming like he was controlling himself.
‘They’ve built an execution chamber here, I’ve seen it,’ Niel followed.
‘Have you forgotten about your kids, your…’
‘OK, OK, just give me a minute.’
I’d thought about this before, many times, since the last time I saw them. Finally I resigned myself to whatever would come. Despite the insinuation, there still wasn’t a crime in the statement, certainly not one that I could see. ‘You know what, it doesn’t make any difference, I’ll sign whatever you want, but I have to do something first.’
I told them I wanted to go into the cell. I prayed that this would be my way out. I asked Allah for this document to be a means to expose their lies. The prayer is called al-Istikharah in Arabic: the prayer of asking guidance for the right choice. Afterwards I signed. I asked them for a copy but they wouldn’t give me one. That was it. I never saw any of them ever again.
It must have been really late by the time they left; the lights weren’t as bright, but still on, as always. I felt I’d taken a huge step, which would affect everything in the future for me, for the family. I felt that I’d literally signed my life away. I began to make endless notes to present as arguments for the defence attorney and the court that I now expected would materialize within days, as they’d told me. They were expecting me to plead guilty to whatever charge was alleged. But I had other plans.
I only had a blunt two-inch pencil to write with, and it soon wore down as the mass of argument accumulated into twenty pages of rebuttals.
I started to write home too, beginning every letter with, ‘In the Name of Allah, Most Compassionate, Most Merciful’, and ‘My beloved wife’. I told Zaynab that I thought of her and the children every single hour. I felt ambivalent thinking of home: I didn’t want its memory of warmth and gentleness tainted by this sordid scene around me, but I did need that softness and familiarity to retain hope.
I wrote Zaynab a nine-page letter–small writing on lined A4 paper–after about six weeks. I gave her advice on all the minutiae of family life, which she had had to organize without me. I tried to help with the choice of schools, and the struggle against her own and Umamah’s asthma, I encouraged her to make a routine for herself including exercise, joining a fitness club, swimming, or doing stretches at home, and some study project for herself. I tried hard to encourage her to feel proud of herself: ‘You said that you have achieved little in your life. That is not true. What sacrifices you have made, and difficulties endured (and continue to do so) have made you an extraordinarily rare person. Your intentions have been pure (to please Allah and to keep me happy). Whatever mistakes, miscalculations etc.– they have been mine–for which I am paying the price. In my sight, and the sight of the Lord, I believe, your station has been raised immensely, and think you have helped secure your own place in the Hereafter–the Garden. I know you want things to change when I am released. But they already have–Big time. I want it all to be different, spending all my spare time with my family–pursuing our welfare in light of the time lost and uncertain future.’
I wrote again after about another six weeks: ‘I love you so much and miss you terribly. I look forward so much to your letters, yet, shortly afterwards I feel gloomy and miserable … I have to be honest and admit that I try my best not to think of you and the children, as it is so painful thinking about how you are all living your lives without me now, and all of our times together in the past. There is so much more I want to share with you in life, as well as the children, and I want more than anything to have the opportunity to make amends for the mistakes that I have made–particularly in relation to you–my family. I have it all planned in my head; I don’t know what will become of them (the plans), but they include some major readjustments to my/our former life-style.’
Once, I wrote to my father using terms I doubted the Americans understood, like saying I was ‘sent to Coventry’, implying isolation; or that I was ‘living like Sheba’, after the name of the German shepherd dog I had when I was a child. But he never got the letter anyway. I felt I never wanted Dad to see the petty humiliations of how I was living, like the silly little toothbrush, measuring no more than an inch, that I attached to my index fingertip to clean my teeth, and the tiny translucent tube of toothpaste about two inches long; or the food, like the ground meat made into a leathery steak, which was so repulsive that I vomited when I tried to eat it; or the water bottles from which they removed the tops in case I’d use them to squirt water, or worse, at the MPs.
I made a calendar in those early days of 2003,sketching it out on a piece of paper. One of the ICRC workers in Kandahar had told me not to think in terms of days passed, particularly, I think, since he’d thought those days would turn into weeks, months, and years. But marking off days on a calendar also gave me days to look forward to, hoping for relief.
I soon began to see that here nothing was consistent–except inconsistency. Nothing that was true in Bagram would necessarily be true in Guantanamo. Rules, procedures, were different. Anything that I’d gained over there, I would not automatically get here. I couldn’t understand that, and it became symbolic for me, of American military attitudes and behaviour. Empathetic guards had told me how they too were confounded by strict military rigidity and meaningless protocol. ‘There’s the right way, the wrong way, and the army way,’ they used to say. They had taken my glasses again–like the early days of Kandahar. They took away my letters–the few I’d had in Bagram, pictures of my children, and notes that I’d managed to make. I never saw them again until the day I was released.
Copyright 2006 by Moazzam Begg and Victoria Brittain. This piece originally appears in Moazzam Begg’s Enemy Combatant: My Imprisonment at Guantanamo, Bagram, and Kandahar (The New Press, September 11, 2006). Published with the permission of The New Press and available at good book stores everywhere.