Author’s introduction: Nearly 20 years after Guantánamo opened, people are still debating whether such a place should exist. But imagine if American boys, 18 years old or even younger, had been sent to a foreign prison for five, 10, 20 years without ever being charged with a crime, where they were tortured, punished for practicing their religion, experimented on, and forced to live in solitary confinement. This is Guantánamo. Between Jan. 11, 2002, and today, the United States has held 779 prisoners at Guantánamo. Those men were from all over the world, representing 50 nationalities and speaking more than 20 languages. They were doctors, journalists, singers, professors, students, teachers, paramedics, poets, blacksmiths, former CIA spies and assassins, farmers, tribal elders, and so much more. They were sons and husbands, brothers and fathers. They are the reason I set out to write about Guantánamo—to show the world who was really there. Real people, not just boogeyman terrorists of American nightmares.
I thought that if I could capture some of the small moments of joy and beauty, of friendship and brotherhood, of hardship and the struggle to survive—all the moments that united us and bonded us—that I could maybe change the way people thought about Guantánamo prisoners.
I was 18 years old when I was sold to the U.S. for bounty money by men who claimed I was a battle-hardened al Qaeda general. I was not that general—I was nothing more than a student— but being detained at Guantánamo turned me into a leader of resistance. Taking place during the fall of 2002, this story is a small window into the early years of Camp Delta, the confusion and chaos that reigned, and how America pushed me down a path of resistance I never intended to travel.
You know exactly what the Americans want. They can’t find Osama bin Laden or Mullah Omar or the dirty bomb they think al Qaeda has hidden somewhere ready to go off, otherwise they would have stopped asking you the same questions over and over again. Where is Osama? Where is Mullah Omar? Where is the dirty bomb? You’ve only finished high school but you’re smart enough to know that it’s really hard to get a dirty bomb, and why are they asking you?
You were sold as Adel in Afghanistan, an identity they made you wear until they found another. Then you became Alexander, a battle-hardened general, again much older than you but one of the other brothers identified you in a pile of photographs after he had been kept awake for days, shackled in a room with flashing lights and screaming music. You don’t blame him. He had to name someone, and if it wasn’t you, it would have been another brother.
“Why am I really here?” you ask.
“You tell me why you’re here,” they say.
“Because you think I know about a dirty bomb?” you say. “So you know about the dirty bomb?” they say.
“That’s not what I said.”
You tell them what you know. You tell them what you think they want to know. You tell them nothing. You stop talking—you and so many of the brothers.
You know you have done nothing wrong, have harmed no one, and this gives you strength. Now when they call you for your reservation, you sit or stand or squat, whatever they make you do, and you recite a hadith to yourself. You pray. You recite verses from the Qur’an to yourself in your head. You used to say them out loud, but they stuffed a sock in your mouth and duct-taped it shut, they beat you. It’s okay. Allah will understand. You pray and this transports you out of this room that smells of sweat and urine and despair; it transports you to mountains in Raymah or up to the moon or out into the vastness of the universe, all created by Allah, and you don’t hear them anymore. You don’t hear their questions or their insults. You don’t feel their slaps. You don’t feel your body shake as your muscles rebel against the squatting position they forced you into, and this makes the interrogators furious and weaker, even if they don’t know it.
Some around you can’t handle the beatings, the pain, the sleeplessness, the uncertainty. They can’t handle the isolation and the constant screaming of the vacuums and the starvation and the sleep deprivation. They can’t handle the darkness of the tunnel that has no light and they break down. They work for the interrogators even though they don’t want to. They say yes when interrogators ask if a brother is al Qaeda. They identify brothers they don’t know in photos. They make up names and connections. They confirm or verify identities and information that can’t possibly be true. They lie and lie about hundreds of men, and when they lie, they get rewards. They get better food and better cages. They get moved to level 1+ and then to Camp 4, where the life is easy and there’s talk of getting free.
It’s hard to watch your brothers suffer while these snitches tell lies about men they never knew, including you. But you understand. You don’t blame them. You blame the interrogators asking them to lie and then believing them. You blame General Miller, who created this machine and feeds it. And one day when you’re in November Block in isolation with the vacuums screaming, you think of a way to teach them a lesson.
“Let’s play with them,” you say to Waddah that night when the vacuums go off. “We have nothing to lose. I’m here and they’re here.” And that’s when the fun begins.
You call for a reservation with your interrogators and that makes them very happy.
“Why’d you call?” they ask.
“I’m ready to cooperate,” you say. “I have some important information.”
They’re all smiles, your interrogators, an old guy and a woman, all pasty and pale.
Over the next three days, you make up all kinds of stories with your brothers at night about the dirty bomb they’re looking for, and in the morning you feed them to your interrogators. Your interrogators are so happy, they eat it all up, greedy for more. On the third day, at the end of your session, you tell them you have one more really important detail.
This feels good. They don’t know what pain lies ahead. They don’t know that you are in control. You want to savor this moment a little longer. They wait. You take one last sip of cold water.
“Everything I’ve told you over the last three days…” You pause for a moment. You take in their eager faces. “Everything I told you was absolute bullshit.” You watch the words hit like bullets in the chest.
Happiness turns to panic turns to anger and then they’re just crazy. They’re so mad they can’t talk to you. They storm out.
They call you the next day for your reservation and you go but don’t talk. You sit there and recite verses from the Qur’an out loud. You do this every day for a week and then someone older comes to talk to you. This person is in charge, you think. He must be in charge to be so calm and thoughtful.
“Why’d you do that?” he asks.
“Why are you holding me without telling me why?” you ask. “Why do you torture my brothers? Why do you believe obvious lies and then torture us to say they’re true? Why do you make snitches who will say anything to make you happy?”
“How do you know they’re lying?” he says.
“Your problem isn’t my lies,” you say. “It’s that you want to hear my lies and make them true. You know that your snitches and spies have been lying to you. And you’ve been torturing men because of those lies. I told you lies to teach you a lesson, to show you how easy it is to lie to you.”
This makes him very angry.
“Fuck you!” he says. “I’m going to break you next.”
“We will see.” You smile your biggest smile. “I will cut my tongue before talking to you again.”
The old woman interrogator comes in cursing you.
“I’m gonna take your shitty ass back to the U.S. and make you my servant. I’m going to shave that disgusting beard and I’m going to make you into my slave. You’ll be cleaning my home, scrubbing my kitchen, cooking for me, holding my bag . . . Your ass is mine.”
You look away as she yells at you. You don’t say anything. And this makes her even more furious.
“Why’d you do it?” the other interrogator asks. He’s tired. “Is it because you hate America?”
“I wanted to learn how to be like you,” you say. “I wanted to learn how to be an interrogator.”
He slaps you. You didn’t think he had it in him. He slaps you so hard and so fast it’s shocking, and not much can shock you anymore. He kicks your chair from underneath you and throws you to the floor.
“Shackle him,” he tells the guards.
They chain you in the worst position. Your whole body shakes. He turns the AC up high and takes a pitcher of ice water and pours it over you.
“I’ll teach you how to be a good interrogator.”
“Okay!” you say. “Thank you!”
He slaps your face until you bleed.
“They trained you well,” he says. “But I’m going to make you cry like a bitch!”
You laugh at him. Then spit in his face. It’s a good one, mixed with blood.
The guards strip you naked. He pours more water on you and leaves you chained to the floor, squatting with your hands in front of you.
The interpreter says, “He’s been doing this for fifteen years and you’re the first one to make him look like such a fool.”
How did this become about him? you think.
Guards come in every hour to pour cold water on you and make sure you’re awake. You pray. You recite hadiths. Days pass like this. You’re miserable but you really enjoyed seeing those assholes so angry.
They try hard to get you to say you weren’t lying. They’re desperate for you not to lie. Sorry things didn’t work out the way they liked, you tell them.
“You’re going on the blacklist,” the old woman says.
You don’t know what this blacklist is. You’re already in this prison; what could be worse? You’re young, you don’t give a shit about anything. If you challenge me, you think, be prepared to bang your head against a wall with your blacklist.
“You’re going to spend the rest of your life here!” the tired old guy yells at you.
The angrier he gets, the happier you are because you know you’ve beaten them.
“By Allah,” you say, “I will leave Guantánamo. And you will be the one holding my hand and leading me to the airplane. One day you criminals will be found out.” You’re serious when you say this. You don’t doubt it for a second. You believe these criminals will be caught, that they’ll be stopped, and that you’ll all be set free.
This old tired guy looks at you, surprised. “Who the hell are you working for?” he says. “Allah,” you say.
“Someone will break you,” he spits. “Someone will break you soon, Osama’s guy.”
You recite to yourself a hadith: And if they were to gather together to harm you with anything, they would not harm you except with what Allah had already prescribed against you. The pens have been lifted and the pages have dried.
You are here because Allah has willed it, and with His blessing, one day you will leave. In a land of sick jokes, that is the only truth.
Excerpted from DON’T FORGET US HERE: Lost and Found at Guantánamo by Mansoor Adayfi. Copyright © 2021. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.