“Whatever Guantanamo is Like, It Can’t Be Worse Than This”

Lakhdar Boumediene on Being Arrested in Bosnia and Sent to the American Military Prison

By  Lakhdar Boumediene

The following is from Lakhdar Boumediene and Mustafa Ait Idir’s memoir of their wrongful detention in Guantanamo Bay. Lakhdar and Mustafa were living quiet, peaceful lives in Bosnia when, in October 2001, they were arrested and accused of participating in a terrorist plot. After a three-month investigation uncovered no evidence, all charges were dropped and Bosnian courts ordered their freedom. However, under intense US pressure, Bosnian officials turned them over to American soldiers. They were flown blindfolded and shackled to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they were held in outdoor cages for weeks as the now-infamous military prison was built around them. Ten years ago today, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Boumediene in the case Boumediene v. Bush, holding that prisoners at Guantanamo Bay had a right to habeas corpus under the US Constitution. Below, Boumediene recounts his arrest and arrival at Guantanamo.

Mustafa had tried to warn me, but the guards pushed me out the prison door behind him. I saw uniformed soldiers and police officers and people with masks over their mouths. A bag was pulled over my head, my hands were cuffed behind my back, and I was shoved into a car.

I couldn’t see, but I could hear the shouts of a crowd of protestors. I heard the driver mutter in Bosnian, “Get this trash out of my way.” A group of protesters had thrown themselves in the car’s path to try to block it. I’m grateful for their brave efforts, even though they were unsuccessful. Eventually, I felt the car roll forward and pick up speed. I began to feel clammy and nauseous. I thought maybe it had something to do with the injection I’d been given earlier in the day.

Or maybe it was shock. Either way, I felt miserable. And then I passed out.

I didn’t know where I was when I came to. I heard people, I assumed the police officers who had seized me, speaking in Bosnian. They sounded scared. One of them called and requested an ambulance, and a short while later, a doctor and nurse arrived and started asking me questions. When I mentioned that I had gotten an injection earlier in the day and didn’t know what it was, the doctor became agitated.

“He has to go to a hospital,” he told the police officers.

They were reluctant. “You can’t treat him here?”

“No,” the doctor said. “And if he dies, you’re responsible.”

I was placed on a stretcher and into an ambulance, accompanied by the doctor, the nurse, and some officers. Someone took the bag off my head, but I couldn’t see out of the ambulance, so I still wasn’t sure where I was.

I heard us go through a tunnel and then, suddenly, the ambulance turned around and went back through the tunnel. Someone must have called the ambulance driver with new orders. We never did go to the hospital.

Thankfully, as time passed, I began to feel less ill. My worry about being sick gradually gave way to fear about where they were bringing me. Despite what my lawyer had said on the news, I was still hoping that I wasn’t Guantanamo-bound.

But when I overheard the nurse say to the doctor, “My sister bought a house here in Butmir,” my heart sank. The Butmir neighborhood, everyone knew, was home to the American military base in Sarajevo.

When the ambulance came to a stop, I was unloaded, still on a stretcher. It was dark out, but not quite pitch black—probably about 4:00 or 4:30 am. The Bosnian police handed me over to American soldiers. As I was carried through the front gate, I heard the soldiers tell the police and the doctor and nurse that none of them were allowed to enter.

The soldiers brought me to a large tent. There were rows of mats on the ground, spaced far apart, with iron chains next to each mat—it reminded me of an animal pen more than anything else. The soldiers put large headphones over my ears and goggles over my eyes, so I couldn’t see or hear, and they placed me on a mat and chained my hands and legs to the ground. I was still in the clothes I’d been wearing in prison—no coat or hat or gloves—so I was freezing cold. I lay on the ground, shivering, and waited for morning to come.

A few hours later, I was unchained, the goggles and headphones were removed, and I was carried to a bathroom. One of the soldiers offered me breakfast. “Here,” he said, speaking French—they knew Algerians speak French—“this doesn’t have pig meat in it.” I declined. Even if he were telling the truth, how could I eat at a time like this?

What, I wondered, could possibly be manly about standing menacingly above a defenseless, chained man who can’t see, hear, or move?”

I was taken back to my mat for a while, and a group of soldiers came by. They were wearing masks, and one of them was videotaping. They ordered me to strip off my clothes, shouting that they would beat me if I didn’t. So I did. I stood there, naked and humiliated in front of the soldiers and their video camera, while a doctor—at least, someone I assumed was a doctor—conducted a medical exam. He noticed that I still had my wedding ring and tried to remove it, but just like the Bosnian prison guards, he was unable to pry it off.

After the exam, the soldiers gave me a military camouflage flight suit to put on. They put a shackle around each of my ankles, with a chain coming up from each shackle and connecting at my waist. Over each shackle, they put a military boot that came up to my knee. They strapped the boots so tightly that I could feel the shackles digging into my ankle bone.

I was taken back to my mat, where I lay, shackled and sore, wondering what was going to happen next. I don’t know if it was minutes later or hours later when the soldiers came back—between the pain, the fear, and the exhaustion, I was beginning to lose track of time. The soldiers put the headphones and goggles back on me and brought me to a vehicle.

We drove. When we finally stopped and the headphones and goggles were removed, I saw that we were at another military base, but I had no idea where. I found out, years later, that it was the American base in Tuzla, a Bosnian city about 65 miles north of Sarajevo. The soldiers went through the same procedure of forcing me to strip naked and conducting a medical exam, videotaping all the while.

They gave me water and offered me an egg and some bread, which I turned down. I was still unable to contemplate food. The soldiers put me back in chains, headphones, and goggles, and brought me to a new location. They chained my wrists and ankles tightly to a steel floor, so I was lying on my side, my face against the steel, unable to move my arms or legs like a lamb tied up for slaughter.

Using the floor, I was able to dislodge my goggles just enough that I could see a little bit around them. I was on the floor of a military airplane. There were at least a few others chained to the floor, like me, but I wasn’t able to see well enough to tell how many there were or whether I knew any of them. Next to each of us, there was at least one armed soldier.

After takeoff, I fell asleep. I had never been so tired in my life. Still, between the biting chains and the cold steel floor, I woke up every few minutes.

At one point, I nudged my headphones against the floor enough to be able to hear. I heard a voice that sounded like Mustafa’s. “My hand, my hand,” he was screaming, in Arabic. He was never one to whine, so his shackles must have been far too tight. I was in pain too, but I was too exhausted to shout—and I figured the soldiers were more likely to beat me than to help me. I went back to sleep.

Another time when I woke up, I peeked around my goggles and saw a few soldiers standing nearby. Each one took a turn aiming his gun dramatically at one of the prisoners and making his best Rambo face while the other soldiers snapped photos. They were smiling and laughing the whole time.

I knew they had been told that we were terrorists, but still, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. What, I wondered, could possibly be manly about standing menacingly above a defenseless, chained man who can’t see, hear, or move?

I have no idea how long we were airborne. I must have woken up and fallen back to sleep at least a few dozen times. I was relieved when the plane finally began its descent. At last, this horrible journey was almost over.

After landing, two soldiers unlocked my chains and stood me up. They led me, one at each armpit, off the plane and into a room. Once again, I was stripped, examined, and dressed in new clothes. I couldn’t see—they had left the goggles on—but the clothes felt much lighter than the flight suit I’d had on before.

I don’t remember much else from the flight—just hunger, exhaustion, and pain.” 

Then the soldiers led me outside. As they did, I shifted my head so that I could see around the goggles. I was crushed to see that I was being led toward a jet plane, surrounded by a large group of soldiers and dogs. We hadn’t arrived yet after all.

I didn’t see any snow on the ground, so I figured that if we were still in Europe, we were probably in Turkey. I knew from watching the news that the largest American bases in Europe were in Germany and Turkey—and since there was snow in Bosnia, I assumed I would have seen snow if we’d been in Germany.

The soldiers led me up a ramp at the back of the plane. This plane, unlike the last one, had a bench to sit on. The soldiers deposited me on the bench and connected the shackles on my wrists and ankles to each other and to a chain running the length of the plane.

I could see that other prisoners were seated on the plane, a soldier standing in front of each one. I think I counted six of us. Ten or fifteen minutes later, more prisoners were brought on the plane. I later learned that they were men who had been flown to Turkey from Afghanistan.

The last time I had been to Turkey, it was to meet my wife and our newborn daughter on their way home from Algeria. Now I was en route to Guantanamo.

This flight was even worse than the first one. I was chained to my seat, and if I so much as twitched or let my head droop to the side, I was slapped or punched by a soldier yelling, “Don’t move!”

After several hours, an apple was placed in my hand. I couldn’t see it—and with the soldier standing right next to me, beating me for even the slightest movements, I certainly wasn’t going to try to adjust my goggles—so I had no idea if the apple was red or brown, fresh or rotten. I was so hungry, though, that I didn’t care. It had been a day and a half since my last meal. I would eat the apple no matter how filthy it was.

But I couldn’t reach my hand to my mouth. The chains were too tight. I leaned my head forward as far as I could while bringing my hand toward my mouth, and I got tantalizingly close to taking a bite, but my hand was in so much pain that I couldn’t hold onto the apple. It dropped and rolled away. I’m sure the soldiers were watching the whole time.

I don’t remember much else from the flight—just hunger, exhaustion, and pain. When the plane finally began its descent, I was relieved. Whatever Guantanamo is like, I thought, it can’t possibly be worse than this.

*

Once the plane rolled to a stop, the soldiers barked at me to stand up. They led me off the plane, still in chains, goggles, and headphones, and onto what felt like a boat. I later learned that the airport is on the west side of Guantanamo Bay and the prison is on the east. To get from one side to the other without going through Cuban territory, you have to cross the water.

After a 20-minute boat ride, the soldiers carried me off the boat and sat me down on what felt like gravel. They put me in an uncomfortable position, sitting with my back straight and my legs extended, my right leg crossed over my left. If I got tired and shifted my weight, or if I tried to turn my face to avoid the hot sun, a blow would come from behind, accompanied by a shout of “Don’t move!” I had been sitting there for a while, trying to stay still, when I heard someone shouting in Arabic, loudly enough to be heard through my headphones. It was a military interpreter. He had a Lebanese accent, and he sounded young, like an adolescent whose voice had yet to deepen.

“We’re doing intake procedures for each prisoner,” he squeaked. I assumed that he was talking to everyone who had been on the plane with me. I was surrounded, I imagined, by dozens of others, all of us sitting there on the gravel, backs straight and legs extended, trying not to move. “Sit here,” he continued, “and don’t talk or move until it’s your turn.”

Maybe [the soldiers] were following orders—or maybe they just hated their jobs, hated being up in the middle of the night, hated us even though they knew nothing of who we actually were.”

I sat for what must have been two or three hours. At a certain point, I realized that I needed a bathroom. I hadn’t eaten anything in two days, but they had given me water in Bosnia and I hadn’t gone to the bathroom since. But I knew if I said anything, they would just hit me. So I sat and waited. It had been a humiliating few days, but I had enough dignity left that I was determined not to urinate on myself.

When it was finally my turn to be processed, I asked about a bathroom.

“Not now,” they told me. “After we finish our procedures.”

They did yet another medical exam. Then they sat me in a chair, gave me a pen and paper, and told me to write my address and a short note to my family. I can’t remember if they lifted the goggles so that I could write. I can’t remember what I wrote, or even if I wrote anything at all. All I can remember is how much pain I was in and how badly I needed the bathroom.

The next step was a “shower”—the soldiers stripped me of everything but the goggles and headphones and hosed me down, as though I were an animal. Then they dressed me and, at long last, took me to a bathroom. It was a Porta-John, and the soldiers came in with me. Urinating as they stood there behind me was uncomfortable, but I had no choice.

The soldiers led me on a ten-minute walk, and then they removed my headphones and goggles. When the goggles came off, it was like something out of a cartoon: stars were spinning around my head and I was seeing double. I couldn’t tell if there were two, three, or four soldiers standing in front of me. Through the blur, I saw, for the first time, that I was in orange clothes. I had a plastic hospital bracelet on my wrist with my name and some numbers. And I was in a cell.

My cell was like a cage at the zoo. I was outdoors, surrounded by four wire mesh walls, one of which had a door with a narrow slot in it. There was a corrugated metal roof maybe 18 inches above my head. A two-inch thick isomat with an even thinner blanket lay atop a hard cement floor. The isomat took up most of the cell lengthwise, and a little less than half of it widthwise, so I think the cell was about five by seven feet. There were two buckets in the cell—one with water for drinking and washing, and one for going to the bathroom. There was nothing else.

The soldiers left me in my cell. Later, as the sun was setting, another soldier came by with dinner: rice and beans in a Styrofoam cup. The food was rock-hard. As hungry as I was, I just couldn’t bring myself to eat it. But I did drink a little water, and retched at the first sip. The water was hot, unsurprisingly—it had been sitting in a plastic bucket in the sun all day—and it was also dirty. (Days later, when I got toward the bottom of the bucket, I could see that it was caked with yellow mud. Some mornings I woke up to find a frog in the bucket.) I was thirsty enough, though, that I drank more, and kept down what I could.

When night fell, I tried to sleep, but it was hard. It got cold after the sun went down, and even with my blanket wrapped around me, I shivered through the night. And there were the soldiers—they talked with each other as they paced, and they made a point to walk within inches of the cells, kicking up stones and dirt as they walked past. A few of them would even grab the wire mesh and rattle it. Maybe they were following orders—or maybe they just hated their jobs, hated being up in the middle of the night, hated us even though they knew nothing of who we actually were.

After a night of fitful, dreamless sleep in what felt like 15-minute increments, I was woken up shortly after sunrise by the commotion of soldiers changing shifts. Around the same time, a group of brown-skinned men arrived, wearing yellow construction helmets and denim, and got to work. They were building a prison around us. Their loud equipment and even louder music remained a constant presence throughout the next several weeks.

Maybe an hour after I’d woken up, a soldier put breakfast—an egg, a slice of bread, and a cup of milk—on the ground outside my cell. He turned and walked away, kicking up dirt and dust that settled on my food. A little while later, another soldier opened my cell door and handed the dirt-sprinkled food to me. I ate. This is your life now, I told myself. You have to get used to it.

I spent the rest of the morning taking in my surroundings. I had a pounding headache and blurry vision—the wire mesh of my cell appeared to be in constant motion—but I could see a forest and a small mountain in the distance, and a variety of colorful, long-legged birds that I had never seen before.

As I gazed out at the trees and birds through the haze of dancing wire, I thought more about what I could possibly be doing here. I thought about the time I was arrested in Algeria, and about my recent involvement in helping Bensayah’s wife find a lawyer, but it didn’t add up. None of that made me a terrorist—and the Bosnian court agreed. So why was I here?

__________________________________

Witness of the Unseen Lakhdar Boumediene Mustafa Ait Idir

From Witnesses of the Unseen: Seven Years in GuantanamoUsed with permission of Stanford University Press. Copyright © 2018 by Lakhdar Boumediene.

Lakhdar Boumediene
Lakhdar Boumediene
Lakhdar Boumediene is the co-author of Witnesses of the Unseen. He was the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case Boumediene v. Bush. Prior to his seven-year internment in Guantanamo Bay, he was an aid worker for the Red Crescent Society in Bosnia. He now lives in France with his wife and children.





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