[Ppnews] Notes From a Guantánamo Survivor

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Sun Jan 8 18:52:30 EST 2012

January 7, 2012

Notes From a Guantánamo Survivor


Bremen, Germany

Bay much as I had arrived almost five years 
earlier ­ shackled hand-to-waist, 
waist-to-ankles, and ankles to a bolt on the 
airplane floor. My ears and eyes were goggled, my 
head hooded, and even though I was the only 
detainee on the flight this time, I was drugged 
and guarded by at least 10 soldiers. This time 
though, my jumpsuit was American denim rather 
than Guantánamo orange. I later learned that my 
C-17 military flight from Guantánamo to Ramstein 
Air Base in my home country, Germany, cost more than $1 million.

When we landed, the American officers unshackled 
me before they handed me over to a delegation of 
German officials. The American officer offered to 
re-shackle my wrists with a fresh, plastic pair. 
But the commanding German officer strongly 
refused: “He has committed no crime; here, he is a free man.”

I was not a strong secondary school student in 
Bremen, but I remember learning that after 
War II, the Americans insisted on a trial for war 
criminals at Nuremberg, and that event helped 
turn Germany into a democratic country. Strange, 
I thought, as I stood on the tarmac watching the 
Germans teach the Americans a basic lesson about the rule of law.

How did I arrive at this point? This Wednesday is 
the 10th anniversary of the opening of the 
detention camp at the American naval base at 
Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. I am not a terrorist. I 
have never been a member of 
Qaeda or supported them. I don’t even understand 
their ideas. I am the son of Turkish immigrants 
who came to Germany in search of work. My father 
has worked for years in a Mercedes factory. In 
2001, when I was 18, I married a devout Turkish 
woman and wanted to learn more about Islam and to 
lead a better life. I did not have much money. 
Some of the elders in my town suggested I travel 
to Pakistan to learn to study the Koran with a religious group there.

I made my plans just before 9/11. I was 19 then 
and was naïve and did not think war in 
Afghanistan would have anything to do with 
Pakistan or my trip there. So I went ahead with my trip.

I was in Pakistan, on a public bus on my way to 
the airport to return to Germany when the police 
stopped the bus I was riding in. I was the only 
non-Pakistani on the bus ­ some people joke that 
my reddish hair makes me look Irish ­ so the 
police asked me to step off to look at my papers 
and ask some questions. German journalists told 
me the same thing happened to them. I was not a 
journalist, but a tourist, I explained. The 
police detained me but promised they would soon 
let me go to the airport. After a few days, the 
Pakistanis turned me over to American officials. 
At this point, I was relieved to be in American 
hands; Americans, I thought, would treat me fairly.

I later learned the United States paid a $3,000 
bounty for me. I didn’t know it at the time, but 
apparently the United States distributed 
thousands of fliers all over Afghanistan, 
promising that people who turned over 
or Qaeda suspects would, in the words of one 
flier, get “enough money to take care of your 
family, your village, your tribe for the rest of 
your life.” A great number of men wound up in Guantánamo as a result.

I was taken to Kandahar, in Afghanistan, where 
American interrogators asked me the same 
questions for several weeks: Where is Osama bin 
Laden? Was I with Al Qaeda? No, I told them, I 
was not with Al Qaeda. No, I had no idea where 
bin Laden was. I begged the interrogators to 
please call Germany and find out who I was. 
During their interrogations, they dunked my head 
under water and punched me in the stomach; they 
don’t call this 
but it amounts to the same thing. I was sure I would drown.

At one point, I was chained to the ceiling of a 
building and hung by my hands for days. A doctor 
sometimes checked if I was O.K.; then I would be 
strung up again. The pain was unbearable.

After about two months in Kandahar, I was 
transferred to Guantánamo. There were more 
beatings, endless solitary confinement, freezing 
temperatures and extreme heat, days of forced 
sleeplessness. The interrogations continued 
always with the same questions. I told my story 
over and over ­ my name, my family, why I was in 
Pakistan. Nothing I said satisfied them. I 
realized my interrogators were not interested in the truth.

Despite all this, I looked for ways to feel 
human. I have always loved animals. I started 
hiding a piece of bread from my meals and feeding 
the iguanas that came to the fence. When 
officials discovered this, I was punished with 30 
days in isolation and darkness.

I remained confused on basic questions: why was I 
here? With all its money and intelligence, the 
United States could not honestly believe I was Al Qaeda, could they?

After two and a half years at Guantánamo, in 
2004, I was brought before what officials called 
a Combatant Status Review Tribunal, at which a 
military officer said I was an “enemy combatant” 
because a German friend had engaged in a suicide 
bombing in 2003 ­ after I was already at 
Guantánamo. I couldn’t believe my friend had done 
anything so crazy but, if he had, I didn’t know anything about it.

A couple of weeks later, I was told I had a visit 
from a lawyer. They took me to a special cell and 
in walked an American law professor, 
Azmy. I didn’t believe he was a real lawyer at 
first; interrogators often lied to us and tried 
to trick us. But Mr. Azmy had a note written in 
Turkish which he had gotten from my mother, and 
that made me trust him. (My mother found a lawyer 
in my hometown in Germany who heard that lawyers 
at the Center for Constitutional Rights 
represented Guantánamo detainees; the center 
assigned Mr. Azmy my case.) He did not believe 
the evidence against me and quickly discovered 
that my “suicide bomber” friend was, in fact, alive and well in Germany.

Mr. Azmy, my mother and my German lawyer helped 
pressure the German government to secure my 
release. Recently, Mr. Azmy made public a number 
of American and German intelligence documents 
from 2002 to 2004 that showed both countries 
suspected I was innocent. One of the documents 
said American military guards thought I was 
dangerous because I had prayed during the American national anthem.

Now, five years after my release, I am trying to 
put my terrible memories behind me. I have 
remarried and have a beautiful baby daughter. 
Still, it is hard not to think about my time at 
Guantánamo and to wonder how it is possible that 
a democratic government can detain people in 
intolerable conditions and without a fair trial.

Kurnaz, the author of “Five Years of My Life: An 
Innocent Man in Guantánamo,” was detained from 2001 to 2006.

Freedom Archives
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San Francisco, CA 94110

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