Months of Blows and Panic: A US Captive’s Story

March 8th, 2006 - by admin

Olivier Bertrand / Libération – 2006-03-08 01:16:00

FRANCE (February 20, 2006) — Mourad Benchellali left Vénissieux in June 2001. He was 19-years-old when he left for Afghanistan. Four and a half years later, he has just come back, after several successive Hells. Two months in a Taliban training camp, then capture in Pakistan — to be handed over to the Americans. And torture — in Kandahar, then at Guantánamo.

Upon his return, the French justice system kept him in detention for 18 months before freeing him last month. His profile has filled out. Mourad wears his frizzy hair long, in a pony tail. No one recognizes him and he prefers that. He wants to turn the page. But first, to relate what he saw in Guantánamo. He testifies at length for Libération: about the channels he used to get to Afghanistan, about training with the Taliban, about the tortures he endured.

His recitation is precise, since the many interrogations, he says, have “engraved” the slightest details into his memory. It is impossible to verify what he says, but his testimony is corroborated by that of other Guantánamo “lodgers.”

“I left very quickly. A few weeks before, a person very close to me had talked about the possibility of going to Afghanistan. He himself had been there; he told me it would be a good experience. I didn’t know it was for a Taliban camp. The issue of learning how to fight was never brought up. The whole idea was to go to an Islamic country so I could have an inside look at Islam. I had never traveled. I wanted to have an adventure, get out of the routine. I was supposed to look for a training position in September 2001. I thought I’d leave Vénissieux for two or three months.”

“A few days before I left, I learned that I’d be with Nizar Sassi. He was a friend’s older brother. I was happy. We took the high-speed train to Paris, then a Eurolines bus to London. We had the phone number of a man there; we called him when we got there; he asked to meet us in Finsbury Park. [1]

He came to get us and took us to a little apartment. He was the only person we saw in London. An Algerian, I think. He helped us get our airplane tickets and three days later we left for Pakistan with a telephone number and the name of a hotel in Peshawar. There, someone took care of us to get us to Jalalabad, in Afghanistan. At each stage, the person left us with another contact before parting from us. It was easy. We left for Kabul; then we were taken to the training camp in Kandahar at the beginning of July 2001.”

When bin Laden Came, We Didn’t Understand the Excitement
“I spent two months there, in the desert. There were tents, a little clay mosque, a little clinic. We were more than 200 of all different nationalities. I felt like I had let myself be trapped. Nizar and I never intended to go to such a camp. But there was a clear rule: once in, no one could leave before the end of our training, unless they were really sick. You needed the authorization of the big Emir in charge of the camp for that. Nizar, thank God, was sick after a month: he was able to leave.”

“I did what they called basic training. About 60 days during which you discover the specialization modules you could choose afterwards: topography, mountain techniques, explosives … The instructors came from different countries. At the first class, they showed us how to put a Kalashnikov together and take it apart. Then we fired a round, to know what it feels like. After that, we learned topography, how to read a map, how to use a compass. Then explosives handling: they showed us all the different types. The conditions there were very difficult: heat, fatigue, hunger. They wanted us to experience extreme conditions, in case we went to fight — in Chechnya, for example. I lost a lot of weight. I had bad diarrhea.”

“Bin Laden came one time while I was in that camp. In July. He came with his escort in 4×4 pick-ups. Everyone in the camp started to chant in Arabic ‘here comes the Sheikh; here comes the Sheikh.’ Nizar and I, we didn’t understand the excitement. It was before September 11; he didn’t yet represent what he does today. I had never heard of him. They told us: ‘It’s Sheikh bin Laden!’ He got out; many went towards him to shake his hand. He made a speech. I was sick, tired; I didn’t understand Arabic; I went back to my tent; I didn’t listen to the speech.”

“After my training, I met up with Nizar again and we left for Jalalabad. There we learned about Massoud’s death on September 9th from Radio France International. People told us it was going to get dangerous for us because Arabs did it. Then we learned about the World Trade Center right afterwards. We were advised to wait. When the bombing began, we stayed hidden in a house. Sometimes we slept outside.

Then the Northern Alliance came back to Jalalabad; the Taliban ran away and everyone left by way of the mountains. The march lasted over a month. Two of our group died of cold. We ended up in a little village in Pakistan that was called Parachinar, right next to the border.

The people there took us in. We wanted them to help us get back to Islamabad, so we could contact the French embassy and get repatriated. But one day, they told us to meet them at the village mosque to talk about our trip. We went in; the doors were closed behind us. They called the Pakistani Special Forces, which came to arrest us.”

Three Days of Terror in Kandahar
“We stayed in three different barracks in Pakistan. That lasted two weeks. The third week, people came to see us. They said they came from the UN. There was a UN flag in the room where they interrogated us.

They wanted to know who we were, how we had gotten there, what connection we had with al-Qaeda. They spoke French rather well, but with an American accent. That afternoon, the Pakistani guards told us they were the CIA. We were handcuffed inside trucks; hoods were put on us; and we traveled 24 hours with neither food nor anything to drink. The truck stank of urine. When it stopped, the Americans were waiting for us.”

“It was night time; the place looked like a military airport. They formed a big circle with trucks and the headlights lit up the center. That’s where we were delivered. The Americans had the list of our names from the barracks. They made us get into little airplanes; they cinched us to the floor, hands behind our backs and hoods on our heads. The flight lasted over two hours. We landed in Kandahar, where I spent fifteen days in a camp. There were 150 people when I got there, 800 when I left.”

“They locked up the new arrivals in a big hangar with buckets for toilets. The arrival was violent. They put handcuffs on our wrists and feet, hoods on our heads; they completely undressed us and beat and kicked us, as they insulted and spit on us. Then they piled us up and we heard them taking pictures. That went on for three days like that. Some were bleeding; some crying. They were truly three days of terror. Then they put blue jumpsuits on us and led us into big, wired enclosures, 60 to a cage.”

“Abuse was a daily affair. They urinated on detainees; they threw Korans into the buckets where we relieved ourselves. They also shaved part of the heads of some people, or a single eyebrow. It seemed like they were doing that for fun. They often talked about the World Trade Center. They brought in women, soldiers, who undressed in front of us and touched some detainees. The officers saw what was happening.”

“I was interrogated three times in Kandahar. Always the same questions: ‘What were you doing in Afghanistan? What were you doing with the Taliban?’ Did you see bin Laden? Do you know where he is?’ The interrogator was seated at a table; I was squatting on the ground, my wrists and feet cuffed together, like a sheep before its throat is cut. Other times, I was cuffed, arms in a cross, to an iron bar over my head. The interrogations lasted three or four hours. They hit me many times on the back of my neck with the side of their hands.”

“At night; they woke us up every half hour for roll call. They put numbered bracelets on us. I was 161. They lined us up squatting; then we went back to sleep after they called us; then they woke us up again a half hour later. Psychologically, it was very hard.

“There were also detainees they left standing all night long. When they nose-dived, they’d hit them to stand them up again. In the end, the guys were so tired they fell down and let them hit them. I was terrified. I said to myself that given what they were doing to us, they could never risk letting us go. I said to myself: ‘Mourad, they’re never going to let you tell about this. You have to get ready to die.’

“At the end of a week and a half, they shaved my head and my beard, put a hood on me, and I left on a plane. They stuck patches on us that must have been sleep-inducing. We dozed. The plane set down after an hour and we changed planes. Then the trip lasted 24 hours. We didn’t know where we were going. It was the Red Cross that told me a few weeks later that I was in Cuba.”

“In One of the Interrogation Rooms,
the Feeling the Brain Was Going to Dissolve”

“We were undressed on arrival. They laid us on our stomachs and kicked us. There was a man with an Arab accent, a Lebanese, I think. He screamed in Arabic. ‘What are you doing there; why did you go to Afghanistan?’ Then we were led into a room where there was a doctor with a white scrub on. He listened to our chests and put on a glove to stick a finger in our anus. He photographed us naked and gave us red jumpsuits. We were in the provisional Camp X-Ray. There were about 350 people.

“There were people who had been arrested pretty much everywhere in the world. Six came from Bosnia, two from Zambia, an Afghan had been kidnapped in Mexico; two Algerians claimed they were captured by the Russian Mafia in Georgia. We stayed there for four months before we were transferred to Camp Delta, with cells made out of containers with the panels removed and replaced by grills. There was a Turkish toilet, a sink, and an iron plate that served as a bed, with a thin mattress on it.

“Interrogations could take place at any moment of the day or night. On average, I was interrogated once or twice a week. Never by the same men. To go there, they made us run with cuffs and chains on our feet. They cut into our flesh, which bled. The interrogations could last two to fifteen hours. They took place in big rooms, with two-way mirrors on the sides.

“Sometimes we heard people behind them. The room was very lit up; there was a chair with a harness for the detainee and big air conditioners behind us. Sometimes they turned them on all the way. The questions were different from in Kandahar. They wanted to know everything about our life, our journey. They wanted to know everything about each stage. They said they were from the FBI. There were always two of them plus an interpreter.

“There was another interrogation room, on which they had written ‘Hell’ in Arabic. If you didn’t cooperate, you went there. It was a completely black room, with a bench fitted out with cinches like in a psychiatric hospital in the middle. There were enormous speakers on the walls and projectors on the ceiling. They bound the detainees and put on the music full blast, often techno music. The spotlights flashed very strong, very fast bursts of white light. It seems that that [room] makes you feel like your brain is going to dissolve. Some people stayed there two days.

“There was also a special team of five guards, who intervened in anti-crowd gear with big Plexiglas shields. They came in making a rhythmic ‘Hou hou hou’ sound, tapping their feet. It was very impressive. They came into a cell really fast, their shield in front. You felt like a bus ran into you. Some guards behaved well. I remember one who secretly brought me a cup of coffee he handed through the bars. Some told us that when they got back to the US, they’d tell what they had seen.”

“Many Suicide Attempts, but None Successful”
“They made us take lots of medicine. They said that it was for tuberculosis, tetanus, or malaria. They were little pills with no marks on them. They were round, sometimes a little thick. They gave us headaches or made us throw up. We thought they were doing experiments on us, since, later, nurses asked us questions about the effects. There were also vaccinations – I think I got five of them – and blood samplings. I had nausea, diarrhea, and constipation. Once they gave us an injection that made a bulge in our arms they came to measure with a ruler.”

“At one time, we had books brought by the Red Cross, then they were forbidden. They only left us the Koran. Boredom made us crazy. Sometimes we got mail, but they censored it by crossing out passages. Sometimes, they’d just leave a final line: ‘That’s all the news from the family.’ It was a real torture.”

“There were many suicide attempts. At least one a day in the time just before I left. As far as I know, no one ever succeeded. The guards took men who tried to hang themselves with their bed sheet down very fast. They were sent to the crazy’s bloc. There was also an isolation camp where they put people they thought were dangerous. No one knows what went on in there. The Red Cross had no access. I think about it often.”

“Three times, French policemen came to interrogate me. The first time, there were eight of them. Two asked questions; the others around asked for details. They behaved properly. They knew what was happening in Guantánamo. They told us to hold on; they couldn’t do anything. Two Americans were present for the interrogations.”

“I learned I was going home two days before the day of departure. A Yemenite said to me: ‘Mourad, you’re French. You’re going back to a country where there are laws. Tell what’s happening here.’ I have no hatred, no anger. Only incomprehension. I understand that Americans had to respond to September 11. But they have prisons in America. Maybe I made a mistake by going to Afghanistan, but I didn’t deserve Guantánamo.”

[1] At that time, the Finsbury Park mosque was led by Abu Hamza, condemned to seven years in prison on February 7 for incitement to murder and racial hatred.

Translation: t r u t h o u t French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.

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