INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Irish Times JANUARY 24, 2015 - by Sinead O'Shea
THE FORREST GUMP OF GUANTÁNAMO
In Guantánamo Diary Mohamedou Ould Slahi describes life in the US prison camp, where he has spent twelve years because of an 'incredibly unfortunate' association with terrorism.
A memoir of a Guantánamo Bay detainee was published this week in twenty countries. Guantánamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, has taken nearly a decade of legal wrangling to be made public and has been subject to more than two-thousand five-hundred redactions by US authorities.
It is an articulate and disturbing account of torture, described by its editor Larry Siems as "a damning riposte to the American war on terror".
The book is also renewing interest in the case of Slahi and others like him, who, Siems says, "have been incredibly unfortunate".
Born in 1970 in Mauritania, Slahi won a university scholarship to Germany as a teenager and was the first in his family to fly in an aircraft. He was supposed to "save the family", writes his brother Yahdih, one of thirteen siblings, in the introduction to the diary.
Instead he started a journey that Colonel Morris Davis, chief prosecuting officer for the Guantánamo Military Commission in 2005, likened to that of Forrest Gump, "in the sense that there were a lot of noteworthy events in the history of al-Qaeda and terrorism and there was Slahi, lurking somewhere in the background".
While completing his degree in electronic engineering at the University of Duisburg, in Germany, Slahi took time out to join the Mujahideen in the fight against the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan, a cause the US then supported. After the fall of Kabul, Slahi decided to return to Germany, finding himself uneasy with the power struggle among jihadi fighters and their growing aggression towards the United States.
For much of the 1990s he worked as an electronic engineer in Germany and remained friends with some of the men he met in Afghanistan. He kept in touch with a second cousin who was to become one of Osama bin Laden's spiritual advisers. Although this relative would distance himself from bin Laden, and was later cleared by the US authorities, the association would prove disastrous for Slahi.
In 1999 he moved to Montreal, in Canada, and began to attend a local mosque. A month after his arrival another member of the mosque was caught with explosives in the US, as part of a plan to bomb Los Angeles International Airport.
The arrest led to a major investigation of Muslims in Montreal, and Slahi was questioned by police about possible terrorist connections.
Unnerved, he and his family returned to Mauritania, where he set up successfully as an electronic engineer.
Within weeks of 9/11, Slahi was detained and held by the Mauritanian authorities and questioned again about his role in the California bomb plot. He was released but two months later was asked to come in again for questioning. He agreed and said goodbye to his family. He has not seen them since.
He was flown to Jordan, where he was tortured and interrogated for more than seven months. After that he was moved to Afghanistan for two weeks, then, in August 2002, to Guantánamo, in Cuba.
Guantánamo officers believed they had captured, in the words of Davis, a "big fish" who had trained al-Qaeda operatives. Between 2003 and 2004 he was subject to a "special interrogation plan".
In the summer of 2005 Slahi began to write about what had happened.
His diary notes moments of kindness by his guards and his concern for other prisoners. For the most part, however, it is a tale of near-unrelenting torture. Slahi is placed in solitary confinement and subject to constant interrogation. The methods deployed included sleep deprivation, physical and sexual assault and threats against his family.
A centrepiece of the book is his account of a day when he is blindfolded and taken out on a boat, where his captors simulate his execution. He is hit continually during the trip and made to drink saltwater. He is sure he going to die. Eventually he capitulates and begins to make up stories.
At times the diary seems barely believable, yet the torture descriptions are supported by US government records. Siems, who has spent the past five years researching the case, believes details of torture are meticulously kept so that the Guantánamo officers can create "a paper chain, to show that they were acting upon orders".
In late 2005 Slahi told an administrative review board that he had written a hundred-and-twenty-two-thousand-word account of his experiences. The manuscript was removed from him and deposited in a secure facility near Washington DC.
For six years Slahi's attorneys Nancy Hollander and Sylvia Royce worked for its release. The manuscript was finally handed over in 2012. They passed it on to Siems, who was working as a director at Pen American Center, which promotes writing among prisoners.
Siems quickly "fell in love" with the diary. His job as editor was to "not elaborate" and to stay true to Slahi's voice, which he describes as a gift. The narrator comes across as a wry, fastidious character whose time in western cultures, particularly Germany, is apparent.
"He is a religious man but not an Islamist," Siems says, but "he is very comfortable in cross-cultural life. His cultural references are ours. People wear OJ Simpson gloves, he makes analogies with Charlie Sheen... that is all Slahi."
The diary is now in the midst of a promotional push. The day after Siems talks to The Irish Times the book has a starry launch in London. Brian Eno, Colin Firth, Stephen Fry and Dominic West have recorded their readings of diary extracts. The Guardian newspaper has included an animated excerpt on its website. The US campaign begins next week.
The US has pledged to shut Guantánamo down, but about a hundred-and-fifty-five prisoners remain there. Slahi is one of them. He has been there for more than twelve years. In early 2010 a US district court judge ordered his release, but the Obama administration filed a notice of appeal. The case is pending.
Siems, a US citizen, uses the term "force creep" to describe what has happened to Slahi and others, saying that "the US has created secret spaces to permit torture and to violate principles that we've been promoting all around the world. Once you create that space it's a slippery slope."