By Andy Worthington, AlterNet. Posted April 11, 2008.
Drawings by journalist Sami Al-Haj depicting torture at Gitmo have been censored.
Sami al-Haj is a journalist, but one unlike any other. For over six years since December 15, 2001 -- when he was seized by Pakistani soldiers on the Afghan border while on assignment as a cameraman for the Qatar-based broadcaster al-Jazeera -- he has been in a disturbing but unique position: a trained journalist held as an "enemy combatant" on the frontline of the Bush administration's "War on Terror," first in Afghanistan, and then in Guantánamo.
The outline of Sami's story should be familiar to readers; last summer AlterNet published a detailed article by Rachel Morris: "Prisoner 345: An Arab Journalist's Five Years in Guantánamo," which made clear how Sami was seized because of the erroneous claim that he had interviewed Osama bin Laden, and the disturbing fact that his many interrogations in Guantánamo have focused solely on the administration's attempts to turn him into an informant against al-Jazeera, to "prove" a connection between the broadcaster and Osama bin Laden that does not exist. As his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith of the legal action charity Reprieve, noted bluntly and accurately in his book Eight O'Clock Ferry to the Windward Side: Seeking Justice in Guantánamo Bay, "Sami was a prisoner in the Bush Administration's assault on al-Jazeera."
Less well known is Sami's frontline reportage from within Guantánamo. Stafford Smith recalls that when he asked Sami for information, he "would assemble important facts on almost any topic in the prison relying on the incredible prisoner bush telegraph." These have included reports on the religious abuse -- primarily of the Qu'ran -- that preceded a series of hunger strikes and suicide attempts, and a pioneering assessment of the number of prisoners who were under 18 at the time of their capture.
Since January 7, 2007 (the fifth anniversary of his detention without trial by the US), Sami has been on a hunger strike. Although he is strapped into a restraint chair twice a day and force-fed against his will and despite the fact that he is "very thin" and "[h]is memory is disintegrating," according to Stafford Smith, Sami continues to seek ways to publicize the plight of his fellow prisoners. During the most recent visit from his lawyers in February -- with Cori Crider of Reprieve -- he produced a number of morbid, and almost hallucinatory sketches illustrating his take on conditions in Guantánamo, which he described as "Sketches of My Nightmare."
Fearing that they would be banned by the military censors, Crider asked him to describe each sketch in detail and when, as anticipated, the pictures were duly banned but the notes cleared, Reprieve asked political cartoonist Lewis Peake to create original works based on Sami's descriptions.
"The first sketch is just a skeleton in the torture chair," Sami explained. "My picture reflects my nightmares of what I must look like, with my head double-strapped down, a tube in my nose, a black mask over my mouth, strapped into the torture chair with no eyes and only giant cheekbones, my teeth jutting out -- my ribs showing in every detail, every rib, every joint. The tube goes up to a bag at the top of the drawing. On the right there is another skeleton sitting shackled to another chair. They are sitting like we do in interrogations, with hands shackled, feet shackled to the floor, just waiting. In between I draw the flag of Guantánamo -- JTF-GTMO -- but instead of the normal insignia, there is a skull and crossbones, the real symbol of what is happening here."
In recently declassified testimony, Sami described more of his recent experiences of the force-feeding process:
On the Monday before last [February 11] a white male came to do the force-feeding. They gave him only ten minutes training, then he did three of the eight men being fed that day, including me. He screwed the tube into my nose, not slowly, and not using lotion. I had flu at the time and my nostril was closed. It made it much harder. I was in the chair. I could barely talk, and my mouth was covered with the mask they put on. I was waving my hands.
"That's very painful!" I eventually said. There were tears streaming down my face. "I am meant to do this to you," the man said, harshly. "If you don't like it, don't go on strike." He would not look me in the eye. He did not look in the least bit ashamed. He never said sorry, or paused when I was in pain. I almost thought he seemed happy that he was doing it.
They used my feeding tube for another man last Monday [February 18]. This, even though they have marked the boxes for each tube. I have been getting a sore larynx, maybe from the infection of another person using my tube. I requested a spray but it was denied.
Sami's second sketch is his take on the familiar JTF-GTMO sign outside the prison.
"This time," he explained, "the hooded skeleton is in a three-piece suit [the prisoners' term for being shackled at the wrists, ankles and waist]. The head is totally blacked out. The wrists are shackled at the back, with chains running down the legs. There are very elaborate arm bones, leg bones and the spine. And again the flag, the Jolly Roger of JTF-GTMO with a diabolical smile on the skull."
For his next sketch, Sami shifted his attention to the prison hospital.
"There is a third sketch, which is about the Hospital," he said. "Again it is a skeleton, but with a face this time. The top of the skull is dotted with tracks, tracks of pain. This is the hospital gurney prisoner. He sits completely still, his hands and feet shackled to the side of the bed."
In his testimony, recently released, Sami has elaborated on his experiences of the hospital:
I am very concerned about having cancer. I have had blood in my urine for a long time. They refused to believe me until I showed them urine in a container that had red in it. Since then they have had seven positive tests for blood in my urine.
I have a pain all across my chest and stomach, and in both kidneys. To begin with they thought it might be a kidney stone, but I had a scan for that. They did not give me the results for two weeks, and I worried all that time. It was negative.
So then they did a second scan with a tracer in the blood. This time, they did not tell me the results for two months. Again, I was left to worry about what might be wrong with me. Again, eventually a doctor came to see me, a black male, about 40 years old, clean shaven, in a uniform without rank on it. He saw me for only give minutes. He began decently, but then got rather hostile. He told me the test was negative, meaning that there was no kidney stone. "From my experience," the doctor said to me, "I think it's cancer."
They then said that the next time a doctor would be coming with the appropriate expertise would be in May. Nobody would be coming before that, and he might not come even then. "You will leave me worrying about this for months?" I asked. "I don't have the necessary equipment," said the doctor. He apparently thought the prisoners were not as important as the soldiers in his care. "I don't mind if you suffer or not," he said. "It's not my problem. I'm not here for you." He left.
I worried too much after this. For three days I got barely any sleep. I was worrying that maybe I was dying. Then the brothers around me said, perhaps they are just telling you this, just trying to break your strike. I took some heart from this. But I still worry, as Abdul Razzaq died of cancer here, and it was a very painful death [Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, an Afghan who died on Dec.30].
I have all the other medical problems too. Really, I have pain almost everywhere -- all over. I have pain everywhere. It's hard to identify one thing as it's all over. My back, kidneys, chest, stomach, knee, I even have hemorrhoids. When I do get released, I am going to need to be taken to hospital right away.
In the fifth sketch, Sami explained the meaning of the bloated body, noting that, even if the prisoner's weight were to rise due to force-feeding, he would still be losing his mind.
"In the second half of this drawing the prisoner is inflated," he said. "The man is strapped to the gurney, and the weight on the scale reads 250 lbs. He has filled out, there are rolls of fat on his belly, but he is still mad. The pumps are all hooked up, forcing food into him. But the top half of his head is still vacant."
The last of his declassified notes add a disturbing conclusion to the story of the doctors' involvement in the force-feeding process, and the horrendous isolation and deprivation that still prevail in Guantánamo:
We met recently with a senior female doctor from the hospital. "Only if you break your strike can we give you medical care," she told those of us on hunger strike. "Otherwise we cannot help you." Some have now broken their strike. Four men are very sick, and were suffering too badly. But the truth is that they have given no help even to those who stop.
I am having bone problems. The cold is bad. I am on disciplinary for being on strike, so I get a plastic blanket at 10 pm, at least three hours after our last prayer time. Every other day I hardly get to sleep anyway, as rec [recreation time] is in the middle of the night.
For eight days I had the same clothes. I have not been given proper toothpaste for two years and seven months now. I am allowed a fingerbrush for just five minutes each day, and it doesn't reach the back of my mouth. I am not allowed a prayer rug. I am not allowed a prayer cap. I am not allowed my prayer beads. I am not allowed any holy book except for the Qur'an. I have no books to read. The last book I was allowed was in December 2006, before I began my strike.
All I have are orange clothes, flip flops, an isomat, a Qur'an, and a bottle of water. I suppose I should think myself lucky. Another of the men here has been disciplined by having even his isomat take away -- for a whole year. Another man has lost his right to a water bottle for a whole year. All this made another man so upset that he tried to hang himself.
Andy Worthington is a writer and historian, and author of The Guantánamo Files.