“You are completely destroyed”: Testimony on Torture from Shaker Aamer’s Medical Report at Guantanamo
On April 7, 2014, Shaker Aamer, the last British resident still held at Guantanamo, and his attorneys filed a habeas petition (PDF) asking for his release due to chronic health problems that can not be treated at Guantanamo. The worst of these problems apparently stems from PTSD from the torture Shaker has endured since he was captured by the Northern Alliance, then turned over to the Americans on Christmas Eve, 2001.
The details of his torture at Bagram, Kandahar and Guantanamo are described in lengthy quotations from a February 2, 2014 medical psychiatric report by Dr. Emily Keram, a forensic psychiatrist who has evaluated a number of Guantanamo detainees at the request of the U.S. courts, the Military Commissions, and various habeas attorneys. The report is appended to the habeas filing.
What follows here is a long section from her report (PDF), where Dr. Keram quotes Shaker’s narrative about his experiences under torture after his capture. From my experience, it is one of the most remarkable and disturbing documents to have come out of Guantanamo, as Shaker Aamer is an intelligent, sensitive man who speaks English. He has left us a record of his torture that cries out to be read.
I reproduce portions of Shaker’s testimony here in the hopes of mobilizing support for freeing him from Guantanamo (he has been “cleared for release” for years now). I also hope this helps mobilize support for freeing or transferring all the detainees/prisoners to humane incarceration with the certainty of quick adjudication of their cases. Those detainees who are not guilty of anything should be released, and at this point — read the following and you will understand fully — given the surety of medical treatment as long as they need it.
Both the habeas filing and the medical report were linked in a story by long-time Guantanamo expert and passionate advocate for an end to torture and indefinite detention, Andy Worthington. His article, “Gravely Ill, Shaker Aamer Asks US Judge to Order His Release from Guantánamo,” is posted at the Close Guantanamo website.
From Shaker Aamer’s Medical Report (verbatim):
Mr. Aamer and I reviewed his conditions of confinement at Bagram Airfield. He reported severe maltreatment by guards, interrogators, and medical personnel working in concert, by means of humiliation, sleep deprivation, exposure to cold, manipulation of food and water, stress positions, threats of sexual assault against his young daughter, and beatings.
“The nakedness made me feel animal-like. I was not a human being anymore. I meant nothing to them. I lost my dignity, my pride, being a man. I had to take off my underwear and hand it to them. You lose your humanity. You are an animal. You know if you don’t do it, they will do it by force and it will be a lot worse. I respected and believed they would give me a fair chance because they were Americans. I was happy that I was with Americans because of their human rights.
I had sleep deprivation for 11 days. That made me crazy. They poured cold water over me. They kept me standing for 20 hours a day. I had to hold my hands and arms out. If I dozed off they would bang on the concrete with an axe. The sleep deprivation caused hallucinations. It started with noise. Then I heard old music from my childhood. I wondered, ‘Where did they get those tapes?’ I heard people talking. I started looking for who was talking. There was no one there. No one else heard them. Finally I heard music from my childhood that I knew they never could have found. I talked to the doctor about it. He said I was going crazy. He told me, ‘You should talk to the interrogators so then you can relax.’
They withheld food, except for frozen MRE’s. They would give you a bottle of frozen water. You didn’t want to drink because it would make you have to pee. The guards won’t take you to pee so I peed where I was sitting. I didn’t have a bowel movement for 25 days. My stomach became like a stone. I didn’t see a doctor initially because the interrogators were happy because I was telling them everything, whatever they wanted. [Interrogators controlled access to medical personnel] Then the doctor gave me a laxative. They took me to a hole. Female and male guards were watching. A guard pulled down my coveralls and told me to shit. It was very hard. I had to push hard. The female and male guards were joking. A female said, ‘Look, he’s having a baby.’ I passed what felt like stones. The guards gave me a tissue from an MRE to wipe myself. It was bloody. I felt so humiliated.
All of the statements I made at Bagram were during the sleep deprivation. I would have said anything. I told them, ‘I will tell you I am bin Laden if you want me to tell you I am bin Laden.’”
Mr. Aamer described the effects of maltreatment on his mental state.
“It’s a process of losing your mind. First it’s knowing you are not in control of yourself anymore. Someone else is in control of you. So you fool yourself and think, ‘Well, he’s only controlling me physically, but not mentally.’ They’re not in your head. But then you realize you’re wrong and they control your mind.
Then it’s welcome to the microwave. It’s easy to crack an egg from the outside. It’s hard to blow up the egg from the inside. They let you recover so you think you’re strong again. And then they break you again. And you thought you were strong again. And you don’t know your thoughts anymore. Like the microwave, they boil you from the inside to the outside until you explode.
After the microwave, the eggshell may be intact because the heat penetrated to the inside. The shell looks strong. But if you crack the egg, inside you will see charcoal.
So I would go to the interrogators thinking, ‘How can I lower the level of torture? What can I say to please him? I am going to be so easy with him today, I will please him.’”….
“It makes me scared to talk about it. I’ve been keeping it all inside. I’m scared because they are listening to us now and they’re learning; I’m teaching them how to interrogate. And now they will write a whole new book on interrogation with what they have learned….
“It’s a terrible procedure. The interrogator starts to talk with you about things that are small and well known. You agree. But he is driving you to a cliff. The more you drive with him on his interrogation, he starts throwing out fish bait, so little by little they show you that they are interested in knowing who you are. They do this by saying, ‘Shaker Aamer, we know you; we know who you are. We know you are nobody. We know you are a small fish rubbing shoulders with the big fish.’
My goal is, ‘How can I minimize the torture? I just want to sleep.’ I never had a goal more than that. It was never my goal to get out of the facility and be freed. My goal was just to lessen the torture. The problem is, not all the small fish know the big fish; but you want to lessen the torture.
So, their interest in you makes you trust them. You start to tell them the truth; you build the truth by telling the story in chronological order. You build the building one story at a time. Until I separated from my wife and go [sic] to hide in the mountains and wait for the man to take me through the mountains. The interrogators asked me the name of the mountains, the name of the man who would guide me. I didn’t know. And that’s when the interrogators went crazy.
The interrogators threw chairs. They put me in a grey disc with my legs spread. They banged the chairs. And you are just trying to avoid any hit. They shook me. They threw me on the ground. They banged my head into the wall.
I was telling them the truth. Their interest made me trust them. It made me hope the torture will decrease. But when I couldn’t tell them what they want [sic] to hear they made me stand for hours, they scream at me, they bang into me. You aren’t even thinking beyond how to protect yourself and not attack them so that you don’t get a bullet in your head. They do that until you are shivering, until they have broken you, until your mind is completely empty. You feel like you’re not real anymore. Like it’s a dream.
And now the worst part comes. They treat you with kindness. It destroys you completely. Your thinking is paralyzed. Your feeling is paralyzed. And the interrogator says, ‘I am trying to help you.’ You don’t know what to love and what to hate because it’s all happening at the same time. You don’t know anything anymore. You can’t tell apart good and bad, kind and evil. You lose the sense of the meaning of kindness.
You ask yourself, ‘Are they really trying to hurt me or are they trying to help me?’ You can’t tell anymore. They bang your head on the wall and then they give you a hot meal. One interrogator talked about what he would do to my five-year-old daughter in details that destroyed me. He said ‘They are going to screw her. She will be screaming, ‘Daddy! Daddy’’ You are completely disorganized. You are completely destroyed.
It happened many times. You learn they don’t really want to hear what the truth is. The truth only results in the same; more torture. So you begin to follow their story; they ask you questions, they give you descriptions and you agree. What was the color of the car? Did the driver look like this? Was the driver from al Qaeda? I answered, ‘How should I know.’ They said, ‘Well, a taxi driver wouldn’t drive to this compound would he, so he must be al Qaeda. The taxi driver takes you to the Arab guesthouse so the taxi driver is al Qaeda and the Arab guesthouse is al Qaeda.’
The interrogators give you the details, but they don’t want you to agree. They say have you seen a fat guy? A guy with a turban? This guy? That guy? Guess what? Those guys are al Qaeda. And then you feel like that you are al Qaeda. Then the interrogators tell you that al Qaeda recruited you without you knowing it; they were behind funding your travel.
Then they ask you to sign a statement. When I say no, the whole thing starts again. In the end, I offered to my interrogator to sign that I am al Qaeda, everything the interrogator wanted me to sign, if the interrogator would agree not to interrogate and torture me anymore. And the interrogator said, ‘I can’t tell you that we won’t interrogate you anymore.’
No matter what you said, they still wanted more. So they kept torturing me no matter what. The degree of the torture would change. Maybe they would let me sit for a brief period of time and then it would get worse again.
For the first 25 days at Bagram it was constant severe torture. For the last week they left me alone with the other detainees in a room with a heater. We all had frostbite. The interrogators only asked what we knew about certain people, but they weren’t pushing me for specific information. I didn’t see the sun except twice while I was at Bagram. And then there was ‘The Big Goodbye Party’ when you leave for Kandahar. I was beaten, shackled, and hooded. The guards laughed and cursed me. I was roped together with other detainees. Then the plane didn’t come. The next day they gave us another ‘Goodbye Party.’ We weren’t allowed to use the toilet. The plane came. I was fearful, thinking, ‘If this is happening right now, what is coming next? Maybe they’re getting ready to shoot me? Maybe it will be something worse than this.’”
Mr. Aamer experienced severe maltreatment at Kandahar Airfield with identical effects on his physical and mental state.
“I was shipped to Kandahar. The airplane was freezing cold. Someone took my socks from me. And then the ‘Welcome Party.’ They told the soldiers they could do anything they wanted with the detainees. We landed. They put us face first on cold concrete. We were shivering. They hit me with gun butts, kicked me with boots, and stomped on my back. There was a 17-year-old detainee. They put a gun up his rectum. He was screaming, ‘I’m no woman! I’m no woman!’ I yelled at the guards to stop in English. Then, because I spoke English the soldiers said, ‘He’s a traitor. He speaks perfect English.’ They beat me even harder. A black female soldier stopped them, saying, ‘You’ve had your fun.’
At about 0600, after 20 minutes of not being beaten, they put me in a cage with a blanket. They put me on my face and unshackled me. Then they ran out. They gave me bread. At about 0730 or 0800 they yelled at me to get up. They put my head on the ground, hooded and shackled me and took me to the interrogators tent. I was kept awake for 10 days.
The torture in Kandahar was more physical than in Bagram. They shook me, threw me on the floor, made me hold my arms out, hit my hands. There was no blanket, just lying on the ground. There was a nice thick blanket lying on the floor, but if I reached for it they would start beating me.
Two interrogators named John and Tony and a guy named Sallie or Sal took turns for three to six hours at a time or two to three hours at a time. There was also an Egyptian. They were with me almost all the time. At least I had my own place in Bagram; I was in a cage and the guards were on the outside. That was a comfort to me. But at Kandahar there was nothing between me and the guards. They were in the tent. If I closed my eyes, the guard would say to open them.
The interrogations at Kandahar had the same process as at Bagram in terms of the interrogators being both cruel and kind. The worst was Sal. He was so kind. He sat me outside the tent with the guards and heated up my food. The guards were starting [sic?] at me. I felt humiliated. Sal talked to me as if I were a human being. Then Sal would say he was going to screw my five-year-old daughter; he was going to do this and that to my daughter sexually; how my daughter would scream and scream. I thought about attacking Sal and getting killed. But I wouldn’t do anything aggressive. Force is the weapon of the coward.
This went on for 10 days. It was constant interrogation and torture. I told them the exact same truth that I had told the interrogators in Bagram, plus they had more true information about me. I also told the interrogators things that weren’t true in order to decrease the intensity of the torture I was suffering.
In those ten days, I only went to the toilet once. I had sleep deprivation. The ICRC came to see me in Bagram one time. Then they came to Kandahar to see me. They took me to a cage with other detainees. The judge from the ICRC saw me there, a Swiss judge. He gave me a card with my number on it.
After 10 days they sent the Egyptian guy who told me I was going to Guantanamo. They put me in a cage for four days and pretty much left me alone. A British agent came to see me, a young officer with a red beret. I wouldn’t talk with him because he said he couldn’t do anything to help me. The Americans only asked me questions those last four days at Kandahar like the last days at Bagram. They didn’t press me to lie about anything.
After four days they gave me the ‘Goodbye Party’ at Kandahar and a far worse ‘Welcome Party’ at Guantanamo.”
The maltreatment and its physical and mental effects continued at Guantanamo.
“The interrogations at Guantanamo have twists. There’s a ‘frequent flyer program’ where they move you every two hours. The guards shout at you in the same block. They switch the water off. They spray Pine Sol in my clothes.
It’s the same process psychologically; I can’t tell cruelty and kindness apart. I told the interrogators everything to decrease the torture severity. Another thing that was at Guantanamo that was not at Bagram was the circles within circles. The guards were connected with medical, were connected with the people who gave supplies like linens, were connected with the administration like the NCO’s, were connected with the Navy or the Army, were connected with the CIA, were connected with the FBI, were connected with the Republicans and the Democrats. All of these people want to squeeze my neck at the center of all of the circles. You tell them what they want to hear to decrease the severity of the torture.
For example, an internist came to see me. I asked for a blanket because I have arthritis and the cold air conditioning makes it worse. The doctor said the arthritis is in my record and agreed that it was cold. The doctor said, ‘I will ask permission from the Joint Detention Group (JDG) for a blanket for you.’ And the doctor says he’s independent.
The worst thing about torture is that you don’t know how to think, what to do, how to feel. You know you have your mind, but you don’t now how to react, which is horrible because you feel vulnerable. It’s terrible. We believed that the people here; the CIA, the interrogators, use ‘djinn.’ [spirits] The evil djinn. Some of the things that happened, you can’t explain. Some people with think that it was drugs or something, but 95% of us believe we got possessed by djinn.”
Photo of Shakar Aamer via Wikimedia Commons