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Shaker Aamer Befriended Ants, Stray Cats To Survive Guantanamo Torture

Former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Shaker Aamer was subject to routine acts of abuse and torture by United States military personnel, who were intent to break his spirit. In recent interviews for British news networks, it is abundantly clear that the military did not succeed.

Aamer, a British resident born in Saudi Arabia, was detained for nearly fourteen years at the military prison. He engaged in hunger strikes and stood up for the rights of fellow prisoners. He was cleared for release twice, once by President George W. Bush’s administration and once in 2009 by President Barack Obama’s administration. Yet, it was not until October of this year that he was released to Britain.

During a Dec. 14 interview with BBC News, Aamer described the brutality and pain he endured while in the custody of the Northern Alliance, while held at Bagram air base, while at a facility in Kandahar, and while detained at Guantanamo. There are moments where Aamer’s incredible resilience is apparent.

Aamer detailed the practice of subjecting prisoners to “forced cell extractions” (FCEs) and recounted part of an incident where guards accused him of having an apple stem. He knew the guards wanted him to “submit to them.” They wanted him to “be broken.” He kept the stem in his mouth because he refused to give them what they wanted.

In 2012, he estimates he was subject to about 380 FCEs. Sometimes, FCEs happened to him seven or eight times in one day.

What happens is a guard becomes agitated over something, such as a stolen salt packet. They try to get a prisoner to give up the salt packet. Often the prisoner never took anything. And, when the salt packet is not produced, up to fifteen officers march down to a prisoner’s cell.

The officers rush into the cell. They expect the prisoner lie on the ground with their head in or nearby the toilet, and a prisoner is not allowed to sit on the bed. The officers spray the prisoner with pepper spray while sitting in the cell. The officers smash the prisoner’s face, throw the prisoner on the floor, push his face into the toilet, and they tie the prisoner’s hands and legs behind their back. The prisoner is tossed out of the cell, and the officers search the cell. As all of this happens, a camera pointed at guards rolls while officers shout, “Stop resisting! Stop resisting!” to justify the brute force that is used.

Military personnel sexually assault prisoners. Aamer said during the BBC interview that personnel rubbed their hands on his private parts. They conducted strip searches when they thought prisoners were resisting officers. The searches are recorded by cameras.

Aamer made friends with ants, birds, and cats

Given the torture experienced at U.S. military facilities in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo, it is remarkable how Aamer fought back against the inhumanity of his confinement by making friends with animals.

In 2005, after three prisoners committed “suicide,” Aamer was isolated in a cell at Camp Echo for two years and ten months. He was only allowed to go outside for twenty days. He very rarely was able to leave his cell. He made friends with ants.

A sceenshot from Shaker Aamer's interview with BBC News.

A sceenshot from Shaker Aamer’s interview with BBC News.

“I start watching them. I start learning the different ants, the different colors, the different way of doing things,” Aamer recalled. “And it was beautiful because I learned so much, and they became so friendly with me that I do believe that animals, insects, all kinds of things that they do realize us. They do know us. They know the difference between us. But we don’t the know difference between them because they are ants, but they know me. They knew me as me because I used to feed them three times a day, put them the food certain times. And they don’t bother me.”

Aamer’s face lit up with excitement as he talked about how ants opened a hole next to his head, where he slept on the ground each night. The ants started to crawl over his face and wake him up. He put saliva in the hole to cover it. After three times, he believes the ants got the message he was trying to send because they brought a tiny piece of rusted metal and sealed the hole.

Guantanamo has cats, and Aamer named a cat Ameera because she was like a princess. Aamer laughs and adds, “She’s very tacky. She doesn’t just eat anything. She doesn’t even go straight to the food. She go and smell it and go around, and she’ll look at you like it’s not a big deal. You’re not really doing something much for me.”

However, one of the numerous ways the personnel would be cruel to prisoners involved hunting the cats. These animals would be trapped and killed because it was clear how much joy they brought to prisoners. And Aamer mentioned how prisoners would hide food, like tuna, to feed the cats because if they were caught saving food for animals they would be punished.

Aamer made friends with birds. “It’s a whole effort. I have to sit, collect the bread, and then I have to break it to small pieces,” he shared.

“Then I have to mix it with some jam, cause they love sweet stuff. I know from my younghood. I used to have birds. So they love the sweet stuff so I used to mix it with honey, jam, things like that. Then I have to sneak it out sometimes.”

While in isolation, this was all a part of finding a purpose for being alive. He shared that he had to “find something, someone to talk to, to play with.  And I used to do that with the animals, with birds and all that.” Eventually, there came times when he could forget about the possibility of being at Guantanamo forever because the animals would sit with him. Birds, like a raven, would come and eat from his hand and help him forgot about indefinite detention.

‘Your wife and your daughter is with us’

The hardest thing Aamer had to deal with happened at the facility in Kandahar, where he was held in a tent for ten days. He was starving and had no water. There was an officer who threatened to rape Aamer’s daughter.

“Your wife and your daughter is with us,” Aamer said an officer told him. “If you don’t start talking, we will rape your daughter and you will hear her crying, ‘Daddy, daddy.’ That was, that was completely inhumane. It was worse than the beating. It was worse than everything. Just thinking of my daughter, I just sat there silent.” And, three or four days later, the same officer returned and tried to be “Mr. Nice.”

When Aamer was brought from Bagram to Kandahar, the officers had “something called welcoming party, where they really beat you up,” while prisoners are still on the concrete at the airport. This is before prisoners are moved for intake processing. Young “kids”—U.S. soldiers, who Aamer believed were “brainwashed big time”—did whatever they wanted and would beat prisoners brutally when they arrived.

It was particularly bad for Aamer because there was a prisoner near him who the officers raped with an M-16. They were shoving it into his back side, and the guy screamed, “I’m not a woman. I’m not a woman. Why are you doing this to me?” Aamer recalls how he was upset and felt he had to do something. He spoke up, and they heard him speaking English. The officers called him a “traitor” and beat the hell out of him. He was so brutally beaten that his kidney was bleeding.

“Truly, that’s one of the times when I thought I’m not going to live that night,” Aamer recalled.

Aamer faced more threats from officers to rape his daughter and wife. An officer came and informed him they had his wife and daughter. According to Aamer, the officer said, “we have your wife and your daughter and if you don’t start talking you know what can happen.” And Aamer said he shut down completely because he genuinely believed the officer. He thought it was entirely possible she was sold to Americans like he had been sold to U.S. military personnel.

Crying at a photo of a man jumping out of the World Trade Center

A sceenshot from Shaker Aamer's interview with BBC News.

A sceenshot from Shaker Aamer’s interview with BBC News.

Aamer came to understand very soon that interrogators were not listening to the answers he gave to their questions. Officers do not want to see prisoners as human beings. There is a particular set of answers they want to hear, whether it is true or not, and prisoners who do not “confess” can expect more and more brutal interrogations.

For example, Aamer powerfully recounted the first time he became aware of what really happened with the 9/11 attacks.

Aamer did not know much about the 9/11 attacks before he arrived at Guantanamo. He just knew two buildings had collapsed.

“One day, I was in interrogation and the interrogator brought a book,” Aamer remembered. “It had all scenery from 9/11. And then he kept opening one page after another page, and then suddenly he stopped on a page where somebody jumped from all the way up—God knows, hundred floors—and he’s jumping, running away from the fire.”

“I looked at it. In my mind, the guy is going to get killed by fire, but he knows when he jumps he’s going to get killed anyway. So I start crying, and he looked at me and couldn’t believe it. He’s crying. So he grabbed the huge book and he picked it up and smacked it on the table. He looked at me and said, you crying? You did this.”

Aamer told the interrogator he did nothing. He did not do this. But, as Aamer said, the fury was a reaction to his emotion.

“[The interrogators] don’t want to even believe you’re a human being. They don’t want you to feel that, yeah, I’m just a man with feelings, just like you,” Aamer suggested.  “They hate it because they know what they are doing to you.”

Singing Whitesnake because it gave him hope

Unlike Bagram or Kandahar, Aamer contended personnel at Guantanamo were more careful about how they tortured prisoners. It was more discrete. Personnel would come in at nights to practice humiliation because they wanted revenge against prisoners.

A form of this torture was to blast loud music at prisoners, particularly rock music. Yet, in the case of Aamer, he grew up listening to music just like any American teenager. Blasting music did not usually work how the officers wanted.

“They used to hate it. When I listened to it, I used to sing with it,” Aamer recounted. He brightened up and laughs, as he shared how the lyrics of Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again” gave him hope. “The words make me feel like, yeah, it’s me again.”

Aamer recited the lyrics, “Here I go again on my own/Going down the only road I’ve ever known/Like a drifter I was born to walk alone/Cause I know what it means to walk lone that lonely street of dreams.”

He added, “It’s true. It’s just dreams—dreams that I would be home one day. Dreams that I would be free. Dreams that Guantanamo would be closed.”

In that moment, this extravagant ’80s power ballad meant to seduce a woman was transformed into something Whitesnake lead singer David Coverdale never could have ever imagined. It became an anthem that empowered a soul to stay strong and never lose hope.

Aamer remains committed to all the prisoners still confined at Guantanamo. It is why he agreed to talk to BBC News. He wanted the world to know abuse that occurred twelve years ago is still ongoing in the facility. He insisted the prison will one day be shut down.

“There is no humane thing in the system. There is no feelings in the system. It’s just a system, and whatever [personnel] are doing, they are doing it because it’s a system. And nothing changes until we stop that system [from] doing what they are doing,” Aamer concluded.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."