Witnesses of the Unseen
Seven Years in Guantanamo
Lakhdar Boumediene and Mustafa Ait Idir

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Welcome to America

Lakhdar

Once the plane rolled to a stop, the soldiers barked at me to stand up. They led me off the plane, still in chains, goggles, and headphones, and onto what felt like a boat. I later learned that the airport is on the west side of Guantanamo Bay and the prison is on the east. To get from one side to the other without going through Cuban territory, you have to cross the water.

After a twenty-minute boat ride, the soldiers carried me off the boat and sat me down on what felt like gravel. They put me in an uncomfortable position, sitting with my back straight and my legs extended, my right leg crossed over my left. If I got tired and shifted my weight, or if I tried to turn my face to avoid the hot sun, a blow would come from behind, accompanied by a shout of “Don’t move!”

I had been sitting there for a while, trying to stay still, when I heard someone shouting in Arabic, loudly enough to be heard through my headphones. It was a military interpreter. He had a Lebanese accent, and he sounded young, like an adolescent whose voice had yet to deepen.

“We’re doing intake procedures for each prisoner,” he squeaked. I assumed that he was talking to everyone who had been on the plane with me. I was surrounded, I imagined, by dozens of others, all of us sitting there on the gravel, backs straight and legs extended, trying not to move. “Sit here,” he continued, “and don’t talk or move until it’s your turn.”

I sat for what must have been two or three hours. At a certain point, I realized that I needed a bathroom. I hadn’t eaten anything in two days, but they had given me water in Bosnia and I hadn’t gone to the bathroom since. But I knew if I said anything, they would just hit me. So I sat and waited. It had been a humiliating few days, but I had enough dignity left that I was determined not to urinate on myself.

When it was finally my turn to be processed, I asked about a bathroom.

“Not now,” they told me. “After we finish our procedures.”

They did yet another medical exam. Then they sat me in a chair, gave me a pen and paper, and told me to write my address and a short note to my family. I can’t remember if they lifted the goggles so that I could write. I can’t remember what I wrote, or even if I wrote anything at all. All I can remember is how much pain I was in and how badly I needed the bathroom.

The next step was a “shower”—the soldiers stripped me of everything but the goggles and headphones and hosed me down, as though I were an animal. Then they dressed me and, at long last, took me to a bathroom. It was a Porta-John, and the soldiers came in with me. Urinating as they stood there behind me was uncomfortable, but I had no choice.

The soldiers led me on a ten-minute walk, and then they removed my headphones and goggles. When the goggles came off, it was like something out of a cartoon: stars were spinning around my head and I was seeing double. I couldn’t tell if there were two, three, or four soldiers standing in front of me. Through the blur, I saw, for the first time, that I was in orange clothes. I had a plastic hospital bracelet on my wrist with my name and some numbers. And I was in a cell.

My cell was like a cage at the zoo. I was outdoors, surrounded by four wire mesh walls, one of which had a door with a narrow slot in it. There was a corrugated metal roof maybe eighteen inches above my head. A two-inch thick isomat with an even thinner blanket lay atop a hard cement floor. The isomat took up most of the cell lengthwise, and a little less than half of it widthwise, so I think the cell was about 5' x 7'. There were two buckets in the cell—one with water for drinking and washing, and one for going to the bathroom. There was nothing else.

The soldiers left me in my cell. Later, as the sun was setting, another soldier came by with dinner: rice and beans in a Styrofoam cup. The food was rock-hard. As hungry as I was, I just couldn’t bring myself to eat it. But I did drink a little water, and retched at the first sip. The water was hot, unsurprisingly—it had been sitting in a plastic bucket in the sun all day—and it was also dirty. (Days later, when I got toward the bottom of the bucket, I could see that it was caked with yellow mud. Some mornings I woke up to find a frog in the bucket.) I was thirsty enough, though, that I drank more, and kept down what I could.

When night fell, I tried to sleep, but it was hard. It got cold after the sun went down, and even with my blanket wrapped around me, I shivered through the night. And there were the soldiers—they talked with each other as they paced, and they made a point to walk within inches of the cells, kicking up stones and dirt as they walked past. A few of them would even grab the wire mesh and rattle it. Maybe they were following orders—or maybe they just hated their jobs, hated being up in the middle of the night, hated us even though they knew nothing of who we actually were.

After a night of fitful, dreamless sleep in what felt like fifteen-minute increments, I was woken up shortly after sunrise by the commotion of soldiers changing shifts. Around the same time, a group of brown-skinned men arrived, wearing yellow construction helmets and denim, and got to work. They were building a prison around us. Their loud equipment and even louder music remained a constant presence throughout the next several weeks.

Maybe an hour after I’d woken up, a soldier put breakfast—an egg, a slice of bread, and a cup of milk—on the ground outside my cell. He turned and walked away, kicking up dirt and dust that settled on my food. A little while later, another soldier opened my cell door and handed the dirt-sprinkled food to me. I ate. This is your life now, I told myself. You have to get used to it.