Mohamedou Ould Slahi
Edited by Larry Siems
Art by Himat M. Ali
Editor’s note: The events recounted in “Guard Duty” took place between 2006 and 2008, when the prison camp at Guantánamo Bay was becoming less a “Battle Lab,” as two of its early commandants described its detention and interrogation operations, and more of a lock box for the dark secrets of those operations. During the years described here, Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s manuscript for what would become the internationally-bestselling Guantánamo Diary was being held as a classified secret, and Mohamedou himself remained isolated in the same Camp Echo hut that was the site of his worst mistreatment and torture—isolated from the general population of the camp and the outside world, that is, but in unusual proximity with his assigned teams of guards. All of the characters in “Guard Duty” are real, individual people. In keeping with Guantánamo’s long (and as the story makes clear, often pointless) tradition of using only fake names in front of prisoners, the story refers to all characters by either their chosen or an assigned pseudonym.
How were we doing? Not bad, Earl’s new female colleague would probably have said. Earl, who ran my interrogation, and therefore my life, in 2006 and 2007, was a civilian contractor and retired Special Forces NCO in his late forties. His new analyst was about his age, white, tall and slender, and very quiet. When we met for the first time, she did a slow circle of my cell, the small metal cage planted inside the shack I shared with my guards, absorbing all the quotes and pictures I had hanging on the walls.
‘You’re very upbeat,” she told me when she reached the end.
“What is ‘upbeat'?’” I wondered.
She looked at me and back at the wall and pointed at a card a former JTF employee had given me that said something more or less to that effect. There were a few other notes from former guards, pictures of my family, and some sayings I had heard that made me laugh, like What doesn’t kill me postpones the inevitable. Mixed in among these were other quotes, mostly from the Bible or movies, or from movies quoting the Bible, that I loved and that I posted to drive a point home with the people who held absolute power over me. For What Profits a Man If He Gains the Whole World But Loses His Own Soul. I learned this not from the Bible but from the comedy The Bonfire of the Vanities, and I decided to write it out big and hang it on my wall. And from the Bible itself, John 18:23, quoting Jesus, Peace Be Upon Him: If I said anything wrong, you must prove it. But if I'm speaking the truth, why are you beating me? Mr. Nestor, GTMO’s Chief Interrogator, more than once looked at that one and told me he liked it.
The truth is, three years after the worst of my interrogation, my health was really deteriorating. My cholesterol was very high, and I was suffering depression. No matter how hard I tried to mask my pain, the PTSD would kick me harder.
One night I fell off my bed and hit the metal floor so hard I hurt myself and the thump brought one of the guards running in to check on me.
“What happened?” he asked me.
“I was flying!” I answered, still half-asleep. In those days sleep and wakefulness weren’t as separated as they used to be, and my dreams felt physically real. I saw myself flying just about every night. In these dreams the biggest challenge was to land because I felt so light, hovering high over mountains, flying away from bondage into freedom. A phrase I memorized from a German magazine was stuck in my head: Flucht in die Freiheit, Escape Into Freedom. It was from an article in the first magazine I tried to read when I arrived in Europe for university, about Germans fleeing Communist East Germany to the Federal Republic in the west. My guards and interrogators made fun of me for this incident for years. Whenever something happened to me, one of them would say, “Never mind, ha ha, He was flying!”
“He came every day to check whether the seeds had sprouted, but they never did. I could see the hope being washed from his face little by little with every day that passed, but in all the time he was with me it never died completely.”
I’d been taking Klonopin since late 2003, when I was broken to the point I started hearing voices. In the midst of the night sessions I would hear my family chatting, and clear, crisp Mauritanian music like the radio used to play when we gathered for breakfast and dinner: Dimi Nizar Qabbani poems, Feyrouz singing Andalusian and little al-Akhtal verses, Seddoum singing the devastating love poems of al-Buraii. The doctor started me on just a half a milligram of Klonopin, which was more than enough for me: it knocked me into a deep sleep after just a few minutes, and put a stop to my worries and anxieties and brought beautiful sleep for weeks. But as time went by it took longer to fall asleep and I needed more and more. The doctor obliged, doubling the dose, and I rode that life raft for almost two years. Then one day the camp’s supply ran out and the Navy doctor cut me off cold turkey, announcing I’d have to wait until a new delivery from the mainland arrived.
It was like having a partner who compulsively takes care of you and loves you and then, when you break up, that same partner suddenly wants to kill you. I was curled up in my cell, my head was exploding, I couldn’t see anyone or anything around me. Everything was hazy. I was weak, volatile, angry, and my heart felt like it was going to jump out of my chest. I lay that way, not knowing day from night and crying half of the time, for at least two days. Salvation came with the resupply, but after that horrible episode I decided to give up that necessary evil, weaning myself from the daily medications and only taking them to get over a really horrible day, and never more than I needed to reach that end. This wouldn’t be easy, since Klonopin had to be taken under medical supervision, and when the doctors and nurses weren’t around the guards served as their witnesses and enforcers. But I got some unlikely help from Private Brent. Unlike me, Brent loved controlled substances and had no plans to quit using them any time soon. He couldn’t get a prescription on his own, but as my Jordanian interrogators used to tell me, “When Allah closes a window, he opens a door.” The door, in this case, was me.
Brent was a tall, skinny white kid in his early twenties. When we first met, I mistakenly typecast him as a Southerner, until he opened his mouth. He was friendly and distracted, and if he wasn’t outside the shack chain-smoking he mostly sat there smiling through his shift playing his PlayStation or watching episodes of Family Guy, looking as carefree as he must have looked in his living room as a teenager. Or maybe more so. His father was in the Army, too, and Brent had followed in his footsteps, though with a small, important difference. According to what Sergeant N told me, his father was a serious, dedicated soldier who rose to the rank of First Sergeant, in contrast to Brent, who Sgt. N called The Goof. Brent’s dedication, such as it was, took strange forms. The day the Army issued a new camouflage uniform, for instance, he ordered one online and started wearing it on his own—an unclear statement at best in an organization that doesn’t encourage diversity. Brent came up with the ingenious plan to con the medical staff. He and I conspired to pretend that I, ever the good detainee, gratefully accepted and took my medication, when in fact I would give half of the dose to my friend. Brent would collect the pills until he had enough to get him baked or high or whatever the appropriate word was, and then take them all at once.
“Friend” was Brent’s word. In return for my cooperation, Brent said he would bring me movies and food, but most of all I would get to be his friend. This was fine with me, since I was less interested in what I’d gain than in losing that darn Klonopin, and our arrangement gave me a way to quit gradually and avoid another episode of that terrible withdrawal.
This arrangement stood for some time, but Brent started wanting more because he said the prescriptions were too small and it took him too long to get the dose he needed. I was frustrated because I wasn’t ready to give up the medication completely, and I was afraid the doctors would bust us and be angry with me and I really didn’t want to anger my doctors. I thought my friend Brent was getting greedy and I refused to concede the whole dose.
Brent was not happy about this; he agreed out of necessity rather than conviction. I could see he was mad, but there wasn’t much he could do to retaliate without revealing our little secret. Instead, he said he would bring me some seeds and I should let him plant them in the garden the interrogators were letting me grow. At the time I was raising tomatoes, mint, watermelons, a few vegetables, and an avocado tree. He brought a small bottle filled with little black grains he claimed were poppy seeds, and we planted them together. I was happy to do it, because it gave him some hope and gave me some time to quit the Klonopin at my own pace. He came every day to check whether the seeds had sprouted, but they never did. I could see the hope being washed from his face little by little with every day that passed, but in all the time he was with me it never died completely.
Our schemes were never discovered, but the drug curse ultimately cost poor Brent his rank and his job. I learned from Sgt. N much later that he had been dishonorably discharged for using, a sad end, as Sgt. N described it, that also dishonored Brent’s father. I didn’t quite share this view. I felt bad that Brent has lost his job, but it made me happy that he was now free to do what he wanted to do. In my country, too, some fathers pressure their sons to follow in their footsteps, hoping to recycle themselves in an even better version. But Brent clearly wasn’t made for the Army. He was always pensive and distracted and smiling absentmindedly, and never even tried to pretend he had authority over me.
Sergeant N was no stranger to trouble himself. He grew up in rural California, of German descent, judging by his last name. He was in his late twenties, small, about my height, but stocky, with wavy, dirty blond hair and a light complexion. He had served in Iraq and came back without many great things to say about the war and not doing very well at all. He drank a lot and slept a lot. He sometimes started his shift wasted and very angry, just looking for a pillow and a corner to curl up in. On those days, if I steered clear and did my own thing it wouldn’t be long until he passed out, and when he did he’d be asleep for most of the shift, leaving me with the best company of all, namely no one. Even better, his crashing this way gave me the opportunity to borrow his bad movies and watch them as I pleased.
My metal cell occupied a corner of the fifteen-by-twenty five-foot windowless wooden shack. Between the cell and the guards’ area there was a mesh wall with a door in the middle; with the exception of hurricanes and a few other rare lockdowns, that door and my cell door were hardly ever locked. I could wander out and watch movies or play games with the guards, and they could come into my side, roll out a pad, and sleep outside my cell door, in the quiet corner where I also had my shower. There were four to six guards on a team, divided in two twelve-hours shifts, but often one or two would spend their shift in a nearby guard shack watching the action, such as it was, through the surveillance cameras that were installed once the relentless interrogations relaxed. This meant Sgt. N and I were often alone, and on the nights when he passed out I would just help myself to movies he had brought with him that evening. When he woke up and realized what I’d done, I’d tell him that he had allowed me to watch them, didn’t he remember? He would squint his eyes in surprise, think a little bit, and wrongly agree with me.
Sergeant N’s drinking was already causing him problems that year, problems that would become serious enough to get him demoted and kicked out of the camp during his second rotation and land him in the “shittiest job” of all for a guard, which was gatekeeper, also known as rover. Already in 2006 or 2007 you could see a fall from grace coming, to the point I was so afraid for him I had to report my fear to the Joint Task Force leadership. It got to be routine that he would come alone and movieless to the shack—he’d learned that lesson, anyway—and sleep all night in front of my cell door. That was all fine with me, until one of the day shift guards told me about his suicide attempt, and that night, instead of falling straight asleep, he started recounting a long incoherent story about God knows what, everything and anything. I don’t think even he knew what he was saying. All I could do was listen and pray for the story to end. Finally, still in the middle of the monologue, he lay down on his thin green mattress and went to sleep, as innocent as a child.
I sat there for a long time, trying to make sense of the story, but I couldn’t. And then I started to freak out. I stepped slowly out of my cell as he was snoring, and made my way out of the shack. A fence with sniper netting separated the compound I shared with my detainee neighbor from the area with the guard’s shack; in that fence was a small gate with a made-in-China doorbell that had broken long ago. I rang the bell anyway, and danced around to try to get the attention of the guards on duty there, but no one responded. I scooped up some pebbles and tossed them over the fence at the shack, which finally brought one of the guards to the gate. I asked to see the Officer In Charge, a request that the guards would generally deny, but the guard must have seen I was upset, and soon the officer arrived.
I told the OIC that I couldn’t and wouldn’t fall asleep alone in the same room with Sgt. N, because I was afraid he would commit suicide once he saw that no one was watching him. His suicide would be a double tragedy. He would be losing his own life at such a young age, devastating his family and all those who loved and cared about him. And he would be giving the U.S. government, which had been fighting for so long to pin something on me, an easy way out. It would jump on this like a swarm of bees on sweet clover. Murder! I couldn’t imagine a better movie plot. Good Ol’ Sgt. N would be a real American hero, and I’d be the proverbial Arab villain. God knows I’d already been through more than I could handle. Now I could practically see the sparkling eyes of the McCarthyite military prosecutor, circling me and salivating like one of the pack of dogs that kept attacking me in my nightmares, waiting for me to sign the plea deal. Call me a coward, but there was no way in hell I was going through that scenario.
The OIC woke Sgt. N and led him outside. Sgt. N came back looking very angry and disoriented, gathered his belongings, and left. I never saw him again, except from afar. For once I was grateful for my limited range of movement, because it would have been awkward to meet him in person and explain why I betrayed him. I used to peek through the screen that separated my camp from the main gate, and I enjoyed watching him doing his new job, opening and closing the gate, without him seeing me. He didn’t look particularly happy, but he didn’t look miserable either. Now neither of us was in an ideal place: I wasn’t free, and he wasn’t allowed to guard me and act like a king. I was satisfied with myself, thankful for dodging a bullet and praying and hoping for a better future for both of us.
In truth, Sgt. N was very ill, and the Army just gave him pills and a squishy red ball that looked like an overripe tomato to play with, as if these were the cure for spending time in Iraq watching over the killing of innocent people, ushering in a new dictatorship, and clearing the way for the rise of the extremist groups now ravaging the region. And yet to many of the young White recruits, he was a war veteran and a hero.
“I’m proud to be White!” he told me once as I was stepping out of my cell.
“You should be,” I said, my confusion surely visible on my face. I’d obviously caught him in the middle of one of his lectures, but I couldn’t begin to guess the context of his statement. He was surrounded by his usual cheerleaders, low-ranking enlistees who were listening intently to his every word.
“Why can Black people and Mexicans say they’re proud and we can’t?” he pressed me.
“I agree. You should be proud.” More and more, this was my role: I was the person everybody could express an opinion to, without fear of consequences. Socially, I found myself somehow qualified to be everyone’s confidante. It was the ironic flip side of the lesson Earl had taught me about a detainee’s place in our community hierarchy.
It started one day with a private who called himself William. William was extremely nice and never gave me any trouble, but he had a habit of arriving for his shift, throwing one of his movies in the DVD player, turning the volume way up, and falling asleep in front of the TV screen. Without the full dose of Klonopin I was a very light sleeper and anything at all could keep me awake. Unlike William, who had quarters like all the guards in “the TKs,” the Tierra Key staff housing, I had nowhere else I could go to sleep. I got angrier and angrier, until I finally asked him to turn the TV down. He didn’t say anything to his cohorts that night, but he told Earl that I yelled at a guard, and of course Earl had to come and tell me that was a no-go. To hold on to what was left of my dignity, I tried to use our newly-built Interrogator-Detainee “friendship” to explain to him how badly I needed my sleep, how I couldn’t just find a quiet place somewhere else, and how I had a right to sleep and I needed to stand up for that right, and no orders from above could deprive me of that right anymore. He heard me out and seemed sympathetic. But he answered, in essence, that I should have asked nicely, that a guard is always right, and that he couldn’t allow a situation in which any of his guards did not have the upper hand over a detainee.
I bit my tongue, but I was burning with frustration and humiliation inside. He could see this, and he felt bad, I could tell. He called me to go outside the shack with him, and repeated the same message, but more respectfully this time. His politeness defeated my burning anger, and I pretended I understood. I signaled to him that I accepted my place, but I was still a little hurt, and I started negotiating what I could get in return. He agreed to some food and a new deck of cards, and told me that he would ask Mr. Nestor to give me a new laptop so I could watch my own movies and play chess. Earl kept all his promises; he never said he would do something and not follow through.
Through time, I learned that being lowest in the hierarchy somehow also meant I was available to be everybody’s friend. That’s how it was with Mark, one of Sgt. N’s disciples. Mark joined the Army when he was just seventeen, and he did it out of necessity. He had been driving and got into an accident that took the life of his cousin. Some prison time would have been involved, but he was able to avoid it by enlisting in the Army. He couldn’t get around the guilt, though, which kept scratching at his conscience, and one day he swore to me out of nowhere that he didn’t mean to kill his cousin, but his family didn’t believe him. It was as if he assumed that I could read his thoughts, and that I was as haunted as he was by the horrible scenario that kept replaying in his head.
Misfortune often follows misfortune, and so it was for Mark. Some weeks later he came to me crying when he saw that there was no one else around. I was shocked when he sobbed, “I can’t take it anymore. They told me I can’t show you that I’m grieving.” I kept staring at him, speechless, not understanding in the least what was going on.
“My cousin was killed in Iraq,” he finally managed to explain. It was the second cousin he’d lost in a very short time, at so young an age, and I could feel his agony mixing with my own anger. Man, do I hate war! But was he expecting me to cry for the people who went thousands of miles to invade a peaceful country and destroy it? The same people who were holding me captive for no reason except that they could do it? And yet this young man came to me, of all people, seeking comfort when his superiors specifically warned him against it.
I did my best. “Look Mark, I lost my father at a very young age. In the beginning I was wrecked. My whole world collapsed. But after some time, I recovered. This will pass, and you’ll feel better InshAllah!” I gave him a pep talk along those lines as he followed me on my morning walk. Before the walk was over, Private Mark was laughing and gossiping about what had happened recently in the TKs, while I was still drowning in thoughts about my absurd situation.
This was one of Mark’s jobs, to watch me when I went outside for my walk. He was supposed to make sure that I wouldn’t peek through the screens attached to the fencing and watch people coming into and leaving the camp. He did neither well. I’d take my walks early in the morning, just after my first prayers, when the guards were still in the twilight zone and officers had not yet crowded into the camp, and he often let me walk alone. Through time I managed to make little, scattered holes in the screens, big enough to peek through and small enough they wouldn’t be noticed by the passing officers. As he still dozed, I’d fight my way out from under my blanket, every day asking myself why bother to leave the comfort of my bed, and every day finding the answer when I stepped outside and breathed the fresh sea air, scented with the plants growing in my garden. What a difference it made, to be up before the sound of machines and motors! This was my favorite time: I’d take my walk, water my garden, sing my Surat, and listen as life slowly overwhelmed the eerie silence that had reigned over the camp since 6 PM the previous evening. It really is true, prison is the grave of the living, but I loved this time every day when the camp appeared to come back from the dead.
I came to know exactly what to expect. I would hear the engines of the first busses and trucks arriving and leaving, with no one speaking. It would take an hour or two for the staff and detainees alike to defeat the grip of sleep and start shouting and talking. And then I’d get three waves of the morning news. I couldn’t find an angle where I could see the other camps, but I’d hear the detainees start to yell Salam back and forth across the block and share information, no doubt sprinkled with rumors that had been planted by JTF staff members. I’d hear a hint of the outside world in the exchanges of the truck and bus drivers, most of them Jamaicans, as they passed through the camp’s main gate. And I’d learn, as the guard units fell into their morning formation, how my unseen fellow detainees had spent the night: ISN such-and-such threw feces on Sgt. X. ISN Y didn’t sleep. ISN Z cried and wanted to see his interrogator. Of course there would be the daily pep talk, too, about being a hero, defending freedom and all.
Any serenity that was left was broken for good with the zero eight hundred Navy Colors. When it played, my captors dropped everything and stood at attention, with a solemn military salute—that is, unless they were too tired and nobody was there to watch them, in which case the guards would ignore Colors and I wouldn’t have to shuffle around awkwardly, unsure what to do. For me, Colors officially announced another day of illegal imprisonment, bondage, and deprivation. Was I still supposed to salute? Freeze until their strange Pledge of Allegiance was over, with its “Liberty and Justice for all,” that “all” clearly not encompassing me? Pretend nothing was happening?
Where I grew up we didn’t even have a pledge of allegiance. Nationalism, loyalty to country—these things weren’t taught in the schools I attended. We didn’t learn about the supposed relationship between government and the people; the first I heard of the social contract was when I went to Germany for university. People in Mauritania didn’t expect anything from the fatherland, and the fatherland offered nothing. The social contract was broken, but the good news for the leadership was that they didn’t need our votes. Our only real allegiance in my country was to our extended family, our tribe. It was your tribe that would help you if you got sick and couldn’t pay the medical bills. That would pay blood money if you accidentally killed someone. That would defend you if you did wrong. Within the tribe the social contract was strong: every member had a real say, and the chief was usually in that position because he had sacrificed the most. If only that system could be extended to encompass all the citizens of a country, with the chiefs so subject to accountability and change! The Germany I lived in during the 1990s came close, and it managed to do so without the patriotic obsession and modern tribalism I saw all around me in the camp, where the flag of my captors flew everywhere, and grown men and women stopped in their tracks to promise it their allegiance.
Mark didn’t care much about any of these dogmatic notions. His nationalism came naturally, you could say. He watched Fox News and believed everything the network told him. Barack Obama, the Democratic party’s nominee for President, was a Muslim, according to Mark, meaning a non-American to say the least, if not a downright enemy. He told me that Senator Barack Obama had sworn his oath on the Quran when he was elected to the Senate. Through that summer and fall, Mark kept bringing me fresh news highlighting the dangers of this black candidate. I don’t know why he confided such things in me, and why he believed that I would dislike Obama because of his African roots or religious affiliation. I don’t know how he could reconcile that I was “a nice guy” and a Muslim at the same time, when to him these were absolute opposites.
Sometimes Mark seemed to forget completely that I was the detainee and he was the guard, the one who was always right, the one with the power to humiliate me and use violence, even lethal force, if he judged it to be necessary. He could do anything he wanted to hurt me and afterwards write a report or have someone write a report saying that he felt that his life was threatened: of all the guards who physically assaulted and seriously injured detainees, exactly zero were held to account. As yet it was me who taught Mark how to play cards, and me who accepted him as my partner when his friends rejected him. This was a sure recipe for losing, but I had been losing so much, in so many ways, since my kidnapping that I’d grown intimate with the feeling. It was the attraction of the familiar: what would it even be like to win? Whenever Mark was my partner, we’d take a beating, which worked out all around. It gave the higher-ranking MPs, who loved winning, what they needed, and it gave me the opportunity to lecture Mark about his mistakes, little scoldings that offered a way to vent years’ worth of anger over never winning.
Our relationship just deepened Mark’s sense of confusion. One day he came to me complaining that other detainees had been bad-mouthing him along with other guards on the team.
“You know what I told them?” he asked me.
“No,” I said, dreading this conversation.
He smiled triumphantly. “At the end of the day, I’ll go home, and you’ll still be in the same cell.” I knew enough about Mark’s life to wonder whether the difference was as great as he imagined, and what “home” was like for him, really. How comfortable would life be for Mark back in the States when his tour ended? And aside from better food and calling his mother whenever he wanted, was his off-duty life here in the TKs all that much freer than mine? And why—I got angrier and angrier the more I thought about this—did he think soothing himself by humiliating prisoners would play well with me? I reminded him that I was a detainee, and that any detainee would tell him that in the eyes of God and decent human beings the oppressed one is better than the oppressor, for he has been wronged and has suffered. Mark just looked at me and didn’t say anything, as far as I could tell not even trying to understand what I was saying.
One day he came to his shift drunk. He opened his backpack and pulled out what was left of a big bottle of Jack Daniels. He waved it toward me, offering it, or showing off, or both. I told him that I didn’t drink. He packed it up without a word and went next door to try his luck with my next-door neighbor. By that point he was breaking many rules and obviously not in a right state of mind. I learned the rest of the story later from his friends. He drank so much and was so obviously drunk that a first sergeant stopped him on his way back to the TKs. When the sergeant demanded to know why he’d been drinking, Mark insisted Sgt. N had approved it, which somehow, as far as I could tell, was the end of the matter.
These kinds of stories repeated themselves through the years as new guard teams rotated through, with interesting variations. On the next crew it was Private Jay, a tall skinny black guy in his early twenties, who was addicted to PlayStation games; he would smuggle the console through the gate in a big cereal box, plug it into the TV in the guard shack, and play until he passed out. He loved life and was always hugging people, and seemed to like talking with me in the very few minutes he had when he wasn’t playing his games or watching movies. I liked him, too. One night I woke up around 2 AM and found him asleep in his chair, his head on his arms on the table. I did what any decent detainee would do: I took one of his movies and watched it on my own. But to compensate, I filled in his log book for him, to cover for him in case one of the officers showed up. “DETAINEE WOKE UP,” I wrote, with the timestamp alongside. I did this according to the rules I’d read, which required that everything be in the past tense and in “capitol” letters, as the instructions said.
Private Jay’s superior called himself Stan, after the South Park character. He was a smart, outgoing specialist in his late twenties who had attacked life with ambition. He married the woman he loved, bought a beautiful house, and was studying medicine. However, as he explained it to me, his dream world collapsed all of a sudden when he came home one day earlier than usual to find his neighbor filling in for him in his absence, entertaining his wife in ways Stan didn’t like. In fact he hated what he saw so much that he filed for divorce, sold the house, and joined the Army. It was another in a long line of stories I’d heard about young men and women joining the military to get away from difficult lives.
Specialist Stan was half Italian and half Irish, and his main goal in life now seemed to be to teach me about Mafia culture. He introduced me to The Sopranos, which he and his boss Sgt. Kyle would watch together in the camp. Kyle was also named after a South Park character, making this my second group of guards to assign themselves parts in popular dramas, and it was an improvement on the first, which took the names of Star Wars heroes, a casting decision which presupposed a world of evil characters they were fighting against. It didn’t take me long to learn Sgt. Kyle’s real name. He was from Chicago, proudly Polish-German, and he revealed his last name himself in a guessing game we were playing, when he told me his name means curly-haired in German. His first name he just spilled directly, in the middle of a story, when he said, “and the guy looks at me and says, ‘Nick…’” He caught himself and we stared at each other for a second, knowing the truth about forbidden things, which is that as soon as you know them, they can never be forgotten.
Sergeant Kyle’s foundations seemed solid. His father was a computer networking specialist, he told me, and his mother was a devout Catholic, with a special love for the late Pope John Paul II, no doubt because he was Polish. He spoke Polish himself and shared that love, bringing me a movie once about the life of the pontiff. He was genuinely cultured and funny, and the other guards laughed at all his jokes, even when it was their people or groups that were the targets, since the most offensive jokes he knew, and his favorites, were his endless Polack riddles. He always slept beside my cell, asking me to kill the light when I went to sleep because he was afraid the bulb would burn the house down, and as he was dozing off he would share some of the post-9/11 jokes about Arabs and Muslims.
“A young Arab is walking down the street in New York and sees a little girl who’s being attacked by a pit bull,” went one of the jokes. “Without a thought, he dives in and saves the girl’s life. A cop shows up and showers the young man with praise.”
“‘I can’t wait to see the headline tomorrow: True New York hero saves the life of a little girl!’,” the cop proclaims.
“‘I’m not from NY,’” the young man says.
“‘Who cares? An American hero saves the life of a little girl!’” the cop revises.
“‘I’m not American.’”
“‘What are you?’”
“‘TERRORIST ATTACKS INNOCENT DOG IN NEW YORK!,’ the next day’s headline read.”
Inevitably, this kind of familiarity got Sgt. Kyle in trouble. My shrink at that time was a Navy lieutenant whose job was to visit the many detainees who were suffering depression, or worse, were downright mentally ill. She was a thin White woman in her mid-thirties, full of fake smiles and artificial friendliness. She would come to me with the usual questions:
“Are you going to hurt yourself or someone else?”
“No, but if I was planning to, I obviously wouldn’t tell you!” I’d answer.
She would run through a list of questions about my health. Once when she asked how I was sleeping I confided that I would often lie in bed for long hours without falling asleep. I shouldn’t do that, she told me, offering the valuable and useful advice that aside from sleeping, a bed should only be used for sex. What could I say to that? She wanted to prescribe something and wanted to make another appointment to talk about the sleep issue further, but she wasn’t sure of her schedule. I told her she could just tell Nick when she would be able to see me again, and he would tell me.
She was shocked that I knew Nick’s name, but she didn’t say anything to me. Instead, when she left, she took Sgt. Kyle outside the camp and gave him a serious scolding for letting evil detainees know his real name. Sgt. Kyle came back straight back to me and asked me not to call him by his name in front of strangers. As far as he was concerned, that was that. Not, however, for me and the shrink. A few weeks later she returned, smiling as usual, pretending to be an angel coming from on high to help me. The help consisted of a long lecture that included a list of the things I should be doing to help myself. I listened carefully until she was done.
“I know what you told Nick,” I said calmly. “I never asked anyone about their names or tried to know their names.” She was clearly startled and she just kept looking at me. “You understand I can’t trust you when I know that you don’t think you can trust me?” I added.
“Yes, I do understand,” she said. She quickly put on her cap and left the room.
Of course I couldn’t trust my shrink, whose job went beyond the usual therapist-client responsibilities. And of course trust was the heart of many dramas between me and my guards. What surprised me was how much many of them struggled, like me, to trust anyone at all. It made me sad to see how little faith Sgt. Kyle and Spc. Stan had in romantic relationships, for example. Like Stan, Sgt. Kyle told me he’d been hurt bad in the past, and both said many times they weren’t ready to repeat the same mistake of trusting someone. A sense of insecurity hung over almost every conversation I overheard or was part of about partners and spouses, which was often accompanied by wild promises of violence if the partner or spouse was unfaithful.
It was the kind of talk I grew up with, the kind of talk that can trap a person into acting out preordained roles in a tribal drama. “Great honor will always be touched and dirtied,” as Al-Mutanabbi put it, “until blood is spilled around it.” Which is exactly what happened with a couple of Kyle’s and Stan’s South Park crew colleagues. Specialist Timmy was another tall, skinny white kid in his early twenties who loved to drink and often started his shift with red eyes, smelling of alcohol. He was from Michigan, which he taught me is not pronounced Mitchigan, but with a sh, like Chicago, and he grew up in a city he liked to tell me had a large Arab population. He would start his shift with a nap and then wake up wanting to play spades, which he did well. By the standards of Echo Special, he seemed to be doing fine, but stories about his life in the TKs suggested otherwise. It was clear enough that some of his colleagues didn’t like him.
None, I learned one day, more than Sergeant Chris, another skinny white kid in his early twenties.
The trouble started at a party in the TKs, a party that included Timmy, Chris, and Chris’s girlfriend. Chris’s girlfriend was pregnant, which gave extra wings to a rumor that started flying around the next morning that Timmy had fooled around with her during or after the party. Since in GTMO an accusation was as good as a conviction, Chris found himself in the uncomfortable position of having to reestablish his manliness and avenge his reputation.
The next night Timmy and Sergeant Gomez, his boss, were assigned to guard my neighbor Malik, who occupied the shack facing mine. Malik was about ten years my senior. When I was first dumped in Camp Echo he was big, but fit and athletic, but by now he was huge, over three hundred pounds, a victim of depression, a terrible diet, and years of confinement. Malik’s set up was the same as mine, and that night Timmy was sound asleep on duty, as usual. Chris, seizing the tactical advantage and making the best of his training, slid into the shack, slammed the door shut behind him, and dove for Timmy’s throat. He started choking him, driven half by anger and half by the prospect of the social death sentence he’d face if he failed to act. “I wanted to kill him,” Chris confessed to me later on, a smile of pride and satisfaction on his face. He said Timmy was lucky Malik and Gomez were around. Together they had jumped to the aid of the struggling Timmy, Malik completely forgetting that he must never touch a guard and Gomez giving up the entertainment of seeing a UFC fight live. Together, they saved poor Timmy’s life. They emerged from that night as heroes, though it was clear from all the versions of the story I heard that Malik had played the decisive role because of his tremendous size, and because he was fully awake when the fight started, while Gomez, like my guards that night, was dozing from all the partying the night before.
Sergeant Gomez tried to keep the details of the assault and his heroism from me, and at the same time he was itching to gossip with his comrades about the fight. He was one of the ones who seemed to believe the brainwashing briefings he’d received before we met, that anyone in my position was the worst of the worst, a hardened al Qaeda or Taliban fighter who was responsible for 9/11 and hell-bent on hurting Americans. But he was also sociable and curious, traits that always worked in my favor. He wanted to talk, but wanted to set the rules and let me know that he was aware of my sneaky ways. “I know you were trying to listen to us,” he told me once, as he and another guard fell silent when I passed them on my daily walk. Honestly I wasn’t listening and hadn’t heard a word they said, but it wasn’t hard to guess the subject. Borrowing a tactic I’d learned from my interrogators, I shot back, “I know you were talking about Timmy and Chris. I know everything about it.” Pretending to know everything encourages the target to provide information willingly, without feeling tricked or guilty.
I eventually did learn everything from gossiping with the other guards. CID investigated the fight, I learned, taking statements from everyone except from Malik, the one person who witnessed everything and could provide the most incriminating evidence. No guards would ever testify against one of their own, and it would be unthinkable for a detainee to testify against a JTF staff member. And so ironically Malik ended up saving both Timmy and Chris, stopping Timmy from being strangled and keeping Chris from serving time in brig for the crime. The worst that happened was that Chris, too, got demoted and transferred to gate duty and the dreaded post of rover. I would see him through the screen from time to time on my walks, looking defiant as ever, happy for being punished for defending his honor.
Meanwhile, Gomez gradually dropped his guard. He loved to troll me, making fun of the way I talked. He said I had a funny accent and the tendency to repeat the same words over and over. He meant this to sting, but it became clear that he loved humor that pushes the edges of your comfort zone and he could take as well as he could give. He was often targeted himself for his name and heritage, the butt of jokes from the other guards about gang culture and immigration status, though he wasn’t an immigrant, and as far as I could tell that experience was well back in his family’s past. It gave me a way in, too.
“I don’t understand why you didn’t join the Special Forces,” I needled him one day.
“Why? What do you mean?” he wondered, squinting at me warily.
“I mean with all the running, swimming, and jumping you had to do to get into the country, surely you could have qualified.” He was a good sport, laughing along with everyone else. But now the game was on: instead of backing down, he intensified his campaign. He brought white Post-it notes and wrote down phrases he insisted were ridiculous or wrong or just plain funny and stuck them to the walls. “I don’t really speak like this,” I’d protest, but he’d just smile and repeat the phrases, pushing me for a reaction. He pushed me hard, to the point that some of the other guards took him aside and told him to tone it down and stop posting the trolling notes, but I wasn’t offended at all.
One day when I went on my walk the guards all decided to join me. Lost in our conversation as we left the shack, none of them thought to grab the key. The door slammed shut before they could retrieve it, and we were locked out. A wave of energy shot through my body: for the first time in so many years I was locked out, not locked in. And I was laughing, thinking of how I now had something I could torment Sergeant Gomez with in return. But the guards were in a panic, desperate to fix this problem before an officer showed up. There were no windows, the locked door was the only way in, but everyone kept offering crazy ideas on what to do. Finally, resurrecting the stereotype I knew would get a laugh, I cut in. “Guys! I hate to say it, but our best bet to break in is Sergeant G,” I said.
Gomez looked at me, smiling, and pulled out a credit card from his wallet. He slid it between the door and the frame and wiggled it skillfully until the door popped open. The thrill of the moment disappeared in an instant, and I found myself as relieved as the rest. All I wanted by then was to go back to my cell, because to be honest, I really felt the safest in that small space.