How can we let this happen??

 Months of Blows and Panic
    By Olivier Bertrand
    Libération

    Monday 20 February 2006

Mourad
Benchellali, who left France in 2001 for a Taliban camp, recounts the
horror of his detention by the Americans in Kandahar, then at
Guantánamo.

    Mourad
Benchellali left Vénissieux in June 2001. He was 19-years-old when he
left for Afghanistan. Four and a half years later, he has just come
back, after several successive Hells. Two months in a Taliban training
camp, then capture in Pakistan – to be handed over to the Americans.
And torture – in Kandahar, then at Guantánamo. Upon his return, the
French justice system kept him in detention for eighteen months before
freeing him last month. His profile has filled out. Mourad wears his
frizzy hair long, in a pony tail. No one recognizes him and he prefers
that. He wants to turn the page. But first, to relate what he saw in
Guantánamo. He testifies at length for Libération: about the channels
he used to get to Afghanistan, about training with the Taliban, about
the tortures he endured. His recitation is precise, since the many
interrogations, he says, have “engraved” the slightest details into his
memory. It is impossible to verify what he says, but his testimony is
corroborated by that of other Guantánamo “lodgers.”

    “I
left very quickly. A few weeks before, a person very close to me had
talked about the possibility of going to Afghanistan. He himself had
been there; he told me it would be a good experience. I didn’t know it
was for a Taliban camp. The issue of learning how to fight was never
brought up. The whole idea was to go to an Islamic country so I could
have an inside look at Islam. I had never traveled. I wanted to have an
adventure, get out of the routine. I was supposed to look for a
training position in September 2001. I thought I’d leave Vénissieux for
two or three months.”

    “A
few days before I left, I learned that I’d be with Nizar Sassi. He was
a friend’s older brother. I was happy. We took the high-speed train to
Paris, then a Eurolines bus to London. We had the phone number of a man
there; we called him when we got there; he asked to meet us in Finsbury
Park. [1]
He came to get us and took us to a little apartment. He was the only
person we saw in London. An Algerian, I think. He helped us get our
airplane tickets and three days later we left for Pakistan with a
telephone number and the name of a hotel in Peshawar. There, someone
took care of us to get us to Jalalabad, in Afghanistan. At each stage,
the person left us with another contact before parting from us. It was
easy. We left for Kabul; then we were taken to the training camp in
Kandahar at the beginning of July 2001.”

    “When bin Laden Came, We Didn’t Understand the Excitement”

    “I
spent two months there, in the desert. There were tents, a little clay
mosque, a little clinic. We were more than 200 of all different
nationalities. I felt like I had let myself be trapped. Nizar and I
never intended to go to such a camp. But there was a clear rule: once
in, no one could leave before the end of our training, unless they were
really sick. You needed the authorization of the big Emir in charge of
the camp for that. Nizar, thank God, was sick after a month: he was
able to leave.”

    “I
did what they called basic training. About 60 days during which you
discover the specialization modules you could choose afterwards:
topography, mountain techniques, explosives … The instructors came
from different countries. At the first class, they showed us how to put
a Kalashnikov together and take it apart. Then we fired a round, to
know what it feels like. After that, we learned topography, how to read
a map, how to use a compass. Then explosives handling: they showed us
all the different types. The conditions there were very difficult:
heat, fatigue, hunger. They wanted us to experience extreme conditions,
in case we went to fight – in Chechnya, for example. I lost a lot of
weight. I had bad diarrhea.”

    “Bin
Laden came one time while I was in that camp. In July. He came with his
escort in 4×4 pick-ups. Everyone in the camp started to chant in Arabic
‘here comes the Sheikh; here comes the Sheikh.’ Nizar and I, we didn’t
understand the excitement. It was before September 11; he didn’t yet
represent what he does today. I had never heard of him. They told us:
‘It’s Sheikh bin Laden!’ He got out; many went towards him to shake his
hand. He made a speech. I was sick, tired; I didn’t understand Arabic;
I went back to my tent; I didn’t listen to the speech.”

    “After
my training, I met up with Nizar again and we left for Jalalabad. There
we learned about Massoud’s death on September 9th from Radio France
International. People told us it was going to get dangerous for us
because Arabs did it. Then we learned about the World Trade Center
right afterwards. We were advised to wait. When the bombing began, we
stayed hidden in a house. Sometimes we slept outside. Then the Northern
Alliance came back to Jalalabad; the Taliban ran away and everyone left
by way of the mountains. The march lasted over a month. Two of our
group died of cold. We ended up in a little village in Pakistan that
was called Parachinar, right next to the border. The people there took
us in. We wanted them to help us get back to Islamabad, so we could
contact the French embassy and get repatriated. But one day, they told
us to meet them at the village mosque to talk about our trip. We went
in; the doors were closed behind us. They called the Pakistani Special
Forces, which came to arrest us.”

    “Three Days of Terror in Kandahar”

    “We
stayed in three different barracks in Pakistan. That lasted two weeks.
The third week, people came to see us. They said they came from the UN.
There was a UN flag in the room where they interrogated us. They wanted
to know who we were, how we had gotten there, what connection we had
with al-Qaeda. They spoke French rather well, but with an American
accent. That afternoon, the Pakistani guards told us they were the CIA.
We were handcuffed inside trucks; hoods were put on us; and we traveled
24 hours with neither food nor anything to drink. The truck stank of
urine. When it stopped, the Americans were waiting for us.”

    “It
was night time; the place looked like a military airport. They formed a
big circle with trucks and the headlights lit up the center. That’s
where we were delivered. The Americans had the list of our names from
the barracks. They made us get into little airplanes; they cinched us
to the floor, hands behind our backs and hoods on our heads. The flight
lasted over two hours. We landed in Kandahar, where I spent fifteen
days in a camp. There were 150 people when I got there, 800 when I
left.”

    “They
locked up the new arrivals in a big hangar with buckets for toilets.
The arrival was violent. They put handcuffs on our wrists and feet,
hoods on our heads; they completely undressed us and beat and kicked
us, as they insulted and spit on us. Then they piled us up and we heard
them taking pictures. That went on for three days like that. Some were
bleeding; some crying. They were truly three days of terror. Then they
put blue jumpsuits on us and led us into big, wired enclosures, 60 to a
cage.”

    “Abuse
was a daily affair. They urinated on detainees; they threw Korans into
the buckets where we relieved ourselves. They also shaved part of the
heads of some people, or a single eyebrow. It seemed like they were
doing that for fun. They often talked about the World Trade Center.
They brought in women, soldiers, who undressed in front of us and
touched some detainees. The officers saw what was happening.”

    “I
was interrogated three times in Kandahar. Always the same questions:
‘What were you doing in Afghanistan? What were you doing with the
Taliban?’ Did you see bin Laden? Do you know where he is?’ The
interrogator was seated at a table; I was squatting on the ground, my
wrists and feet cuffed together, like a sheep before its throat is cut.
Other times, I was cuffed, arms in a cross, to an iron bar over my
head. The interrogations lasted three or four hours. They hit me many
times on the back of my neck with the side of their hands.”

    “At
night; they woke us up every half hour for roll call. They put numbered
bracelets on us. I was 161. They lined us up squatting; then we went
back to sleep after they called us; then they woke us up again a half
hour later. Psychologically, it was very hard. There were also
detainees they left standing all night long. When they nose-dived,
they’d hit them to stand them up again. In the end, the guys were so
tired they fell down and let them hit them. I was terrified. I said to
myself that given what they were doing to us, they could never risk
letting us go. I said to myself: ‘Mourad, they’re never going to let
you tell about this. You have to get ready to die.'”

    “At
the end of a week and a half, they shaved my head and my beard, put a
hood on me, and I left on a plane. They stuck patches on us that must
have been sleep-inducing. We dozed. The plane set down after an hour
and we changed planes. Then the trip lasted 24 hours. We didn’t know
where we were going. It was the Red Cross that told me a few weeks
later that I was in Cuba.”

    “In One of the Interrogation Rooms, the Feeling the Brain Was Going to Dissolve”

    “We
were undressed on arrival. They laid us on our stomachs and kicked us.
There was a man with an Arab accent, a Lebanese, I think. He screamed
in Arabic. ‘What are you doing there; why did you go to Afghanistan?’
Then we were led into a room where there was a doctor with a white
scrub on. He listened to our chests and put on a glove to stick a
finger in our anus. He photographed us naked and gave us red jumpsuits.
We were in the provisional Camp X-Ray. There were about 350 people.
There were people who had been arrested pretty much everywhere in the
world. Six came from Bosnia, two from Zambia, an Afghan had been
kidnapped in Mexico; two Algerians claimed they were captured by the
Russian Mafia in Georgia. We stayed there for four months before we
were transferred to Camp Delta, with cells made out of containers with
the panels removed and replaced by grills. There was a Turkish toilet,
a sink, and an iron plate that served as a bed, with a thin mattress on
it.”

    “Interrogations
could take place at any moment of the day or night. On average, I was
interrogated once or twice a week. Never by the same men. To go there,
they made us run with cuffs and chains on our feet. They cut into our
flesh, which bled. The interrogations could last two to fifteen hours.
They took place in big rooms, with two-way mirrors on the sides.
Sometimes we heard people behind them. The room was very lit up; there
was a chair with a harness for the detainee and big air conditioners
behind us. Sometimes they turned them on all the way. The questions
were different from in Kandahar. They wanted to know everything about
our life, our journey. They wanted to know everything about each stage.
They said they were from the FBI. There were always two of them plus an
interpreter.”

    “There
was another interrogation room, on which they had written ‘Hell’ in
Arabic. If you didn’t cooperate, you went there. It was a completely
black room, with a bench fitted out with cinches like in a psychiatric
hospital in the middle. There were enormous speakers on the walls and
projectors on the ceiling. They bound the detainees and put on the
music full blast, often techno music. The spotlights flashed very
strong, very fast bursts of white light. It seems that that [room]
makes you feel like your brain is going to dissolve. Some people stayed
there two days.”

    “There
was also a special team of five guards, who intervened in anti-crowd
gear with big Plexiglas shields. They came in making a rhythmic ‘Hou
hou hou’ sound, tapping their feet. It was very impressive. They came
into a cell really fast, their shield in front. You felt like a bus ran
into you. Some guards behaved well. I remember one who secretly brought
me a cup of coffee he handed through the bars. Some told us that when
they got back to the US, they’d tell what they had seen.”

    “Many Suicide Attempts, but None Successful”

    “They
made us take lots of medicine. They said that it was for tuberculosis,
tetanus, or malaria. They were little pills with no marks on them. They
were round, sometimes a little thick. They gave us headaches or made us
throw up. We thought they were doing experiments on us, since, later,
nurses asked us questions about the effects. There were also
vaccinations – I think I got five of them – and blood samplings. I had
nausea, diarrhea, and constipation. Once they gave us an injection that
made a bulge in our arms they came to measure with a ruler.”

    “At
one time, we had books brought by the Red Cross, then they were
forbidden. They only left us the Koran. Boredom made us crazy.
Sometimes we got mail, but they censored it by crossing out passages.
Sometimes, they’d just leave a final line: ‘That’s all the news from
the family.’ It was a real torture.”

    “There
were many suicide attempts. At least one a day in the time just before
I left. As far as I know, no one ever succeeded. The guards took men
who tried to hang themselves with their bed sheet down very fast. They
were sent to the crazy’s bloc. There was also an isolation camp where
they put people they thought were dangerous. No one knows what went on
in there. The Red Cross had no access. I think about it often.”

    “Three
times, French policemen came to interrogate me. The first time, there
were eight of them. Two asked questions; the others around asked for
details. They behaved properly. They knew what was happening in
Guantánamo. They told us to hold on; they couldn’t do anything. Two
Americans were present for the interrogations.”

    “I
learned I was going home two days before the day of departure. A
Yemenite said to me: ‘Mourad, you’re French. You’re going back to a
country where there are laws. Tell what’s happening here.’ I have no
hatred, no anger. Only incomprehension. I understand that Americans had
to respond to September 11. But they have prisons in America. Maybe I
made a mistake by going to Afghanistan, but I didn’t deserve
Guantánamo.”


    [1]
At that time, the Finsbury Park mosque was led by Abu Hamza, condemned
to seven years in prison on February 7 for incitement to murder and
racial hatred.


Taken from truthout.org
    Translation: t r u t h o u t French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.

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3 thoughts on “How can we let this happen??

  1. so glad to be alive …so glad to be where i am…so glad to understand the unjust and just and know all is connected…so glad to understand LOVE…. glad you printed this here…not all of us  understand and live life sheltered..it is good to see more of the picture of life..and live and feel..love you …<3

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