My last day in Guantanamo
Content warning: The following article contains descriptions of torture that some readers may find distressing.
"Brother, please, don't forget us here.”
“I promise I won't forget any of you, I won't be free until you all are free."
These were the last words I exchanged with my fellow detainees when I finally left the notorious Guantanamo Bay prison in July 2016.
On my final night in Guantanamo, in Camp 5's solitary confinement cells, we gathered to say goodbye. We sat in cages made of chain-linked fences in the recreation area.
Some of us were on hunger strikes and had been forced to endure force-feeding. Others had been cleared for release for years but remained stuck, while others were considered ‘forever prisoners’.
Time had passed, and we had all grown older. Grey hair and health issues plagued us. Now, on this night, we found ourselves confined in cages, separated by different camps, with 14 shared years of our lives wasted behind bars.
"Sometimes we believed they would kill us, as the interrogators threatened. Other times, we held on to hope that they would release us once they realised our innocence. But this story is more complex than guilt or innocence, and we soon learned the naivety of our thinking"
As I witnessed my brothers being chained and shackled to be moved, tears welled up inside me. They were all here for one reason — to see and talk to me one last time. The army guards escorted them away, one by one.
"All the troublemakers are here tonight," commented a guard, and his words brought tears to my eyes.
My freedom will not be complete until they too are free. They are a part of me, a part of my life. They were comrades in the ‘red-eyes’ resistance squad, sacrificing everything, even their lives.
At that moment, I longed to see Yasser, Ali, Mani'a, Waddah, Adnan, and others who had lost their lives in Guantanamo. Their bodies were shipped out of Guantanamo in coffins, labelled only with their ISN numbers and the dates of their deaths.
On the latest episode of @TheNewArabVoice we spoke with @MansoorAdayfi about his time as an inmate at #Guantanamo and torture he was subjected to.— The New Arab Voice (@TheNewArabVoice) June 29, 2023
Listen in full: https://t.co/RyjiBkyUJw pic.twitter.com/MXP52wgrKN
To the unknown: A journey of death
From the beginning of my journey with American interrogators, torture and death were constant companions. The worst of it was during my time in a CIA black site in Afghanistan, a cold underground hole where I was detained and interrogated.
I was stripped naked, hung, collared, and chained. Then I was transferred to Kandahar military detention, where guards, interrogators, and soldiers subjected me to beatings and forced my hand to sign my own execution.
I was kept isolated and shackled for weeks, surrounded by razor barbed wires, with machine guns and bright lights glaring from two towers. The intense interrogations and torture never ceased.
I was isolated and chained to the floor in a hanger, and in those last few days, my deteriorating health condition led to my removal from that harsh environment. One of the worst scenes I witnessed was an old man being stripped naked in front of his son, an 11-year-old boy forced to watch the humiliation.
I cursed the soldiers with every word I knew, but my mouth was silenced with a duct tape and I was moved back to the hangar for further torment.
I was dragged into a tent, stripped naked, and hung while soldiers shaved our bodies and subjected us to mockeries. Female soldiers twerked and rubbed against us, jeering and degrading us. I witnessed a detainee crying, and I told him to be strong.
Defiantly, I spat at the soldiers and attempted to free myself, pulling at the chains with all my might. But escape was impossible. At least I rattled the tent, scaring the soldiers who rushed in, their weapons at the ready, threatening to shoot me. At that point, I didn't care anymore. I had already faced death many times in the CIA black sites.
My mouth was duct-taped, and the subsequent anal searches felt like rape. Chained, shackled, and clad in an orange jumpsuit, I was shipped off to Guantanamo, wearing a sign around my neck that said, "BEAT ME."
Soldiers fulfilled that request throughout the 40-hour flight. At one point, I wished the plane would crash into the ocean.
After landing, I was barely alive, but Marines continued to beat and kick us mercilessly. Boarding a bus bound for a ferry, I encountered my friend, Sea, who assured me that everything would be fine.
"The longer we stayed in Guantanamo, the further we drifted from our previous lives, from our memories, emotions, and relationships"
I was at a processing station, a scene familiar from the news, where the United States government announced that the "worst of the worst" had arrived in Guantanamo.
Stripped naked, except for the hood, goggles, musk, and ear muffs covering my head, my body was subjected to a high-pressure hose and relentless strikes from large brooms and kicks from soldiers’ boots. The hood over my head became wet, and the duct tape on my mouth shifted, making it difficult to breathe.
I was taken to Camp X-Ray, a temporary detention facility made of chain-linked fences that lacked toilets and provided no shelter from the sun. Each detainee was confined to a separate cage, resembling animals in an orange jumpsuit-coated zoo.
Bruised faces, split lips, and blue eyes were common sights. It was the first camp built to house what they considered the "worst of the worst." We had no shared lives or memories before Guantanamo. We spoke more than 20 languages, representing around 50 nationalities. We were completely unaware of where we were or what lay ahead.
Reduced to mere numbers, I became 441. Everything was shrouded in darkness, and a million questions, fears, and confusion filled every face. We were all fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons—teachers, doctors, students, farmers, soldiers, commanders, chefs, artists, journalists, singers, drug dealers, former spies, and children.
In Camp X-Ray, rules were nonexistent. Guards filled with hatred, competing interrogation agencies, and absolute chaos prevailed.
Sometimes we believed they would kill us, as the interrogators threatened. Other times, we held on to hope that they would release us once they realised our innocence.
But this story is more complex than guilt or innocence, and we soon learned the naivety of our thinking.
From Guantanamo with Love
After four months, we were transferred to a more permanent camp called "Camp Delta," which consisted of shipping containers. The toilets were holes in the ground, the sinks were holes in the walls, and we had roofs to shield us from the sun.
It was only here that we finally learned that we were indeed in Guantanamo, thanks to the arrival of new detainees who shared this information. We believed that America aimed to bring all Muslims to Guantanamo.
Until then, we had no idea what Guantanamo was. Most of us were young, in our early 20s. I was 19 years old, but the American files depicted me as a hardened Al-Qaida Egyptian General in my 30s.
A turning moment in Guantanamo came in late 2002 when General Jeffery Miller arrived to transform it into a military laboratory. He began by formulating the camp's Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), consolidating intelligence agencies and forces under JTF (Joint Task Force) and JDG (Joint Detention Group).
Miller is the one who spearheaded the construction of a torture program - euphemistically called ‘Enhanded Interrogation Techniques’ (he later visited Iraq while still in Guantanamo).
"Camp officers told us: 'You have no rights here; what we give you is a privilege and can be taken at any time'. Was our very existence also considered a privilege?"
We spent four years of our lives in Camps 1, 2, and 3 of Camp Delta. These camps were officially closed by the end of 2006. Painful and joyful memories were etched into our minds during our time there, but the worst was the loss of some of our brothers. We rebelled against the camp numerous times, only to be subdued each time.
Unbeknownst to us, every act of resistance made us stronger and more organised. We struggled, grew, and matured within those cages, learning important lessons along the way.
Events in Guantanamo unfolded like a gripping, terrifying, and unpredictable TV show called "From Guantanamo with Love". Neither the authors, producers, directors, nor actors knew how the story would unfold.
Everything around us changed — the face of Guantanamo itself evolved, with new camp staff, interrogators, and guards rotating in and out, and the camp's SOP constantly changing.
The number of detainees increased year after year, leading to the construction of new camps: Camp 4 as a medium-security facility designed to showcase Guantanamo, where dozens of detainees lived in communal blocks wearing white uniforms, allowing media and tours to access and film them; Camps 5, 6, and 7 as maximum-security camps; Camp Echo for legal meeting and isolation; and Camp Iguana to hold children.
For 14 years, we were moved from camp to camp, from block to block, each relocation eroding a piece of our lives.
In 2005, we went on mass hunger strike, and the US government responded by sending new staff to break our resolve. We were tortured and force-fed. In June 2006, three of our brothers died under suspicious circumstances.
The longer we stayed in Guantanamo, the further we drifted from our previous lives, from our memories, emotions, and relationships.
Our brains began constructing new memories, relationships, and experiences, all tied to our confinement. Guantanamo became our shared life, binding us together. It moulded our thoughts, shaped our personalities, and became an inseparable part of our existence.
Artwork created by Mansoor during his time in Guantanamo. [Mansoor Adayfi]
A glimmer of (false) hope
In 2009, a flicker of false hope cast a shadow over Guantanamo when President Obama signed an executive order to close the facility. We dared to believe it could be true, but our time in Guantanamo had taught us not to trust the US government.
The US government attempted to distract us by improving living conditions in the camp — basic human rights we had been demanding for years. It marked a new beginning in Guantanamo.
Finally, the Navy and Army sat down to negotiate and to listen to our demands in 2010. Years at Guantanamo had aged us, hunger strikes had ravaged our bodies, and torture had left its scars.
We had endured so much, with no end in sight. We consulted with our brothers on how to navigate the negotiations, and the majority agreed that improving living conditions should be our priority.
Camp 6 transformed into a communal living camp, and life in the detention facility underwent a complete change. Guards treated us with respect, and our treatment improved.
During this golden age, we had the opportunity to learn English, engage in art, and make video calls to our families. We reconnected with fellow prisoners we hadn't seen in years, reigniting shared memories of our time in Guantanamo.
"We grew up within those cages and cement boxes, we sang in different languages, and danced in different styles, we taught and protected each other, we became friends and brothers"
Every face, number and name transported us to a specific year, block, or camp, immersing us deeper in our imprisonment, reliving it over and over again. While talking to our families, we discovered that everything had changed.
During this period, I focused on self-improvement, determined not to be ignorant or empty. I wrote the initial parts of my first book draft in Arabic in 2010, later translating it into English.
The golden years in Guantanamo were some of the best moments of our lives. Yes, we were in jail, imprisoned, but we lived and cherished the little we had.
In 2012, the army took over control of Guantanamo from the navy. General John Kelly was not happy about the little things we had. Our hard-won rights were taken away. Artwork was destroyed, possessions confiscated. Abuse in the camp and torture were day and night.
Camp officers told us, “You have no rights here; what we give you is a privilege and can be taken at any time”.
Was our very existence also considered a privilege?
We once again went on hunger strike protesting our detention and the inhuman treatment. I told my brothers “Sometimes in life to win you have to lose while winning”.
After our hunger strike, PRBs (Periodic Review Boards) were reinstated and started clearing prisoners for release, delegations from different countries arrived at Guantanamo to meet detainees and take them to their countries, and detainees started leaving.
In 2015, I had a new lawyer, Aunt Beth Jacob, who arrived to help with my review and release process. I wrote to her every day while shackled and chained to the floor in a classroom, and each week I would send her a chunk of letters of my writing.
This was how I managed to smuggle my book “Don’t Forget US Here” out of Guantanamo as legal letters.
In 2016 I was cleared for release and was told I would be sent to Serbia, a country I knew nothing about, with no choice in the matter.
The last night
10th July 2016 was my last night with my brothers, friends, and comrades in the Camp 5 recreation cages. I didn’t forget my special friends in Guantanamo: cats, banana rats, and Iguanas. I asked my brothers to take good care of them and to feed them. I thanked my animal friends for their kindness and for keeping me company in those dark days.
Every cell, every door, every block, and every camp reminded me of everything and everyone. The hardship and the torture we endured had forged a strong bond of friendship and brotherhood, not just among prisoners but also with some of the guards and camp staff.
We grew up within those cages and cement boxes, we sang in different languages, and danced in different styles, we taught and protected each other, we became friends and brothers. We celebrated and cried, we fought with some of the guards and became friends with others.
We resisted and fought injustice and oppression in the camp. We lost many times and won occasionally. We held no hate or grudge against anyone, and that gave us peace.
We had happy and beautiful memories and moments. At Guantanamo there was life, love, pain, hope, despair and death. We were part of the rest of the world, although George W. Bush and Dick Cheney thought differently. Within the walls of Guantanamo, we proved them wrong.
"Nearly 22 years on, rectifying the injustices perpetrated in Guantanamo is the only way to close the dark chapter and forge a more just and moral path for the future"
“Brother! Please don’t forget us here!” These were their last words. I haven’t forgotten them.
Please, help me to keep this promise by calling on Biden to close Guantanamo, to free the cleared prisoners and the forever prisoners.
Today, the Guantanamo Bay detention camp continues to hold 30 detainees, a stark reminder of the enduring injustice and broken promises that have plagued this facility for two decades.
Shockingly, the majority of these detainees have never been charged with a crime, leaving them trapped in legal limbo and their basic human rights disregarded. Out of the 30 detainees, 16 have been cleared for release, further highlighting the deeply flawed nature of their prolonged detention.
The question remains: why are they stuck? The answer is multifaceted. The US government has struggled to find countries willing to accept these individuals, hindering their repatriation or resettlement efforts. Congress has placed stringent restrictions on transferring prisoners to the US for any reason, making it difficult to find a solution.
Broken promises from successive US administrations worsen Guantanamo Bay's troubled history.
To genuinely shut down Guantanamo Bay for good, several crucial steps must be taken. Firstly, the US government must diligently search for countries willing to accept the detainees, ensuring their humane treatment upon transfer.
Secondly, those facing trial need to be granted a fair and speedy trial, in line with the principles of justice and due process.
Guantanamo is a symbol of injustice and abuse. Its existence has tarnished the US's reputation as a global advocate for human rights, making it increasingly challenging for the nation to advocate for these values around the world.
The legacy of Guantanamo Bay is a dark stain on the pages of history, but there remains a glimmer of hope for resolution.
Closing the physical facility is merely the first step; the US government must also confront the past atrocities committed within its walls.
Acknowledging the torture and abuse that occurred, issuing an official apology, providing reparations to victims, and holding those responsible accountable are essential actions to move toward genuine closure.
Nearly 22 years on, rectifying the injustices perpetrated in Guantanamo is the only way to close the dark chapter and forge a more just and moral path for the future.
I left Guantanamo the same way I arrived: dragged into a cargo plane hooded, goggles covering my eyes, ear muffs over my ears, and a mask over my mouth. This time I was chained to a force-feeding chair instead of a floor.
A beginning of a new journey into the unknown future. Life after Guantanamo, a story you will soon read in a new book.
Mansoor Adayfi is a writer, advocate, and former Guantánamo detainee, held for around 15 years without charges as an enemy combatant. Adayfi was released to Serbia in 2016. In 2019, Adayfi won the Richard J. Margolis Award for nonfiction writers of social justice journalism. His memoir “Don’t Forge Us Here” was published in 2021. He continues to advocate for the closure of Guantanamo, he works as CAGE’s Guantanamo Project coordinator, and outreach coordinator for Guantanamo Survivors Fund (GSF).
Follow him on Twitter: @MansoorAdayfi
This article is part of a new section by The New Arab called Narrated, focused on sharing personal stories and lived experiences.
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