Human Rights & Public Liberties

Human Rights & Public Liberties

Published on: 13 Jan, 2021

In Bagram

Published on: 9 September, 2021


“I am from Sudan. I’m not a combatant. I am a journalist.”

“I am from Sudan. I’m not a combatant. I am a journalist.”

We were on a cargo plane; I was chained to its floor. We were told any movement would be responded to with force, even bullets. I sat there as I felt others being brought on board.

An hour and a half later, the plane took off from Quetta and flew for an hour then landed somewhere where we stayed for about two hours, then took off again.  During the flights, the prisoner beside me was crying out that he needed the toilet. Whenever he begged, a soldier would walk over to beat him. Soon, I felt a wetness and realised he had had to relieve himself where he sat. He told me later that they eventually gagged him to stop him from speaking.

Finally, in the early hours of January 8, 2002, we landed at Bagram airbase, the first American detention facility I went through. It had been set up to be the first station for detainees in the so-called “war on terror”. The goal was to interrogate of prisoners as fast as possible to extract information to help catch their most wanted figures.

In a sense, our detention in Bagram was the most intensely painful stage, since it introduced us to the poor treatment and exploitation we were going to face. We were baffled at the beating, abuse, and desecration of dignity and religion. We were ordinary civilians but had become prisoners, expected to comply, obey, and even lie when our interrogators demanded that we give up names of imaginary conspirators.

Once we arrived, soldiers came into the plane; they were shouting in our faces in English: “Why did you come to kill us?!”

Most of those on board didn’t speak English, adding to their confusion as they were beaten and insulted. My turn came to be escorted off the plane, but my legs had seized up after being chained to the floor for four or five hours. The soldiers tried to move me, but I swayed, unable to stand. They pushed me to the exit, shouting: “Why did you come to kill us?”

“I am not a combatant,” I replied. “I am a journalist.”

“Don’t lie. Where are you from?”

“I am from Sudan. I’m not a combatant. I am a journalist.”

I got to the door of the plane, still blindfolded. At the door, they pushed me to jump off, and it felt like falling off a cliff in the absolute dark. I jumped, landing badly on my right leg and tearing the ACL ligament in my knee, an injury that’s still with me today. The pain was so intense that I cried out.

They ordered me onto the floor, so I lay face-down, still crying out from the pain. Following their script, they started screaming, beating, and threatening me with death if I moved. I heard dogs barking nearby and the shouting and suffering of the rest of the prisoners. My limbs were almost frozen and I was shivering from the cold.

They switched tactics and started shouting: “Why aren’t you moving?” as they beat me on my back, then stood me on my feet. They tied my hands and lined me up with the others, then brought a restraining rope to connect all our hands.

A soldier pulled on this rope, while the rest stood to both sides. Dogs were still barking around us; it was so cold our hearts almost stopped, it was dark under the blindfold and the pain from my ACL was drowning me; it was terrifying.

They moved us by pulling the rope – we were bound so that anyone who slowed down would feel the tension increase around his hands, and anyone who fell over was beaten.

We were cold, but we were also shivering with fear. The barking dogs, screaming soldiers, and the cries of agony from the other prisoners mixed into a terrible symphony of sound whose effect on those souls only God could know. After about a hundred meters, the strange caravan stopped. They ordered us on our knees and began escorting us away, one by one, blindfolded and hooded.

Our imaginations ran wild as we sat there in blacknesses. I imagined that those taken away were being tortured by having cold water poured over them, being whipped, mangled by dogs; the images that came to my mind were wild. I wasn’t too far from the truth, sadly.

They dragged me away because I wasn’t able to walk. The pain of my ACL tear made me cry out, but whenever I did, a soldier would beat me until I fell over. They dragged me, kicking me with their heavy boots, into a room. They removed the hood and I was instantly blinded by the painfully bright lights directed at me. I was in the middle of a circle of soldiers brandishing their weapons, surrounding me from all sides, there were women in the group, and as always, there was a dog barking madly nearby. One of them said: “Don’t move a muscle. You must obey our orders. One move and we’ll put a bullet in your brain.”

Then they cut the restraints around my wrists and asked me to take off my clothes. I began to obey, slowly, shivering in the cold and swaying from weakness and exhaustion. They shouted at me each time I swayed. First, I took off the blue overalls I had worn on the plane from Pakistan. They asked me to take off my trousers and shirt that I had, too. Under those, I was wearing long underwear as protection against the cold. They told me to continue to strip my clothing and when I hesitated, they shouted: “If you don’t take them off, we’ll shoot you.”

I took off the undershirt, leaving on the shorts. They shouted at me, and in my exhausted confusion, all I could see was weapons and screaming mouths directed at me as I hoped against hope that I would be able to keep this last shred of dignity.

A soldier approached me, holding his automatic weapon as if for safety, and told me to take off my long underwear. I took it off. He told me to look straight ahead, not to look behind me. I was completely distraught, feeling something more than pain. I didn’t know if this was because I was ill, or if it was the pain of being a prisoner, or the oppression and humiliation of being forced to stand naked in front of those scoundrels with their dogs.

As I stood there, I was overtaken by a wave of panic that lessened the physical pain, but the mental wounds only deepened. I am a proud Muslim, in my religion men are embarrassed to be naked even in front of their wives, and here I was forced to stand naked in front of these female soldiers. How was it possible to survive that?

The screams and barking continued, and cutting coldly through them were the evil sounds of guns and pistols being cocked. My brain recorded what was happening in snapshots, so I remember the biting cold, the light in my eyes, the ugly, frightening faces of the soldiers and the dogs. And they made me stand there, naked, shivering as if to make sure that I knew full well the level of humiliation I should expect from then on.

After a while, one of them threw me my clothes, but I didn’t react, stiff with fear, not knowing what to do. They started to release the dog in my direction, and I snapped back to my senses. I jumped into my clothes to cover my nakedness, even though I wasn’t able to do the buttons on my shirt, my fingers had frozen.

Two soldiers came up to me and bound my hands behind me, then pushed me into another room. Two people stood behind a table and I was brought in front of them with two rows of soldiers to my right and my left, the two soldiers still holding me by my arms. One of the two standing in front of me (behind the table) spoke Arabic in a North African dialect.

“What’s your name?”

“My name is Sami Muhi al-Din Mohammad Alhaj.”

“What nationality are you?”

“Sudanese,” I said.

“Did you film Osama bin Laden?” he said.

“No, I didn’t film bin Laden.”

“But you did film bin Laden,” he said.

“No,” I said. “I didn’t film bin Laden. I was in Afghanistan as a journalist covering the war.”

“Don’t deny it,” he said. “Denial won’t help. If you deny, we will beat and humiliate you and strip you bare. You’ve lost your life here, all you can do is respond to questions in the affirmative.”

I repeated my answer.

“Be quiet! Don’t answer unless you are asked.” He went on: “How much money do you have? What do you own?”

I said that I had a few dollars, some Pakistani currency, Emirati dirhams, Qatari riyals, my passport, my plane ticket, and my press card. I also had a small radio, video camera, and equipment, watch, glasses, and medicines.

“Shut up,” he said.

He wrote my answers in his logbook and ordered the soldiers to take me away. They dragged me to an old aeroplane maintenance building with a tiled floor on which were large barbed-wire cages. They opened the door to one and pushed me in. There were already people sleeping there.

I was given two blankets, informed that one was to be used as my bed, the other as a cover. In that cold, neither the bed nor the blanket was enough, but I was exhausted so I did as they said and fell into a deep sleep from which I didn’t wake until I heard soldiers calling my number; I was number 35 there, I realised that the number was written on the back of my clothes.

The ever-present dogs were barking, and the soldiers were shouting: “Wake up, 35, move it, 35.” It was as if I was a corpse engulfed in deep sleep, then waking up in a panic to see one of the soldiers calling me from outside the fence.

The other prisoners were sitting in front of meals of packaged food, tiny portions of maybe 200 grammes. The soldier threw a meal in a plastic bag to me, followed by a spoon, and as I caught them, the fear returned to me and made me panic. I didn’t know where I was or how I had arrived, or what was going on around me.

The events of the day and night before flashed quickly across my mind, and I tried to grasp any logic to help me understand what was happening. I sat, still on the outside and quaking on the inside, trying to understand what happened to me. The shouts of the soldier asking for us to return the plates and the rest of the meals cut through my haze.

“I haven’t eaten yet,” I said.

He screamed in my face, demanding my meal back. I returned it to him and kept the spoon, but he asked for it as well.

I looked around, the place was as I thought initially, an old aeroplane hangar on Bagram airbase. It looked like it had been built by the Afghan Communist government. We later learned that it was the Russian base in Afghanistan, built at the time of the Soviet Union.

Neglect and disorder were apparent all over the building, which was divided into two sections. Each section had two floors and four rooms, two each on the ground and first floor. The floor was split into four cages. I was in the cage facing the two front rooms.

At dawn, I wanted to pray the Fajr prayers. I couldn’t see the sun, but I reckoned it was seven or eight in the morning since there was some light. When I was made to stand up, a soldier ordered me to sit back down.

“Standing is forbidden,” he said, “the same goes for looking up or down, or talking to the other prisoners.” He continued reading me the rules: If I wanted anything, I had to raise my hand for permission to speak, and I had to obey all orders from the soldiers. After he was done reading, I said: “I would like some water for wudu.”

“You are only allowed one bottle per day,” he said. “And don’t let me catch you washing with it! You are only allowed to use it for drinking. If not, you’ll be punished.”

The soldiers wore helmets and carried M16 rifles, handguns, and backpacks. They had rods in their hands that they would beat on the ground when they talked. They threatened us, cursed us, hurled obscene and lewd words at us – words that I cannot bear to repeat here.

I saw a prisoner rubbing the ground with his hands, he was doing tayammum and praying while seated, so I did the same. After finishing my prayer, I asked for water, and they gave me a small bottle and I took two mouthfuls, then sat, looking around me.

Our hands and legs were in restraints the whole time. We were allowed to use the toilets in the early morning, at midday, and in the evening. After our midday meal, they started taking us to do that, but when my turn to stand came, my legs betrayed me and couldn’t carry me. I managed to stand and was told to step forward, raise my hands and turn while looking back.

They opened a door in the barbed wire and grabbed my arms while my hands and legs were restrained, then brought me out and closed the gate quickly. Again, they ordered me to look down and not to move except with their permission. They walked me a few meters to the building’s door, which had a pit directly in front of it. “Do your business here,” they said.

I asked them to remove my handcuffs, which they did, but when I waited for them to leave, they didn’t go.

“Do it!” they told me.

“You can either wait for a short time or go away,” I said.

“No,” they said. “We won’t go. We’ll stay here, and if you don’t use the toilet in two minutes, we’ll bring you back another time. You only have three opportunities a day, and this is your second. You only have one other chance, at the end of the day.”

I retreated into my thoughts, but they jolted me out: “Just look straight ahead. There’s no time to delay.”

I heard a woman laughing and raised my head. A female soldier stood with her automatic weapon pointed at me. She moved her finger, indicating that I should hurry up, while she laughed with the other soldiers in mockery. I managed to use the toilet quickly, but they didn’t give me anything to clean myself. No water, no paper, nothing. So I stood up.

They pulled me and cuffed my hands behind me again, then dragged me back. Next was number 36 who was taken away. That’s how we lived at Bagram, filthy, unable to move, eating one meal a day. The meals came from the soldiers’ ration packs; we were given the “main meal” packets, which were about 200 grammes of food that never sated our hunger.

We never knew anything about the ingredients, were we eating pork? We never knew. After my first trip to the “toilet”, I decided not to eat, sticking instead with two gulps of water a day. It was cold in January, and every morning the water bottles had completely frozen solid.

On the second night, I went to bed having avoided that day’s meal. It was extremely cold and the pain in my knee shot all over my body, especially after sitting for so long in the restraints. I tried to move my leg to ease the pain, but the guards saw and placed a metal restraint on my leg instead of the plastic one, the metal hurt more. My legs started swelling from the extreme cold and pressure of the restraint.

I lay there, unable to sleep from the pain and the cold, which the thin blankets did nothing to stop. I was enveloped in a bone-crushing chill. When morning came, I performed my prayers but didn’t eat. Water was enough, so I wouldn’t have to go to the bathroom. I saw others suffer when they needed the toilet in the night. They were shouted at; some were beaten, laid out on the ground, and suffering for the impudence of needing the toilet.

This happened to one prisoner, who was even more impudent and asked them why they were doing that to him. In punishment, they hung him from the doorframe by one hand. He struggled to release the restraint with his other hand, so they attached it as well. He stayed there all night, a message to all of us. None of us slept that night.

We spent a week being taken to interrogation, one by one. I remember they brought a new group of prisoners that week; then they started bringing in groups every three or four days. After thirteen days, they came to take me to the upstairs room they used for interrogations. When I entered, I felt warm and drowsy for a minute, but as my eyes drooped, they shouted: “If you close your eyes, we’ll have you stand on your legs for the duration of this interrogation.”

There was an officer sitting there, with him was the Arab I had met the first night.

“What is your name?” he asked. “Where are you from? Nationality and date of birth? What is your profession?”

“I am a journalist,” I said.

“Was it you,” he said, “who filmed Osama bin Laden?”

I denied again being the one who shot the film the world saw on the day of the attacks on Afghanistan.

“I watched that film in Doha,” I said, “from the network headquarters. The report was broadcast from the Kabul office. The proof is in my passport which you have. I didn’t leave Doha until October 11, 2001. But the report was two days earlier.”

I explained that the second report about Osama bin Laden was produced by the Al Jazeera office in Kabul which appeared onscreen, introducing the report to those watching.

“Are you sure,” he said, “that you weren’t with him filming?”

I confirmed that I was in Kandahar, covering the situation there. I hadn’t even seen Kabul. I told him that I had witnesses, that they were from CNN because I was their guest in Kandahar until I left Afghanistan. I said I believed they would be prepared to confirm all of it.

He resumed: “So where were you, then, on September 11?”

“I was in Syria,” I said, “on holiday with my wife and some family members who came from Sudan. Al Jazeera got in touch with me while I was in Syria and asked me to return to Doha because they wanted to send me to Afghanistan. I sent my family back to Azerbaijan and said goodbye to my relatives, then travelled to Doha towards the end of September or the beginning of October. I did some training there, and they sent me to Afghanistan after I completed my courses in filming, production, and filing. This is how I was chosen for the job.”

I informed him that I had presented my passport to the Pakistani embassy for a visa, then left Doha for Pakistan on October 11, arriving in Islamabad on October 12. The journalist Yusuf al-Sholi was with me on that flight, and the rest of the story you already know. He surprised me with the next question: “If we let you go, what will you say about us?”

I realised that he knew I wasn’t the person who had filmed bin Laden and that I was in Syria on September 11 as I said. He had an Arab translator with him who checked the dates in my passport and explained them to him in English. Keeping Allah in mind, I said: “I will say what happened. I will say you beat me and caused me to tear my ACL, forbade me from praying, starved us, violated our dignity and humiliated us for no reason, didn’t allow us to practice our religion, and prevented us from speaking or making a single movement.”

He laughed and asked me if I needed anything else since the interview was over.

“Yes,” I said. “I would like a doctor to treat me since my knee hurts and the cold is making me sick.” I showed him my knee that was swollen from my severe rheumatism and the ACL tear. I asked him to permit us to use covered toilet facilities, to practice our religion, and for decent food that was enough for us in the harsh cold, and more blankets to protect us.

“We can’t sleep from the cold,” I said. He said he was unable to help me much but would provide me with a third blanket. Indeed, he took a blanket and put it around my shoulders, since my hands were handcuffed, and ordered the soldier to take me back down to the cage.

The next day, a group of prisoners was transported in the middle of the night. They lined them up, attached them with a rope, and took them out to the middle of the airport. They vanished; I guessed they were being transported to the American prison in Kandahar.

I remember an Afghan prisoner tried to escape one night. They caught him and beat him with agonising blows in one of the rooms, as we sat awake listening to his cries of suffering. Suddenly, they came out, terrified, and a little later they brought out his dead body.

Three days after the interview – after sixteen days in Bagram – on one of the coldest nights, the soldiers called my number along with a few others. They put us in a row, connecting us with a rope going through our hand restraints as they had the first night, then pulled us to the plane. The night was frigid, the dogs were barking, and the soldiers screamed at us. Our heads were covered with black sacks. They put us on the plane, and we heard the growl as it started to move. We were leaving Bagram, with its humiliations and pain, but to where?

As I contemplate the twists and turns of fate during those days and years, I ask, what were the moments that led me to the gates of Guantánamo? The gates opened in Pakistan, and I entered, shackled. My pain was one with the stories of others, such Brother Sheikh ‘Alaa’s:

“They took me, dragging me under my arms with my hands behind me. They pulled my glasses off and covered my eyes, pushing me forward. They tightened sharp plastic restraints around my legs which cut me like a knife and put a black hood over my face. I couldn’t keep up with my legs bound and fell. They lifted me into a vehicle, then brought me back down. With each rising and lowering they would search me, savagely. Then I was walked violently up the ramp of a plane. That was enough to exhaust me, I am physically weak, and my hearing and sight are poor. They brought me onto the plane and forced me to sit on the ground. They extended my legs and restrained my hands attached with another restraint to my waist, and another rope attached my restrained feet.”