Human Rights & Public Liberties

Human Rights & Public Liberties

Published on: 13 Jan, 2021

Sami Alhaj Guantánamo Memoir/1/

Published on: 11 January, 2021

I sit alone in the darkness of the night… I listen to the sound of my breath and the beating of my heart… A night bird comes and lands near me, and begins singing faintly as if inviting an absent mate.

I try to distinguish its body in the night; however, the sadness of its song takes me far, far away… to an hour unlike this, and a place unlike this.

To the place where my gaolers put me in a solitary confinement cell, stripping me of my clothes and throwing me into that cramped cell. The ventilation was blowing at full blast and it took only moments until the cold entered my bones. While I was shaking and trembling, I heard from the cell on my right, the sound of someone making entreaties, repeating in a tone filled with endurance: “The One! The One!”

And it took only a few moments until the voice of another prisoner was raised in the cell on the left: “Sami! Make Bilal on your right shut up so that I can deal with the cold.”

And in spite of everything, I found myself smiling!

That was in Guantánamo, and Guantánamo is my story; I am prisoner number 345. Yes, Guantánamo is my story and the story of more than 800 prisoners. Each one of them lived through the experiment somehow, undoubtedly in both similar and differing ways.

The sharp emotion which filled me with pain in belief, and the strength of mind and self, made it clear or even confirmed to me that inside all of us is a massive strength that remains dormant until steadfastness begins to break out and then ignites and then rages up around it, devouring all inhibitions and eliminating every defiant wind.

It was this spark that was triggered on the day I began my journey into bodily hunger and spiritual fullness. Indeed, it is true that man cannot live on bread alone. I thought carefully before placing my life on the line by entering into a long and total hunger strike.

Then I decided and let everyone know my decision.

I defeated my loneliness by remembering Allah, who was with us wherever we were. It was at that moment that the demands of my body withdrew under the reins of my spirit.

I didn’t know that I wasn’t alone, since Al-Jazeera were bringing up my name and my trial on a daily basis. They broadcast slogans that filled the world: “Release Sami al-Hajj.”

My name would frequently be found scrolling by on the station’s TV news ticker so as to fill the world and to engage the viewers.

I discovered that my brother, Wadah Khanfar, the head of Al-Jazeera, cut short an important work trip in order to be the first to greet me at Khartoum airport upon my release and return.

I am truly grateful and proud of this organisation which treated me like their own son throughout my trial, and not just figuratively but actually. It was Al-Jazeera that brought the world’s attention to bear on the justice of my case and even made whoever was covering it into a means of exerting enormous pressure. They stirred up institutions and NGOs concerned with human rights issues so that they would get active in all four corners of the earth.

They turned the coverage into an official international onslaught. At its head, in Qatar, were Dr Fawzi Oussediq who played an important role in the coordination with Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other civil society organisations around the world. Dr Hassan Saeed al-Mugommor  had also played a big role, just like the International Office of Humanitarian and Charitable Organisations in France which undertook this cause. Among the key figures in this organization is Dr Haythem Mana’a. Furthermore, there was al-Karama, an organisation working for human rights in Switzerland which brought their attention to bear, among whom Dr Rachid Mesli. In addition to this, Dr Adil Jasim al-Damakhi, the head of the Association for Human Rights Fundamentals in Kuwait. There was also Khalid al-Ansi, executive director for the National Organisation for Defending Rights and Freedoms (HOOD) in Yemen, and Asim Qureshi, head of CAGE in London.

Perhaps the law also played a significant role, as highlighted by the arguments presented by professional lawyers working either for Al-Jazeera, for the Sudanese Lawyers Union or specialist lawyers working in human rights NGOs.

In addition to the efforts of individuals who sympathised with me and believed in my case and in my innocence, crowds massed in a silent rally in front of the American Embassy in Khartoum. Activists participated along with parliamentarians, volunteer organisations and the worldwide body for development in the south Sahara, the Khartoum Centre for Human Rights and Environmental Development, the Sudanese Observatory for Human Rights, the Hope Centre, and the Development Initiatives for Women and Children organisation.

Then there were the tireless effort and activism which my dear wife undertook with patience and faith.

I feel   I am indebted to all those who worked on my behalf and who believed in the justice of my case. Here I am, sitting alone and listening to the sound of my breath and the beating of my heart, every swallow and sigh. With every beat, streams of gratitude flow together towards Al-Jazeera, who remained a compassionate and persistently approachable father. My gratitude also extends to all the organisations that took up the work of the mother, and to all individuals who worked on my behalf around the world and who really have become like brothers.

I am stronger now than I was before, more tolerant, more a friend and companion in the silence of this gentle Arabian night in the city that I love: Doha.

I listen to the bird singing and I remember my days of pain, misfortune, and torture at the hands of hard-hearted and stony-faced men.

They robbed me of my best days, my best weeks, the best months, and years of my life without any sense of guilt. But I defeated them with my resolve which comes from the Lord Almighty in the darkest of nights and the longest of days. He is the Lord who inspired me with patience to bear the hunger and harm throughout the days of my hunger strike. What days those were!

And my night bird chirped at the window, telling me: “I am here!”

A pleasing breeze from the Arabian Gulf bore light warmth towards me.

In the next chapter, I will go into the details of what happened to me during the days of torture, pains, and long-lasting patience.