Six years in hell

Published: April 29, 2012

In Bagram, every time prisoners were caught speaking, they would be chained to the mesh in a stress position.

In Bagram, every time prisoners were caught speaking, they would be chained to the mesh in a stress position. In Bagram, every time prisoners were caught speaking, they would be chained to the mesh in a stress position. In Bagram, every time prisoners were caught speaking, they would be chained to the mesh in a stress position.

Speaking to former Guantanamo detainee 727 was like talking to a prisoner of Azkaban, that terrible prison guarded by soul-sucking Dementors from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Perhaps the image of a Dementor sucking out happiness from one’s body will help you visualise the torture detainees between the ages 13-98 have endured since the prison camp opened its gates to enemy combatants and terror suspects in 2001.

This is the story of Omar Deghayes, a British-Libyan who spent nearly six years at Guantanamo. He narrates the ordeals he faced from the time he was picked up from a rented villa near Liberty Market in Lahore to when he was finally set free.

Deghayes’ struggle against government authorities started long before he reached Guantanamo. He was a mere 10-year old boy living in Libya, when his uncle received a call from Muammar Qaddafi’s loyalists telling him to claim the dead body of his father, a solicitor who had been disliked by the regime. The family was put on the exit control list. If they had to leave Libya, even for medical purposes, one family member had to stay back as a ‘hostage’. When Deghayes was 17, his family managed to escape by forging travel papers and sought political asylum in Britain.

In the UK, the family settled in Saltdean. At college Deghayes studied Law and, while his family had also been highly secular, it was during his undergraduate years that his interest in the Islamic legal system and religion peaked. While still at college, he travelled to Bosnia for volunteer work and the experience had a profound effect on him. “It made me think of injustices, oppression, people being killed and human rights,” said Deghayes.

After finishing a Legal Practice Course in England, he took a break to visit friends in the Far East. He went first to Malaysia and then travelled across Pakistan. Once he reached Peshawar, he discovered that he could easily cross the border and go to Afghanistan. He had always been intrigued by the country and was curious to see how Shariah was being interpreted under Taliban rule.

“You cannot rely on UK or US-based media, especially when it comes to Islam. If something doesn’t suit their interest, they will brand it as extreme and fundamentalist,” he said. “I wanted to see for myself what was happening in Afghanistan.”

This was the decision which would eventually land him in Guantanamo.

In 1999 he crossed into Afghanistan. Once there, he married an Afghan woman and tried to set up a legal consulting office in Kabul. His wife gave birth to a baby boy on 24 September 2001, just 14 days after the event that would change his life forever.

Then came the US invasion, and he desperately tried to shift his family to a safer place.

“Our house was very close to the airport in Kabul,” he said. “and [US forces] planes were dropping bombs on civilians.”

They first shifted to Laghman, but when the bombings intensified, they left Afghanistan for Lahore. He was in Lahore four months, during which time he tried to find ways to get a passport made for his Afghan wife, who had never had any identification documents.

One day, nearly 50 armed men, with the slogan ‘NO FEAR’ emblazoned on their jackets, stormed into his villa, handcuffed him, and took him to a fortress-like prison in Islamabad. During this period of incarceration, he was taken to a house to meet officials from US and UK agencies before being transported back to prison. This happened numerous times.

“They’d ask questions like: Why were you in Afghanistan? Where were you in Afghanistan? Did you meet Osama bin Laden? Do you know anyone from alQaeda?” said Deghayes.

In Islamabad, he also met a woman, who seemed higher in rank than those who’d been previously interrogating him.

“This woman said something about the Taliban mistreating women and that Islam teaches its followers to mistreat women. I didn’t like that, so I answered back saying: ‘Islam doesn’t tell its followers to mistreat women. We protect them and look after them. And treat them as if they were very precious,’” said Degahyes.

After this it was decided that he would be dispatched to Bagram. The former detainee is of the opinion that the Americans had been paid to bring in any man of Arab descent in Pakistan, who had visited Afghanistan. A few days later, he was taken to the airport in Islamabad and handed over to the marines for transfer.

“It was not like the pictures you may have seen, which show a row of people tied down to the floor,” he said. “The way we were transferred, we were many, many people on top of each other like cargo and then chained to the floor and blindfolded.”

In Bagram, every time prisoners were caught speaking, they would be chained to the mesh in a stress position. Their head would be covered with a black hood. “There were times we would collapse from suffocation,” he recalls.

Day and night he was interrogated by British intelligence, FBI and CIA. “I was forced on my knees and beaten during those interrogations,” he said bitterly.

Frightened and unsure of what would happen to him, he would throw-up whatever he ate. He was transported to another prison camp, a long journey spent in hallucinations brought on by weakness and exhaustion.

“And then we were in Guantanamo,” he said with a sarcastic laugh.

Like everyone else in the prison, detainee 727 lived in solitary confinement, in a three by two metre cabin, for the first month. Because he would not take abuse without striking back, he endured the harshest treatment, spending most of his 5 years and 7 months at the camp locked up in isolation.

During interrogation, they would have him stand in stress positions for hours on end. These positions ranged from tying his hands to his feet so that they touched the floor, to a standing position in which they would tell him that there was live wires attached to hand, and if he moved he would get electrocuted.

“You would be hooded,” explained the former detainee, “so you wouldn’t know what was happening in the room.”

Whether it was Bagram or Guantanamo, the questions asked were the same:

“Why were you in Afghanistan? Where were you in Afghanistan? Did you meet Osama bin Laden? Do you know anyone from alQaeda?”

The abuse continued outside the interrogation rooms as well. Once, an officer crushed his finger in a door, and held on to it, hoping to make him scream. Deghayes suppressed his pain, unwilling to allow the officer the pleasure he would get from his screams of agony.

“I lost my finger — I have iron pieces in it and I can’t bend it properly.”

Another time, they broke his nose while raining kicks on his face with their boot-clad feet.

To set an example to the other prisoners for fighting back, the guards gouged not just Degahyes’ eyes with their bare fingers, but also those of every other prisoner in his block. He still can’t see clearly from the right eye. For six years, his cell was brightly lit day and night so that he wouldn’t be able to sleep. The airconditioners were on full blast, all the time.

“For many months I was locked up in what was essentially a freezer,” he said.

As if the physical abuse wasn’t bad enough, these guards played mind games to break the prisoners’ spirits. Deghayes longed to hear from his family, but didn’t receive a single letter for five years. When he finally started getting letters, the guards would censor vital parts, which would frustrate him. One letter read: “your son likes” and the rest of the sentence was blacked out.

But he suffered the most when the guards abused his religion.

“This was one thing that infuriated all the inmates,” said Deghayes. “They would take a copy of the Holy Quran, and throw it in a toilet, or on the floor. Sometimes you would come back to your cell and find boot stains or abusive words written inside the Quran.”

The abuse was regular throughout his time there; it didn’t ease up if the guards didn’t get any information from the detainee.

“The policy in Guantanamo was that they would agitate you every two months,” said the former detainee who now lives in London. “They want you to fight back. The interrogators said, ‘We will release you one day, but we will make sure that we have made you broken wretches, so that you won’t go back to jihad. And your family, your mothers and sisters, will be working just to keep you alive.’ So this was their intention.”

How were the prisoners able to keep their sanity intact? Many detainees suffered from mental health problems, but Deghayes kept himself sane by following a rigid routine. Though there wasn’t much physical activity possible in solitary confinement, he did push-ups every day. He dedicated his mornings to memorising the Quran, which he then revised in the afternoons.

The prisoners were able to communicate with others by shouting out loud, speaking into the air conditioning duct and talking into the sinkhole and then cupping an ear over it to hear the response. Deghayes spoke to prisoners from all walks of life and myriad nations. “There were teachers, linguists and journalists, there was a lot to learn from them,” he said.

After five years and seven months of detention without charge, Degahyes was finally released in December 2007. “The only thing these kind of prisons achieve is more hatred, turning more youngsters toward extremism,” he said, looking back at his experiences.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine. April 29th, 2012.

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Reader Comments (27)

  • The Truth
    Apr 29, 2012 - 12:17PM

    What a heartbreaking story…. Who is real terrorist? Its very easy to decide , it US not Muslims…

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  • Anon
    Apr 29, 2012 - 12:44PM

    Wow. Americans are no better than the barbarians they are fighting. Americans deserve what is happening to them in Afghanistan!!!

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  • anonymous
    Apr 29, 2012 - 2:57PM

    This story is so painful :O

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  • Ashar
    Apr 29, 2012 - 3:05PM

    USA has left behind Hitler in committing atrocities to humans. The stories of concentrations camps are still debatable with respect to the number of ppl killed there however we are recieving real stories of this infamous Bay and other jails controlled by US army.

    I totally agree with the words narrated above, “You cannot rely on UK or US-based media, especially when it comes to Islam. If something doesn’t suit their interest, they will brand it as extreme and fundamentalist,

    This is the time our media should realize it and start giving coverage to Alan Hart, Yvonne Ridley, Zakir Naik and the like who at least have the courage to talk truth instead of so called liberalist who are getting for writing against Islam and Muslims just to please thier masters.

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  • Zeta
    Apr 29, 2012 - 3:25PM

    Silent comments section? No liberals and the always-right-and-other-is-always-wrong indians here?

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  • observer
    Apr 29, 2012 - 3:45PM

    OK. So a man from a ‘secular’ family residing in UK, goes ‘sight seeing’ to Bosnia. And then to Malyasia and to Pakistan. And when he reaches Pakistan, he does the most natural thing, he walks into Afghanistan to ‘see’ how Sharia was being ‘implemented’ by the Taliban.

    He spends the next 2 years ‘seeing’ the interpretation of Sharia in Afghanistan. And then in 2001 he decides he has seen enough of Sharia implementation and decides to come over to Pakistan.

    All this while he has no valid travel documents.

    What could possible be more ‘innocent’ than this?

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  • Asad
    Apr 29, 2012 - 5:56PM

    @observer: what happened to the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ mantra that the USA applies to its soldiers who go on killing sprees? Anything proved against this guy? NO so he was wrongfully abused. And how about the conduct of his captors? would you say its justified?

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  • Mehnaz
    Apr 29, 2012 - 6:14PM

    @observer:
    Completely agree to what you are saying! This man may be innocent and his intentions may not have been what he was charged for; however, without any legal travel documents he would look like a moving target to anyone!

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  • Vikas Ali
    Apr 29, 2012 - 6:39PM

    Come on, what were you doing in Afghanistan?

    Poor journalism; you vividly describe his painful ordeals but never shed light in what this guy was truly doing in Afghanistan.

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  • Herman
    Apr 29, 2012 - 6:40PM

    Ridiculous propaganda.

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  • Anon
    Apr 29, 2012 - 7:00PM

    @observer and vikas
    Assuming these millitancy tendencies were even true, does it make it perfectly acceptable to gorge his eyes out, subject him to inhumane treatment and mistreat our Holy Book? How does that make the US better than the millitants? If anything their arrogant ruthless behaviour is the reason why they are widely despised in pakistan and why they are getting trashed in Pakistan.

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  • Ali Tanoli
    Apr 29, 2012 - 7:00PM

    @Herman
    For u this is propaganda and same way israelis does in there prisons with innocents palestinian. what a sahme champions of human rights doing these things and killing so many
    innocent women and childrens shame on preacher of peace.

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  • jagjit sidhoo
    Apr 29, 2012 - 10:32PM

    Inhuman treatment even if he was not innocent

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  • sadaf
    Apr 29, 2012 - 11:56PM

    Its frightful, not even a criminal should be treated this way. its pathetic!

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  • Humanity
    Apr 30, 2012 - 5:39AM

    None of this would have happened had the family not migrated to Britain from Libya. If Libya did not have enough Sharia for his liking, He could have stayed back and showered Sharia on Libya. Shouldn’t he have cleaned his own house before setting out to clean others?

    These hypocrites drill holes in the plate that feeds them!

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  • okie
    Apr 30, 2012 - 9:50AM

    Hate begets hate… it is very difficult to push for “confidence building measures” when the history is this checkered… by the way, did anyone get to see those new photos of soldiers in iraq with body parts of dead people?

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  • Adeel Ahmed
    Apr 30, 2012 - 9:55AM

    @Mehnaz:
    Doesn’t mean you bag him and transport him to Guantanamo Bay and torture him for 6 years…
    You’d be singing a very different tune if it was done to your brother/father/son…

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  • Adeel Ahmed
    Apr 30, 2012 - 9:57AM

    @Humanity:
    So after 6 years… what exactly was he charged with?
    The guy was married and living in Afghanistan… that alone is a crime?

    He was persecuted in Libya… but obviously he realised british weren’t any better.

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  • Mehnaz
    Apr 30, 2012 - 4:05PM

    @Adeel Ahmed:
    My family refuses to travel without documentation/passport/visa

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  • Parvez
    May 1, 2012 - 11:47PM

    The story seems short on details in the first half but long on highlighting in the second half.
    Having said that, the treatment handed out to him was simply wrong and I would thing counter productive.

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  • jagjit sidhoo
    May 2, 2012 - 6:16AM

    @Parvez: A well thought balanced view

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  • Vicky Bahl
    May 2, 2012 - 10:35AM

    Journalism is an art, you can intimidate people by describing something in a way which seems to be disturbing. Just imagine reading this article alongside another article which describes the pain of a mother who lost her 12 year old son in a bomb blast somewhere in Europe; and the bomb was planted by jihadists who were trained in Afghanistan. Now, if you read this article in that context, you would be having a more objective viewpoint. Losing a son, father, family member is not any less painful than the torture in the prison. Although I am against the inhuman treatment, the point I am trying to make is that we should not intimidate our youth by telling them one side of the story. It is easy for a Muslim youth to read this, and several other similar stories, and walk on that deadly path himself. Let’s stop the spreading hatred and leave it behind. At least these atrocities were reported and people are facing trial. Let us pray for peace.

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  • Parvez
    May 2, 2012 - 11:40PM

    @jagjit sidhoo: Thanks appreciated.

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  • Lateef Khan
    May 6, 2012 - 12:05AM

    Those who think he was treated rightly!
    .
    I hope u pray for the same treatment of your loved ones (when they are suspicions without proof)!!!

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  • Shob
    May 6, 2012 - 9:13PM

    It astonishes me how many people here choose to completely overlook the barbaric fashion in which he was treated because they don’t know whether or not he was “innocent.” Is that really the only thing that went through your mind as you read this? His eyes were gouged out and all you were thinking was “hmm but he didn’t have a valid passport so i guess this is OKAY.” I mean really people, that is just sickening.

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  • jagjit sidhoo
    May 7, 2012 - 12:06PM

    @Shob: You are right it is sickening, it is only us humans who take pleasure in torture. Animals kill when they are hungry we can do it for the heck of it.

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  • bharat
    May 11, 2012 - 12:46PM

    @observer:

    Just look at the countries he has visited.

    Why would any one holding a British Passport want to live in Afghanistan ?

    I really dont understand.

    Its quite obvious that he was a part of a terrorist group or definitely has some links with them

    No sane person would want to live in Afghanistan.

    He had a British passport afterall

    Does anyone even in Pakistan migrate to Afghanistan ?

    this article is baised and one sided to show that American are bad and Muslims are good

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