This is a translation of the cover story in this week's edition of the Moroccan newsweekly, Le Journal hebdomadaire. -- The details in this compelling account of the ordeals suffered by two young Moroccan men, 26 and 28 years of age, swept up in the post-Sept. 11 round-up and exposed to the whims of agents of the U.S. national security state, goes far beyond anything the U.S. mainstream media has published....
[Translated from Le Journal hebdomadaire (Rabat, Morocco)]
IN THE HELL OF GUANTANAMO
** Seized in Pakistan, sold to Americans, dehumanized in the Afghan camps, and then deported to the naval base of Guantanamo. The tale of two Moroccan's voyage to the bottom of hell: Mohamed Mazouz and Brahim Benchekroun. **
Le Journal hebdomadaire (Rabat, Morocco)
July 13, 2005 (?)
The general lack of security due to the economic crisis afflicting Russia pushes a young Moroccan, 25, to seek happiness under other skies. "They were assassinating foreigners for $20, it was unliveable." He decides to leave for London, sacrificing his academic ambitions to struggle in the jungle of the London megalopolis. "Construction, painting, odd jobs, work for cash only." With little under-the-table jobs, Mohamed Mazouz managed, by hook or by crook, to earn a living, a life divided between everyday hardship and visits to London nightclubs. "Like every young Muslim, my religious life was discontinuous, I'm a believer, I always have been, but I wasn't praying regularly." After a year of wandering, he decides to get his life together, and to start by regularizing his status in England. He chooses the classic approach: to look for an English soul mate. After a year of prospecting, he approaches a Pakistani family and asks for the hand of their daughter. His approach bears fruit, "but because of regulations, I had to go to Pakistan to make things official." At the end of August, the Moroccan arrives in Pakistan. There he lives through the terrible events of September 11, events that would change the world, and his world, too.
THE PAKISTANI ROUNDUP
On September 22, he is stopped in the streets of Karachi by members of Pakistani security forces. Carried away by the frenzy of the World Trade Center attacks, the Pakistani authorities are rounding up anything that looks even a little like an Arab. "I spent five days in police stations," explains Mazouz, concerned, but far from imagining that his life would be getting harder and harder. In good physical condition, 28 years of age, arrived in London after passing through Russia and of Morrocan origin, his profile counts against him -- worse, it condemns him. Afterwards, he is transferred to a hangar where lots of nationalities are crowded together, mostly Turks. "I was beaten, denied meals, and questioned about Mullah Omar, Osama bin Laden." Now he understands the point of the roundup. After three weeks of stress, the Pakistani security forces tell him that he will be turned over to United Nations representatives who will be in charge of transferring him to his native country. "The attitude of these supposed U.N. representatives, a man and a woman, was not that of diplomats, they talked to you aggressively." He becomes disillusioned when they photograph him and take his fingerprints. Jewels and watches are taken away and put in bags and turned over to the Pakistanis. "That wasn't U.N. style. I realized that the Pakistanis were turning us over to the Americans..."
ARAB-HUNTING, THE BUSINESS OF THE PAKISTANI SECURITY SERVICES
"Turn over isn't the right word, sell would be a word more appropriate to the situation," says Brahim Benchekroun, 26, another Moroccan rounded up by the Pakistani security forces at the end of 2001 in a city near Lahore, at the time of the first roundups of Arabs in the Koranic schools. "We were looking through makeshift blindfolds that the Pakistanis had put on us. Ahmed Rachidi, a Moroccan I met in the security force station, lived in London; he followed the negotiations between the Americans and the Pakistanis." Benchekroun, still incredulous at this surrealistic situation, explains that "people showed up with black suitcases and started bargaining with the Pakistanis over the price for handing us over." When they agreed on a price of $5000 a head, they applauded. The cooperation against terrorism, it seems, represents a very lucrative business for Pakistanis determined to arrest as many Arabs as possible. But it's worse than that, says B. Benchekroun: "A Yemeni named Karama, suspected of drug trafficking, was arrested and placed with us in the same building. The Pakistanis made him grow a beard and learn to pray. I taught him the basics about washing myself. We didn't understand that it was so that they could sell him to the Americans, too." At this precise moment, the handful of detainees was sold "to be sent to the slaughterhouse like sheep. Then Bush can boast that he's captured some terrorists."
THE TRANSFER TO HELL'S ANTECHAMBER
"As for me," says Mazouz, "it was when I read 'made in USA' on the handcuffs that I understood that I was going to be taking a trip to hell." The trip to the airport took 45 minutes, during which the anxiety of the detainees was fed by the wildest rumors, as Mazouz recalls: "We were told that the Americans wanted to cram the Arabs they'd picked up in Afghan camp and exterminate them with B-52s." Before embarking, soldiers take off their "captures" the hoods that the Pakistanis had put there before, stick cotton on their eyes, blindfold them before putting back canvas hoods that were "so tight that our only concern was to keep from suffocating," remembers the Moroccan. "During this night flight, the least movement was punished by violent kicks. After more than an hour in the air, the plane landed on the Kandahar base. Then I understood that the worst was yet to come." Benchekroun undertook the same journey, but is sent to the Bagram camp, also on a night flight....
KANDAHAR, BAGRAM, CAMPS OF HORROR
Wearing just a blue jumpsuit and a hood, the prisoners disembark in a deafening military hubbub. "They wrapped a cable around the arms of 5 or 6 prisoners. Two soldiers grabbed the two ends of the cable, and made us run through screaming for half an hour," recalls Mazouz; "if the prisoners who are attached to you change the rhythm, the cable sqeezes so tight you feel that your hand is being cut in two." The soles of the sandals are so thin that you can feel the sharp gravel. "They took them off and we were kept on our knees for two hours. I got a kick in the testicles because I was trembling too much. I was freezing to death," recalls "271." Because at Kandahar as at Bagram, they didn't say "Mazouz" anymore, rather "271," they didn't say "Benchekroun," rather "587."
Two hours later, soldiers take the cables off the prisoners and leave them alone until dawn for the medical check-up. "They stood me up, told me to go up to a metal bar, as if to knock me out, before taking off the hood and giving me the most humiliating exam which concluded with the introduction, with vigor, of a finger in the anus." Then the detainees are given their first interrogations. "After having been beaten because you dared to move or moan, all at once were submitted to an avalanche of questions: Are you afraid? What are you doing in Pakistan? What do you think of the September 11 attacks?" Obviously, the Americans had cast a wide net. "I was so terrorized that no words came out of my mouth," remembers Mazouz. "We had not been able to take showers for several weeks, we were eaten up by lice." Same treatment at Bagram. After a week of detention, the Red Cross was able to visit the camp, but without having access to most of the prisoners. "The ones who were the most bashed up were hidden in a storage room over the interrogation chamber," Brahim Benchekroun charges; he will spend 4 months in Bagram, his compatriot will put in 6 months in Kandahar.
"YOU BELONG TO ME"
The stay in the camps is considered by the "survivors" as infernal: "as harsh as the very mediatized Delta Camp at Guantanamo." The detainees are parked in groups of 20 in tents. Each group has a representative, the only one allowed to speak with the soldiers. The "never again" will be heard again, with American cruelty . . . "All we had was one bucket per tent to do our business, I'll spare you the details about the accumulation of detritus, the smell. It was disgusting." Once the shower was installed, the detainees could wash every two weeks. "And each time we were accompanied by a man and a woman who stood there in front of the detainees dressed like Adam, it was really degrading." The humiliation was permanent, according to Mazouz; the soldiers would put down food trays, then take away part of the meal at the last moment. They repeated casually, "you're mine, you belong to me." The interrogations were conducted by civilians with a soldiers brandishing a baton over the detainee. The stay was punctuated by messages of hope measured out drop by drop by the soldiers. "They told me that I was going to go back to Morocco. My passport includes my entry dates to Pakistan, my case was clear, I had every reason to believe the young woman who was interrogating me," insists the young Moroccan. "I even signed a paper to that effect. Two years later, I was still in detention."
To degrade detainees, give them hope, the better to break them psychologically -- the technique is well known, and it worked: the prisoners ended up assimilating the U.S. functioning mode: "Don't ask why, never say no, just do it, that's all." The detainees were not allowed to talk with more than three persons at the same time, or else they were punished.
PUNISHMENT MY MISHANDLING THE KORAN
In the camps there is no respite. "The soldiers come out of nowhere, sometimes several times in the same night, screaming bloody murder, throwing everything around on the pretext that there's a search, and rarely forgetting to throw the Koran on the ground, it they don't tear it up," says B. Benchekroun. For the detainees who had nothing to cling to except religion, day after day this attitude fed the hatred of the detainees for the Americans. Before I prayed occasionally. Thanks to the Americans, I have found the path to religion again. I have even learned by heart 20 hizbs of the Koran," says Mazouz. [NOTE: "The Qur`an is divided into 30 portions of almost equal length. Each portion is termed as juz. . . . In Egypt a juz is divided into two equal parts (hizb) and then every part is further divided into four parts." --Dr. Hasanuddin Ahmed] Benchekroun, for his part, claims the 60 hizbs. Faced with adversity, the prisoners take refuge in Islam en masse, "and it's thanks to our faith that we did not go mad," says Mazouz. And the attempts at destabilization didn't stop. The latest find before the Cuban expedition: to spread terrifying rumors about what would become of the detainees. "We didn't know whether we would be deported or eliminated."
As early as February, the detainees are pulled out of tents and transferred to an unknown destination. In mid-June, soldiers invade the tent and tell a few guys to follow them. Among them, 271. In the camps, you get out the same way you get in: with a bag on your head, they cut your clothes with scissors, you're obliged to kneel on the gravel. "When I saw the orange get-up, I thought my day had come," remembers Mazouz. Wearing the sadly famous jumpsuit and taped slippers, with cotton on his eyes, kept in place by diving goggles and a helmet, "everthing squeezed so tight that you feel that your head is cut in four pieces," Mazouz still complains, this is the famous torture by "sense deprivation." The detainees are embarked in a plane with their hands chained on each side of the cabin; the flight will take almost a day. And if, by chance, a detainee succumbs to sleep and deviates from the initial position, "he was awakened by kicking." The next day, toward noon, the detainees discovered the mysterious destination.
WELCOME TO GUANTANAMO
On the naval base, the detainees say they suffered from interrogations "that lasted for hours and hours." The methods of torture were very sophisticated. "The isolation system may seem bearable, it's a lot less than physical violence; the Americans tortured methodically," acknowledges the Moroccans. The interrogators turn on the air conditionsing and let the detainees sob for several hours before exposing them again to the torid heat of the camp. The hardest thing is to know that the torture will take place with medical assistance, so "you're sure to suffer right up to your own limits," says Mazouz. The insults to religious symbols has become the preferred means to exert pressure. "The soldiers turn on the call to prayer and mix it with American music, or else they stop it abruptly. They forcibly shaved my beard, a religious symbol, to make me understand that I was no longer master of anything," rembers Mazouz. "I saw with my own eyes the Koran thrown three times," says Benchekroun. "One day, I protested to a soldier who was fooling around with the Koran, and I ended up in solitary." The labor of undermining the symbols of Islam is gratuitous and recurrent. "When they protested because they don't bring back a prisoner from an interrogation, sometimes they gave us tear gas before opening the door and releasing the dogs."
The Moroccans remember having been interrogated by the Kingdom's security services, on two occasions for Mazouz and on three occasions for Benchekroun. Both affirm "having been better treated by the Moroccans, who never made use of physical violence or verbal violence." "I even had the right to two coffees and several sandwiches," says Mazouz. On the American side, the interrogations are more muscular, longer, and harsher: "I stopped counting my interrogations after the 20th one," Benchekroun says. They never were subjected to the horrors "of the injections of who know what, to the point where a Saudi named Faisal lost his mind and wouldn't stop biting his hand." The detainees were beaten if they refused to obey, to weigh themselves, to eat, or, if they forgot the motto "don't ask why, don't say no, just do it, that's all." One day, Mazouz gathers up his courage in his two hands and says: "Why am I here?" "Because the Pakistanis turned you in and your country isn't asking for you," answers the interrogator. After more than two years, cut off from the rest of the world, some of the detainees started to crack; they ended up in "Camp Delta, where, it would seem, they keep those who have gone mad," according to Benchekroun.
HUMILIATION TO THE END
In mid-June 2004, Mazouz has an attack in the course of an interrogation. He is transferred to a hospital for four days and there he's told that he's being sent home. He is taken to a transition camp that's more comfortable, which augurs a rapid return home. And sure enough, four days later a soldier takes his measurements and gives him clothes, a luxury that he had not known for more than two years: "I felt myself reborn." He describes the pair of pants, the T-shirt, ordinary things for most people, forgotten by the detainees of the camp of shame. A civilian car takes him to the airport; he accepts putting on the accursed hood one last time before going home and gets into the vehicle. After only a quarter of an hour on the road, the car stops, he is escorted to a house, and, hardly has the hood been removed, but five men the size of chests of drawers attack him, crying "just like in Kandahar," tear off his clothes, put their fingers again in his rear with the same aggressivity, and take away his shoes. He will go back to Morocca barefoot. "That's to tell you to what point they're vicious." They take off the hood one last time in the police station of Mâarif, in Casablanca, and the American nightmare is over.
"I had a good image of the USA before. I loved to wear jeans and look at big-budget American movies. Today, I know that the American reality is in Iraq and in Afghanistan," said Mazouz.
Translated by Mark K. Jensen
Associate Professor of French
Department of Languages and Literatures
Pacific Lutheran University
Tacoma, WA 98447-0003
Home page: http://www.plu.edu/~jensenmk/