Mohamedou Ould Slahi wrote this diary in 2005 while in detention in Guantánamo. For years he was considered America’s highest ranking terror suspect; I don’t know when that designation changed, or if it ever did. In 2008 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Guantánamo detainees could challenge their detention through habeas corpus. In 2009 U.S. District Court Judge James Robertson heard Mohamedou’s petition and in 2010 ordered his release. Within weeks, Obama’s administration filed a notice of appeal, sending the judge's decision back for review. The case is still pending. Mohamedou remains in U.S. custody in Guantánamo.
An NYRB review by Steve Coll introduced me to this title. It is, as Coll maintains, a “remarkable” document. Mohamedou was targeted by U.S. intelligence after the Millenium Bombing Plot in 1999, when Ahmed Ressam attempted to drive explosives from Montreal to Los Angeles. Mohamedou claims not to have known Ressam, but he was living in Montreal at the time also. After talking with his parents in Mauritania, he decided to return home rather than be surveilled by American intelligence agents. As soon as he arrived in Senegal to be picked up by his family, he was detained for questioning by his own government and subsequently released. After 9/11, he was called in by Mauritanian intelligence to answer questions. He drove himself to the police station, beginning a long and harrowing tale of capture, rendition, torture, and imprisonment.
I have been unable to understand why the Obama administration challenged Judge Robertson’s ruling on Mohamedou's habeas corpus, though the footnotes on Mohamedou’s wiki might prove instructive if one is trained in legalese. Mohamedou’s own personal diary of his time in detention from 2001-2005, from Mauritania, to Jordan, to Afghanistan, and finally to Guantánamo, though written in 2005, was not released for publication until 2013. Heavily redacted, it still allows a reader to get a sense of the man. He addresses a question directly to readers:
“So has American democracy passed the test it was subjected to with the 2001 terrorist attacks? I leave this judgment to the reader. As I am writing this, though, the United States and its people are still facing the dilemma of the Cuban detainees.”Taking into account all we know of the successes, failures, intents, bureaucratic execution and distortions that are a part of our “intelligence” history, I think we have to conclude that keeping Slahi in Guantánamo for some 15 years is far from our finest hour, if he forgives the understatement. Moreover, it has not made us safer, that oft-recycled excuse for exceeding the letter of the law.
Slahi’s reminiscences are unexpectedly keen, propulsive, visceral, and colloquial, using American expressions to describe circumstances and characters we are sure to recognize. I say “unexpectedly” not because he is a Muslim, but because he is an engineer. It may be profiling to say that in my experience with engineers spoken or written language is not usually their forte. Mohamedou used English to write, though his stronger languages are Arabic, German, and French. He went to school in Germany, and understands western habits. He graduated from the University of Duisburg with a degree in engineering. When his visa was expiring in Germany, he traveled to Montreal to find work. Using English allows Mohamedou to address us, the American electorate, directly, and to gently remonstrate using our own language habits, and peculiar phraseology. We wish we knew this man, could send him books, could argue with him late into the night, only to realize with sadness, bitterness, and distaste after putting the book down that such things will never happen. Too much water under the bridge, we can almost hear him say.
Absolutely Mohamedou Ould Slahi should be released immediately: one only hopes that he is able to reconstruct some kind of life for himself after his ordeals. As he so eloquently puts it, there are stages to a prisoner’s emotions while under incarceration:
”I have been through several stages during my captivity. The first phase was the worst: I almost lost my mind fighting to get back to my family and the life I was used to…It was several weeks before I realized that I’m in jail and not going home anytime soon...One has to conclude it may have been a crime to keep him locked up. Highly recommended.
Phase two is when you realize that you’re in jail and you possess nothing in the world but all the time in the world to think about your life—although in GTMO detainees also have to worry about daily interrogations…you have control over nothing…you have no privacy…In the beginning it is a horrible thing to lose all those privileges in the blink of an eye, but believe me, people get used to it. I personally did.
Phase three is discovering your new home and family. Your family comprises the guards and your interrogators. True, you didn’t choose this family, nor did you grow up with it, but it’s a family all the same, whether you like it or not, with all the advantages and disadvantages…
[In a footnote the book’s editor, Larry Siems, adds: MOS adds a note here in the margins of the handwritten original: “Phase four: getting used to the prison, and being afraid of the outside world.”]
Larry Siems is a human rights activist and directed the Freedom to Write program at PEN American Center. He worked with Slahi's legal counsel to get this document released. It has been translated into 24 languages.
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