Book Review - Guantanamo Diary

The journal of a Guantánamo detainee who remains incarcerated despite being cleared for release in 2010 makes a sobering, often chilling, read. Mohamedou Ould Slahi has been imprisoned without charge for over 13 years. Arrested in his native Mauritania, Slahi was rendered by the United States to Jordan and Afghanistan, before being sent to Cuba in August 2002. There he was reduced to a number – “prisoner 760”.

Slahi’s “crime” was to travel to Afghanistan as a student in 1991 and 1992 to join al-Qaida’s fight against the communist-led government. As he points out, at the time the US supported the cause.

The fact that the Bush administration sanctioned the use of torture at Guantánamo Bay is already well known. was published in 2010 – Slahi’s editor Larry Siems is one of its lead writers. Slahi’s searing account of his ritual humiliation and mistreatment offers further compelling evidence of illegal rendition and interrogation under President Bush.

It is the detail that convinces. Slahi describes being shackled, blindfolded, made to stand for long periods, stripped naked, denied water and subjected to sleep deprivation, loud noise and threats of violence. In one passage he describes being sexually abused by female interrogators. Another time, he is transported out to sea, forced to drink salt water until he vomits and then is beaten in the face and ribs while immersed in ice to hide the bruising. In 2004, at the end of his tether, Slahi resorted to making false confessions to keep his interrogators happy.

In 2005, finally allowed pen and paper, Slahi wrote his prison diary in English, his fourth language. His turn of phrase, obviously picked up from his jailers, “for Pete’s sake”, “dead right”, “that’s very convenient” and “if you’re buying, I’m selling”, are strangely endearing. They remind us of Slahi’s humanity and his sense of kinship with his abusers. Despite the cruelty of solitary confinement, Slahi finds solace in unexpected places. Deprived of any sensory material, he reads again and again the tag on his pillow. Slahi’s humour also shines through. When the guards decide Slahi is to be nicknamed “Pillow” and he has to give them names of characters from Star Wars, Slahi comments wryly, “I was forced to represent the forces of Evil, and the guards the Good Guys.”

Guantánamo Diary was published last week in 13 countries simultaneously, accompanied by a high profile campaign. Slahi’s story deserves to be widely read. It took over six years for the manuscript to be cleared for public release and, even then, the US government added over 2500 black bar redactions. One can only hope that after light is shed on the horrors he has endured Slahi will be released and finally see justice done.

 Originally published by the Independent on Sunday