Interview with Ex-Guantanamo Detainee Sami al Hajj

''The Guards Are Prisoners Too''

Exactly 10 years ago the first plane carrying detainees landed in Guantanamo Bay. Since then, 779 men have been detained without charge and without trial, with 171 of them still being held in Cuba. Sami al Hajj, a Sudanese journalist, was one of them. Stephanie Doetzer met him in Doha

You were released from Guantanamo four years ago. How are you today?

Sami al Hajj: Good. Thank God. But seven years' imprisonment is not a short time. So still we have some problems. Dreams at night. And problems dealing with people. Sometimes we need to keep silent for a long time.

I remember the day of your release, it was a very big moment for Al Jazeera. For you, it meant switching from complete isolation to suddenly being in front of cameras and giving interviews... how was all that for you?

Al Hajj: From the moment I was liberated, I felt I had some responsibility for the others who were still inside. So when I give interviews, each time I feel I am fulfilling something of my responsibility.

Are you still in touch with other former detainees?

Al Hajj: Yes, of course. Together with two other detainees, I started an organisation called the Guantanamo Justice Center. We are trying to open a case against the Bush administration. But we haven’t succeeded yet.


Al Hajj: Because the United States does not accept our complaint.

You tend to start your sentences with "we" rather than "I". What were the relationships like among detainees? Was it possible to make friends?

Al Hajj: Yes, of course. We shared the same situation. And because I'm a journalist, I was curious to ask them about their story. I can say that I met the majority of all Guantanamo detainees at some point during those years. After my release, I tried to get back in touch. Sometimes it was difficult, but I have the e-mails of many of them. And some I had the chance to visit, for example in Algeria, in Yemen and of course in Sudan.

What are their lives like today?

Al Hajj: It depends. Some have gone crazy. And many, we don't know. See, if you look at the situation of those from Saudi Arabia, I can say that 90% of the former inmates were locked up again.

Are you referring to people against whom there was no charge, no evidence, no trial?

Al Hajj: Yes. Nothing. Without any evidence. They just lock them up and keep them.

Free Al Hajj campaign protest in Brussels (photo: picture-alliance/dpa)
Amnesty International campaigned to free Al Hajj: In 2001, while on his way to do camera work in Afghanistan, the Sudanese Al Jazeera journalist was arrested by the Pakistani army and held in Guantanamo for over six years. He intends to launch legal action against the Bush administration

​​One guy from Morocco was with me on the same plane when we were released. He thought he would be free, but he got 12 more years of jail in Morocco.

So the story isn't finished once people are released from Guantanamo...

Al Hajj: No, it is not finished. Many, many people are suffering. You know, when people are released from Guantanamo, they need someone to help them. They need to learn how to live in society again. But there is no help.

When you say it's difficult to re-adapt to normal life, what would you say is the most difficult part?

Al Hajj: The most difficult thing is to return to life. They locked up most of us for more than five years. We need time to learn how to live again. We need people who don't look at us as though we did something wrong.

We didn't do anything bad, but everybody is afraid of us. If one of us finds a job and the boss finds out that he is a former Guantanamo inmate, he will be sacked immediately.

During your time there, what helped you cope?

Al Hajj: Two things. Firstly, my deep religious conviction. And the fact that I knew I didn't do anything wrong and because of that, God will help me. Secondly, I lived inside Guantanamo as a journalist. I told myself: Yes, it is difficult to be here, but maybe it is a chance to be among the detainees. You know, for a long time, journalists were not allowed to visit Guantanamo.

After three, four years, they allowed some journalists in, but they did not allow them to speak to the detainees. But I lived among them, I was one of them. I saw everything... how they deal with them, how they torture them. And while I was inside, I was waiting for the moment I would get a chance to talk to the outside world and to tell them the truth. About what is going on inside that place.

You say you saw how people were tortured. What exactly did you see?

Al Hajj: Many different types of torture. They beat us, they tried to use sexual things, they insulted our religion, they didn't let us sleep.

Guantanamo inmate in 2007 (photo: AP)
Isolation, intimidation, and torture: the proven mistreatment of prisoners and their denial of protection under the Geneva Conventions has been a source of international controversy

​​Also you are not allowed to make any objection... when I started a hunger strike for 480 days to protest against my detention, they started force-feeding me after 30 days. I tried to refuse, but they simply put a tube in my nose. And through the tube they gave us too much food until we started to throw up.

Was it the same treatment for everybody?

Al Hajj: No. This was for those who objected. For those who went on hunger strike or who didn't answer questions. If you didn't answer a question, you were punished.

Some people, they put them in water, trying to make them think that they will kill them. Or they used dogs against them... and drugs. They gave some people injections so that they couldn't sleep for a long time and had hallucinations.

When you say "they" – who are "they"?

Al Hajj: The young guards were the worst. Because they didn't have any background knowledge about us. They thought we were terrorists. Their superiors told them that: "You have to be ready to fight anytime! Those people, if they get any chance, they will kill you!" They tried to make them afraid of us, to keep them away from us.

But many times they forgot to close our cells and no detainee ever came out and killed a guard. But some guards killed themselves.

Do you remember a particular situation?

Al Hajj: Yes. Christmas 2003. One officer killed himself. And he wrote a letter saying: "We lock these detainees in small cells and we lock ourselves in big cells." Because there were restrictions placed on the guards as well, regarding travel and contact with their families. They listened in on the guards’ conversations. They didn't want them to tell the outside world anything about what was going on inside. So the guards are prisoners too.

Would you say that the guards had completely lost their humanity?

Al Hajj: No, no, not all of them. Some of them, they listened to us. Some understood that we are normal people.

If there was any contact between a guard and a detainee, they would be told: "Don't speak to the detainees!" They put cameras everywhere.

Anti-Guantanamo protest 2007 (photo: AP)
US President Obama had promised to close Guantanamo Bay prison, but Congress is currently blocking plans to close the detention center, which the Bush administration opened ten years ago on 11 January 2002

​​If they saw any guard standing in front of a cell and talking for five minutes, they interrogated him afterwards.

And who are the people who control the guards?

Al Hajj: Also from the military, just higher ranks.

What affected us most was the psychological team. There were psychologists who gave the military advice about our weaknesses.

They study everybody. And then they tell the military: "This guy is afraid of dogs. And this one, he's very religious, so if you insult his religious book, he'll be affected. And that one, he can't cope with hunger, so give him less food."

Do you know what was said about you?

Al Hajj: They knew how much I love my family and my son... so they tried to keep my letters and pictures. When I received a picture of my son through the Red Cross, they gave me only the photocopy and then they took it from me.

Your son was very young when you were imprisoned...

Al Hajj: Yes, 14 months old.

What was it like for him to suddenly meet his father when he was seven?

Al Hajj: He had two emotions: He wanted to be with me, but at the same time, he didn't know me. He only knew the stories his Mom had told him. And he was very close to his Mom, so when I was released, he felt like I am taking his Mom from him.

But my release was also a big relief, because in school the situation was difficult for him. When the other kids saw my picture and his picture on Al Jazeera, they didn't understand. They only understood: Jail. And jail is for the bad people. So they felt I must be bad. He didn't know what to tell them. But thank God, he is ok now. He is 12 years old and he now has two brothers, Hamad and Ahmad. The smallest was born some weeks ago.

You know, when I hear other peoples' stories, I realise I was lucky. At least I knew I had a family.

How do you feel about America, about the American people after this experience?

Al Hajj: See, before Guantanomo, I didn't have any experience with American people. Before, I respected them all. But after these things, I lost respect for the Bush administration. And sometimes I blame the people for voting for him again after he made all those problems, after he had killed so many people in Afghanistan and Iraq. But at the same time, when I look at Clive Stafford Smith, my lawyer who helped me so much... he is also carrying a US passport. People are not the same, like our fingers.

When you think back to those years in Guantanamo, is it all dark memories or are there some moments that stick out, maybe moments that even made you laugh?

Al Hajj: Yes, the suffering was not continuous. Sometimes somebody translated wrongly from English into Arabic and we had a complete misunderstanding. We tried to entertain each other. Talking wasn’t allowed, but we talked.

How? You were alone in one cell, no?

Al Hajj: Yes, but we could talk to the neighbours. We were detainees from over 50 countries. So we asked each other: What are your traditions? What do you do for Eid ul-Fitr (the holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the ed.)? Some spoke French and taught their neighbour French. We learned a lot. One was a doctor from Yemen and started teaching the others about medicine. For me the most interesting thing was to hear the others’ stories. So I asked my neighbour: What was the most difficult situation in your life before Guantanamo?

And what did he say?

Al Hajj: He told me he was in love with this girl and ready to get married, but when he went to see her parents they didn't accept him.

Interview: Stephanie Doetzer

© 2012

Editor: Lewis Gropp/

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