Exclusive: Moazzam Begg interviews former Guantanamo prisoner,
Adel el-Gazzar, in Slovakia
Written by Moazzam Begg
Three men released from Guantanamo this year were resettled in a small town in Slovakia where there is no Muslim community
Over the past year the US administration has released around 30 Guantanamo prisoners to several European nations. They include France, Switzerland, Germany, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Albania, Hungary, Bulgaria, Latvia, Georgia and even Cape Verde. Three men were also sent to Slovakia at the beginning of this year as part it's gesture of solidarity with President Barack Obama's pledge to empty and close the detention centre.
Upon arrival the three men, Poolad Tsiradzho (Azerbaijan), Rafiq al-Hami (Tunisia) and Adel el-Gazzar (Egypt) were taken to a deportation centre. After protesting their treatment they were re-housed by the Slovak authorities in a small town in central Slovakia where Cageprisoners director, Moazzam Begg, met up with them and interviewed Adel el-Gazzar about his extraordinarily harrowing story of torture, abuse, amputation, courage and hope.
Moazzam Begg: Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem, can you please introduce yourself?
Adel el-Gazzar: My name is Adel Fattough `Ali el-Gazzar. I am from Egypt. I was born in 1965, in Cairo. I am a father of four. I used to work as an accountant in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia.
MB: How did you come to be captured by the Americans?
AG: I was captured in 2001 after the September 11 attacks. I had been working in Quetta (Pakistan) with the Saudi Red Crescent. I was helping the refugees who after the American attack in Afghanistan, numbered hundreds of thousands escaping from war. Their lives were very miserable; no clean water, no medicine, no food, no tents, no blankets; I was helping to provide them with food, medicine and basic necessities. I was in Chaman, a small border town between Afghanistan and Pakistan. A night-raid was launched by the Americans and they hit the refugee camp, our camp.
MB: They attacked with helicopters and with military vehicles?
AG: Yes we actually couldn't see the helicopters and vehicles, we just heard the sounds of exploding shells.
MB: Were there many casualties?
AG: Yes several. And I was injured myself. I sustained a deep injury to my left leg and fell on the ground. Within two or three minutes I was unconscious and when I woke I found myself in a small hospital with some other injured. Some may have been killed too. I remember one kid, aged eight or nine with us in the hospital. I spent about two hours or three hours in this hospital then we were moved to the main hospital in Quetta.
MB: You were still in Pakistani custody at this time?
AG: Actually I didn't know exactly where I was, just that I was in hospital. Many doctors came to see me and check my situation. They told me that I needed some instant surgery so I went to the operating room. I went for four or five times, I think, I'm not sure. But it was not custody, it was a hospital. But there were some officials who came and questioned me – I believe from Pakistani intelligence – taking basic details about me. After a couple of weeks I started to notice some Americans in hospital.
MB: You received severe injuries to your leg. Can you describe what had happened?
AG: I asked the doctor exactly what happened to me, he said that it was shrapnel from a rocket that shattered my leg; it destroyed the tibia completely. Then they put an external clamp to help join the bone together.
MB: Where did you go to next after this hospital?
AG: I spent seven days in this hospital. Then I was transferred to Makkah hospital which belonged to the Saudi Red Crescent. The treatment was very, very good, many doctors from different branches came to visit me and treat my injuries. I remained in hospital for over a month.
MB: At what point did you know the Americans where involved?
AG: One week before that time a CIA agent came to hospital to question me but I refused to answer. I had done nothing wrong but I began to feel that maybe I will get transferred to the Americans. We had begun to hear that they were looking for Arabs.
MB: How did you imagine the Americans might treat you?
AG: I knew something about their history so I was under no illusions. I started to hear on the radio about what they are doing in Guantanamo, but I didn't imagine for a second that I would be sent there.
MB: You had already heard about Guantanamo?
AG: Yes, I saw some pictures and reports about it but as I said, thoughts of that place were far from my head. To be honest at this time the treatment on the Pakistani side was really very good. Even the governor of Quetta used to visit us, sometimes twice a day, and he was showing his sympathy. Not only him, I received hundreds of visitors within these thirty five days - people I don't know. They just came and tried to help, give me money, clothes and food every day. The Pakistani visitors were very kind.
MB: Some non-Pakistanis who later ended up in Guantanamo also state that they were treated similarly in Pakistan. Why then do you think the Pakistanis handed you over to the Americans?
AG: It was out of their [ordinary people's] control. A young man from Pakistani intelligence started to visit us from time to time. He never asked any questions, he just apparently wanted to offer his help. Then one evening he came crying tears, saying that it was my last night in Pakistan. At this point the surgeons were still trying to see if they could save my leg; an operation was due the next day. But the man said I was going to leave today. I asked him where I was going and he said he couldn't tell me. I felt something bad was about to happen.
MB: Did you think it was the Americans at the time?
AG: I started to suspect something but there was no reason to believe it. The governor came and said he had had a meeting and they had decided that this hospital didn't have enough facilities for the operation I was to be moved to another hospital also in Quetta.
MB: Were you by yourself or was anyone with you?
AG: There were four others with me, all are injured. We were taken to Quetta airport and we saw the Americans. They took us out of the ambulance on stretchers and the Americans came wearing gloves.
MB: What did the Pakistanis say to you?
AG: This time they were very bad in the ambulance; they kicked me and put a hood on my head. Their behaviour had completely changed. I started to shout and protest, saying we were all Muslims. They said, "Shut up don't talk, you are a terrorist!" Then the Americans came, searched me and put me onto the aeroplane. Unbelievably they taped me all around my body to the stretcher and put a hood over my face.
MB: What was going through your mind as you were handed over to the Americans?
AG: I was thinking that it was the end of my life or I will face a very bad time in the future.
MB: And your family had no idea what was going to happen?
AG: Nothing, I had been on the phone talking to my wife earlier from the hospital, crying, saying to her I'm sorry, forgive me, I think this is the last time in my life I will speak to her, please pray for me. And she was crying, saying: "What's happening, what's happening?" And then they took the phone from me.
MB: What kind of 'welcome' did you receive in Kandahar?
AG: It was a terrible night. We reached Kandahar around midnight; it was very, very cold and raining heavily. Then they took me from the plane and put me into a tent, the tent had some holes in the top so the rain was pouring on to my face. I couldn't see much but the constant roar of the engines meant that flights were coming in day and night.Then medics came and cut off all my clothes and bandages on my injury with scissors and left me naked. They were screaming at me that I deserved what was happening to me, and that I am about to die as a terrorist.
MB: How long did you remain in this state?
AG: About 24hours. I was completely naked. Without a blanket, without anything. I felt I was about to die just from the cold. Then they moved me from this tent to another. Once I reached the second tent they started to beat me, on my head, my stomach, my back, my hands and legs. They kicked my injured leg and I was screaming in agony but they just laughed and danced like it was a joke. The following day they gave me some clothes and then the interrogations began properly.
MB: What were they asking you?
AG: About basic details in the beginning, but this was the first of many. The second one was long: they asked me why I came to Pakistan, how they captured me, al-Qaeda, Bin Laden, the Taliban. Things I couldn't answer. They mentioned some names I didn't even know.
MB: What was the feeling you got from the other prisoners about the future?
AG: Nothing, we were just talking and laughing with each another – despite the hardships. We were not thinking about Guantanamo, because they came to us many times and said in just a few days everybody will go home. Even when they took us on the plane to Guantanamo we thought that they were taking us home
MB: Did the Americans give you any idea that they were in fact sending everybody to Guantanamo?
AG: No idea, I was more concerned about my leg, because I had severe pain and the environment was dirty so I was worried that it might get infected. The American doctors were telling me it had to be amputated. I resisted, arguing with them about what the Pakistani surgeons had said, that they could save my leg. I even showed them the X-rays that I had kept. The Americans just laughed and said the Pakistanis didn't know anything about medicine and treatments. In the end one of them admitted that they could save my leg but the operation would costs thousands of dollars and that America was a `poor country'. It was amputation or nothing.
MB: What was the journey to Guantanamo like?
It took about 20 hours or more. I was on a stretcher with my face covered and my body taped, as before. I was trying to sleep because that was the best option but of course it was very difficult. The pain and discomfort was excruciating. I pleaded with a medic for a sedative which I got. I woke up in Guantanamo.
MB: What is your first memory of Guantanamo?
AG: I remember being thirsty, and I asked for water. It was a sunny day, very sunny. Then I was forcibly stripped naked again while they washed my body.
MB: You remained in Camp X-ray on the stretcher in the cell?
AG: Yes, I spent 25 days in X-ray I was taken to the hospital for amputation.
MB: How did you respond to this?
AG: Of course I refused in the beginning. The doctor said it was up to me but that they couldn't do anything to save my leg but amputate it. I explained what I'd been told in Pakistan but I got the same as answer as I'd had in Kandahar: Pakistanis didn't know anything, the leg had to go. As the days passed the pain increased and the colour of my leg started to turn grey- almost black. I asked them to clean the wound, and to change the dressing every day and night but they wouldn't do it. When I asked them in the morning for a new dressing they said they will do it in the afternoon, and in the afternoon they said they will do it in the morning, like that.
MB: So you would go through days without having it cleaned?
AG: Yes, but worse than that. The wound was open and big -without any kind of treatment besides basic dressings. They forced us to take showers so the wound got wet many times- the pain became almost unbearable. One day I remember I was crying terribly from the pain. A doctor turned up with pain killers but he said, "I will give you the medication, and your pain will be gone within 10 minutes, but first you need to sign a confession that you're a member of al-Qaeda." I told him I'm not a member of al-Qaeda and cannot confess to a lie. He put the medication in his pocket and walked off. However, most of the other prisoners advised me correctly that I had no option but to accept the amputation as it had passed the stage of being saved and had become gangrenous and could spread higher up the leg the longer it was left. I finally gave in. Ten days later a doctor came with consent papers for me to sign. The next day I was taken to the hospital.
MB: How did you feel knowing your leg was gone?
AG: After the anaesthesia wore off I looked at my leg, but couldn't find it. I started to cry. The doctor came to me and he was trying to be sympathetic saying: "Its fine, don't worry, you'll have an artificial leg one day and you'll be able to walk, don't worry."
MB: So you spent all this time waiting for an artificial leg living on a wheelchair?
AG: They gave me crutches. I spent about 70 days in hospital after the amputation because the leg got infected. I was put on a long term of antibiotics, to make sure the gangrene didn't spread. I returned to the hospital many times.
MB: How long after you the amputation were you given a prosthetic leg?
AG: About six months later.
MB: Are you aware of how many other prisoners received amputations whilst they were in Guantanamo?
AG: There were 13 people, all were legs except one guy from Morocco, he lost his left hand. There was also a brother from Saudi Arabia, he lost both legs.
MB: Do you think that this number of amputations happened because the wounds were so bad or because the medical treatment was inadequate?
AG: Most of the wounds were not so bad, there were some that were very bad, but for example I remember there was a man from Turkistan [Uighur], his name was Ahmed, who had just a very small wound, no broken bones or anything, and they told him the only solution was to amputate his leg. I was pleading with him not to accept it but they were trying to show us that it is a hopeless case and that there is no treatment. And the treatment in the hospital was very bad, not from the doctors, but from the MPS [military police]. They would sing and dance in front of us while we were in pain, we were constantly shackled to the cots and were not allowed to talk or even look in a particular direction. Despite our pain and condition we were expected to sleep at fixed times.
MB: What would they do if contravened these rules?
AG: They would kick you in the head, take your blanket, withhold food, threaten you with more abuse and threaten to withhold our treatment if we failed to comply.
MB: After all that you had endured, especially the amputation, how did you manage to keep your faith strong?
AG: First I believed that everything was qadr [fate], so that put everything before the will of God, I am sure that He never does anything wrong to his slaves, He is always doing the best for them. I believed it was best for me to be amputated. Perhaps if I still had two legs I might have used them to do something wrong. So I pray Allah protects me not to do any bad in the future. In the beginning I was sorry about losing a limb, especially when I started to suffer physically, going to the bathroom, walking, doing any physical activity. I thought to myself it would be a difficult time in the future- for the rest of my life. But, subhan Allah [Glory be to God], after a few days I was completely satisfied and I started to deal with the new situation happily, and now I'm okay, I put on my [prosthetic] leg like it's no big deal.
MB: During this time did you manage to get any letters to or from your family?
AG: No. For the whole first year I never got anything. The first letter I received was in August 2003. It was via the Red Cross, from my father and my wife, they told me that they know I'm in Guantanamo and they were trying to give me some solace: to be strong and patient and not to worry about them. My father passed away in 2007 – while I was still in prison.
MB: Did your family know that your leg had been amputated by this time?
AG: I didn't have it in me to tell them, for several years.
MB: The interrogators wanted to break the prisoners but you say in fact you were `rebuilt' there. Did the Americans not achieve what they wanted?
AG: They failed; I found that the Muslims can be very, very strong if they believe in God and His power. And the Americans are nothing against the Muslims united as a nation. It was a struggle between us and them – not a struggle of weapons but a struggle, a battle of wills. An example of this could be seen every day at maghrib [sunset] when their national anthem collided with our athaan [call to prayer.] But I believe they lost, they followed orders – we followed our hearts. I left Guantanamo stronger in my faith and perseverance than ever before.
MB: You saw many brothers from different parts of the world going through similar hardships, very young and very old people, how did it make you feel about yourself?
AG: There were some people in very bad situations compared to me but we were like one family. Like Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said: "The example of the believers in the compassion to one another is like that of one body. If one part is harmed, the entire body is affected." We were like that. The moment we heard that a brother is suffering in a different camp, we did not ask about his nationality, race, culture, education, school of thought or age. We just care that he is a Muslim and we need to support him, and this is a part of our religion. We were really one man. This is what we are trying to inform the nation: just to be one body. We have One God, one Quran, one shari'ah. So we should not be divided.
MB: As a group, what did you do to try and challenge the abuses and lack of human rights afforded to you?
AG: We were always on strikes, not only hunger strikes, but resisting all the rules, even if we were told to hang the towel on one side or the other [of the cell]. The Americans at first were really surprised.
MB: Would you say that the prisoners there were organised, how did they manage to sustain this resistance?
AG: The suffering made us, the detention made us. We were not organised. We were just one body, one heart but it was from God
MB: The Americans have maintained that this is strategy taught from the Al-Qaeda training manual on how to resist. How would you respond?
AG: This is a big lie, they were lying to themselves and they were trying to lie to the others. It was not like that, I think that there are no members of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban over there. And as I told you they made a big mistake by capturing us. They told all the other nations that 'we destroyed the mujahideen' and there will be no more al-Qaeda, no more Taliban in the future and then they told themselves that it was a mistake and they couldn't fix it.
MB: In Guantanamo there was a large variety of people from many countries. How did you all communicate?
AG: We tried to learn each other's languages and even if we couldn't we have a language in common we still have faith, and it doesn't matter where you are from or what language you speak as long as you are Muslims together and we are one together. So because of this I never had any communication problems.
MB: There are still around 174 prisoners left in Guantanamo, after almost ten years without charge or trial. What do you think is the solution for them?
AG: Most of the people would like to go back to their countries – about 90 from Yemen, 10 from Saudi Arabia, 10 from Algeria and so forth. There are a handful of course who cannot return home and they should be provided for at all levels. But I don't know why they don't want to send these people back. There is something `under the table' as I said but, they should close the place down and send the people who can return back to their homes.
MB: At the beginning of this year you and two other men were released and sent here to Slovakia. What were your feelings when you were informed that you were about to be released?
AG: The first thing I did was I cried like a [new] born baby. And I was really very, very happy that I was going to leave Guantanamo but, I was also very sad that I was going to leave my brothers behind in such a place. And I was wondering about how I was going to live in another country, start a new life with an uncertain future.
MB: Did you know you were coming to Slovakia?
AG: Yes, but I didn't know anything about Slovakia. It is the first time I've ever been in Europe. I was thinking about my family – would I be able to bring them here or not. I was also wondering whether I would be able to adapt to a new life in Europe as it is completely different to my life in Egypt. I had mixed feelings – between happiness and sadness: because I'm leaving [Guantanamo] and because I'm leaving my brothers. Generally though, I was happy.
MB: One thing that's common amongst former prisoners is that in addition to their families they are constantly concerned about the affairs of others prisoners – or former prisoners. Why do you think this is the case?
AG: We already lived together for many years. I lived with my brothers in Guantanamo more than I lived with my own wife and children. So we really became a big family. Some of the brothers are older than me – some are younger. I saw the older ones equivalent to my father and the younger ones like my brothers or sons. Imagine a family that consists of 800 or so– everyone tries to take care of one another. We had the same feelings; we suffered under the same circumstances and troubles – good or bad.
MB: Prisoners have recently been resettled to countries all over Europe. Some are of course better than others. Do you think the Americans thought this process through properly?
AG: As I said, I am thankful for having been released but I know they don't care; they just send us to these countries to somehow uphold the reputation of America as a kind nation, especially when everyone knows how much they have been involved in torture around the world. Also, so the European countries will control them more than the original countries of the prisoners. The most difficult thing for me returning to a foreign county not that of my own origin is that in Guantanamo I was with my family (the Muslim prisoners) but here in Slovakia I have no family, no wife, no kids and no Muslims. There are no mosques here and only a couple of Muslims around. Every Friday for prayers I have to travel four hours to the capital and four hours back.
MB: You say your faith was the most important thing back in Guantanamo, are you are now weaker than you were there?
AG: Yes but I am compensating for it by trying to be closer to Allah by praying, reading Quran more and also reading useful books. I am also able to contact my family and friends abroad so it decreases the loneliness a little.
MB: What advice would you give to the relatives of prisoners facing similar trials?
Look at things from an optimistic viewpoint not a pessimistic one; look at it like a test from God to see how patient you are and just remain close to God as He is the only one who can take you through all the way to the finish and protect you. If you are going through the hardships read Quran, fast, pray and remain faithful. As long as your heart is free, they can arrest your body but not your soul.
MB: What is the thing you missed the most from life before Guantanamo?
AG: I missed the mosques and going there five times a day and the Muslim community who helped and protected you, I also missed my family. It is very hard to talk to my kids as they are teenagers but we love each other even though we do not know each other.
MB: What could the Americans have done to make it easier with your family?
AG: I don't expect anything from the Americans but I do from the Muslim community, they should practice helping people in a bad situation. But I am not expecting anything from the Muslim countries [leadership] as they are the all the same, following the Americans, just the community by itself.
MB: Did you come across any guards who were decent and treated you like humans. If so, what advice would you give them?
AG: Yes I met some very nice and sympathetic guards. My advice to any young soldiers who went to the army believing they were doing a good thing is don't listen to the media in your country, search for the real facts. My advice for people who want to help but don't would be that asking from God is a strong weapon but also you need to use tools such as doing something practical and achieving your goals by actually getting up and helping.
MB: Looking back, what is the most memorable part of your experience?
AG: The most beautiful days? Actually, I don't know if you will believe me but the whole 8 years was a very nice time, it was real. If I had the choice to go back to Guantanamo I will go. It is really a very big experience for me: first I learned more about myself– both good and bad. Before Guantanamo I did not recognise this. I was able to rebuild myself again there. And I was very close to God and able to memorize the whole Quran in 27days.
MB: What do you think ordinary people should be doing to help relieve the suffering of the prisoners?
AG: Everyone released from Guantanamo is looking for the support of the people, not only financial but moral support. Life outside Guantanamo is cold – very, very cold. Therefore we need to feel warmth [from people]. We are all duty bound to help relieve the suffering of the oppressed – even if we were once oppressed ourselves, especially if we were. But as we are still struggling to stand up our help is sought by our brothers who are in a worse situation. And there are always people in a worse situation.
MB: Brother Adel, may Allah reward you with the best for all you have endured and ease your hardships with sustenance and tranquillity.
For an earlier analysis of the former Guantanamo prisoners in Slovakia click here.
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