What it’s like to be detained in Guantanamo Bay
Moazzam Begg spent 20 months in solitary confinement in the Guantanamo Bay detention camp after being arrested in Pakistan. He was released without charge in January 2005.
My cell was about eight foot by six foot. You couldn’t take more than three steps in either direction. It had a metal bunk fixed in and a steel toilet and wash basin.
There was no window so you couldn’t see if it was day or night. There was constantly a soldier or two outside watching me on three or four hour shifts. And that was it. That was home.
An average day would begin at dawn. Around 6am breakfast would come through what is known as the “bean hole”, a flap in the metal door. It would be pretty bland and nasty most of the time, something like boiled egg or cornflakes.
Around 8am I would prepare myself for the “recreation area”. It was about 15 foot by 15 foot. I would run round and round like a mouse in a wheel, 20 times in one direction then 20 times in the other so the weight wouldn’t all be on one leg. Back in my cell I would do press-ups and sit-ups.
For the rest of the day there was nothing to look forward to except for prayer times and, even though the food was bland, meal times. Supper normally came around 5pm and I went to bed around 10pm. There were no other prisoners to talk to – I was completely alone.
How can I describe the isolation? Think about the smallest room in your house. Go inside there for just half an hour, don”t open the door and then think: ‘imagine being here for years on end’. That would give you a taste of what it is like.
I think I am a very sane, strong person but twice I lost control of my senses in solitary confinement. Literally lost control. I screamed and shouted and punched and kicked the walls and swore and cried.
The thing that helped me pass the time was my ability to write. They gave me a little pen that was two inches long and made of floppy plastic so it couldn’t be used as a weapon. I wrote letters to my kids, poetry and lists of words – anything that I could remember.
There was a librarian who came round once a week. He had a small selection of very old books that were mostly English classics. I read Charles Dickens, including Bleak House. I read the Lord of the Rings series. The books available primarily had nothing to do with current affairs, had no maps and didn’t discuss politics.
The other thing that was important was the ability to converse with the soldiers. Some were clearly hostile, but with others my relationship became quite close. Being born and raised in the UK you know all about American culture so we would talk about films and television series.
With some soldiers I knew their first names, their last names, their family’s names. I knew where they studied, I knew where they worked and their views. Some expressed sympathy. They became friends, proper friends. I have seen some of them since leaving.
Interspersed during all of this were interrogations. The types of interrogators would vary: some would be aggressive, hostile, threatening; others would just want to talk and be seen as a friendly voice. The most sinister and threatening ones I ever came across were from the CIA.
Sleep was something that you looked forward to doing. A dream was so much more than a dream, it was an escape. As long as you were asleep you were not inside the cell. You were free.
I would see family members and friends in my dreams. I would see England, I would see Birmingham, I would see the places where I grew up, but then I would wake up. The nightmare wasn’t when I was asleep – it was when I woke.
A military officer came in one day with his hands behind his back and said ‘Mr Begg, there are no charges against you and the military has decided to release you. You will be going home in a few days.’ That was it. I didn’t believe it at first, but it was true.
As time goes on the memories of my time there do fade a little bit. I now campaign and try to use the experience for something positive.
But recently I had a terrible nightmare about Guantanamo. I woke up and said to myself: ‘I am never going to get over this. This is never going away’.
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