Five Years of My Life

March 17, 2008

Five Years of My Life

Spring 2008

Five Years of My Life

By Peter Meroth and Uli Rauss

Murat Kurnaz
Murat Kurnaz was an innocent man in Guantanamo Bay detention center.
© Amnesty International

When he was 19, Murat Kurnaz quit moonlighting as a nightclub bouncer in his hometown of Bremen, Germany, began attending a nearby mosque and asked his parents to arrange his marriage. After his wedding in Turkey in 2001, he departed for Pakistan to study Islam. Worried that his parents would try to stop him from going, he left without saying goodbye.

About two months after the September 11 attacks, Kurnaz was abducted by Pakistani authorities while traveling through Pakistan with a group of tablighis, a sect of missionaries. Sold as a terror suspect to the U.S. military for a $3000 bounty, Kurnaz spent two hellish months in a secret U.S. prison in Afghanistan before he was bundled onto a plane and sent to the U.S. detention center in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. There, he endured five years of torture, interrogations and abuse until his 2006 release"prompted by a personal plea by German Chancellor Angela Merkel to President George W. Bush"even though official documents show that U.S. and German authorities had determined in 2002 that he was innocent. His memoir, soon to be published in the United States, has caused a furor in Germany over the role German government and intelligence agencies played in his ordeal.

Following is a conversation with Murat Kurnaz, adapted and translated from an interview conducted by Germany's Stern magazine.

How did you end up being arrested on Dec. 1, 2001?
We were in Peshawar. I had already bought souvenirs to take home. On the way to the airport we went through a checkpoint and I was taken off the bus. I did not think that I was going to be arrested; I thought that the situation would resolve itself. I was taken to the police station, then to a villa and then to a prison. They kept asking me stupid questions: whether I was a cameraman, whether I was from the police. And then they would always say, "No problem, we will take you to the airport tomorrow."

And instead of that?
The next morning, a sack was put over my head, and I was handcuffed. We traveled for a few hours to a very quiet place. You could not hear any cars, any voices. Many metal doors opened one after another. When I could see again I was in a room without a window, without a toilet, just a hole right above me through which the light came in from a lamp that you could not see.

You were obviously sold--the Americans paid a bounty for terror suspects. Did you know about that?
Only much later. A guard at Guantánamo once complained that I had not given them any new information and had just continued to say the same thing. "You would have surely expected more for your five thousand dollars," I said to him. "Three thousand,"he replied. "We only paid three thousand for you."

You were taken to a U.S. camp in Kandahar, in Afghanistan. What did that look like?
A site at the airport. Split into groups of 10 or 20 men, we lay out in the open behind lengths of barbed wire.

That must have been just before Christmas.
It was very cold. On the first night we were naked--they had taken our overalls away from us, and we were not wearing anything underneath. The guards had German and Belgian shepherds, which they would let loose on us every once in a while. In the morning we received new overalls, again with nothing underneath, nothing over the top. We only had blankets for a very short amount of time. And we continued to lie out in the open. My breath froze onto my clothing.

Was there nobody who stood up for you?
After a few days, somebody came from the Red Cross. He was from Germany. He wrote a letter to my family for me. Then, in the night, I was thrown out of my cell. A guard held a shotgun to my head. "You are a terrorist!" he screamed. "What kind of dumb stuff did you write about your treatment here?" My hands and feet were bound, and someone kicked me from behind. I fell. The interrogator pulled me up again by my hair. In Kandahar, I at least found out what I was being accused of: having a fake visa and being a friend of Mohammed Atta, the terrorist pilot. They asked where Osama was, where I had seen him. They claimed that they knew everything already and that I should give evidence to improve my situation.

Did they really have information on you?
They knew a lot--for example, the fact that I had bought my digital camera and my mobile phone before my journey and from whom I had bought them. I was in no doubt that they were working alongside German authorities.

Did any Germans come into the camp?
I had been there for less than two weeks when, one evening, I was led behind two trucks. It was two German soldiers who wanted to see me. They wore camouflage uniforms--the pattern was composed of little dots, as if it were designed on the computer--and they wore the German flag on their sleeves. I had to lie down with my hands tied behind my back. One of them pulled me up by my hair. "Do you know who we are?" He wanted to boast. "We are the German Kraft."

KSK? Kommando Spezialkräfte [an elite unit of the German special forces] were the only German soldiers in Kandahar at the time.

Could have been. In any case, he hit my head on the floor, and the Americans found it funny.

Were you tortured in any other ways?
They called it "showering." You had to pour cold water over your head. They took me out to do that every day. They prepared me for interrogations by putting electric shocks through my feet. For hours on end they would hang me up by my hands, which were bound behind my back in different positions?and then a break, and then you would be hung up again. A doctor looked in to see if you were still alive. The interrogator came at midday every day, and then you would be taken down for a short while.

Did you have any hopes of being released?
Sometimes, yes. After a couple of months in Kandahar, people were being called up every few days. It had been said they were being flown home. Finally it was my turn, along with four Turks and five Algerians. I genuinely thought that we were going to Turkey. In the night we were made ready.

What does that mean?
We were shaved, bound, given eye masks and everything.

Were you also examined?
Maximum security.

Rectally as well?
Everybody had to endure that. Let's talk about something else.

Did you receive any food? Were you allowed to go to the toilet during the long flight?
Of course once they had chained us to the floor of the plane I knew immediately that it would be a first-class flight. Seriously, how would that have been possible with the restraints?

Your impressions upon arrival at Guantánamo?
It was warm. I thought it was a U.S. military base in Turkey. They were already beating us a lot on the way to the camp, as a welcoming greeting.

What was Camp X-Ray [the first prison at Guantánamo like?
The cages were so small that I initially thought they were only for getting changed in. You were exposed to everything: sun, rain, snakes, scorpions. I once saw with my own eyes one of the prisoners being stung on the finger by a scorpion. Fat rats walked all over your arms and legs.

And how was the treatment there?
Bad. We were beaten a lot, tormented. And then came the incident with the Quran. A military policeman who was searching a cell threw the book on the floor. The prisoners screamed. When I looked he was also kicking the Quran with his foot. Everybody began kicking against the doors and spitting at the guards. Then the Rapid Reaction Force came in. During the night we felt disconcerted; in the morning some people refused food, and after that almost everybody else did the same.

The first hunger strike.
It lasted for four days. Then the Americans promised us that nothing like that with the Quran would ever happen again.

You went into solitary confinement?
I received no food for four or five days. Then they took me to a very nice room. Tapestries with verses from the Quran hung on the wall. There was atelevision, a sofa, a table with fruits, nuts, muffins. "I heard what happened to you," said the interrogator. "That should not have happened. I have brought you food." I said , "I do not like your food, or your face." I did not eat for another 15 days, until a neighbor said to me, "You cannot pull through a hunger strike alone."

Kurnaz Family in 2002
Rabiye Kurnaz, mother of Murat Kurnaz, and her younger son Alper hold a photo of Murat in their home in Bermen, Germany in 2002 when Murat was imprisoned at Guantanamo
© AP Photo/Joerg Sarbach

At the end of April 2002, there was a new camp at Guantánamo, Camp Delta. What was that like?
They said to us that because of human rights issues we were to be taken to better cells. But they were even worse. Camp Delta consisted of container blocks, every block had 48 cells and the cages were made of chicken wire with a bed, toilet and washbasin at knee height. We had even less room to move around. The air was stifling. In the heat, it stank of paint and of 48 people being housed in the tiniest of rooms in great humidity. The neon light was always on, even at night, and the generators droned.

How did you endure it?
A guard, who sometimes slipped us things in secret, said, "I know that God gives you patience." I asked him if he was a Muslim. He said, "I know it without being a Muslim. I can see it. I would have gone stir-crazy in your position."

How often were you interrogated?
On average, four times a week, the whole year round. There were only a few exceptions. In autumn 2002, I was suddenly interrogated a lot, up to three times a day, seven days a week. I thought that something was about to happen.

And what happened?
Three German interrogators arrived.

The German federal government acknowledged that you had been ?informally questioned? on Sept. 23 and 24, 2002, by two employees of the German Intelligence Service and a representative of the National Intelligence Service. How did that go?
They said, "We are from Germany and we would like to ask you a few questions." I was then interrogated for two days, for more than 10 hours in total.

According to German government documents, you ?strenuously? and ?credibly? denied to the Americans and the Germans that you had any contact with the Taliban or al-Qaeda.
I have now found out that I was accused of being "the Taliban from Bremen." Before September 11, I had absolutely no idea what the Taliban was. I wanted to study the Quran before I brought my wife to Germany. Everything else is nonsense.

When the Germans came to Guantánamo, did they ask you how you were treated there?
I told them about being tortured in Kandahar, about the beatings and solitary confinement in Guantánamo. But they were not interested.

At that time, the Germans came to the conclusion that you "slid into" the situation as a result of your "distinct naïveté/immaturity" and were simply "in the wrong place at the wrong time." That is what it says in the private reports of your interrogation in Guantánamo.
Naïve, inexperienced? I am no longer 19; instead I am 24, and today I would no longer travel to Pakistan if there was a war in the neighboring country. But it was the Pakistanis and the Americans who made the mistake. They committed a criminal offence and abducted me. I did not break any laws. I am innocent.

At the time, the Americans said to the Germans that there was the possibility of you being released in November 2002.
Is that true? They really said that?

That emerged in German government reports. They were considering whether or not you could be used as an informant within the Islamic community. Conclusion: probably not. And when the U.S. government asked in 2002 whether you should be deported to Turkey or Germany, the head of the German intelligence service at that time, August Hanning, appealed for an entry barrier to Germany.
An entry barrier? Why?

They wanted to be certain that you could not return to Germany after your release. Those responsible in the Federal Chancellery agreed to this proposal.
What kind of people decided this? Although the German government knew that I had never broken any laws, although they had no evidence against me, although they knew that I had been tortured, they left me in Guantánamo for over three more years.

What were the conditions like in the prison at the time?
Shortly after the first visit from the Germans, new rules were put in place. For almost seven weeks, I was relocated every two hours. They did that so that you could not sleep.

One ex-military chaplain said that the guards called it ?Operation Sandman.?
As soon as they saw that you were asleep, they shook the cell doors. On top of that came interrogations that lasted for more than 50 hours. I hardly ate anything at this point either and lost about 60 kilos.

How do you endure that?
You are close to blacking out and you move around in a semiconscious state. I cannot say any more about it. It is difficult to remember.

Did you ever consider suicide?
That is not in keeping with our faith.

However, according to information provided by the Pentagon, there were many suicide attempts at that time. A young Saudi was found hanging from a sheet. He lay in a coma for three and a half months and suffered brain damage because of it.
Yes, but that is the American's  version. Two days before that, the man became my cell neighbor. There was another incident with the Quran, everybody became very angry and Mashaal was put into solitary confinement. There is no way that you can secure a sheet to a ceiling fan that is in a duct, behind a bar with an another bar welded on the top, and that has particularly small holes. Neighbors from his block told me that the Rapid Reaction Force had been in his cell. They heard sounds of struggle before his alleged suicide attempt.

Guantanamo Bay
A row of cells at Camp Delta in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba
© AP Photo/Richard Ross

In October 2004, after almost three years in U.S. custody, you saw a lawyer for the first time, the American Baher Azmy.
I was doubtful as to whether he was on my side. He said, "Everything that I write down I have to show to the Americans." But he had brought a note from my mother with him. "My dear son, this is a lawyer you can trust." He showed me photographs of my family. One of them was supposed to be my brother. I thought [a little boy in a photograph]was my big brother, but because he had grown up I mistook him for an uncle.

How did you hear that you were going to be released?
When, for the first time in almost five years, I was allowed to use a telephone. A military policeman said, "Prisoner ohsix- one, there is a telephone call for you." I was escorted to a telephone. My lawyer told me that I would soon be released.

What did you think at that moment?
I had heard similar things so many times before that I did not believe it. However he said that it was official. I just said, Inshallah [God willing]. In fact, a few days beforehand I had been moved to Camp Delta 4. There you live together in groups, and there is better food. The prisoners wear white clothes. When the military police bring white clothes, the prisoners say goodbye: "So, you are going to Camp 4 now, and then home."

On the evening of August 24, 2006, you landed at the U.S. air base at Ramstein.
Two German policemen were waiting for me there along with a driver. The restraints, glasses and ear protectors were taken off me. The Germans said, "Hello, Herr Kurnaz! We want to take you to your family." My father was very thin and had white hair. I embraced my mother. She was crying, and I embraced her until she stopped.

Did you cry as well?
Everybody cried. I did not. I do not know if I can still cry. Perhaps I forgot how to cry in Cuba.

You look so composed, as if the whole thing has not affected you.
On the journey to Bremen we stopped at a car park. I got out to breathe in the air. And I looked up above. I realized that it was the first time in five years that I could look up at the sky and see the stars. Then it became clear to me what had been taken away from me. ai

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