28 September, 2023


Torture: Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantánamo Diary

By Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Prof. Charles Sarvan

Those who haven’t suffered wounds can make light of scars on others.” – Freely adapted from Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet, Act 2, Scene 2

Few of us have spoken with a torture-victim, much less witnessed torture, and the phrase “torture-victim” tends to remain a label which conceals rather than conveys a sense of the hapless individual who remains permanently crippled, mentally and emotionally, if not also physically. It “wasn’t me anymore, and I would never be the same as before” (p. 258). Language, as Orwell pointed out, can be used not only to express but also to sanitise reality: “enhanced interrogation techniques” sounds positive, a welcome improvement.

In ‘A Voyage to the Country of the Houyhnhnms’, it’s observed that human beings possess intelligence, but if that intelligence suffers “corruption” then the result will be “worse than brutality” (Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels). Lacking the rational faculty, no other species is able to inflict suffering (in terms of methods, intensity of pain and duration) as we can and, most unfortunately, do. Animals do not torture and gang-rape, humiliate and degrade; and to say, “They behaved like animals” is unjust to animals. Fellow human beings are degraded, and then that degraded state is used as justification for contempt and further diminuition. Having destroyed their humanity, we use the effect to justify the cause; to claim ‘they’ are not equally, fully, human, and therefore do not merit humane treatment.Ould Slahi Guantanamo Diary

Incarceration sometimes results in the writing of a book. The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (executed 524 CE), The Story of my Experiments with Truth by Gandhi, Discovery of India by Nehru, Letters from Birmingham Jail by Martin Luther King, Long Walk to Freedom by Mandela, The Roots of Civilization by Abdullah Ocalan are some titles that come to mind. The Kurdish leader Ocalan and Slahi are at the time of writing (February 2016) both still in prison.

Slahi, born in 1970 in Mauritania, won a scholarship to Germany and graduated in electrical engineering. A hafiz (one who has memorised the Holy Quran), Slahi interrupted his studies to fight against the Communist government of Afghanistan: it must be remembered that this struggle was then supported by the West, particularly by the USA. When that war ended, conflict broke out between Afghan groups and Slahi left the movement: “I didn’t want to fight against other Muslims”. He worked in Canada (1999-2000) but then returned home to Mauritania. At the behest of the American government, he was arrested; released, then re-arrested and flown to Jordan (2001) for torture under the “extraordinary rendition” scheme. From Jordan he was flown to the notorious Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and thence to even-more-notorious Guantanamo where he still languishes. For one year his family, led to believe Slahi was still in Mauritania, regularly visited the prison and handed over clothes and money which the corrupt police pocketed. The misfortune of some is opportunity for the unscrupulous.

Slahi’s first-language is Arabic; the second, French and the third, German. The English he uses is what he largely learnt from interaction with his American guards – “I learned that there was no way to speak colloquial English without F-ing this and F-ing that.” – and through books. The book’s handwritten 446 pages, written in 2005 in the single cell the author still occupies, now appear but heavily redacted by the authorities. No evidence has been produced against Slahi, and no charges laid against him. He took and passed the polygraph lie-detector test. Good-intentioned, Barack Obama promised to close down the shame that is Guantanamo but though years have passed, the ‘facility’ still exists: Obama is not the only political leader to be hampered and obstructed when trying to tread the path of justice.

Contrary to when justice prevails, those accused of terrorism are presumed to be guilty. Proof of innocence is hard to establish because of the ingrained belief of the interrogators, and their unwillingness to admit that a mistake has been made. Files are deliberately lost or suppressed; at crucial moments of Slahi’s evidence, the recording-equipment conveniently begins to malfunction. Crime is what those with arbitrary and misused power deem to be crime (p. 92). The full arsenal of horrors was used on Slahi including brutal, physical attack; solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, loud noise and bright lights, extreme cold, including the use of ice-cubes; being kept blindfolded and naked; sexual humiliation by female guards; abuse and insult as an individual, an Arab and a Moslem etc. Torture usually began around midnight and went on till dawn. Equally bad was hearing the moans and groans of the other torture-victims. So too was waiting for imminent torture: anticipation of torture was a form of torture itself. Slahi was told that unless he talked, his mother would be brought from Mauritania, and incarcerated in an all-male block. Torture was sanctioned and encouraged by the vicious Defence Secretary. When the Red Cross visited, Slahi was often hidden; when he did meet them, he hid the truth, “afraid of retaliation” (p. 348). What sustains the author is his religious belief. In extremity, he repeats the ‘crisis prayer’, Ya hayyu! Ya kayyum! : translated for me as, “O the living and everlasting One, I beseech You by Your mercy”). Ironically, though brutal and despicable, the torturers believe they are members of a superior people, and represent a higher religion and civilization. The torturers and guards are hardened in cruelty, and the inflicting of pain is routine. In the fight against terrorism, they unleash far greater terror: Slahi was arrested shortly after the attack of 9 September 2001. As Solzhenitsyn wrote, “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good”.

Wondering why we torture our fellow beings, two answers come to mind. Let us take an inter-ethnic conflict with the victors also becoming occupiers. This could lead to savage conduct, the product of intense hate, revenge and a demonstration of total power. Vae victis: Woe to the vanquished. Power and impunity, and the arrogance that goes with them, can be expressed by crude sexual violence against women and men (leaving them emotionally and mentally maimed for life), and by the disrespectful treatment of the dead. Greek Achilles tied the body of Hector to his chariot and dragged it round and round the walls of Troy, to the unbearable distress of Hector’s parents and wife; family, friends and comrades-in-arms. Hector’s little son was casually murdered: see The Trojan Women by Euripides, himself a Greek. We have progressed in science and technology but remain (in some countries more than in others) atavistic.

Another motive is to extract information but apart from considerations of morality and human rights, there is doubt whether data so extracted is reliable though, of course, those who condone torture will argue to the contrary. Even a cursory glance at the Internet will lead readers to books and articles on the subject. Neuroscientists have studied the effects of torture and come to the conclusion that torture-victims are so damaged that what they say cannot be relied on. I thank Liebetraut Sarvan for reminding me of the film, ‘Goya’s Ghosts’, and the cry of the desperate victim: Tell me what the truth is, and I will repeat it. (Ines, Goya’s model, is accused by the Spanish Inquisition of spreading Jewish rituals simply because she declined a dish of pork in an eating-house. She is stripped naked, tortured, confesses, and is imprisoned.) At one point Slahi – naked, shackled, starved and in great pain – is so disorientated that he can’t recall the name of his wife. (Afraid he won’t be believed, he makes up a name. Later, it’s found to be incorrect and held up as yet another example of his falsehood.) Our mental equilibrium can be quite easily disturbed, and while some torture-victims are completely deranged, with others it’s a matter of varying degree. The author, told over several years that he is a terrorist, begins to wonder whether it’s true.

As I have suggested elsewhere, the famous dictum by Lord Acton (Power corrupts and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely) is usually taken to refer to those who possess and wield power. But living in a corrupt context corrupts those lower down; corrupts at all levels. Slahi sadly observes that Arab “brothers” collaborate with Americans against their own co-religionists. The whole problem of Moslem terrorism can be traced back to when Israel expelled the Palestinians (p. 163), and the USA is the strongest supporter of the Israeli state. More than “fifty percent of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin” and yet they now work with America against those “who are supposedly helping them”. Similar examples of collaboration can be drawn from other countries. Power and its counterpart, powerlessness, are both corrupting. With remarkable candour, Slahi confesses he told the torturers what they wanted to hear, falsely naming names: he had reached the end of his endurance. Silently, he asks Allah for forgiveness, and the incriminated for understanding and forgiveness.

The author does not dwell on horror. He presents what happened to him and what he personally observed, declining to include what was told to him by other inmates. Unusual for a memoir of this nature, there’s wit and humour. Psychiatrist asks his mental patient why he is terrified of roosters. Because they think I’m corn, answers the patient. (In this context, for “corn” read “terrorist”.) But you are not corn, assures the psychiatrist. Patient / Prisoner: I know that, Doctor, but please tell it to the roosters. Describing what was done to him or his situation, the author repeatedly asks the reader to imaginatively situate himself in his place (p. 319): it led me to choose the words that form the epigraph. But even with empathy and imagination, “you still won’t understand what [such imprisonment] really means unless you experience it yourself”. (I have thought those who deny that waterboarding is torture should, out of a spirit of enquiry, briefly subject themselves to it.)

The author makes observations of a general nature. For example, if pictures of the leader are on the walls of offices and along roads, it suggests that that country is not a true democracy; that what governs is not law but power: I didn’t see this in Germany (p. 153). How can those who believe in a God and pray, reach such a level of gruesomeness? A war-movie showing Americans being killed in action drives his guards “crazy emotionally” (p. 320). As in other instances, having been taught to hate, they miss the point that they themselves have killed and maimed far, far more. Slahi extends to others the compassionate understanding that he asks for himself: Perhaps the soldiers, guards and interrogators come from poor families, and had “few choices” (p. 234). Moving beyond ‘self’, he thinks of other brothers who suffer like him (p. 87).

Slahi wishes there’s a little more peace in this world (p. 159); and that he can daily see the aged, but to him beautiful, face of his mother. (Meanwhile, she’s dead.) The question Slahi poses Americans can also be asked of others: Has your vaunted democracy passed the test (p. 371)? “I would like to believe the majority… want to see Justice done”. His cry (italicised in the original) is, “I am, I am”. I exist and am a human being like you. Guantanamo Diary while being individual and specific has a wider application.

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Latest comments

  • 2

    Prof. Sarvan does not mention Sri Lanka even once in his review, but there are points of parallelism. For example, the brutality, particularly towards the end of the war; the mutilation of bodies after the final battle; the rape and humiliation of women and men; the stripping of the dead, including that of the body of the Tiger leader; the murder of his little son (last seen being given biscuits by soldiers); the widespread use of torture etc. As Slahi mentions, states kill thousands more than “terrorists”.
    Slahi does not tell the truth about his treatment to the Red Cross, afraid of “retaliation”: he is still in the power of the USA. So too, torture-victims in Sri Lanka are afraid to talk to investigators. Even those who are safely abroad fear that revenge will be taken on their loved ones back home.
    Slahi makes an observation about countries where the picture of the president is seen all over, in posters and pictures, along the road and in offices. It indicates that what is paramount is political power and not the law: it does not reflect well on our political maturity.

    • 2

      Nor does he metion the atrocities of the Tamil terrorists. The kidnapping of children, the torture of soldiers, the suicide bombers, the massacres of entire villages, the slaughter of Buddhist priests, the aerial bombing of cities, the murder of countless Tamil moderates, taechers, lawyers, doctors, psotmasters, MPs, anyone who opposed the Tamil Fuhrer, the assasination of ministers and presidents, the human shields of Tamil women and kids, the financing from Toronto, London and Berlin, the money laundering operations, the prostitution rackets, people smuggling, the drug running businesses, all of which was brought to an end by Gota, MR and Sarth Foneska.

      • 1


        One side’s inhumane behaviour does not justify another’s inhumane behaviour.

        Bias always justifies and favours torture.

      • 3

        Dear Paul, Prof. Charles Sarvan has not mentioned either side, in an attempt to transcend sectarianism.

        Must we Sinhalese always respond in the way that you do? Please think out your response before saying things that can only cause greater evil.

  • 3


    Brilliant, poignant and touching. The clarity in the message could not have been delivered better. Reading was once again a learning experience. The prose while simple is beautiful. Jaffna should be proud to produce a son like you and learn to treasure you.

    The Jaffna University was the poorer for not having you as a Visiting Lecturer / Professor. If the opportunity arises again, please contact me. I will arrange the accommodation for you. I will also get the opportunity to learn. Jaffna needs men like you and more so the university.

    Dr.Rajasingham Narendran

    • 2


  • 2

    Plato too.

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