View Full Version : The Battle for Guantanamo - Part III

17-09-06, 03:53
IV. Aamer the Hero

The hunger strike that confronted Colonel Bumgarner in mid-June 2005 escalated quickly. Of the many strikes since early 2002, few had gone far enough to prompt doctors to force-feed the detainees through stomach tubes. This time, however, there were not a handful of hunger-strikers but dozens.

As they often had before, military spokesmen dismissed the protest as a publicity bid typical of Al Qaeda-trained terrorists. Officers at Guantánamo had tabulated hundreds of incidents of what they termed “manipulative, self-injurious behavior.” Privately, though, they began to discuss how to respond to a potential suicide. At the Pentagon, officials dusted off contingency plans for dealing with a body that would need prompt burial under Islamic law.

Senior members of the Guantánamo staff began to meet regularly with General Hood to monitor the strike. The chief medical officer, Navy Capt. John S. Edmondson, M.D., worried about the prospect of having to force-feed large numbers of detainees. The medical risk was relatively low, but there were other considerations. “Anytime you’re doing a procedure that the patient doesn’t want, it’s not a place you want to be,” he would tell me later. “What takes precedence? The patient’s rights, or their life? It’s not an easy question.”

Bumgarner soon turned to Aamer, who had been on strike since around the time of their first meeting in Camp Echo. During that first encounter, he said, the prisoner had been “trying to convince me, in a very subtle way, that he could help control things in the camp.” He decided to consider the proposal.

Over a couple of more conversations with Aamer, Bumgarner made his case: He wanted the detention camp to run more smoothly, to make things easier for detainees who obeyed the rules. He was prepared to move closer to the standards of the Geneva Conventions in some parts of the operation, including discipline. What did Aamer think it would take, the colonel wanted to know, for the hunger strike to end?

Aamer summarized his discussions with Bumgarner in a statement he dated Aug. 11, 2005, and later gave to his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith. In it, he said the hunger-strikers demanded ending “the secret abuse project of Camp 5” (which he did not explain) and either bringing the detainees to trial or sending them home. Meanwhile, they wanted better medical and living conditions. Aamer wrote that the colonel promised him “that justice would come to Guantánamo at last.” The prisoner, his lawyer said later, had “decided that this was a man who he could trust.”

Bumgarner said he tried always to bring the talks back to what he could deliver: modest improvements in the detainees’ living conditions. He said Aamer told him: “‘If you can get me to go around the camps, I can turn this off.”’

There were no precedents for chaperoned consultations among detainees. But by July 26, 2005, the number of detainees refusing to eat was at 56, and doctors were becoming concerned about the health of several of them. Bumgarner decided to act. “I saw the chance to end it, and I just did it,” he said.

The colonel went to see Aamer at a small hospital inside the detention camp. He was sitting on a bed, one ankle chained to the frame, surrounded by some of the other more determined hunger-strikers. According to Bumgarner, Aamer told him that several of the detainees had had a “vision,” in which three of them had to die for the rest to be freed. Still, he agreed to try to persuade them to drop the protest.

Aamer agreed to suspend his own strike on July 26, his lawyer said, but was unsuccessful in persuading others. That evening or the next, Bumgarner said, he had guards retrieve Aamer from the hospital and meet him at Camp 5, the imposing maximum-security unit. Once inside the heavy doors, they went through the cellblocks one by one, as Aamer spoke with a handful of the most influential detainees.

Aamer went first to see Saber Lahmar, an Algerian-born Islamic scholar who was arrested in Bosnia in a supposed conspiracy to bomb the American Embassy in Sarajevo. (Lahmar denied any involvement in such a plot.) Trailed by the colonel and a military interpreter, Aamer continued through the tiers, crouching down to speak to a handful of others through the slots by which they received their food. His last stop was the cell of Ghassan al-Sharbi, a 30-year-old Saudi who studied electrical engineering in Prescott, Ariz. Al-Sharbi, who was later charged in the military tribunals with joining in an Al Qaeda conspiracy to manufacture bombs for attacks in Afghanistan, was reluctant to give up the strike. When he finally agreed, the others went along, two military officials said.

As they prepared to leave Camp 5, Bumgarner says, he asked Aamer if he needed to speak with some of the other hunger-strikers there as well. “No,” Aamer answered matter-of-factly. “The others will put the word out.”

The colonel and his prisoner drove to Camps 2 and 3. As they entered some of the blocks — Bumgarner in his camouflage fatigues, Aamer handcuffed to a chain around his waist — the cells erupted with applause.

“He was treated like a rock star, some of the places we would go in,” Bumgarner recalls. “I have never seen grown men — with beards, hardened men — crying at the sight of another man.” He paused, searching for an analogy. “It was like I was with Bon Jovi or something,” he said.

Former detainees who witnessed the visits recounted to me that Aamer, speaking in Arabic, proposed to end the hunger strike and explained that other detainees in Camp 5 were in agreement. In return, he said, the military authorities promised to try to resolve problems the prisoners faced and to observe parts of the Geneva Conventions.

The colonel’s subordinates had grown accustomed to his hands-on style of leadership. But they worried more openly about his meetings with Aamer. The Saudi, one officer pointedly said, “has an almost hypnotic power over some people.” Two others referred to Aamer as “Svengali.”

Bumgarner himself struggled with Aamer’s frequent demands. One morning, as Aamer was being sent off with other officers to brief detainees, he had a new one for the colonel: Now he wanted to move around without the leg shackles that were standard for detainees being transported outside their cellblocks.

“Look, Shaker, don’t make a big deal out of this,” Bumgarner recalled telling him. “Let’s get on to the bigger thing here. I can’t take you out of those shackles.”

“I’m not going unless you just handcuff me,” the prisoner responded.

“Shaker, don’t do this to me,” the colonel said. “It’s just going to make it harder.”

“No,” he quoted Aamer as saying. “I’m not doing any of this.”

Bumgarner ordered the shackles removed. The handcuffs stayed on. Aamer finally went ahead with his briefings to the other prisoners. “It was clearly a risk — not in terms of putting anybody in danger, but in terms of perception,” Bumgarner told me later. “But I thought that in the end, in order to keep things going, I was going to have to do it.”

Mullah Zaeef, the former Taliban ambassador, had just finished his prayers in Camp 4 when a sergeant came to his dormitory. “There is someone who wants to see you,” the sergeant said. Zaeef had never had an unannounced visitor at Guantánamo before.

He found Aamer waiting. The two men had known each other in Camp 1, where they were briefly neighbors. Zaeef, who spoke Arabic, noted that many of the Arabs respected the Saudi’s leadership. Aamer told Zaeef about his conversations with the colonel.

“We thought maybe they were becoming softer in their policies,” Zaeef recalls. “Or we thought maybe they were trying to trick us. But we thought that we should see which one it was.”

When I met him in Afghanistan almost a year later, Zaeef still seemed a bit uncertain about what had taken place. He is an elegant, professorial man who wears wire-rimmed glasses and the black silk turban favored by the Taliban. He described the episode during two long interviews in the well-guarded government guest house on the dusty outskirts of Kabul, where he has lived since returning home last September.

According to Zaeef, Aamer described a scheme of representation for the detainees that he had worked out with Bumgarner — one that vaguely echoed the Third Geneva Convention’s rules for a prisoner-of-war camp. Detainees in Camp 4 were to choose two inmates to represent them, one for the Afghans and another for the rest. With guards by his side, Zaeef said he then went from one block to the next, explaining the situation. After some discussion, he was chosen by acclamation to represent all of the Camp 4 detainees. Still, Zaeef recalled, “people were very skeptical.”

Nonetheless, most of the hunger-strikers suspended their protests by July 28. Disciplinary problems on the blocks eased. The mood in the camps swelled palpably, some military officials told me. Later Bumgarner would refer to this interlude as “the Period of Peace.”

The colonel then turned to some of the issues the detainees had raised during their strike. He and Aamer were sitting at one of the picnic tables near his office, debating the camp food, when Aamer insisted that the detainees’ meals were being poisoned.

“That’s asinine!” Bumgarner said.

“I don’t see you eating the stuff,” he said Aamer shot back.

Over a dinner of fish sticks and fries, they began working out a solution. Not long after, Aamer sat down with the head of the mess hall, the base nutritionist and a logistics officer on the military staff. According to one officer briefed on the meeting, Aamer unfolded a piece of paper on which he had drawn up an elaborate two-week meal plan with daily suggestions for four different diets: a standard menu, a vegetarian menu, a vegetarian-with-fish option and a bland diet for older prisoners and those with intestinal problems. Two officials said Aamer’s proposal eventually became the basis for a new meal plan that raised the amount of food offered to detainees each day from 2,800 calories to 4,200 calories.

After weeks of discussion with his aides, Bumgarner also instituted a new program to simplify the discipline in the camp. Under the previous four-level system, misdeeds were punished with the loss of various “comfort items” like prayer beads and books, or stints in the discipline or segregation blocks. The system was so complicated, military officials said, that its application often seemed arbitrary.

The new plan called for all or nothing. Every detainee was restored to compliant status and issued all of the comfort items generally available, including prayer beads and bigger bars of soap. Those who broke the rules would be busted down to “basic issue,” or B.I., with nothing in between. To symbolize the new order, all detainees in punishment-orange uniforms would be reoutfitted in tan.

The change might have made a dent in the prisoners’ abiding sense of humiliation. The problem, some officers said, was that the plan was set in motion before enough tan clothing could be requisitioned to outfit all the detainees. Some of those left in orange complained loudly.

“We did not think that through like we were playing chess,” Major Angelo said. “We thought like we were playing checkers. And that didn’t work.”

V. The End of Peace

A couple of days after Aamer visited Zaeef to explain the new plan for prisoner representation, a guard approached Zaeef with a cryptic message. “At 6 o’clock you are going to go somewhere,” he said. At the appointed hour, Zaeef was led out of the camp and put on the rumble seat of one of the small John Deere utility vehicles used to transport detainees around the detention center and driven to Camp 1.

The guards led him to the small, fenced-in exercise yard for Alpha block, where two picnic tables had been placed. Ala Muhammad Salim, an influential Egyptian religious leader in the camp who was known as Sheik Ala, was already there. The two prisoners sat down and began quizzing each other about what was going on. Four others trickled in. They included Aamer and two of the men he met with in Camp 5: Saber Lahmar, the Algerian scholar, and Ghassan al-Sharbi, the Saudi engineer. The sixth was Adel Fattoh Algazzar, a former Egyptian Army officer with a master’s degree in economics. Bumgarner did not attend the meeting, but when all of the detainees were seated, his deputy arrived with two other officers. Al-Sharbi acted as the Arabic interpreter.

According to other officers I spoke with, the deputy delivered a simple message: The six were being asked to provide their input on how to improve conditions in the camp. Each of the detainees responded in turn.

“Do not mistreat us anymore,” Zaeef recalled saying. “Be respectful of our religion and our Koran. Respect us as human beings, because we are human beings. If we are criminals, take us to court. But if we are innocent, let us go.”

News of the meeting buzzed through the camp. Right away, several former detainees said, the prisoners began to debate what was taking place. “We had never talked to the colonels before,” Abdulaziz al-Shammari, a Kuwaiti teacher, said. “But this Bumgarner came around all the time, wanting to negotiate with us.”

The younger detainees pressed Aamer to push past the matter of living conditions and focus on their demands for trial or release. “The shabab said to him, ‘We must not go only for the small things; we should go to the core issues,”’ al-Shammari said, using the Arabic word for “young people” or “youth.”

Mohammed al-Daihani, the Kuwaiti accountant, now released, said that soon after the colonel and Aamer visited his cellblock, Ahmed Errachidi, the Moroccan known as the General, challenged others there to analyze the possible motives of their captors. “He said: ‘Why is a colonel from the most powerful country in the world coming to negotiate with the detainees? They must be under some kind of pressure.”’

The skeptics on Bumgarner’s side were also growing more vocal. “I was one of the few who thought we should let the leaders come talk to us,” the colonel acknowledged. Hood was clearly uneasy with the negotiations, other officers said. He told aides not to refer to the six as “the council,” as the detainees did. Still, several officers emphasized, the talks would never have gone forward if Hood had not approved them.

On the evening of Saturday, Aug. 6, shortly after the council’s first meeting, the colonel convened the six again, officers said. This time, he sat with the group himself. Aamer had insisted that they should not be handcuffed or shackled. “These are leaders,” he told the colonel.

Bumgarner agreed, and the handcuffs were removed. Guards armed with pepper spray stood by, while an immediate-reaction team waited just out of sight. The colonel later summarized his introduction thusly: “You’re here. I’m here. You’ve got my attention. Tell me what the grievances are, and we’ll work through them.” He added, “This place ain’t going away, so we might as well make the best of it.”

As Zaeef recalled the encounter, Bumgarner made several promises: He would allow the circulation of religious books among the detainees and try to resolve problems that arose with the guards. He would assure that the prisoners’ food was “adequate.” Zaeef said the most important thing the colonel pledged was to send another official who would be able to speak with the detainees about their “future.” Bumgarner said he promised only that guards would act “in the spirit of the Geneva Conventions” and that he would see that Guantánamo’s discipline was consistent with its terms.

On the following Monday, the officers said, the six detainees were allowed to meet alone in the fenced-in yard. A pair of military interpreters were positioned nearby to monitor their conversation, officers said. According to both Zaeef and military officials, the detainees began using pens and paper they had been given to write notes. An officer observing the meeting interrupted them: they were not to pass notes, he said. When they insisted on confidentiality, he stepped forward again. But as the officer moved to confiscate the notes, some of the detainees popped them into their mouths and began chewing.

Hood pronounced the experiment over. “‘This group is not meeting anymore,”’ the colonel recounts him saying. “‘And you are not going to be meeting with them anymore.”’

The “period of peace” came to an abrupt end. According to various sources — military officials, former detainees and Aamer’s lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith — the detainees were also angered by a few incidents that had taken place over the weekend before the second council meeting. In one case, a prisoner had been forcibly extracted from his cell, only to sit waiting for hours to be interrogated. In another, the questioning of a slight Tunisian detainee by a much larger criminal investigator ended in a violent scuffle involving a cut nose, the possible hurling of a mini-refrigerator and the investigator’s being ordered off the island.

A couple of days after the negotiations were shut down, officials said, a riot broke out in Camps 2 and 3. Dozens of detainees tore up their cells, wrenching foot pegs from their toilets and using them to try to pry loose the mesh that separated them. Guards were pulled from the tiers and deployed to surround the perimeter of the blocks. Water and electricity were shut off, and Bumgarner finally got on a bullhorn with an Arabic interpreter to persuade the detainees to be escorted from their ruined cells. The repairs took weeks.

The guard officers were unsure what the detainee leaders had been up to. According to military and intelligence officials, there were indications that Aamer and al-Sharbi had been at odds. Al-Sharbi, the accused Al Qaeda bomb maker, once told a military review panel it was his “honor” to be classified as an enemy combatant, declaring, “May God help me to fight the infidels!” Paradoxically, he was believed to be the more pragmatic negotiator, urging that the detainees try to improve conditions in the camp. But Aamer, who had denied any involvement in militant activities, took a different position. According to the officials, he argued more directly that the detainees should use the talks to pressure the military into either trying them fairly or setting them free.

Aamer told his lawyer the military had “sadly betrayed its word on every occasion a promise has been made.” He blamed the colonel personally. At the time, Bumgarner said, he felt similarly betrayed. But when he recounted the story months later, he sounded merely disappointed. “We almost liked each other,” he said of the two Saudis, Aamer and al-Sharbi. “I shouldn’t say we liked each other, but when we spoke together, there was no animosity.”

By mid-August, the hunger strike that military commanders thought they had resolved was picking up strength. Complaints about living conditions were de-emphasized, military officials and lawyers for the detainees told me. Instead, the prisoners focused on their future legal status. The renewed protest hit a peak just after Sept. 11 of last year, with 131 prisoners refusing meals for at least three straight days, officials said.

Many of the officers doubted that the protesters were willing to take their own lives. Islamic law strongly forbids suicide. Abdulaziz al-Shammari, the Kuwaiti teacher who was one of the most frequent hunger-strikers, said he never considered taking his own life. “We saw that they would not let us die,” he said of the military doctors. “This was merely the most extreme side of the protests.”

Al-Shammari, who has a university degree in Islamic law, was one of a half-dozen more learned detainees to whom others turned for religious rulings on countless problems of their captivity. He said he knew of no relevant exceptions to the prohibition against suicide.

Two officials familiar with intelligence reporting from Guantánamo said that sometime in the late summer of 2005, Saber Lahmar, the Algerian religious leader who served on the six-man council, told other detainees of a fatwa that said it was lawful to take your own life in order to protect state secrets or to defend the common good. Other detainees spoke about the prophetic dream that Shaker Aamer mentioned to Bumgarner, in which three prisoners had to die for the rest to be free, the officials said.

As doctors began to tube-feed the more recalcitrant hunger-strikers, the strike consumed the medical staff. Specialists were flown in from naval hospitals in Florida. Most of the detainees maintained their weight at above or near 80 percent of their so-called ideal body weight. But as the strike dragged on, several slipped below 75 or even 70 percent of that measure, doctors said.

For detainees who obeyed the rules, the military offered new perks. Exercise time was extended once more. On Hood’s instructions, Gatorade and energy bars were given out during recreation periods. Wednesday became pizza night. Guard officers suggested soccer and volleyball tournaments to the compliant detainees in Camp 4. The detainees came back asking that a prize — two-liter bottles of Pepsi — be awarded to the winners. (The detainees disdained Coca-Cola, guards said.) Before the games could begin, however, the detainees changed their minds, the officers said. They had concluded that the contest was a scheme by the military to divide them.

While increasing the incentives for compliance, the colonel also tried to clamp down on disruptive behavior. The segregation and discipline blocks were overhauled. The rules became stricter, the guards tougher. When detainees in segregation tried to shout to one another through the walls, the guards were to turn on large, noisy fans to drown them out.

Worried about Shaker Aamer’s influence, Bumgarner also took an unusual step. In September, he had Aamer moved to Camp Echo, where he would be even more isolated than he would be on the segregation blocks. But Bumgarner did not cut off contacts with the detainee leaders entirely. He approached Zaeef to assure him that he wanted to continue to improve things for compliant detainees. He also developed a rapport with Ghassan al-Sharbi.

Al-Sharbi was described by people who know him as an intelligent, almost ethereal man from a wealthy Saudi family. (In an appearance before a military tribunal, he sat placidly with his hands folded at the defense table and told the presiding officer in plain English: “I’m going to make it easy for you guys. I fought against the United States.”) The colonel said he found al-Sharbi a useful interlocutor and met with him repeatedly. After August, he never spoke with Aamer again.

The guard officers saw some indications that the tougher approach was working. The number of detainees in the discipline and segregation blocks fell substantially. Only later did the officers begin to suspect that the more combative detainees were so focused on the hunger strike that they had little energy for other protests.