By now, about 395 detainees have been released or transferred from Guantánamo, and a number have described their experiences in interviews and books. Many of them offer an eerily similar picture of a place where the strangeness of the surroundings produces a distinct culture and vocabulary. For instance, many detainees can casually reel off the jargon associated with the ARBs or CSRTs, or talk in matter-of-fact tones of being “IRF-ed”—forcibly removed from their cells by a five- or six-man Immediate Reaction Force.
One of al-Haj’s closest friends in Guantánamo was Jamal Abdullah Kiyemba, a Ugandan citizen who had lived in Britain since he was a teenager. Kiyemba, a soft-spoken pharmaceutical and cosmetic science student, was seized in Pakistan, where he said he had gone to study Arabic and the Koran, by local military forces. (His status review “summary of evidence” said he had traveled to Pakistan to fight in the jihad in Afghanistan.) He was released in February 2006 and deported to Uganda, where he spoke to me by phone.
Kiyemba remembers his first meeting with al-Haj quite clearly. One day, he told me, a tall detainee wearing the standard orange uniform was brought into the next cell. His beard and hair had recently been shaved; he had a black eye and a swollen face. Kiyemba greeted him according to the detainees’ informal social code. “You give the Islamic greeting of peace, and then you start asking, Who are you? How did you get here? What happened to you? Then I asked him why his face was so swollen, and he told me he was IRF-ed.”
At that time, the two were living in Camp Two (they would later share a room in Camp Four, the medium-security block, where multiple detainees occupy each room). Camp Two, Kiyemba said, comprises cell blocks “like cargo containers from a ship,” each housing two rows of twenty-four, six-by-eight-foot steel cells, some painted a soothing shade of green. Every cell contained a bed, a mattress, a blanket, a prayer mat, a pair of slippers, a Koran, a sink, and a squat toilet. Guards pushed food through an aperture in the door known as the “din hole”; fluorescent lights flooded the cells twenty-four hours a day through the tightly woven mesh walls. Curiously, many Guantánamo detainees talk more about the humiliation of being constantly exposed than of being physically abused. Perhaps because of the lack of privacy, most inmates made an effort to get to know those around them; Kiyemba and al-Haj became good friends while they lived in adjoining cells.
In Guantánamo, many detainees seem to find solace in Islamic rituals. Al-Haj and Kiyemba prayed five times a day. Kiyemba told me that al-Haj didn’t exercise much, because back when he was taken to Bagram Air Base, he had been left outside for long periods in the cold, causing his feet to swell and his knees to ache. Instead, he liked to read, especially the Koran and other religious texts. (In a letter to Clive Stafford Smith, al-Haj mentioned that he wouldn’t mind some secular reading material, but the only books available were “silly ones about TinTin or Mickey Mouse.”) Occasionally, the inmates on the block would hold concerts and sing Islamic songs, and al-Haj would act as the emcee. Kiyemba also often saw al-Haj writing in his cell when he was permitted a pen and paper.