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‘I didn’t know who I was any more’: how CIA torture pushed me to the edge of death

By Abu Zubaydah, Sat 29 Jan 2022 04.30 EST


I found myself chained to a steel bed in a white room. As soon as I started letting myself fall asleep, a small amount of water was thrown at my face which made me startle, as it was cold and took me by surprise. I looked around but there was nobody there.

I suddenly saw a black object carrying a water tank standing behind the bars of the cell. Water was thrown at me again. I said, “Hey, what is wrong with you?” That black object turned out to be a man all dressed in black. His face was covered, his eyes were covered with what look like black diving goggles. I closed my eyes from tiredness, and as soon as I did the guard in black clothes would throw water at me.

I started shivering and the guard returned throwing water at my face as soon as I closed my eyes. I was categorically prohibited from sleeping, even for an instant.

The noise was so loud inside the cell I was almost unable to hear anything else. Two people came in and sat on chairs close to each other. They were holding notepads and pens and they started a round of interrogation. When they realized I was shivering so heavily from the cold I was no longer able to talk they covered my chest with a towel and started questioning me again.

I laughed and said: “First of all, I am not from al-Qaida.”

“Don’t go there,” they said. They repeated that phrase a thousand times before they stopped the torture.

During that time I reached a level of psychological, nervous and physical exhaustion that, if it were not for God’s protection, I could officially have been declared psychotic.

The next day they sharply reduced the temperature in the room. They took turns on me with no sleep, no food, no drinking, and total nakedness. I was chained to the bed for three, maybe four days or more. Only once they slightly adjusted my position when I became unable to talk from the pain in my back and the stiffness in my wounded thigh [Zubaydah was shot several times during his capture in 2002].

In this drawing, Zubaydah depicts several torture techniques simultaneously being used on him. He is chained by his limbs, sprayed with powerful water hoses while an air conditioner and fan blow cold air at him, and loud rock music is blaring – all for hours on end. Mark Denbeaux, a lead lawyer for Zubaydah, told the Guardian: ‘There is no evidence that [the justice department] gave the go-ahead for multiple techniques to be used at the same time.’ Photograph: © Abu Zubaydah

Following the period chained to the bed, they sat me on a plastic chair totally naked and chained me very tight. I would urinate into a special can, but the chains were so tight that many times I found myself urinating all over myself and on the bandages that were wrapped around my wounded left thigh.

Sometimes they would leave me for days on the chair. I was deprived of sleep for a long period. I don’t know how long, maybe two or three weeks or more. It felt like an eternity to the point that I found myself falling asleep despite the water being thrown at me by the guard who constantly shook me to keep me awake. I couldn’t sleep even for a second.

I got used to the shaking just as I got used to the water being thrown at me, so I was able to sleep for a second. So then they started standing me on my feet to prevent me from sleeping. I found myself during interrogation sessions falling asleep for two or three seconds, and they did their best to stop me by pouring water on me. Sometimes I wouldn’t wake up, so they would force me to walk on my wounded leg and I would fall and then they would take me back to the chair and resume the interrogation.

I don’t know how long I was chained to the chair. It felt like six weeks but I can’t be positive. During that time they started allowing me to sleep a little after I started hallucinating and my words and behavior became all confused.

Half of what was happening to me was the result of a breakdown and the other half was the result of letting myself go. I would refuse to open my eyes not because I wanted to challenge them but because I was hoping I could let myself go into this state of sleepiness. I wanted to sleep for one more beautiful second before they realized I was sleeping. I would sleep for one second, then wake for another second, and then I would sleep again and wake up again. They stood me up. I slept again. They walked me around the cell. I slept while they were dragging me.

Then the doctor came and gave me an injection. He started making signals to them without saying anything as if he was trying to tell them: “He needs to sleep, otherwise he will go crazy.”

After some time, they replaced the noise device with loud music and singing. I smiled as soon as this happened. I said to myself that maybe this was a good sign. Yet after a day I became confident this was not a good sign but a sign of disaster approaching. The very loud music and the disturbing singing made my ears hurt. The noise device had been loud but monotonous: Boum! Boum! Boum! This new music was a collection of tunes: boum, then zen, then zzzz, then wezzzz. I felt my brain going up and down, left and right. The singing would end with a loud, long scream. The song would last five to 10 minutes and was played again and again, non-stop to the point that I became afraid for it to end with the screaming. I finally found myself screaming along with it. As soon as the song ended with the long scream, I would scream myself. I would do it unconsciously like someone collapsing. I wanted to plug my ears with my fingers, yet I couldn’t as my hands were tied.

The situation lasted for days and I started hallucinating. The interrogations were long and they took turns on me. As soon as two interrogators were done with me after harsh hours of interrogation, two others would come to replace them.

With time they took me down from the chair and tied me to the cell’s bars where I could move just enough to fall asleep on the very cold floor. The floor was so cold that I couldn’t lie down completely. All I wanted to do was put my back or shoulder on the floor even though it was freezing and very filthy.

I begged them to inform me about prayer times so that I could pray, yet they refused and made fun of me. I said to them: “Do whatever you wish but don’t make fun of religious matters like prayer time, my beard and covering my genitals.” These are religious matters and they had no right to make fun of them. They would laugh and say: “You have no rights whatsoever and we are entitled to do to you whatever we please so that we can get information from you.”

One day a female nurse came in while I was vomiting on the floor. The guards had chained me to a chair so I couldn’t cover my genitals. She said: “Why are you naked?” I said: “Ask them.”

Here, Zubaydah depicts himself being hit with a baseball bat. ‘It’s important to understand that this was never approved,’ Mark Denbeaux a lead lawyer for Zubaydah, said. ‘Most people believe the justice department would be unlikely to approve a technique that has a man shackled hand and foot and hit with a bat including in the head.’ Photograph: © Abu Zubaydah

Later they gave me very light clothes. I said to myself: “Praise God, I am finally able to cover my genitals.” The interrogators showed up and started a very long and harsh interrogation session during which they screamed at my face: “The good treatment is not going to work with you. We gave you clothes.” The guards then came in and stood me on my feet with my hands held high. They covered my head with a hood. A man came in and started screaming loudly and cutting my clothes. I felt he was cutting my skin.

Standing for long hours on one foot is very hard. I don’t recall how long I stayed in the standing position but I know that I passed out. I remember waking up with my body and head [illegible] to the floor with my hands tied to the upper bars. It felt like they were paralyzed or severed. They were blue or green. The chains left traces of blood.

The guards came in, having noticed the colour of my hands. They rushed in and brought me down to the chair. The interrogators came and interrogation vertigo resumed – the cold, the hunger, the little sleep and the intense vomiting which was caused by I don’t know what, maybe the cold, the noise or the Ensure nutritious liquid that was at times my only food.

Here we go again. The interrogators asked me questions about my knowledge of some operations. I didn’t provide them with any information, as I didn’t know anything. They gave orders to the guards to tie me up again in the standing position and left me hanging for hours or days, I don’t know any more.

[For a period of 47 days between June and August 2002 Zubaydah was kept in isolation and all interrogations were suspended. This was to give CIA chiefs back at headquarters time to lobby the justice department for assurances that their personnel would never be prosecuted for torturing Zubaydah. In July, the then-attorney general approved the use of 10 interrogation techniques, and on 4 August the torture resumed on an almost 24-hour basis.]

They didn’t show up at all for one month or more and I didn’t see anybody except for the guards who came once a day. I was tied to the metal bed. They would leave a dish of food that consisted of white dry rice with a little amount of string beans and a can of water. I was totally naked except for a towel they threw on my genitals. I was freezing from the intense cold and my nerves were about to break from the constant noise coming from an unseen device. I spent one month in that vertigo of noise and thoughts. I didn’t know where I was, and with time I almost didn’t know who I was.

After the month passed, I was put back in the hanging position, naked. Then they unchained my hands from the cell bars and chained them to around my legs which kept me permanently in a bowing position. They brutally dragged me to the cement wall. I saw a man wearing black clothes and a military jacket. His face was uncovered. There was anger in his face. He yelled words that I did not understand. Before I could respond he started banging my head and my back against the wall. I felt my back was breaking. He started slapping my face again and again.

He then pointed to a large black wooden box that looked like a casket. He said: “From now on this is going to be your home.”

A guy dragged me and brutally shoved me inside the box along with a toilet bucket, a can of water and some Ensure. He yelled: “We will give you another chance, but a short one, to think about whether you are going to talk.” He violently closed the door. I heard the sound of the lock. I found myself in total darkness. The place was very tight, I couldn’t sit down length- or width-wise. They made the chains so tight I could barely move my hands.

Hours went by, then I heard the click of a lock. A man was twisting a thick towel wrapped with plastic tape into the shape of a noose. He wrapped it around my neck and brutally dragged me [out of the casket]. I fell on the floor along with the bucket, with all its content that fell on me.

[Zubaydah spent a total of 266 hours confined in the coffin-shaped box.]

Then the guard dragged me towards the wall. There was a wooden wall now covering most of the original concrete wall. Without saying anything, the guard started banging me against that wooden wall. They didn’t want to leave any trace of beating on my body that turns green and then immediately blue. He kept banging me against the wall. He was hitting my head so strongly I fell to the floor with each banging.

When he realized I had collapsed completely he started talking breathlessly. He was cussing, threatening. He started slapping my face. I tried to defend myself. I felt so humiliated despite the large amount of humiliation I had already endured. He said: “You think you have pride. I will show you now what pride is about.” He started banging my head against the wall with both his hands. It was so strong that I felt my skull was in pieces. He then dragged me to another very tiny square box. With the help of the guards he shoved me inside it.

[The dimensions of the box were 21in wide by 2.5ft deep by 2.5ft high. Zubaydah spent a total of 29 hours in it.]

In this drawing, Zubaydah depicts himself being trapped in a tiny cubical box in 2002 with his hands and feet chained. Photograph: © Abu Zubaydah

As soon as they locked me up inside the box I tried to sit up, but in vain, as the box was too short. I tried to take a curled position, but it was too tight. I spent countless long hours inside that box. I felt I was going to explode from bending my legs and my back, unable to spread them not even for a moment. The pain was so strong it made me scream unconsciously.

Suddenly the door opened and a light went on. When they pulled me out of the box it took me a long time to be able to stand on my feet. They restrained me to a metal bed so totally that I was unable to move at all. After restraining my body, they restrained my head using strong plastic cushions which made it impossible for me to move it, not even a centimeter to the left or right, neither up nor down. I didn’t understand the reason for this severe restraint. Suddenly they put a black cloth over my head, covering it completely. I felt water being poured. It shocked me because it was very cold. The water didn’t stop. It was poured continuously over my face to give me the feeling of drowning, of suffocation. They kept pouring water on my nose and mouth until I really felt I was drowning and my chest was just about to explode from the lack of oxygen.

That was the first time I felt I was going to die from drowning. All I remember is that I started vomiting water, along with rice and string beans.

They set the bed in a vertical position while I was restrained to it. They removed the hood. As soon as I emptied my stomach from the water and food they brought back the bed to the horizontal position. I was coughing and trying to get some breath. Only a few minutes went by before they put the black cloth back over my head. I tried to yell: “I don’t know anything” but I suddenly felt the water flowing again. They performed the same operation three times that day. Each time they deflated the cushion holding my head a little bit so my head lowered which made it more difficult for me to bear the water flowing inside me. The suffering was more intense every time. They interrupted the operation for a few minutes to allow me to breathe or vomit, and then they would resume. After the third time that day they kept the hood on with all the water on my head and started asking me questions which I had difficulty answering due to the trouble I had breathing and to the fact I didn’t know what they were asking me about.

Then they removed me from the bed and dragged me to the long box. They shoved me inside and locked the door.

They repeated the routine: the banging against the wall, the little box, the water bed, the long box. This time they increased the harshness and brutality and the time spent inside the little tight box. They also increased the number of times I suffered water drowning from three to four and sometimes five [each day]. They increased the amount of cold water poured over my naked cold body.

[Zubaydah was waterboarded 83 times.]

The humiliations, the terrorizing, the hunger, the pain, the tension, the nervousness and the sleep deprivation lasted for some time until one day they did all these things to me but with more intensity and for longer periods of time before they brought me back to the big box.

I noticed during the torture with the water bed that my right hand and right foot started shaking. It would last for days. I would wake up to find my right foot and hand shaking.

I also realized that I started mumbling words at times, which I thought was due to the torture and the freezing temperature. That happened more than a few times. I lost control of my urination during the torture on the water bed. Once that happened while I was standing for hours – another torture method – and later it started to happen as a result of nervous tension, sometimes even when I wasn’t chained or being drowned.

One night I had a vision, a dream. I was immersed in my saddest moments and I had lost hope except from God. In my dream, I saw a guy who said to me one simple thing while I was collapsed on the floor tied up and exhausted. He said: “It’s gonna be fine.” It will be OK, things will get better. The vision ended with them coming in and resuming the beating, but that was the last time.

[In 2006 Zubaydah was transferred to Guantánamo where he has been held ever since.]

In early 2006, one of my former torturers came to visit me in my cell. He said that he was sorry for what they had done to me, that they had been acting without rules, giving me no rights, trying to get information from me in any way they could, and that he realized I did not know anything about what they were asking me. He then began to cry. He was ashamed and tried to hide this from me. He left to wipe his eyes.

Painting “Torture Abu Ghraib,” 46” x 32” oil on canvas, 2009, by Max Ginsburg.

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