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Interview with Mansoor Adayfi

Nikko Norte

23 jun. 2023

Forgiving after fourteen years in Guantánamo Bay

Originally published in De Andere Krant, in Dutch, on June 23, 2023.

He was General Aden, General Alexander, Smiley Troublemaker, and detainee 441. Having been a detainee in Guantánamo Bay prison for fourteen years, Mansoor Adayfi now lives far away from his Yemeni family in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, where De Andere Krant reporter Nikko Norte visits him.

A warm afternoon in June. Clouds are piling up, and a thunderstorm, later this day or tonight, is inevitable. Cafés in Belgrade are crowded. On the verge of commenting on the thickness of the cigarette smoke in the café Mansoor Adayfi and I enter, I realize that cigarette smoke in a cafe won’t likely impress someone who has been pepper sprayed daily for years on end. Somehow sensing my discomfort, Adayfi gestures me through a side door, out of the café, in the direction of an empty table on the terrace.

Adayfi speaks enough Serbian to make our waiter laugh. Shortly afterwards, my cheerful table companion enjoys a sorbet as I drink my coffee. Strange perhaps, but it feels good to watch Adayfi feast on his sorbet. The better part of his adult life, sorbets only existing in his dreams, he spent in Guantánamo, a reality that only now hits me full force. What hits me full force as well is that I share a table with an al Qaeda leader, partly responsible for the planning of the 9/11 attacks on the United States. I chuckle. Throughout my life, friends and acquaintances have called me the Black Dwarf. Adayfi, who was the worst of the worst in Guantánamo, according to his guards, is even shorter than I am. Half an hour ago, we met in front of the apartment building in which Adayfi lives since 2016. His amiability impresses me.

Our interview is scheduled for tomorrow, and I drove into Belgrade to break the ice, for all the hours behind the wheel of my car, driving from the Netherlands to Serbia, I pondered on how to interview someone who has been brutally interrogated for fourteen years. To check whether the ice is broken, I ask Adayfi how he feels about the people who kept him locked up for fourteen years, tortured him. Adayfi’s stares at me, his lively eyes suddenly cold, but then, his eyes come to life again, and he says, “I don't feel any hatred for those people. We were all victims in Guantánamo.” I decide to leave it at that, but I sense to be dealing with a philosopher rather than a terrorist, an idea I promise myself to never share with the world, for it would dent my journalistic impartiality. We hug each other in front of Adayfi’s apartment building, and I promise to be back the next morning at ten o’clock.

Bolts of lightning light up the cloth of my tent, on which rain drums. Thunder rolls in and out. By the light of the Petzl on my head, I read the last chapters of Adayfi’s book Don't forget us here. Page after page, I stand at Adayfi’s side. Powerless, I watch him being stripped of his humanity, watch him fight to remain Mansoor Ahmed Saad Abdo Adayfi. Yet, the book doesn’t read like an accusation against Guantánamo or the people working there; the book reads like an epic without Adayfi picturing himself as a hero.

Just after four o’clock in the morning, I turn the last page, and it’s only when my mind wanders to a Dutch professor I recently interviewed that an answer dawns to a question I asked myself more than once while reading Adayfi’s book. That professor, his name is Andreas Kinneging, in his book Hercules at the Crossroads, speaks of the hierarchy of values, of how moral values ruled over vital values until about two hundred years ago. Today, hardly anyone in the West has an inkling of what values are – or virtues, for that matter – and their possible hierarchy likely sounds like algebra. Theoretically, a hierarchy of values might be algebra for Adayfi as well, but in practice, his book bearing testimony, his moral virtues rule over his vital virtues, which means that he consistently does what is right without any concern of the bodily harm, maybe even his death, with which he will pay for doing what is right.

Six o'clock in the morning. Sliding through the mud, I break up camp, and it is then that I remember that my gas stove yesterday burned itself during a coffee break. The grumpiness that becomes me, however, evaporates when I see Adayfi lying face down on the concrete floor of his cage in Guantánamo, his wrists cuffed to his ankles. I drink coffee at a roadside stall, and when, at ten o’clock, I meet Adayfi again and ask him how he has slept, he shrugs. For too long, he explains, he lived twenty-four hours a day under either bright lights or in total darkness. The internal biological clock that regulates his circadian rhythm no longer properly functions. In addition, there are his nightmares.

Next to post-its with notes, the walls of Adayfi’s studio are covered with photos of people still detained in Guantánamo. I ask him what is more important to him: to do the right thing or to survive. Adayfi stares into nowhere for some time and then answers, “When everything is taken from you, even your time, what remains is what you really are.”

Adayfi was born in a small mountain village called Raymah in Yemen. He describes the simple farm life in Raymah, tells of his mother, a small but straightforward woman, of his sister, with whom he herded goats, and of the meals his father prepared. Fifteen years of age, Adayfi moves to an aunt in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital, where he tries to save enough money to one day study at a university in the Gulf states. One of his jobs is at the Dutch embassy, where he is introduced to the same stroopwafels of which I have brought him a box from the Netherlands, and of which he occasionally eats while we talk, his face lighting up with each bite.

Adayfi has his lucky break in Sana’a when he meets the sheikh who is the driving force behind the university of Sana’a. The sheikh promises to fund his future studies if he helps another student complete a paper on the rise of al-Qaeda …

Adayfi accompanies the student to Afghanistan, confident that upon his return to Yemen, he will soon board a plane for the second time in his life, en route to a university of his choice in one of the Gulf states. Four months, the two young men are in Afghanistan when, on September 11, 2001, the United States are being attacked. Foreigners in Afghanistan hastily return to their homeland, and a few days before Adayfi returns to Yemen, the car in which he travels in the North of Afghanistan is ambushed. The warlord who captures him wants to demand a ransom for him. Another warlord, Adayfi narrates, suggests selling him to the Americans, who offer big money for anyone possibly linked to al-Qaeda – which prompts more than one Afghan to sell his neighbor to settle a feud.

Adayfi attributes his misfortune to the white turban he wore. The warlord who captured him convinces the Americans that that white turban distinguishes the still beardless Adayfi as a man of importance, as an al-Queda leader. Be that as it may, Adayfi ends up in a CIA black site, where he is mistreated so violently that he readily admits to being the Egyptian General Aden – nineteen years of age. Soon after, he is on his way to Cuba, chained to the bottom of a plane.

The examples Adayfi gives of his treatment in Guantánamo are shocking, and that treatment was not limited to the hours, sometimes days, he was interrogated, but dominated every moment of his life for the better part of fourteen years. And yet, without having any true leverage in Guantánamo, Adayfi relentlessly fights for a humane treatment of his peers and himself. When, in that light, I ask him to tell me the story of Zacharia, his face tightens. He points at a picture on the wall and says, “That's Zacharia. He is still detained in Guantánamo. Guards knocked a molar loose in his jaw. He couldn’t eat from the pain and was not allowed to go to the dentist until he divulged some valuable information during his interrogation.” Through a hunger strike, Adayfi and other detainees intervened, a well-meant campaign that literally exploded in Zacharia’s face. Guards dragged him out of his cage. When they threw him back in the next day, Zacharia’s face was swollen, and he was in more pain than ever. Through the fence between their cages, Adayfi looked into Zacharia’s mouth and discovered that seven molars had been pulled. Not by a dentist, but by the general practitioner on duty.

It’s just an example of how senior officers, doctors, psychologists, and even Red Cross staffers ignored the Geneva Conventions, face to face with beaten black and blue, emaciated, and long-term sleep-deprived detainees. When I ask Adayfi how that was possible, he shakes his head apologetically and recounts how two guards who did criticize the treatment of detainees, Major Ahmad Halabi and Captain James Yee, ended up in orange overalls and behind bars themselves.

Adayfi grabs another stroopwafel, and to get our conversation into smoother waters, I ask him to tell me the story of the officer who once knelt in front of Waddah’s cage. A shadow of grief comes over Adayfi’s face, and I regret having mentioned Waddah’s name. Waddah died in Guantánamo under questionable circumstances, and I know Adayfi was devastated by his death. But Adayfi brushes his grief aside and explains how detainees managed to load the legs of their overalls in a way they became sling hammers. With those sling hammers, they demolished the sparse furniture in their cells to call attention to a pressing problem. That campaign worked out well. An officer knelt in front of the door in Waddah’s cage to negotiate with Waddah through a slot in that door. Waddah refused to negotiate if that officer would not sit on a chair. “No man,” Waddah said, according to Adayfi, “kneels before me.” The story gives me a glimpse into the moral world of detainees in Guantánamo.

The hunger strike was the most effective weapon detainees had, though not for long. Hunger strikers, strapped into special chairs, had thick tubes shoved down their noses. Through those tubes, special food found its way to their stomachs. Ron DeSantis, the current Florida governor and presidential candidate, was a legal advisor in Guantánamo for a period of time. According to Adayfi – guards called him Smiley Troublemaker – DeSantis was one of those who amusedly watched as hunger strikers were force-fed.

In 2010, Adayfi’s ninth year in Guantánamo, a commanding officer relaxes some of the prison rules. Detainees are free to socialize, are allowed to read books and to study, and are allowed to create art. Some art appears in the form of replicated windows on the concrete walls of the cells in the modern building that now houses Adayfi. Through those windows, detainees enjoy land- and seascapes. From cardboard, they build pieces of furniture and even trees. Adayfi takes the opportunity to study English. He takes his studies so seriously that the lawyer finally assigned to him is startled by the ease with which he can suddenly communicate with his client.

But how long do relatively relaxed rules last in Guantánamo? New commanding officer, new rules. All art is destroyed, rules are tightened, and guards start beating detainees once more. It takes until 2016 until there is light at the end of the tunnel for Adayfi. There will be a hearing in which he is allowed to plead his case. Ten years earlier, in 2006, during a hearing, it was determined that Adayfi is an enemy combatant, eligible for lifelong detention without charge or conviction. During that first hearing, Adayfi, in Arabic back then, claimed to never have been a member of al-Qaida but to possibly become a member after being released from Guantánamo due to his treatment there. A praiseworthy claim, if anyone asks me, but it sealed his fate for the next ten years.

During the 2016 hearing the tables turn; Adayfi will be released from Guantánamo. A return to Yemen, where his family still lives, is impossible due to the civil war going on in Yemen. Handcuffed, a bag over his head, Adayfi is flown to Serbia, the only country willing to adopt him, where he enjoys his relative freedom for almost seven years now. Since December 2022, Adayfi holds a Yemini passport. He is free to travel but is somewhat hesitant to do so.

Adayfi fights nonstop for the closure of Guantánamo, and he fights for detainees who got from the frying pan into the fire after their release from Guantánamo, like Saeed Bakhouche, who, after twenty-one years in Guantánamo, was supposed to be adopted by Algeria, where he is now imprisoned. In addition, Adayfi fights for recognition. If that recognition is not forthcoming, he argues, everyone in this world runs the risk to one day end up in a derivative of Guantánamo Bay.

Now, it is my turn to brush some grief aside, for the current emphasis in mainly the Western world on vital values at the expense of moral ones turn the little big man’s words into a scary prophecy. Locked in a cage and without leverage, Adayfi imposed his will on Guantánamo for fourteen long years, and ashamed, I wonder how it is possible that with all conceivable leverage at our disposal – call it democracy – we laughingly queue up to surrender what freedom we have left …

Boek 'Don't Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantanamo'

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