Moazzam Begg Interviews Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Adel El-Gazzar in Slovakia

27.10.10

Over the last 18 months, as part of the slow-moving process of closing Guantánamo, the Obama administration — having refused to offer new homes on the US mainland to cleared prisoners who cannot be repatriated because they face the risk of torture — has prevailed on other countries to help out. To date, 37 former prisoners have been resettled in 16 different countries, and in January this year, three of these men — Adel el-Gazzar, an Egyptian, Poolad Tsiradzho, an Azerbaijani and Rafiq al-Hami, a Tunisian — arrived in Slovakia. Profiles of the men are available here.

On arrival, however, they were taken to a deportation centre, where, according to reports, conditions were little better than in Guantánamo, and after five months they embarked on a hunger strike to protest about the Slovakian government’s failure to clarify their status and arrange for them to be rehoused. They were subsequently given a home in a small town in central Slovakia where, two weeks ago, Cageprisoners director and former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg met up with them and interviewed Adel el-Gazzar about his extraordinarily harrowing story of torture, abuse, amputation, courage and hope. This is a remarkable interview with a clearly remarkable man, and I’m delighted to cross-post it below, as Adel’s story is one that leapt out at me while I was researching The Guantánamo Files, in that it so obviously involved incompetence and injustice, and also involved a very articulate individual.

Moazzam Begg: Bismillah al-Rahman al-Raheem, can you please introduce yourself?

Adel el-Gazzar: My name is Adel Fattough Ali el-Gazzar. I am from Egypt. I was born in 1965, in Cairo. I am a father of four. I used to work as an accountant in Egypt and in Saudi Arabia. 

Moazzam Begg: How did you come to be captured by the Americans?

Adel el-Gazzar: I was captured in 2001 after the September 11 attacks. I had been working in Quetta, Pakistan with the Saudi Red Crescent. I was helping the refugees who, after the American attack in Afghanistan, numbered hundreds of thousands escaping from war. Their lives were very miserable; no clean water, no medicine, no food, no tents, no blankets. I was helping to provide them with food, medicine and basic necessities. I was in Chaman, a small border town between Afghanistan and Pakistan. A night raid was launched by the Americans and they hit the refugee camp, our camp.

Moazzam Begg: They attacked with helicopters and with military vehicles?

Adel el-Gazzar: Yes we actually couldn’t see the helicopters and vehicles, we were just hearing the sounds of exploding shells.

Moazzam Begg: Were there many casualties?

Adel el-Gazzar: Yes, several, and I was injured myself. I sustained a deep injury to my left leg and fell on the ground. Within two or three minutes I was unconscious and when I woke I found myself in a small hospital with some other injured. Some may have been killed too. I remember one kid aged eight or nine with us in the hospital. I spent about two hours or three hours in this hospital then we were moved to the main hospital in Quetta.

Moazzam Begg: You were still in Pakistani custody at this time?

Adel el-Gazzar: Actually I didn’t know exactly where I was, just that I was in hospital. Many doctors came to see me and check my situation. They told me that I needed some instant surgery so I went to the operating room. I went four or five times, I think, I’m not sure, but it was not custody, it was a hospital. But there were some officials who came and questioned me — I believe from Pakistani intelligence — taking basic details about me. After a couple of weeks I started to notice some Americans in the hospital.

Moazzam Begg: You received severe injuries to your leg. Can you describe what had happened?

Adel el-Gazzar: I asked the doctor exactly what happened to me. He said that it was shrapnel from a rocket that shattered my leg; it destroyed the tibia completely. Then they put an external clamp to help join the bone together.

Moazzam Begg: Where did you go to next after this hospital?

Adel el-Gazzar: I spent seven days in this hospital. Then I was transferred to Makkah hospital, which belonged to the Saudi Red Crescent. The treatment was very, very good. Many doctors from different branches came to visit me and treat my injuries. I remained in the hospital for over a month.

Moazzam Begg: At what point did you know the Americans were involved?

Adel el-Gazzar: One week before that time a CIA agent came to the hospital to question me but I refused to answer. I had done nothing wrong, but I began to feel that maybe I will get transferred to the Americans. We had begun to hear that they were looking for Arabs.

Moazzam Begg: How did you imagine the Americans might treat you?

Adel el-Gazzar: I knew something about their history so I was under no illusions. I started to hear on the radio about what they are doing in Guantánamo, but I didn’t imagine for a second that I would be sent there.

Moazzam Begg: You had already heard about Guantánamo?

Adel el-Gazzar: Yes, I saw some pictures and reports about it, but as I said, thoughts of that place were far from my head. To be honest at this time the treatment on the Pakistani side was really very good. Even the governor of Quetta used to visit us, sometimes twice a day, and he was showing his sympathy. Not only him, I received hundreds of visitors within these thirty-five days — people I don’t know. They just came and tried to help, gave me money, clothes and food every day. The Pakistani visitors were very kind.

Moazzam Begg: Some non-Pakistanis who later ended up in Guantánamo also stated that they were treated similarly in Pakistan. Why then do you think the Pakistanis handed you over to the Americans?

Adel el-Gazzar: It was out of their [ordinary people’s] control. A young man from Pakistani intelligence started to visit us from time to time. He never asked any questions, he just apparently wanted to offer his help. Then one evening he came crying tears, saying that it was my last night in Pakistan. At this point the surgeons were still trying to see if they could save my leg; an operation was due the next day. But the man said I was going to leave today. I asked him where I was going and he said he couldn’t tell me. I felt something bad was about to happen.

Moazzam Begg: Did you think it was the Americans at the time?

Adel el-Gazzar: I started to suspect something but there was no reason to believe it. The governor came and said he had had a meeting and they had decided that as this hospital didn’t have enough facilities for the operation I was to be moved to another hospital also in Quetta.

Moazzam Begg: Were you by yourself or was anyone with you?

Adel el-Gazzar: There were four others with me. All were injured. We were taken to Quetta airport and we saw the Americans. They took us out of the ambulance on stretchers and the Americans came wearing gloves.

Moazzam Begg: What did the Pakistanis say to you?

Adel el-Gazzar: This time they were very bad in the ambulance. They kicked me and put a hood on my head. Their behaviour had completely changed. I started to shout and protest, saying we were all Muslims. They said, “Shut up, don’t talk, you are a terrorist!” Then the Americans came, searched me and put me onto the aeroplane. Unbelievably they taped me all around my body to the stretcher and put a hood over my face.

Moazzam Begg: What was going through your mind as you were handed over to the Americans?

Adel el-Gazzar: I was thinking that it was the end of my life or I will face a very bad time in the future.

Moazzam Begg: And your family had no idea what was going to happen?

Adel el-Gazzar: Nothing, I had been on the phone talking to my wife earlier from the hospital, crying, saying to her I’m sorry, forgive me, I think this is the last time in my life I will speak to her, please pray for me. And she was crying, saying, “What’s happening, what’s happening?” And then they took the phone from me.

Moazzam Begg: What kind of “welcome” did you receive in Kandahar?

Adel el-Gazzar: It was a terrible night.  We reached Kandahar around midnight. It was very, very cold and raining heavily. Then they took me from the plane and put me into a tent. The tent had some holes in the top so the rain was pouring on to my face. I couldn’t see much but the constant roar of the engines meant that flights were coming in day and night. Then medics came and cut off all my clothes and bandages on my injury with scissors and left me naked. They were screaming at me that I deserved what was happening to me, and that I am about to die as a terrorist.

Moazzam Begg: How long did you remain in this state?

Adel el-Gazzar: About 24 hours. I was completely naked. Without a blanket, without anything. I felt I was about to die just from the cold. Then they moved me from this tent to another. Once I reached the second tent they started to beat me, on my head, my stomach, my back, my hands and legs. They kicked my injured leg and I was screaming in agony but they just laughed and danced like it was a joke. The following day they gave me some clothes and then the interrogations began properly.

Moazzam Begg: What were they asking you?

Adel el-Gazzar: About basic details in the beginning, but this was the first of many. The second one was long: they asked me why I came to Pakistan, how they captured me, al-Qaeda, Bin Laden, the Taliban. Things I couldn’t answer. They mentioned some names I didn’t even know.

Moazzam Begg: What was the feeling you got from the other prisoners about the future?

Adel el-Gazzar: Nothing, we were just talking and laughing with each another — despite the hardships. We were not thinking about Guantánamo, because they came to us many times and said in just a few days everybody will go home. Even when they took us on the plane to Guantánamo we thought that they were taking us home

Moazzam Begg: Did the Americans give you any idea that they were in fact sending everybody to Guantánamo?

Adel el-Gazzar: No idea. I was more concerned about my leg, because I had severe pain and the environment was dirty, so I was worried that it might get infected. The American doctors were telling me it had to be amputated. I resisted, arguing with them about what the Pakistani surgeons had said, that they could save my leg. I even showed them the X-rays that I had kept. The Americans just laughed and said the Pakistanis didn’t know anything about medicine and treatments. In the end one of them admitted that they could save my leg but the operation would costs thousands of dollars and that America was a “poor country.” It was amputation or nothing.

Moazzam Begg: What was the journey to Guantánamo like?

Adel el-Gazzar: It took about 20 hours or more. I was on a stretcher with my face covered and my body taped, as before. I was trying to sleep because that was the best option, but of course it was very difficult. The pain and discomfort was excruciating. I pleaded with a medic for a sedative, which I got. I woke up in Guantánamo.

Moazzam Begg: What is your first memory of Guantánamo?

Adel el-Gazzar: I remember being thirsty, and I asked for water. It was a sunny day, very sunny. Then I was forcibly stripped naked again while they washed my body.

Moazzam Begg: You remained in Camp X-Ray on the stretcher in the cell?

Adel el-Gazzar: Yes, I spent 25 days in X-Ray. I was taken to the hospital for amputation.

Moazzam Begg: How did you respond to this?

Adel el-Gazzar: Of course I refused in the beginning. The doctor said it was up to me but that they couldn’t do anything to save my leg but amputate it. I explained what I’d been told in Pakistan but I got the same as answer as I’d had in Kandahar: Pakistanis didn’t know anything, the leg had to go. As the days passed the pain increased and the colour of my leg started to turn grey — almost black. I asked them to clean the wound, and to change the dressing every day and night but they wouldn’t do it. When I asked them in the morning for a new dressing they said they will do it in the afternoon, and in the afternoon they said they will do it in the morning, like that.

Moazzam Begg: So you would go through days without having it cleaned?

Adel el-Gazzar: Yes, but worse than that. The wound was open and big — without any kind of treatment besides basic dressings. They forced us to take showers so the wound got wet many times. The pain became almost unbearable. One day I remember I was crying terribly from the pain. A doctor turned up with painkillers but he said, “I will give you the medication, and your pain will be gone within 10 minutes, but first you need to sign a confession that you’re a member of al-Qaeda.” I told him I’m not a member of al-Qaeda and cannot confess to a lie. He put the medication in his pocket and walked off. However, most of the other prisoners advised me correctly that I had no option but to accept the amputation as it had passed the stage of being saved and had become gangrenous and could spread higher up the leg the longer it was left. I finally gave in. Ten days later a doctor came with consent papers for me to sign. The next day I was taken to the hospital.

Moazzam Begg: How did you feel knowing your leg was gone?

Adel el-Gazzar: After the anaesthesia wore off I looked at my leg, but couldn’t find it. I started to cry. The doctor came to me and he was trying to be sympathetic, saying, “Its fine, don’t worry, you’ll have an artificial leg one day and you’ll be able to walk, don’t worry.”

Moazzam Begg: So you spent all this time waiting for an artificial leg living in a wheelchair?

Adel el-Gazzar: They gave me crutches. I spent about 70 days in hospital after the amputation because the leg got infected. I was put on a long term of antibiotics, to make sure the gangrene didn’t spread. I returned to the hospital many times.

Moazzam Begg: How long after you the amputation were you given a prosthetic leg?

Adel el-Gazzar: About six months later.

Moazzam Begg: Are you aware of how many other prisoners received amputations whilst they were in Guantánamo?

Adel el-Gazzar: There were 13 people. All were legs except one guy from Morocco, he lost his left hand. There was also a brother from Saudi Arabia [Abdullah al-Anazi, released in September 2007]. He lost both legs.

Moazzam Begg: Do you think that this number of amputations happened because the wounds were so bad or because the medical treatment was inadequate?

Adel el-Gazzar: Most of the wounds were not so bad. There were some that were very bad, but, for example, I remember there was a man from Turkistan [Uighur], his name was Ahmad [Abdulahad, released in Palau in October 2009], who had just a very small wound, no broken bones or anything, and they told him the only solution was to amputate his leg. I was pleading with him not to accept it but they were trying to show us that it is a hopeless case and that there is no treatment. And the treatment in the hospital was very bad, not from the doctors, but from the MPs [military police]. They would sing and dance in front of us while we were in pain. We were constantly shackled to the cots and were not allowed to talk or even look in a particular direction. Despite our pain and condition we were expected to sleep at fixed times.

Moazzam Begg: What would they do if you contravened these rules?

Adel el-Gazzar: They would kick you in the head, take your blanket, withhold food, threaten you with more abuse and threaten to withhold our treatment if we failed to comply.

Moazzam Begg: After all that you had endured, especially the amputation, how did you manage to keep your faith strong?

Adel el-Gazzar: First I believed that everything was qadr [fate], so that put everything before the will of God. I am sure that He never does anything wrong to his slaves, He is always doing the best for them. I believed it was best for me to be amputated. Perhaps if I still had two legs I might have used them to do something wrong. So I pray Allah protects me not to do any bad in the future.  In the beginning I was sorry about losing a limb, especially when I started to suffer physically, going to the bathroom, walking, doing any physical activity. I thought to myself it would be a difficult time in the future — for the rest of my life. But, subhan Allah [Glory be to God], after a few days I was completely satisfied and I started to deal with the new situation happily, and now I’m okay, I put on my [prosthetic] leg like it’s no big deal.

Moazzam Begg: During this time did you manage to get any letters to or from your family?

Adel el-Gazzar: No. For the whole first year I never got anything. The first letter I received was in August 2003. It was via the Red Cross, from my father and my wife. They told me that they know I’m in Guantánamo and they were trying to give me some solace: to be strong and patient and not to worry about them. My father passed away in 2007 — while I was still in prison.

Moazzam Begg: Did your family know that your leg had been amputated by this time?

Adel el-Gazzar: I didn’t have it in me to tell them, for several years.

Moazzam Begg: The interrogators wanted to break the prisoners but you say in fact you were “rebuilt” there. Did the Americans not achieve what they wanted?

Adel el-Gazzar: They failed. I found that the Muslims can be very, very strong if they believe in God and His power. And the Americans are nothing against the Muslims united as a nation. It was a struggle between us and them — not a struggle of weapons but a struggle, a battle of wills. An example of this could be seen every day at maghrib [sunset] when their national anthem collided with our athaan [call to prayer.] But I believe they lost. They followed orders — we followed our hearts. I left Guantánamo stronger in my faith and perseverance than ever before.

Moazzam Begg: You saw many brothers from different parts of the world going through similar hardships, very young and very old people. How did it make you feel about yourself?

Adel el-Gazzar: There were some people in very bad situations compared to me but we were like one family. Like the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) said, “The example of the believers in the compassion to one another is like that of one body. If one part is harmed, the entire body is affected.” We were like that. The moment we heard that a brother is suffering in a different camp, we did not ask about his nationality, race, culture, education, school of thought or age. We just care that he is a Muslim and we need to support him, and this is a part of our religion. We were really one man. This is what we are trying to inform the nation: just to be one body. We have One God, one Quran, one shari’ah. So we should not be divided.

Moazzam Begg: As a group, what did you do to try and challenge the abuses and lack of human rights afforded to you?

Adel el-Gazzar: We were always on strikes, not only hunger strikes, but resisting all the rules, even if we were told to hang the towel on one side or the other [of the cell]. The Americans at first were really surprised.

Moazzam Begg: Would you say that the prisoners there were organised? How did they manage to sustain this resistance?

Adel el-Gazzar: The suffering made us, the detention made us. We were not organised. We were just one body, one heart, but it was from God

Moazzam Begg: The Americans have maintained that this is strategy taught from the Al-Qaeda training manual on how to resist. How would you respond?

Adel el-Gazzar: This is a big lie, they were lying to themselves and they were trying to lie to the others. It was not like that. I think that there are no members of Al-Qaeda, the Taliban over there. And as I told you they made a big mistake by capturing us. They told all the other nations that “we destroyed the mujahideen” and there will be no more al-Qaeda, no more Taliban in the future, and then they told themselves that it was a mistake and they couldn’t fix it.

Moazzam Begg: In Guantánamo there was a large variety of people from many countries. How did you all communicate?

Adel el-Gazzar: We tried to learn each other’s languages and even if we couldn’t we have a language in common. We still have faith, and it doesn’t matter where you are from or what language you speak as long as you are Muslims together and we are one together. So because of this I never had any communication problems.

Moazzam Begg: There are still 174 prisoners left in Guantánamo, after almost nine years without charge or trial. What do you think is the solution for them?

Adel el-Gazzar: Most of the people would like to go back to their countries — about 90 from Yemen, 10 from Saudi Arabia, 10 from Algeria and so forth. There are a handful of course who cannot return home and they should be provided for at all levels. But I don’t know why they don’t want to send these people back. There is something “under the table,” as I said, but they should close the place down and send the people who can return back to their homes.

Moazzam Begg: At the beginning of this year you and two other men were released and sent here to Slovakia. What were your feelings when you were informed that you were about to be released?

Adel el-Gazzar: The first thing I did was I cried like a [new] born baby. And I was really very, very happy that I was going to leave Guantánamo, but I was also very sad that I was going to leave my brothers behind in such a place. And I was wondering about how I was going to live in another country, start a new life with an uncertain future.

Moazzam Begg: Did you know you were coming to Slovakia?

Adel el-Gazzar: Yes, but I didn’t know anything about Slovakia. It is the first time I’ve ever been in Europe. I was thinking about my family — would I be able to bring them here or not? I was also wondering whether I would be able to adapt to a new life in Europe, as it is completely different to my life in Egypt. I had mixed feelings — between happiness and sadness: because I’m leaving [Guantánamo] and because I’m leaving my brothers. Generally though, I was happy.

Moazzam Begg: One thing that’s common amongst former prisoners is that in addition to their families they are constantly concerned about the affairs of other prisoners — or former prisoners. Why do you think this is the case?

Adel el-Gazzar: We already lived together for many years. I lived with my brothers in Guantánamo more than I lived with my own wife and children. So we really became a big family. Some of the brothers are older than me — some are younger. I saw the older ones equivalent to my father and the younger ones like my brothers or sons. Imagine a family that consists of 800 or so — everyone tries to take care of one another. We had the same feelings; we suffered under the same circumstances and troubles — good or bad.

Moazzam Begg: Prisoners have recently been resettled to countries all over Europe. Some are of course better than others. Do you think the Americans thought this process through properly?

Adel el-Gazzar: As I said, I am thankful for having been released, but I know they don’t care; they just send us to these countries to somehow uphold the reputation of America as a kind nation, especially when everyone knows how much they have been involved in torture around the world. Also, so the European countries will control them more than the original countries of the prisoners. The most difficult thing for me returning to a foreign county, not that of my own origin, is that in Guantánamo I was with my family (the Muslim prisoners), but here in Slovakia I have no family, no wife, no kids and no Muslims. There are no mosques here and only a couple of Muslims around. Every Friday for prayers I have to travel four hours to the capital and four hours back.

Moazzam Begg: You say your faith was the most important thing back in Guantánamo. Are you now weaker than you were there?

Adel el-Gazzar: Yes, but I am compensating for it by trying to be closer to Allah by praying, reading Quran more and also reading useful books. I am also able to contact my family and friends abroad so it decreases the loneliness a little.

Moazzam Begg: What advice would you give to the relatives of prisoners facing similar trials?

Adel el-Gazzar: Look at things from an optimistic viewpoint not a pessimistic one; look at it like a test from God to see how patient you are and just remain close to God, as He is the only one who can take you through all the way to the finish and protect you. If you are going through the hardships read Quran, fast, pray and remain faithful. As long as your heart is free, they can arrest your body but not your soul.

Moazzam Begg: What is the thing you miss the most from life before Guantánamo?

Adel el-Gazzar: I miss the mosques and going there five times a day and the Muslim community who helped and protected you. I also miss my family. It is very hard to talk to my kids as they are teenagers but we love each other even though we do not know each other.

Moazzam Begg: What could the Americans have done to make it easier with your family?

Adel el-Gazzar: I don’t expect anything from the Americans, but I do from the Muslim community. They should practice helping people in a bad situation. But I am not expecting anything from the Muslim countries [leadership] as they are all the same, following the Americans, just the community by itself.

Moazzam Begg: Did you come across any guards who were decent and treated you like humans. If so, what advice would you give them?

Adel el-Gazzar: Yes, I met some very nice and sympathetic guards. My advice to any young soldiers who went to the army believing they were doing a good thing is don’t listen to the media in your country, search for the real facts. My advice for people who want to help but don’t would be that asking from God is a strong weapon but also you need to use tools such as doing something practical and achieving your goals by actually getting up and helping.

Moazzam Begg: Looking back, what is the most memorable part of your experience?

Adel el-Gazzar: The most beautiful days? Actually, I don’t know if you will believe me but the whole eight years was a very nice time, it was real. If I had the choice to go back to Guantánamo I will go. It is really a very big experience for me: first I learned more about myself — both good and bad. Before Guantánamo I did not recognise this. I was able to rebuild myself again there. And I was very close to God and able to memorize the whole Quran in 27 days.

Moazzam Begg: What do you think ordinary people should be doing to help relieve the suffering of the prisoners?

Adel el-Gazzar: Everyone released from Guantánamo is looking for the support of the people, not only financial but moral support. Life outside Guantánamo is cold — very, very cold. Therefore we need to feel warmth [from people]. We are all duty bound to help relieve the suffering of the oppressed — even if we were once oppressed ourselves, especially if we were. But as we are still struggling to stand up our help is sought by our brothers who are in a worse situation. And there are always people in a worse situation.

Moazzam Begg: Brother Adel, may Allah reward you with the best for all you have endured and ease your hardships with sustenance and tranquility.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

3 Responses

  1. Tweets that mention Moazzam Begg Interviews Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Adel El-Gazzar in Slovakia | Andy Worthington -- Topsy.com says...

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Andy Worthington, Susan Hall. Susan Hall said: Moazzam Begg Interviews Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Adel El-Gazzar in Slovakia | Andy Worthington http://bit.ly/drfJOO […]

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Christine Casner wrote:

    In other words, can I *&%$#$ in your yard instead of my own????

  3. Ex-Guantánamo Prisoner Adel Al-Gazzar Returns Home To Egypt And Is Arrested - OpEd says...

    […] story, in his own words, can be found in an extraordinary interview conducted in Slovakia last year by former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg, but to recap briefly, […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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