Former Guantanamo inmate Sami Elhaj explains why ICRC visits were important to him

25-08-2009 Interview

Sami Elhaj, a journalist from Al Jazeera Arabic TV, who was detained at the US facility in Guantanamo for almost six years, explains how the ICRC's visits made a difference during this period, and remembers the first time he received news from his loved ones.

 Following your arrest in Afghanistan, you spent almost six years in Guantanamo. What stands out the most for you from this period of detention?  

Losing my freedom and not knowing why, not knowing how long I was going to stay there, not having any clue about these things which might have given me hope, being away from my family, my work, my country… Those are the things I remember most when I think back on my detention period.

One of the most difficult experiences was my hunger strike. It was the only way I had to express myself and refuse the reality that was imposed on me. It was a choice that I made and I am proud of it.

The ICRC has been visiting detainees at Guantanamo Bay since January 2002. As at January 2009, there were 242 individuals from about 30 countries being held there. Within the past year, telephone calls between detainees and their families have been facilitated by the authorities in Guantanamo Bay and the ICRC and National Societies in the detainees’ home countries around the world.

  In 2008, the ICRC visited roughly half a million prisoners and detainees in more than 80 countries worldwide. With support provided by the ICRC, around 32,700 detainees benefited from family visits and more than 218,000 Red Cross messages were exchanged between detainees and their families. In addition, almost 4,000 phone calls – organized by the authorities and the ICRC – enabled detainees to contact their families.    
Another thing I will never forget is the first time I received a Red Cross message [brief family news exchanged between detainees and their families with the help of the ICRC ] with the handwriting of my family and drawings from my children. Tears were streaming from my eyes. I could not believe that I was actually holding a message from them. Even though these messages were mostly censored by the authorities, sometimes so heavily that I could read only a few lines, they were still reassuring and always brightened my day.

 What was your reaction the first time you met an ICRC delegate?  

Staying in a prison for long periods, seeing only the guards and the prison grounds, stirs up indescribable feelings of frustration and sadness. Seeing someone from somewhere else has a double effect. On one hand, it generates a feeling of cautiousness because already the atmosphere does not inspire trust. On the other hand, there was this thrill of meeting someone other than the guards, someone who comes from the outside, wearing civilian clothes. It also inspired some expectations that the ICRC delegates might help us.

 Did visits from ICRC delegates make a difference, and, if so, how?  

The loss of contact with my family and other loved ones was the most difficult thing to live with and to accept. My mind and heart were always with them and not a single day passed without me thinking of what they were doing, how they were living and when I would see them again. I had to cope with the feeling of despair that som etimes came over me, despair at not being able to see them again, but I always had hope.

Finding out that the ICRC could help me contact my family was the most pleasant news, something I had been waiting for for a long time. At least it would ease the feeling of uncertainty and offer me some consolation.

The books we received from the ICRC were a gate to an outside world and offered a way for us to have a normal activity for a change. You can imagine the importance of a book for a detainee who has absolutely nothing else to do.

But one of the most important services provided by the ICRC was medical visits. Every time an ICRC team visited us, it was accompanied by a doctor who checked on urgent cases and raised them with the authorities. This was crucial for us.

 How did your relationship with the delegates evolve over the years?  

It went from cautiousness to trust. I remember specifically one delegate who came to see me regularly. He was not Arab but still spoke Arabic. It felt good to talk to him. Sometimes we talked for a long time. He was a respectful man and, with time, my trust in him grew stronger. I had heard of the ICRC before being in Guantanamo but had not really known it very well. Being incarcerated and seeing the ICRC first-hand enabled me to know it better and to interact with its delegates.

 Has your perception of the ICRC changed? How was the ICRC perceived by other detainees?  

I never had a negative perception of the ICRC. It was more a matter of trust that was slowly but surely advancing in the positive direction. I personally could never forget the ICRC and I am grateful for ever. However, I now know that we sometimes expect great things of the ICRC, and these expectatio ns are not always met.

Some detainees for instance did not think very highly of the ICRC. Some of them even refused to meet with delegates because they viewed them as being linked to the Americans. The red cross emblem was taken by some detainees to indicate that the ICRC is a Christian organization – although it is not. Some of us simply scratched off the emblem and replaced it with a drawing, but others declined to send messages to their families through the ICRC, just because of this emblem.

 But the ICRC goes to considerable effort to bring a minimum of humanity to places of detention and to ensure that the dignity of detainees is respected…  

Some improvements needed to be made and sometimes the ICRC was not able to offer us much. But their mere presence was important for me and for many others. Their presence made us feel less forgotten and abandoned. Sometimes we had improvements in the conditions of detention and sometimes not. The impact was limited but important nonetheless.

The opinions expressed by the interviewee are his alone and do not always necessarily represent those of the ICRC.