Despite the torture he says he experienced for years, former Guantánamo Bay prisoner Omar Deghayes still thinks reconciliation between the Middle East and the United States is possible.
“We have different values and we look at things differently but this doesn’t mean that we have to fight each other,” he said. “We can sit down and we can negotiate and understand.”
Deghayes shared his story Friday night via videoconference with Democracy Now host Amy Goodman, former Guantánamo prison guard Terry C. Holdbrooks Jr. and approximately 500 Davis community members.
Organized by the UC Davis Center for Human Rights, the event was the first time a former guard and prisoner spoke together in front of a live, American audience.
Holdbrooks was inspired to hear that Deghayes still believed reconciliation is possible, but thinks it is nearly impossible.
“Quite frankly, I’m always surprised when I hear that another detainee has gone out and has not decided to retaliate,” Holdbrooks said.
While Deghayes said everyone knows about Guantánamo, Goodman begged to differ and steered the conversation toward seeing what living in Guantánamo was really like.
“For people in the United States, I think we know very little about what actually goes on there,” she said.
Deghayes said he experienced various forms of torture – his face was drowned until he suffocated, his ribs were battered and his nose was broken from being continually beaten.
At one point, five guards came into his cell, chained him and one guard pushed two of his fingers into Deghayes’s eyes. Because Deghayes didn’t scream, the guard continued. To this day, he can hardly see out of his right eye.
“Before Guantánamo, I never thought that people could be deeply cruel to each other to that extent, even if they were their enemies,” he said.
Holdbrooks said he witnessed torture as well, referencing forms of sexual, psychological and physical torture.
“It was 100 percent torture, not just some physical or emotional abuse,” he said. “It was torture.”
Facing a strobe light, detainees were forced into stress positions and had to listen to the same Celine Dion song over and over for 12 hours straight. The stress positions themselves were specifically designed to induce muscle and bowel failures, Holdrooks said.
“It was common that detainees would have excrement or would urinate on themselves while being interrogated,” he said. “It wasn’t out of fear, it was strictly out of stress.”
On a day-to-day basis, Guantánamo was 98 degrees, barren and humid. In addition to the sun, there were constantly lights on. Detainees could never sleep in the dark, Holdbrooks said.
“That place is horrible,” he said. “I’m at a loss of words to describe Guantánamo.”
Cells were completely made of iron and utilized extreme air conditioning. The effect was like living inside a refrigerator, Deghayes said.
Deghayes and Holdbrooks both described guards who purposefully disrespected the Quran in order to get a reaction from detainees. Guards threw copies of the Quran in toilets, scrawled abusive writings inside and kicked them on the ground.
Doctors were also involved in the torture, Deghayes said. If a prisoner had a disease, doctors would sometimes refuse to provide medication unless the prisoner cooperated with interrogations.
“The psychologically engineered schemes that went on were a lot worse with a lot deeper wounds than the physical ones,” Deghayes said.
The psychological torture permanently changed Deghayes, who expressed the difficulty in becoming normal again.
“We’re more cold than we used to be,” he said. “We can’t express our feelings easily to our families or friends. We suspect everyone and everything.”
Even the guards were under surveillance and suffered abuse, Deghayes said. Thus, the people who designed Guantánamo are the ones who need to be held accountable for their actions, he said.
Holdbrooks, though more skeptical, agreed.
“It would be quite an amazing accomplishment if everyone responsible could be convicted or tried or even remotely punished in this life,” he said.
JANELLE BITKER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.