Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s story began a few months after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In August 2002, Slahi was imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay under the authority of the United States government. Ever since then, he has remained at Guantanamo, subjected to emotional, physical, sexual and verbal abuse. Here’s the icing on top of this torturous cake: Slahi has never been charged with a crime.
“An innocent man is being held and tortured under conditions that are inhumane and that anyone with a conscience would be appalled at,” said Elizabeth Hurd, a political science and religious studies professor.
Starting on Saturday morning at 8 a.m., Elizabeth Hurd joined Northwestern students, faculty and community members in the Graduate School Commons at Northwestern to stage a public reading of Slahi’s recently released memoir of his experiences at Guantanamo. The book, titled Guantánamo Diary, is based on Slahi’s hand-written notes, and was published after a nearly decade-long legal fight to have the manuscript declassified. In 15 minutes sections for nine hours on Saturday, volunteers read portions of the book, giving voice to the atrocities which Slahi was subjected to.
“This book [is] an interesting, very contemporary lens on the current war on terror – the war of terror – that is being waged in a variety of ways,” Elizabeth Hurd said. “This is a politically current issue and it’s not too late to draw attention to the plight of these detainees, and the abrogation of the law, both American law and international law.”
Each reader brought their own inflections and emotions to the table while reading from the memoir. Since the book was heavily redacted before publication, readers rang a bell to signify censored portions in the narration.
Graduate student Désirée Weber likened the experience of reading and listening to Slahi’s story on Saturday to George Orwell’s classic, 1984.
“A lot of people take literature and distance themselves from that world,” Weber said. “But there are times [in Slahi’s account] when specific names and locations aren’t being used, that I kept thinking back to the novel. It brought the example closer. It’s not isolated – it didn’t just happen, it happens and it has the potential to keep happening.”
Slahi’s account graphically describes the torture techniques he was subjected to – from being force fed saltwater, being denied access to medication, being forcibly stopped from praying and fasting according to his religion, as well as verbal assaults and threats against his family by his interrogators.
“I was surprised by how calm the narrator seemed,” said McCormick senior Andrew Carlson. “This is his day-to-day life, and he’s casually talking about these terrible things. It sheds new light, from the public’s end – it seems ridiculous that we haven’t gone to greater lengths to fix these issues.”
Peppered throughout the gruesome details, Slahi’s provides the reader with wry, observant commentary on the broader political atmosphere that has allowed his detention, and the psychology of his interrogators and torturers.
“President Bush described his holy war against the so-called terrorism as a war between the civilized and barbaric world,” Slahi writes in his book, after describing an episode of torture. “But his government committed more barbaric acts than the terrorists themselves. I can name tons of war crimes that Bush’s government is involved in.”
Ian Hurd, an associate political science professor, said that a major reason for organizing the public readings was to shed light to the continued injustices at Guantanamo.
“This was a small, symbolic gesture that those of us who participated wanted to make,” Ian Hurd said, adding that he hopes to see events like this at other college campuses as well. “The system that the government has created in Guantanamo is so very closed to the outside. It’s insulated from citizen participation and pressure.”
The book itself is a landmark work, as it is the only account of Guantanamo from a prisoner who is still being held in the detention facility.
“It draws a picture of what life is like, what the human scale of life is like there,” Hurd said. “It’s a moving portrait of how [Slahi] kept some humanity despite the best efforts of the United States government to remove every capacity he had to be human.”