Book Review - FIVE YEARS OF MY LIFE (An Innocent Man in Guantanamo)
by Steve Downs
FIVE YEARS OF MY LIFE (An Innocent Man in Guantanamo) by Murat Kurnaz, (Palgrave McMillian 2007), is the astonishing story of a German born Turk who happened to be traveling in Pakistan around the time of 9/11 and was sold by Pakistani police to the Americans as a terrorist for about $5,000. Kurnaz was tortured almost to death in Afghanistan by the Americans, and was then flow to Cuba and imprisoned at Guantanamo for 5 years. His descriptions of the conditions at Guantanamo are probably the clearest and most reliable of any published reports so far, and they are shocking.
One reason Kurnaz is so credible is that a year or so after he was arrested, the US concluded that he was not a terrorist and tried to send him back to either Turkey or Germany but neither country wanted him back. Since the US had no place else to send him, they sent him to Guantanamo. Kurnaz attorney, Baher Azmy, who wrote an epilogue in the book (and who recently spoke at Albany Law School about the case), confirms Kurnaz innocence, and the treachery of the US, German and Turkish governments in allowing a known innocent man to be incarcerated and tortured for 5 years. Kurnaz has since been released without charges (and without any apology from the US).
Kurnaz describes a world at Guantanamo which was designed to break people physically and mentally. All of the normal methods of torture were used – stress positions, beatings, sensory depravations, freezing, heat, loud noise, sleep depravation, and electrodes... Rules were made up and then arbitrarily changed without ever telling the inmates. Guards would suddenly run in and beat inmates for violations of rules they had never heard of. Kurnaz describes all of this in the flat, almost unemotional tone that many survivors of abuse adopt when describing what happened to them.
The point of all the torture was to force the inmates to talk and to tell the interrogators whatever the interrogators wanted to know. What is so extraordinary about Kurnaz story is that before he arrived at Guantanamo, the US had already concluded that Kurnaz did not know anything. Since Kurnaz knew nothing, why was the US torturing him to make him talk? There seems to be no rational explanation except the banality of evil. It appears that the interrogators treated Kurnaz just like all the others, and assume that there must be something the prisoner could say – just one little morsel – if only he was tortured long and hard enough.
The book is a remarkable survival story. Fellow inmates died under torture as Kurnaz watched. Prisoners banded together to humiliate the Commanding General of Guantanimo Geoffrey Miller, by dumping a bucket of shit on him and calling him General Toilet. There is hilarity and shock mixed together. This book is especially powerful when read together with “The Dark Side” by Jane Mayer. The Dark Side explores how Vice President Cheney and others created the insane world of Guantanimo and other similar places where laws and the constitution did not apply. Five Years Of My Life describes what life was like in such lawless and insane places. The two reinforce each other and are dramatic if sobering reading.