15 May 2013
It was Ramadan 2001. The US had already begun its bombing campaign of Afghanistan against Al Qa’idah and the Taliban following the September 11 attacks two months earlier. In the Northern Afghan city of Kunduz several hundred foreign Taliban soldiers, who had been fighting against the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance for years became the target of US airstrikes. Under incessant carpet bombing, which included the use of 15,000-pound BLU-82 “daisy cutters” and after a promise that they would be allowed to return home, the Taliban fighters agreed to surrender. Amongst these men was Waleed al-Hajj.
In one of the most powerful interviews ever published by CagePrisoners Moazzam Begg talks to former Guantanamo prisoner Waleed al-Hajj about the harrowing six days he spent surviving the ensuing Qala-i-Jangi massacre.
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Moazzam Begg: As-salaamu ‘alaikum wa rahmatullah. Can you please introduce yourself to our readers?
Waleed al-Hajj: Wa alaikum as-salaam wa rahmatullah. In the name of Allah – peace and prayers be on the most noble of Messengers. My name is Waleed Mohammed al-Hajj. I am originally from Northern Sudan; an area called al-Burqiq, but moved to Khartoum which is where I live at present. I completed all my education in Khartoum. And from here, I left to seek employment in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
MB: Your story has become famous in the Arab world especially your experiences during the massacre at Qala-i-Jangi but, before the attacks in the US and the ensuing war on terror what were your views on life, what were your hopes?
WH: Before the September 11 attacks I was just an ordinary Muslim – I performed my prayers, fasting and general Islamic duties but I had no particularly overt beliefs – political or otherwise – above and beyond that. I was a student studying in Sudan. After travelling to Saudi Arabia and meeting many people, attending lectures of Islamic knowledge I greatly benefitted.
MB: You came from a religious family?
WH: Al-hamdu lillah, my family are practicing, religious people.
MB: Tell me something about your family history?
WH: We are originally from Nuba. Nuba is between southern Egypt and northern Sudan and it is the original Sudan. It is a place well known in history. It was conquered by the sahabi [companion of the Prophet] Abdullah ibn Abi Sarh when he came to Egypt. They [Nubians] have a rich and magnificent history such as Nabta, in the north of Sudan – and it is said that the Egyptian Pharaohs originated from this region, as you can see many pyramids there still – some of them older than the ones in Egypt.
The Nuba consist of three main tribes: al-Dhanagla – which is my tribe; al-Mahas and al-Halfa. Each has its own language, but they do resemble one another.
MB: And you speak Nubian of course – something that helped you, as we shall discuss later.
WH: Yes, I speak Nubian fluently.
MB: How did you – this descendent of the great and ancient Nubians – end up going to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and why?
WH: When a man learns about his purpose in life, from his understanding of his faith, when he observes and contemplates, and he is guided by Allah, he finds himself looking for and pursuing that which is good. I found, after all these travels that this was my written destiny. I came from Nuba to Khartoum; from Khartoum to the land of the two holy places [Saudi Arabia], from there to Pakistan, to Afghanistan, to Guantanamo and Sudan again. I see all of this as part of a predetermined destiny.
MB: What inspired you to go to Pakistan and Afghanistan?
WH: As I said, I learned more about my faith in Saudi. And, I learned about my connection to the wider Muslim world. In those days the war in Chechnya was raging. I had planned to return to Sudan to get married but I thought I’d get involved in da’wah and learning first, which is why I went to Pakistan. During my time there I travelled around the mosques and Islamic centres and that is what led me to Afghanistan. During my time there I came across a letter [reproduced] on a mosque notice board written by a Chechen woman addressed to the Muslim world which read:
“… We do not need men to fight to defend our honour, neither do we need money, nor weapons to protect ourselves with. All we need from you are pills to prevent us getting pregnant after we are raped by Russian soldiers.”
After reading this I was greatly affected and began to look at myself – what is preventing me from defending Islam and people like the author of this letter? I wanted to go to Chechnya so I began asking around about the best way to get there. It was then that I met some Arabs who told me that getting to Chechnya was not possible at present but I needed to be trained first. However, I could get the necessary training from the Taliban and once I had completed the relevant course I would be ready to go to Chechnya. Hence, I went to the Taliban with a group of Arabs and we trained with them on light weapons. After that I wanted to go back to Sudan and arrange some personal issues. I wanted to go back to Sudan, but 11th of September occurred and things changed.
MB: Where were you at that time?
WH: I was in Khwaja Ghar in Mazar-e-Sharif, North of Afghanistan. It was a battle frontline between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, in specific Ahmed Shah Massoud’s forces.
MB: Before his death?
WH: Yes before his death. I was there during the days in which he died. 11th of September came and things changed and brothers started to retreat. I was amongst them and we went from Khwaja Ghar to Kunduz trying to exit as we saw that the Taliban had lost a lot of areas and that the last area standing was Herat. We wanted to go to Herat; there were lots of Arabs with us; and the only city under Taliban’s control in the North was Kunduz. We stayed there for a couple of days before Ramadan in 2001. While in Kunduz, the Taliban tried to get the Arabs out as they became surrounded from three directions, Massoud's forces came from behind Khwaja Ghar, General Abdul Rashid Dostum came from Mazar-e-Sharif and US forces bombarded from above.
The Taliban’s main objective was to get the Arabs out safely; even when Mullah Omar asked them to exit; they [the Taliban] refused and told him that they were making a way for the Arabs first and then would go to him. At that time Mullah Dadullah and Mulla Fazal were with us and they tried to reach agreements between Dostum and the Taliban so that Arabs would exit through Mazar-e-Sharif to Herat. However, the Taliban found signs of treachery from Dostum’s side and they had to withdraw the agreement. Near Mazar-e-Sharif there’s a city called Balkh where the Taliban had strong relations. He agreed with them that the Arabs don’t go to Mazar-e-Sharif, but to Balkh and from there to Herat. We then left, around 500 in number.
MB: Were all of you Arabs?
WH: No, we were Arabs, Uzbeks, Bengalis, Pakistanis and a few Afghans – only 5 or 6. We moved towards Balkh with a guide who led us at night. It was very dark. The guide didn’t care about us and instead of taking us to Balkh, he took us to Mazar-e-Sharif.
MB: You didn’t know where you were?
WH: No we didn’t, it was night. We were simply following the convoy of cars until we reached the gate of Mazar-e-Sharif. Between
us and the gate the was only 4 km; behind us was Kunduz and a huge desert. When morning came, we found ourselves in front of Mazar-e-Sharif. We sat there and didn’t want to enter the city.
MB: And you were organized and had a leader?
WH: Yes. Each group had its leader, Pakistanis had their leader and we had ours. While in this desert we thought of going back, but before moving, American jets came. One encircled us in the air exhausting smoke and creating a circle signalling that we were surrounded. To both our left and right sides we saw tanks, with soldiers moving around them.
MB: Whose tanks?
WH: Dostum’s tanks. And the land was open, no barriers or trenches we could hide in, simply desert. With any movement I’m sure they would have wiped us out.
MB: Did you really fear a massacre?
WH: At that time, brothers’ brains became numb. The human being doesn’t know what to do at such a time. Do we stay, do we go back? There were military forces at Mazar-e-Sharif; they were in-front, to the right, to the left and above us.
MB: Did you see US or Western forces?
WH: Until this point, they hadn’t appeared, only the jet in the skies. As we entered Mazar-e-Sharif negotiations began and Dostum told us that as an army he could not allow us to enter with our weapons. We could go to Herat, but we were required to handover our weapons. The negotiations lasted 4 to 5 hours until they reached an agreement to handover our weapons. The brothers refused, but we had no other alternative. They handed over their weapons while crying.
MB: Did any of the others with you feel or think that there would be a great betrayal?
WH: Yes lots, especially the Uzbeks who said that if we handed over our weapons it’d be a betrayal and that they knew Dostum well.
MB: What did Dostum promise if you handover your weapons, what would happen to you?
WH: That we can go through Mazar-e-Sharif to Herat.
MB: And after that?
WH: After reaching Herat, it’s over. Whoever wants to return home is free to do so.
MB: So there were no signs that you’d be arrested or imprisoned?
WH: No, no signs were given. However, lots of brothers doubted it and didn’t believe the deal.
We took the same trucks that we came in. At that time, the Red Cross was there, when we decided to hand over our weapons. We continued until we entered Mazar-e-Sharif. On the way one of the Uzbeks said that there’s a fortress at the end of Mazar-e-Sharif and if we were to pass it we would be safe. But if we enter it, then we’ve been betrayed
MB: What did he know about the fortress?
WH: It’s a huge 500-year old fort. During the days of Taliban, it was a base and an armoury. Also Dostum and others used it as a ministry of defence. The underground area was full of storage rooms. Outside, there were even large streams running through the gardens and tall trees. In the middle of the fort courtyard, there was a building. We entered the fort through the first gate and then the second.
It was still afternoon. The first car entered and they searched us thoroughly. The second car entered and so on. However, one of the prisoners, a Sudanese man, decided to keep a grenade concealed from the captors. When his turn came Dostum’s men started calling him a black man and an Arab. They took him down from the truck and were trying to take him down the stairs into the basement. At this point he got the grenade out and pulled the pin. They were all killed – including him.
MB: Why did he do it?
WH: He’d fought in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation and apparently had some experience of Dostum. He didn’t want to surrender to begin with and I think when they were taking him down to the basement he just flipped.
MB: Were you close?
WH: Yes, I was close at that time.
MB: Did the shrapnel from the grenade hit anyone else?
WH: No, just the soldiers holding him. I was in the second truck, behind. After that they started to become really harsh with us.
MB: What did they do?
WH: They started throwing stones and screaming at us. They were pointing weapons at all of us, ready to fire.
MB: Were US forces nearby at the time?
WH: There were American officials there, intelligence and CIA. Officers and commanders.
MB: They weren’t wearing their uniforms?
WH: They were dressed as civilians.
MB: What did you understand from the presence of the Americans?
WH: Once we saw the Americans, we knew that it was a betrayal
MB: Didn’t you sense from the presence of Americans that they were there so nothing would happen like torture or abuse and so on?
WH: No, of course not. We didn’t think of that because they were bombing us. There was no sense of freedom or humanity. They were fighting us and throwing tons of bombs at us and searching for us to kill us. This never came to our minds.
After the searches, they brought us into the building in the middle of the fort courtyard. They brought us in through underground stairs and to an underground hall.
MB: Were any of you resisting?
WH: No, nothing. We went down, all 500 of us, under the ground to the basement and we were spread between five rooms. There was a spiral staircase and a straight staircase that lead to the exit. There were four rooms adjacent to four more and an open room at that side which included the other two rooms.
MB: And the guards didn’t come with you?
WH: No, they just forced us in like animals and that’s it. We were all fasting. It was 9th Ramadan.
MB: You couldn’t break your fast?
WH: No, we had nothing to eat. They imprisoned us in the basement. On the second day, 10th Ramadan, they said, “go out, you can leave two by two and take the cars to Herat”. They were trying to make us believe that we could all leave. In fact we were exiting in twos but we didn’t know what was happening upstairs; the staircase was far.
MB: And you were underground?
WH: Yes, we were under the ground. I remember that my turn came to go with someone. At that time I was one of only two who were black; for sure they would know that I’m an Arab. I took a turban and covered my face. Two Pakistanis went with me, one of whom was injured in his leg and another who did the talking. We carried the injured Pakistani and went up. Once up the stairs, we were in a searching room where they removed some of our clothing, leaving our trousers and shirts and taking everything else. They wanted watches, rings, everything, even our shoes. They left nothing. Eye glasses, [even if] your sight was weak, they didn’t care, they’d take everything. One of them took off my turban and said, “black man, Arabian, Arabian” and they started beating me up on the back of my head with their hands and the butts of their rifles and screaming and shouting at me until another group came and took me to a commander. The commander repeated “oh Arabian Arabian” and started beating me again. Then I was made to sit with the brothers. I went out and the
first scene I saw outside was the brothers who’d gone ahead first, tied up around the arms from behind, which of course restricted the blood flow. Lots of brothers’ arms and hands became numb and even paralyzed as a result. Many of them wished to die as they were in severe pain. Once I sat down, two Americans came to me. The same two who I saw at the beginning that were dressed as civilians, they were CIA.
MB: Was one of them Mike Spann, the CIA's paramilitary operations agent who was later killed?
WH: Yes, this Mike Spann came to me and I thought if I spoke Arabic, he’ll know where I’m from and that other Arabs are here. I was the only black man and I remembered that I spoke the Nubian language. He asked “what’s your name?” I cursed him and he didn’t know what I was saying. “Where are you from?” I swore at him.
MB: In Nubian language?
WH: Yes. Brothers were behind me tied up, but they were laughing. One of them said in Arabic, “What language are you speaking Waleed, are you really an Arab or what?”
MB: Did it make the officer angry?
WH: I don’t know. He thought this was my language. He asked, “Do you speak Arabic, Swahili, English?”
MB: He didn’t know the language?
WH: No. At the end, after trying to understand me without success for a while, he wrote down that I was from Chad in Africa without even knowing the name of the country. Then he went to someone else. I thanked Allah that I escaped from him.
Meanwhile, brothers were coming out from that basement not knowing what was happening. Most of them eventually came up but several Uzbeks remained behind, underground.
MB: How many approximately?
WH: Around 20. General Abdul Rashid Dostum is Uzbek. And those who were fighting Dostum knew him to be treacherous and not a man to trust. They would rather die than endure Dostum’s notorious abuse and torture but, they also wanted to see if at least some of the others could actually take the cars and go to Herat. They knew too that Dostum was mainly searching for them [Uzbeks]. So, one of them was sent up as a scout to tell the others if it was safe. He went to the staircase to search but he was caught. To alert the others he shouted, “why this betrayal? You told us you’ll take us to Herat. This is betrayal?”
The Uzbeks quickly moved towards the stairs, trying to leave through the underground exit but they found all doors closed. So they went to the spiral stairs but they found the same men who had captured the scout. Then, as one or two of the Uzbeks had a hidden weapon, something happened. They were asked to hand over their weapons and at that moment we heard gunshots. A firefight began between the two groups. Immediately, the brothers who were outside in the fort courtyard were encircled by Dostum’s gunmen and US soldiers. They also took up positions on the wall around us. All of a sudden they opened fire on the brothers, on the ones who were tied up. In one minute, one minute, more than 100 unarmed brothers were killed.
MB: And you were watching this?
WH: Yes, I was tied up in-front of them; I even got a bullet in my back. It remained lodged in my back for two years, even while I was in Guantanamo.
MB: Did they use heavy weapons against you?
WH: Yes. It was a massacre. They wanted to kill all those who were tied up. They were hunting brothers as they tried to avoid being killed. They wanted to stand up but they’d been tied up. Abdel Samei, a Libyan, I pray Allah accepts him a martyr, said, “stand up like men and don’t die like chickens.” I remember those words.
MB: And he was tied up too?
WH: Yes, he was tied up. When he said those words, we stood up. When we stood up they became afraid and started moving away and disappearing.
MB: But you stood up without any coordination?
WH: Yes. We only wanted to escape the killing. Bullets whizzed right in front of us but we were still were tied up. They wanted to kill us; we wanted to escape. They targeted brothers who were two or three metres away, aiming as if we were pigeons in a shoot. Brothers were scattered inside the fort. A group went to the gate through which they came and the other went to disperse and hide behind trees and so on.
MB: And the wounded amongst you, did they remain?
WH: We tried to carry the wounded but the dead just lay in the field.
MB: Were the shots directed at the head or chest?
WH: No. It was random. They just shot. Any place: head, stomach, arm, leg, eye mouth. Any place. They didn’t have time. They had over 500 prisoners so they couldn’t aim precisely. They just opened fire.
MB: Afterwards, where did you escape to?
WH: We went between the trees.
MB: They were still firing at you?
WH: Now they had climbed up the walls. From on top of the walls, they started sniping brothers between the trees and at the gate. Then the US jets started flying over and bombing as well. They directly contacted the American jet which came and British [Special Forces] soldiers were also there too.
MB: How did you know that they were British?
WH: They were in the photos. CNN was there and it filmed all the events, which of course we saw much later.
But afterwards we knew that British soldiers were there, although at the beginning we didn’t. There was no time to recognise which soldier is which. They were sniping at us from above the walls; American soldiers shot many of us and countless brothers died in the beginning of the massacre; the brothers took the wounded back to the basement. They couldn’t go anywhere for refuge so they ended up returning to the basement, the same place they’d tried to escape. The fighting continued until the nightfall.
MB: When you say fight, did the prisoners have any weapons or was it a one-sided battle?
WH: No, it was a massacre. Some wounded brothers managed to get – we can’t say a real fight back – but one Kalashnikov, only shared between ten people. One brother was to fight with this Kalashnikov, when he died another would take his place.
MB: Where did they find the Kalashnikov?
WH: Captured from Dostum’s soldiers.
The wounded entered the basement first and I was one of the first who got wounded. Of course I remember the brothers who were with me in this moment, who went with me to Guantanamo and (later) died, Youssef al-Shehriwas one. He was with me at that time. Me and him were crawling and we were wounded. Also brother Yasser al-Zahrani. He was there and he was wounded as well. Wadah al-Abyani, he was also with us during this incident. I pray to Allah accept the three of them.
MB: And the American prisoner, John Walker Lindh?
WH: John Walker was also with us in the fort at that time. They took him aside and made him sit in a place far away from the crowd of brot
hers and they were interrogating him. He was very sick, suffering from typhoid or malaria. When the shooting began they took him right away.
MB: So John Walker was taken to the nearby US base. Was he not with you in the fort?
WH: At first he was but then they immediately took him to be searched. However, when they found who he was, they separated him from us.
MB: Now you are injured and taken into the basement once again. Did anyone remain who stayed and attempted to resist?
WH: Yes, of course some of the brothers were able to get weapons and resist the US and Dostum’s followers. The brothers on the first day had nothing, but were then able to capture weapons and fight back a little. Also, the wounded were taken back to the basement. For a while the brothers were able to actually take the fort. The Uzbek brothers were able to break into the stores, but they found no weapons however, only ammunition – for numerous types of weapons, but no weapons. In the end, they found two mortars. This was a victory for them because mortar shells were available in abundance. The Uzbeks were lions and I ask Allah to accept them.
They brought the two mortars and positioned them at very high angle in order to strike the soldiers on the wall and beyond. We were told later that 300 of Dostum’s followers and some US soldiers were killed. Some of their tanks were hit too.
MB: By the mortars?
WH: Yes by the mortars, they were continuously being used. The brothers did not stop using them.
MB: Did they not attempt to target the mortars?
WH: No, at that time they hadn't ascended the walls. When they did eventually get there, the area where the Uzbeks were was very far from them.
MB: Did US planes not come and bomb the area.
WH: The US planes came in the morning, bombed and left, and came back later.
MB: And were there fatalities?
WH: Yes, airstrikes were called in, they would come and bomb. They [the Uzbeks] were still firing mortars rounds to defend us all but everyone was talking about trying to find a way to leave the fort and go to Mazar-e-Sharif somehow.
MB: And where were you at this time?
W: I was in the basement still. The brothers said we need to leave to Mazar-e-Sharif but we had to rest a little. We were hoping to leave in the morning with some of the captured light weapons. Just as they were discussing this a US plane came and started to fire guided missiles at us. As a result the buildings where some brothers were sheltering in were destroyed.
At the same time, US Special Forces came. It was at night and they had sniper rifles armed with night vision scopes. They started to aim at the brothers’ heads, the brothers who were on the outside, who wanted to go to Mazar-e-Sharif. They started to pick them off one by one.
MB: How many were killed?
WH: Many, many. Around 100 were killed in the open area. This was on the 1st day. Inside basement, there were over 100 dead bodies and 200 injured.
MB: Those killed, were they all Uzbeks?
WH: No, they were Arabs, Uzbeks, Pakistanis, everything. In the basement there were 200 injured. And on the outside, 100 killed. There had been 200 alive on the outside but most of the injured went to the basement.
MB: During this time of difficulty, fear and hunger how did you all manage to hold out and stay firm?
WH: At this time, we forgot everything. A strange tranquillity and contentment descended upon us, this is a reality. We were brave. The brothers, who were injured, would pray. I remember I would ask them to call the adhan (call to prayer). Some would pray whilst lying flat on the ground. I had an injury in my back so I would pray whilst lying on my stomach, praying with my finger. Allah gave us strength – though we had nothing to eat or drink during these days.
MB: You were bleeding, you had no food?
WH: Yes, we had been fasting for several days.
MB: You were sleeping on the concrete floor without any bedding?
WH: If you could call it sleep. Without anything. But we were still safe – for now –from the shelling and snipers. But the brothers outside were being slaughtered.
MB: How did the Americans know that they were outside to begin with?
WH: Light from the flames of a fire caused by an explosion exposed a portion of the entry to the basement. One of the Uzbeks spotted someone there behaving oddly – as if lost; he was also clean shaven, unlike any of us. When they caught him they questioned him they learned that he was one of Dostum’s men.
MB: Is it comprehensible that he entered where you were, in such a dangerous place?
WH: They found his ID card, his rank and US dollars on him. It was evident from all this that he had some high position.
MB: How did he manage to remain where he was, undetected for so long?
WH: Before the fighting began we were all outside, but when then the chaos began things got mixed up. Everyone was running for cover. There were bullets flying everywhere. Many who were there, like the Red Cross and others escaped. He escaped too, but to the basement.
MB: Did he intend to enter the basement?
WH: No, I don’t think so – he just wanted to save himself. He was the first one to flee into the basement. He sat concealed inside the basement as people were coming in and out, as the wounded were ferried from place to place and he heard all the conversations going on in the dark regarding our plans, who was injured or killed and so on. It was so dark inside we couldn’t tell who was who and only recognised each other by voice. He had a two-way radio and he was informing his people about our movements from a hidden corner. When the decision to try to make it to Mazar-e-Sharif was made he overheard and told his superiors about our plans. He told them that we were coming for them. That’s when the US planes came with their guided missiles.
MB: Did he not try to escape?
WH: He couldn’t leave. He was scared and the place was dark and the brothers had taken control of the area. If he left at night, there was a chance his own people would shoot him. Then they found out everything about him but it was too late as the planes arrived. At this point there were around five brothers still outside. The rest were either with us in the basement, injured or dead.
The whole army then entered, Americans and Dostum forces, just to finish off these five. They refused to surrender. The tanks had also entered the area. One of the brothers took a grenade and went out to meet them. He threw his grenade and was martyred in a hail of bullets.
The others waited. One of them said, “I will not give up.” He had a weapon but it was out of order. It would fire a bullet and jam. He carried the bullets in his pocket. He said, “I will take this weapon and will enter basement to protect the injured brothers,” but others said he had no chance, the tanks were only ten or so metres away .
Nonetheless, he took his faulty weapon and made for the basement entrance which was about fifteen metres away. He ran. May be 30 or more people were firing at him, a storm of gunfire. Don’t talk to me about Rambo or Hollywood films. This was for real, yet unbelievab
le. He threw himself into the basement and found that he only had one bullet in his leg.
As a result of his action the brothers in the basement managed to get some protection from the onslaught that was coming. US and Dostum forces were unable to come down to us for four days, just because they feared the faulty weapon. They also assumed, wrongly, that we had plenty of weapons down there. However, on one occasion, as they didn’t hear any gunfire from our side for a long while, they sent someone down to check. Perhaps, they thought, we’d run out of ammunition. Three of them came down, using a Taliban POW as a human-shield. The brothers fired a round towards them and they fled. After that they didn’t try to come down, not until they’d tried other methods.
MB: What happened to the remaining men still outside?
WH: They were still there in the outside kitchen, but the tanks were shelling them. They aimed the barrel of the tank at the door or the window of the kitchen and fired. They continued to hit them until the kitchen collapsed on top of them. They were the last of the brothers who were outside in the fort. Amongst them was a known brother, Samarqand, from Saudi Arabia. May Allah have mercy on him.
MB: Where did the tanks go after that?
WH: After that, they brought the tank right up to the basement entrance. It fired continuously – one deafening shell after another. When the tank fired, it hit the walls around the stairs. Some of the shrapnel and smoke entered the rooms we were taking refuge in. Several of us were killed or injured.
We allocated two rooms for the hundreds who had been killed. Another room was used as a bathroom – with no sanitation or running water. The other rooms in the hallway were for the injured. If you were to walk through there, you would slip on the blood. It was a sea of blood.
They were unleashing all their firepower on us: they used the tank, light and heavy machine guns and RPGs. But then then they stopped. The following day they came with diesel and poured it through the windows. They set the place alight so that we would choke. One of the brothers, who was sitting under a window, 'Ashiq al-Hur, was totally covered and killed. May Allah accept him.
The brothers picked up the faulty Kalashnikov and fired at the windows. It was a miracle but the flames and smoke went out towards them. Very little came to us. The smoke did not come down, it rose and went to them. When this failed they started lobbing in scores of grenades. From the window they would throw them into the rooms. Many of the brothers who were already injured were killed.
After that, they used was electricity against us as a weapon.
MB: How did they do that?
I was sitting on guard duty on the stairs. It was dark. Then I heard a noise. It was water coming down into the rooms where we kept our dead. I didn’t know where the sound was exactly. Whilst I was sitting near the door I felt water. I got up, whilst I was injured. We entered into the room from where we heard the sound of water, which was pouring in through the window. Of course this room was filled with our dead. We walked over them and, took some of their clothes to try and stem the flow of water.
Of course, the water still came in and started to flow from beneath the door into the corridor. I then shouted to the brothers to back away from the water, they were going to electrify it. I started moving brothers who couldn't walk away from the water. Suddenly, they electrified the water. How did I know this? When you put water on hot oil what happens? It makes a sizzling, crackling noise. The brothers didn’t see this, only me and another person, so they didn’t think it was happening, but it was. I am sure they will deny it now but when I was in Guantanamo and I asked one of the interrogators why they didn’t finish off the electrocution process they had began he was surprised. Then, he admitted that they had received orders not to go through with it – perhaps because they wanted some of us alive.
After that, the final weapon they used against us was the stuff of life, water. I mentioned to you earlier that streams ran through the outside of the fort. They diverted these streams into the basement. They placed pipes into several windows and putrid water began to flow into the rooms over us.
MB: How was it putrid if it came from a flowing stream?
WH: The rooms were filled with corpses of brothers, their blood, excrement and waste. The water began to slowly rise and we had nowhere to escape. Anyone injured who could not stand up just drowned, right in front of us. We could do nothing. We were wounded ourselves. We saw and heard, the final gargles and gasps of breath as the water filled their lungs while they said, “Ash-hadu an laa ilaha ill-Allah, ash-hadu an laa ilaha ill-Allah…” [I bear witness that there are no gods but Allah…]”
Yet, even in this there was a gruesome blessing in disguise. We hadn’t drunk water for several days. We were so thirsty. The water began to rise to our chests and necks. If you were taller, you lived a little longer, the shorter ones drowned before. Yet drinking the water, which contained blood, faeces, urine, diesel – and Allah knows what else – came as relief that's hard to describe. We had to push away the floating bodies of our dead brothers and just drink with the words: “By He with whose name nothing can cause harm on the earth or the in skies; He is the All-Hearing All-Knowing.”
MB: This was the first time you drank water in four days?
WH: The very first time. And the amazing thing is that when we did eventually leave, another two days later, none of us who survived experienced and stomach ailments, which I was sure we’d get.
After that, the water was still coming but not as fast as before. We started talking about giving up and just going outside. Some brothers disagreed, they did not want to become prisoners.
MB: How many were you at the time?
WH: We didn’t know at the time but, the number who survived were just 65 out of 500. The rest were all dead. Whenever we asked about a brother, the answer came back so often through the darkness that he was dead.
Anyway, some brothers wanted to resist no matter what. So, we tried to wade forward with the water almost in our mouths, one of the brothers raising the faulty Kalashnikov above his head, for one final act of resistance. Then we heard a sound, as if they had knocked a wall open. Then, through the opening the enemy started firing heavy weapons again. Several more of us died. We returned to the rooms and back into the water – it was freezing by now. Outside the temperature had plummeted, there was snow and ice. We remained in the water for almost two days. Imagine, your skin – its colour, its texture just changes from the intense cold.
After this, another miracle for us, the water began to recede until it reached our ankles. We saw all the dead slowly floaat back down with the water. There was no other option this time, we slowly started to go out and surrender ourselves, 65 of us. Five were taken to the hospital as they were critically ill, but Allah be praised, the rest of us had survived.
MB: Where were you taken after this?
WH: We were taken to the the Sheberghan prison where
we met Dostum. He said he was going to hand us over to the UN and that we would all be sent back home. We remained waiting for one month, but were then sent to the US military base in Kandahar. I became one of the first prisoners to be sent to Camp X-Ray, Guantanamo Bay, where I arrived on 20th January 2002. And a new ordeal began…
MB: And the rest of course, is history. May Allah reward you with the best for relating your story, one that has been very hard to hear. In sha Allah, it will stand as a record for future generations who will never forget what was done in the name of freedom.
* * * *
In April 2008, after nearly seven years in Guantanamo without charge or trial Waleed al-Hajj was finally repatriated to Sudan and released.
In 2010 Waleed wrote a book about his experiences and subsequently became a household name in the Arab world after featuring in a series of in-depth interviews on Al Jazeera.
Waleed also featured in the documentary film Death in Camp Deltawhich investigates the 2006 deaths of three Guantanamo prisoners, one of whom had survived Qala-i-Jangi.
Very few journalists have attempted to tell the story of Qala-i-Jangi from the prisoners’ perspective but much of Waleed’s account is independently confirmed in the documentary film Afghan Massacre.
Despite the compelling evidence no US, British or Afghan officials have ever been charged with war crimes for the Qala-i-Jangi massacre.
Khartoum, Sudan – former Guantanamo prisoners (from left): Waleed al-Hajj, Moazzam Begg, Salim Abu Ahmed and Amir Yaqub
Orignial interview conducted in Arabic. Translation (with thanks) by Radwa Khorshid and Belal Belali
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)