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Op-Ed: What happened at Guantanamo the night Obama was elected

Camp VI at Guantanamo Bay in 2013
Camp VI at Guantanamo Bay in 2013.
(Charles Dharapak / Associated Press)

The author, a citizen of Yemen, was detained by the U.S. military from 2001 to 2016 without charges, collateral damage of the American “war on terror” that began 20 years ago after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, opened four months after 9/11 and has proved impossible to close.

Time slipped away from me. I had been detained at Guantanamo for six years, long enough to know that I wouldn’t leave anytime soon. We had no clocks or watches, and we struggled to keep track of the hours, days, weeks … even years. My life narrowed to the sight of green walls, the smell of pine cleaner, and the roar of machinery around me. We were suspended in time while the world spun on without us. And then in 2008, something unexpected woke us with wild debates. The hot topic that occupied us all was the American presidential election.

We lived in solitary confinement, locked away in our cells almost 24 hours a day. Many of us were on hunger strike again, protesting our endless detention and inhumane treatment. Twice a day, we had force-feedings in the block hallways that kept us alive. If we were lucky, we had one hour in the rec yard, sometimes with another brother in the cage next to us. Every chance we got, we talked about the election.

When guards turned off the noisy fans, we called to each other under the doors. We hated the killer George Bush, so we wished the Black guy Barack Obama would win. We didn’t have access to TVs or any news, just DNN — the Detainee News Network, which was rumors and news we called out to each other from block to block. It wasn’t the most efficient or accurate network, but it’s all we had. That’s how we heard that Obama promised to close Guantanamo.

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Some of us also liked him because he was African American. I’m sorry to say this, but our hearts were not full of warmth for most of the white guards. It wasn’t because they were white, but because they were racists and didn’t think of us as humans. Generally speaking, Muslims are forbidden from treating people differently based on color or any another reason. But the Americans were really good at their racism and brought it to new heights. They had so many names for us, and it always hurt. They called Black guards and brown guards the same names and worse.

Now when we had a problem with a white guard, we could say something like, “Just wait and see. Your next boss is going to be a Black man.” Saying this to some of the guards was worse than when brothers would splash them with dirty toilet water.

I was on force-feeding one day with several brothers and we went straight to our favorite topic.

“Personally,” I said, “I wanted Hillary to win the primary.” I was trying to turn up the heat on the conversation.

“If Obama wins the election,” Adnan said to the nurse, “I’ll stop my hunger strike.”

We asked some of the guards and other medical staff whom they wanted to win. All of the Black guards supported Obama, and it was clear that a lot of the white guards didn’t want him to win. Magid, who was really educated, turned to me and said, “If Obama wins the election, it will be one of the most important events in U.S. history.”

I knew nothing about American history. I didn’t know if either of them would change anything. I’d wanted Hillary Clinton to win because I liked the idea of a woman president and I thought she would be more reasonable about our situation here.

I was very surprised when an older brother told me that he had sent a letter to Obama in 2006 telling him that he would be the next president. This brother had lived in the United States for many years and was very educated in politics. He believed that Obama would win and close the camp.

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“He could do it with one stroke of his pen,” Magid said. “It’s called an ‘executive order.’” We had many debates about this point. Could it be that easy to close Guantanamo? I had my doubts. It seemed too good to be true.

Tensions rose all over the camp the closer we got to the election, until it turned into an election war between us and the camp. The guards and the admin really didn’t like Obama. They were afraid of him. Maybe because he was Black. Maybe because his name sounded Muslim. Maybe because if he won, it would be like saying there was something wrong with Guantanamo and that would make the guards and camp staff feel like they had been part of something really bad. For years, guards and camp staff had made our lives miserable.

Now it was our turn.

We were determined to know who won right away, as soon as the announcement was made on TV. If it was Obama, we wanted to celebrate and make the guards feel worse. We became obsessed with this. We wanted to send a message to the interrogators that no matter how hard they tried to cut us off from the world or from each other, we still got news and could spread it quickly.

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Some brothers decided they weren’t going to sleep on election night until they knew who won. San, a Yemeni brother a little older than me, really wanted to make a big party if Obama won. San had gone to Pakistan to get treatment for a head injury and was sold to the CIA. He didn’t fight that much with the camp admin. But he had been imprisoned for seven years without any reason and wanted Obama to win and close the camp. He swore that if Obama won, he would wake up the entire camp.

On the big night, San stood at his door hunting for any guard he could ask about the election. He finally spotted one of the Black guards coming back from a meal break.

“Hey!” San called out.

The guard didn’t say a word; he just smiled from east to west and touched his own skin.

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“OBAMA WON!” San screamed. “IT’S THE BLACK HOUSE NOW!” He banged and kicked his door and called out to guards. “It’s the Black House! It’s the Black House! Who’s your boss now? It’s the Black House!” He woke everyone up on the block.

We all laughed. He was so excited; it was like he had seen his mom dancing down the block.

On another block, brothers quizzed a white guard who didn’t like Obama.

“Hey, man!” Hamzah called out. “How do you like your new boss?” The guard shouted, “I don’t care, man!” Hamzah said he looked really upset.

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Before the big night, San had spread word through DNN that if Obama won, he would get guards to call a Code Yellow. When those high-level emergencies were called on one block, special guards came running from every other block, banging doors, stomping up stairs, making so much noise that everyone in the camp knew what was going on.

As soon as San learned about Obama’s win, he covered the window of his cell door with a towel.

When the guard asked San to take the towel down, he didn’t. And when the guard called to him to answer, San stayed silent. This was a big deal. Ever since three brothers had died in their cells, we weren’t allowed to cover our windows, so that guards could see that we were alive. “Code Yellow!” the guard called. “Code Yellow, Alpha Block!” Soon, guards in riot gear came stomping from every block, making so much noise that brothers everywhere woke up.

“Allahu Akbar!” brothers yelled out in celebration. It was chaos. When the guard team gathered at San’s cage to go in, he uncovered the window.

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“I want to talk to the watch commander,” San said. “And the camp officer!”

The watch commander came, and so did a medic with the suicide kit. The watch commander refused to call the camp officer, so San covered his window again.

In a few minutes, the camp officer was standing in front of San’s cage.

“Now that you are here,” San said, “I have a message for the chicken colonel. Please tell him, THERE IS NO MORE WHITE HOUSE! It’s the Black House now!” San laughed and laughed. He was crazy with laughter.

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It was after midnight and brothers in every block were talking to guards, either congratulating the Black guards or making fun of the white ones.

“How did you all know who won?” guards asked.

“Obama called me himself!” one brother said.

“I just came back from the Black House,” another said.

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Many of us simply said, “It’s classified.”

But one brother joked, “We have a radio.”

Not even an hour later, dozens of guards stormed into the camp. Day shift, night shift, guards we had never seen before. They came with civilians and cameras and many high-ranking officers. The last time we saw the camp admin send in so many guards and officers was when our three brothers died in 2006. At first, we thought one of our brothers had died.

Guards searched every cage in every block in every camp, and we thought we were being punished because Obama had won. That wasn’t it. The camp admin was shocked that we seemed to know that Obama had won the election, all at the same time, even before some of the guards. It didn’t make sense to them. None of the guards had told us; that would have been a security breach. And they thought it was impossible for us to communicate from block to block and camp to camp so quickly. When our brother had joked that we had a radio, they’d thought he was serious.

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One thing we had learned about the Americans was that they were really good at overthinking everything. Instead of believing that we were telling the truth all these years about having no connections to terrorism, they believed we were trained in special counter-interrogation techniques. Instead of thinking about how the Code Yellow woke up the entire camp, they believed we had somehow built a radio network. Imagine the logic.

It didn’t matter that night. The Americans had a new president, and we all wondered if the time had finally come for change.

Thirteen years and two presidents later, we now know we were right to question whether Obama could close Guantanamo with the stroke of a pen. He tried. On Jan. 22, 2009, he signed that executive order to close the detention center within a year. But Congress blocked it. Before Obama left office, he released dozens of men. Of the 779 men who have been detained there, about 730 have been transferred out, including me in 2016. I was sent to Serbia. Last month, President Biden resumed Obama’s efforts, approving the release of three men, and releasing Abdul Lattif Nasser, held for 19 years. Like me, he was never charged with a crime.

Mansoor Adayfi currently lives in Serbia. This article is an adapted excerpt from his book “Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantánamo,” which will be published Tuesday.


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