Inside Guantánamo

Murat Kurnaz, a Bremen-born Muslim living in Germany with a Turkish passport, spent five years in Guantánamo. After reading his recently published book, Julia Gerlach sums up that it is not Kurnaz that is a security risk – but the story he has chronicled

​​There are books that should be banned. They ought to be pulled out of circulation because they could encourage young people to enter into armed combat. The book by Murat Kurnaz, "Fünf Jahre meines Lebens" (Five Years of My Life), recently published by Rowohlt Berlin, is one of these books. Not because the author is disseminating propaganda or calling young Muslims to arms. The book is a security risk because Kurnaz describes very realistically and credibly what was done to him.

If there are reasons why young people in the Islamic world get the idea to hate the West, then in many cases it is not the Western values of freedom, equality, and democracy. Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo, the places where the West is not true to its principles, here is where the West draws hatred upon itself.

Interested newspaper readers know what happens in the U.S. prisons of Bagram and Kandahar. The torture methods: letting naked prisoners hang by handcuffs from the ceiling for days, food and sleep deprivation, waterboarding – this they have read about.

In his book Murat Kurnaz tells what it feels like when this is done to you. What does it feel like when your head is pressed into a water basin until you think you're going to drown and then a prison guard kicks you in the stomach? Murat Kurnaz describes the torture as if only his body were involved; the first-person narrator seems almost absent.

Caught up in the wheels of international politics

He does not know that what happened to him has not changed much. "I am slowly beginning to understand that at that time I got caught up in the wheels of large international politics, even though I still don't understand many of the connections. But I also understand that since I made my statements before the Berlin parliamentary committee of investigation, I have once again been caught up in the wheels of politics without this ever being my intention." This key sentence ends his account.

For five years U.S. soldiers, members of the German military's special forces unit (KSK), Turkish police, American military judges, and German state attorneys tried in vain to prove that Murat Kurnaz belonged to the Al Qaeda terrorist network or at least that he was dangerous. These efforts failed.

One would think that this would prove the innocence of the 25-year-old Turkish German. But the man with the long beard still arouses mistrust. They ask: If he was innocent, why did he travel to Pakistan in the autumn of 2001? In his book Kurnaz attempts to answer this question.

Islam crash course in Pakistan

He had observed how many of his Bremen friends were going astray: drugs and crime. He consequently turned to Islam and married a very devout woman. He soon realized that he lacked the knowledge and practice of his faith to be a good Muslim husband for her. Since it would have taken much too long to learn everything in the mosques in Bremen, he decided to travel to Pakistan for a crash course.

In Peshawar he was seized by soldiers, who then sold him to the U.S. military for 3000 dollars. This is how he landed first in Kandahar and later in Guantánamo. His account is so improbably naïve that it's probably true.

When former German Interior Minister Otto Schily or German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier continue to throw doubt on the credibility of the "Bremen Taliban," then the reason must indeed be found in the "wheels of politics." But "Fünf Jahre meines Lebens" is not merely an account of suffering and an affirmation of innocence. Murat Kurnaz also gives a very detailed description of everyday life in Guantánamo. His account conveys the cruelty with which the prisoners are beaten, isolated, and humiliated.

Hard to bear, but worth reading

Kurnaz describes how the prisoners, who are not allowed to speak to one another, choose a leader. The reader sees that it is most likely the faith and the feeling of solidarity among the prisoners as devout Muslims that gives them the power to survive and not go crazy. This explains why the only thing that can really upset the prisoners is the disparagement of their religion. Kurnaz describes several uprisings among the prisoners. All of them were triggered by the desecration of the Koran.

The book is hard to bear, yet at the same time it is definitely worth reading. However, as I said, it would be better if the book were banned. Those who reject banning books and cite the principle of freedom of press should also uphold another typically Western principle – due process – and do something about the Guantánamo system. Not least of all for the sake of fighting terrorism.

Julia Gerlach

© 2007

Murat Kurnaz: "Fünf Jahre meines Lebens – ein Bericht aus Guantanamo" Rowohlt Berlin. 2007. 16.90 Euro.

Translated from the German by Nancy Joyce

The Murat Kurnaz Case
A Parable on the Divisibility of Human Rights
The German security services say that Murat Kurnaz was a security risk; he describes himself as a pious Muslim who went to Pakistan to look for religious guidance. Eberhard Seidel thinks that the case shows that Germany has failed to come up to its own standards

Roger Willemsen's 'Guantanamo Speaking'
Back to the Dark Ages: Open Season on Prisoners
In his book "Guantanamo Speaking", Roger Willemsen lets former inmates in the American prison camp have their say – creating a comprehensive document of an era stained by the perfidy of degrading interrogation techniques, humiliation and torture. By Martin Gerner