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September 2, 2010

The Guantánamo guard who became a Muslim

Reuel S. Amdur

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Terry Colin Holdbrooks was always interested in religion, though he was an agnostic till he began serving at Guantánamo as a military policeman.

None of the religions had captivated him, though he was impressed by Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths. 

However, through his contacts with prisoners at Guantánamo, he became a Muslim.  That was what he told an audience at the Ottawa Public Library on August 25. 

Because of the necessity of his prayers five times a day, he had to tell his roommate about his conversion, but he kept it from other soldiers on the base because it would have had serious repercussions for him. 

However, all of the prisoners seemed to know about it right away, and their relationship with him changed.  For example, many who previously pretended not to know the language began to talk to him in English. 

The conversion that he and two other soldiers experienced was hardly what the military expected. 

He was a high school graduate in Phoenix, Arizona, and he could not afford the $48,000 a year for university, so he joined the army as a way to open the door to post-secondary education.  He chose the military police because it paid more.

Holdbrooks spoke of the training for the posting at Guantánamo as being brief and of poor quality. 

They set up a mock prison camp for the trainees, but it had little resemblance to the real thing.  Other soldiers were the make-believe prisoners.  He and the others were told that Guantánamo housed “the worst of the worst.” 

Islam and Muslims were described in the most derogatory terms, and they were told that Muslims hate them.  There was no education about Islam or about the different countries from which the prisoners came.  To reinforce the wickedness of Muslims and especially of the prisoners, they were taken to Ground Zero. 

When he arrived at Guantánamo in 2003, there were 1000 prisoners in various camps.  There are now around 200.

In one camp, camp Iguana, there were two 12-year-olds and a 13-year-old.  They received a formal education, including English and Arabic.  One, an Afghan, was also taught Pashtun.

Omar Khadr, however, received no education.  He was not in the same camp. 

Camp Echo held prisoners who were thought to have useful intelligence or who were seen to exercise influence on the others.  At all times, these prisoners were guarded on a one to one basis. 

As for the real insurgents, Holdbrooks thought that there were actually perhaps 25 in all of Guantánamo. 

Another Camp, Delta, had various sub-camps.  Delta 4 held prisoners who were well behaved or were scheduled to go home soon. 

Another, the Pashtun initiative block, held cooperative Afghans.  They received two hours of education each day.  There was also one for psychiatric patients, suffering from conditions such as depression. 

Camp 6 was an isolation camp, and Camp No held those who were seen as the most serious offenders. 

Those in Camp No were separate because it would be disruptive were they to be in with the others. As the victims of such procedures as waterboarding, knowledge of what was happening to them would have created too much tumult. 

There were also people kept at a different section of Guantánamo who had nothing to do with the “war on terror.” 

Haitians were found there, for example.  They were kept apart from the Muslim prisoners, and Holdbrooks had no contact with them.

He spoke positively about several aspects of the camp.  Food was good and varied, and religious requirements were met both in terms of food and of rituals.  For example, arrangements were made to feed the men very early in the morning and again after sunset during Ramadan. 

Medical and dental services were very good, though he faulted the doctors for not speaking up about torture and abuse.  Prostheses were provided where needed, along with rehabilitative measures for their use. 

The day at Guantánamo followed a routine. 

During the day shift, the men had five-minute showers, one at a time.  However, if a person was being punished, he might be deprived of his shower, a problem in that climate, which could get very hot. 

They also had 20 minutes of recreation, one at a time.  After dinner, any men who had not yet had a shower or recreation were accommodated.

Holdbrooks appreciated the 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift, as there was little to do, and he had the opportunity to talk with the prisoners, many of whom were educated men including doctors and lawyers. 

He took the opportunity to learn about Islam.

The morale of the prisoners also impressed him.  They generally accepted their fate with religious fortitude.  They saw their plight as God’s testing of them. 

While things were rough in the camp, for them the important thing was the next life, not this one.  Many took the opportunity of their forced inactivity to memorize the Qu’ran. 

One hazard of working at the camp was that a guard could be on the receiving end of an excrement missile.  Mean guards were especially apt to get this treatment.  As well, prisoners who had been badly treated sometimes expressed their anger in this way.

Mail was used as a control mechanism.  All mail, in and out, was read, and uncooperative behavior could be punished by keeping mail from a prisoner.

When asked about the three suicides at Guantánamo, Holdbrooks was adamant that “there were no suicides.” 

Suicides were impossible, he explained, because of the practices in the camp.  Cells were carefully monitored to insure that there was nothing which could be used for suicide or as a weapon.  As well, guards passed by each cell every three minutes. 

Holdbrooks implied that the men were killed.

He described brutality at Guantánamo under two headings, abuse and torture. 

For him, abuse involved hitting a person or insulting him as an example.  It was an act of short duration and it occurred all the time.  Torture was something more long-lasting. 

He gave the following example.

A prisoner was led into a room, handcuffed behind his back, with feet shackled to the floor.  An attractive female soldier interrogated him.  When Holdbrooks returned at the end of the session, she was clothed in just panties and bra. 

On his face there was a streak of red liquid, menstrual blood, either real or pretend.  Holdbrooks did not know which. 

And when the man was taken back to his cell, the water in the cell was cut off for three days.  He was, in Muslim terms, unclean.  Because he could not wash himself, he remained unclean and therefore unable to engage in the prayer ritual. 

Guantánamo also provided the opportunity for profiteering.  Contractors did much of the work, and they brought workers from places like India to work them at low pay. 

All in all, Holdbrooks found Guantánamo to be “a dark, gloomy place.”

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