(Or why the NDAA is wrong and should never be acceptable in the USA)
This blog isn’t a request for sympathy, I’m not a ‘professional victim’, I don’t particularly want to write about any of these things but, having kept my own counsel for several years now, I think I have finally found a use for the memories which lurk deep within me. As I write, I shall try to answer any questions which I think might pop up in your head as you read but, if I leave things out, or omit other things for personal reasons, you’ll just have to accept that this is not a news story, it is a blog about something which actually happened to me, in other words, it is about my LIFE. I’ll apologize now for its length, but if I was going to write it at all, then I felt I wanted to at least put it into some kind of context in the hope that it might be useful to someone and perhaps also to me. Please also bear in mind that these are very difficult events for me to write about and so, if my writing is a little shaky at times, I hope you will forgive me and I hope it will still make some kind of sense nonetheless.
If you already know who I am, that’s fine. If you don’t, that’s fine too. It matters not either way really. I am by no means the only person to have suffered this type of situation and there are many people in Saudi who are probably still experiencing such things today. The point of this blog is to try to get it through to people that it DOES matter that we can rely on the Constitution to both protect and serve us. We MUST not allow the NDAA to take our basic human and civil rights away from us. People fought long and hard for us to HAVE those rights, we must now fight long and hard to get them back and retain them. They matter. They matter to me, they matter to you, they matter to everyone.
I’m not going to include loads of gory images of the injuries I sustained during my time in prison as I’m not writing this for the one-hand-on-the-keyboard voyeur who feels like being titillated and because I don’t believe that photos of such things either add to the information or edify the history, but I may include various excerpts from a medical report written several months after my release in the hope that it may serve as a broad overview as I’m honestly not sure how much of this I want to recount in any detail. I’ve been asked, over the years, if I will speak publicly about what happened and, each time, I’ve refused for some very specific reasons. Firstly, I can’t stand the idea of Faux (Fox) News using it to, in some way, add to their own “anti-A-Rab” agenda – we live in a mostly free country (for now!) and so they may, of course, have any agenda they like, so long as it is their own. In my name, they may not! Secondly, this is something that I’ve never really talked about. Yes, of course I was offered a great deal of help afterwards but, speaking personally, I just didn’t feel I was in the right psychological ‘place’ to talk about it. I suppose I always hoped there would be some point to me sharing it, and now I feel there is.
The NDAA is real, the bill has now been passed, and we all need to fully understand what it means – for US. I’m not suggesting, in this post, that the American Government would behave in any way similarly to my own experience in Saudi, I am merely telling you my experience of a sudden, arbitrary and ‘indefinite’ detention which happened to me. You must make your own minds up as to whether such things could ever happen anywhere else.
One thing I MUST say, right at the beginning, is that I worked in the Mid East for a very long time, I love that region and I love the people who live there. They are warm, welcoming and some of the most compassionate individuals I have ever had the good fortune to meet. When you read this, please remember, we cannot hold an entire culture or group of people, responsible for the actions of a few crazy individuals – if we could, then we’d all be in trouble. I would love to go back to Saudi to visit as I have some very great friends there and, in truth, there is no real reason why I could not go – apart from my own fear that I may just suddenly end up without my liberty again and, for me anyway, once was more than enough. But that is my failing, no one else’s.
I know that there is also the view, in the West, that such a thing would be headline news all over the world if it happened to a Western citizen. That, again, is part of that Western complacency or perhaps even part of the Western like for conspiracy theories! That is to say, some people probably believe that the news organizations knew very well what had happened to me but, for reasons best known to themselves, chose not to report it (no doubt for some Machiavellian reason!) But, the truth is, as most governments know to their cost, it is often better to keep things well out of the media spotlight because history tells us that sometimes you put someone at more risk, rather than at less risk, by allowing the press to run riot with a story. Fortunately, in my case, pragmatism won out and it was decided best to wait until they had located me, before making any song and dance about it. Subsequent to my release, it was my choice to keep it a private matter, for the reasons I’ve already outlined above.
So, ok, let’s begin with setting the scene. I worked as a conflict negotiator in the Mid East for an international organization for around two decades without any particularly awful incidents occurring. However, shortly after the US began its military action in Iraq, that all changed.
At that time I was in Iraq. One morning on heading to a meeting, I made a very stupid mistake – I didn’t check under my car before setting off, something which anyone who’d worked there as long as I had should have known to do ALWAYS. Long story short : an IED exploded under the front end of the car, nothing much, just a bit of smoke and a slightly dazed me. I got out of the car to find a few guys coming towards me ostensibly to help. Turns out, they weren’t helpful at all! I ended up being held in Iraq by a rebel group for a few weeks until finally, Saudi Arabia managed to somehow negotiate my release. Well, I say ‘release’, that’s a bit of an exaggeration really – not so much a release as a ‘transfer’ of ownership!
I should say at this point that of course the organization for which I worked attempted to both locate me and to get me released. Unfortunately, they were initially unable to do either. Many people became involved in the end, organizations, governments, and goodness knows who else but, finally, it was rather by chance that I got both found and released. I’m not going to go into all the in’s and out’s of that side of things here as I want to write about what happened to me while I was there. I may, at a later point, decide to write more fully about the other things which surrounded my imprisonment but, for now, the facts were that I had committed no crime, I was never charged with committing any crime and yet I was detained for a day short of a year, in the most awful of circumstances. So, back to the memories …
On arriving in Saudi, I was initially taken to the Al-Ha’ir Prison (سجن الحاير), located just outside of Riyadh, the capital city of Saudi Arabia.
Al-Ha’ir is a maximum security prison and houses a variety of inmates. I can’t say exactly, as time was a little difficult to keep track of, but I would guess that I was there for around 4 – 6 weeks. During my time there, I was interrogated several times without anyone actually explaining to me what I was being detained for. I was asked questions to which I had no idea of the answer and treated reasonably badly as a result of not knowing the answers. However, although at the time I may have felt pretty sorry for myself as I was regularly subjected to beatings, in comparison to what came next, it was a fairly easy ride there.
After a period of time, I was transferred to another prison, this time to Ulaysha Prison ( سجن عليشة) which is located in Riyadh. Now, for the uninitiated amongst you, this is not the kind of place you want to find yourself. It’s mostly run by the al-Mabahith al-‘Amma (which I will call, from now on, the Mabahith) ( المباحث العامة) (Saudi Secret Police) and generally houses terrorists or others whom the state deems unsafe, dangerous or in some way to have opposing views to themselves. It is a prison for ‘arbitrary detention’ – that’s its main purpose and one of the reasons that it is also a maximum security prison. However bizarre that might seem. To this day, I still really have no idea why I was taken there, I don’t think they normally house female prisoners but, for whatever reason, this is where I ended up. In total, I was in prison for 364 days.
Initially I think I must have been in a state of either shock or denial – I’ve never been sure which it was. Don’t think for a second, that I’m some kind of shy, retiring wallflower, or some naieve young thing – I’d worked in that region for long enough to know some of the associated risks and I was pretty toughened up from my years of experience. However, experienced or not, I certainly wasn’t prepared for what was to come. On the whole, I prefer to believe that most human beings are essentially ‘good’, to believe that people don’t just hurt other people for no reason, and that deep within everyone is a sense of compassion and consideration for our fellow human beings. But, my Saudi experience taught me that one should never rely on the ‘goodness’ of actions which might occur just as a result of ‘humans being’. For the few weeks (while in Al-Ha’ir) I think that I convinced myself that there had been some terrible mistake and, even if there hadn’t, surely someone would come and ‘get me’ pretty soon. I think I probably imagined black hawk helicopters swooping down and plucking me out (hey, I didn’t get much to eat so don’t blame me for being a little irrational!) but, after that time, and once I’d been transferred to Ulaysha, I think I ceased to care what happened, so long as it all, in some way, ended soon. Death would have been preferable, for sure.
So why is that? Why did I genuinely wish for death to release me from this place? Lots of reasons I suppose. The first one was really very simple; I didn’t know what I was doing there, I had been charged with nothing, no one had indicated to me what I might have done and I felt as though I was somehow involved in a Kafkaesque reality that I couldn’t fully comprehend. But, again after a few days of being there, I stopped thinking in quite such a cerebral way! I had lost all control over my own life, my own freedom and my own person. They ‘owned’ me while I was there and I was powerless to do anything to prevent them from doing whatever they wished to do. The powerlessness and impotence in itself, is enough to drive you to thoughts of death, trust me, that slow and dawning realization that you can do absolutely nothing about the situation you find yourself in. They have different ways of treating prisoners in different countries of course but, the treatment meted out to me was not ‘normal’ even by Saudi standards and I pretty soon realized that I was being penalized not for any crime that I had committed, but for what they perceived me to stand for – I was perceived as American (for the record, I’m a dual national – American/Brit) and, at that time, Saudi wasn’t very happy with America and I suppose, on reflection, I was a very useful bargaining tool for them. I was also something of a trophy prisoner but that didn’t dawn on me immediately. Initially, I was subjected again to interrogations which I didn’t understand (I do speak a little Arabic and they spoke good English, so when I say I didn’t understand, I don’t mean linguistically, I mean I had no idea of the answers to their questions which seemed to assume I had a far greater knowledge of all-things American than I did and I was completely conrfused as to why they were even asking me such things. They remained unconvinced and seemed to believe that I DID know the answers, I continued trying to explain that I didn’t, and so it went on,like some kind of never-ending Escher staircase.)
The interrogations felt relentless, endless and constant. I felt as if I got no sleep at all, but I imagine I did get some, albeit usually pretty brief and never very comfortable as I was always trying to remain half-alert in case someone came back and began again. There was no particular rhyme or reason to the timing of their interrogations, they seemed to occur at any time, night or day, sometimes 24 hours a day. At the very beginning of my incarceration there, I was allowed some very brief interaction with one or two of the other inmates but that didn’t last long and, in fact, I spent the last 8 months of my imprisonment in solitary confinement, apart from the guards and warders, I saw no one, spoke to no one and had contact with no one. I would sometimes be taken down to a slightly damp-smelling basement to be interrogated by a senior official (someone I presumed was more senior based on the actions of the day-to-day warders) and other times they would just come right on in to my cell and start there. I want to be careful here as I really don’t know how much anyone really knows about the treatment one can be subjected to and I’d prefer not to traumatize anyone else but, in light of the recent passing of the NDAA bill, I think it’s important for people to understand where things can sometimes lead. As I’ve already said, I’m not suggesting that staff in American prisons behave towards inmates in a similar way, I really don’t know, never having been in an American prison, but I am simply laying out for you what happened to me.
Of course, I don’t think you will need too much imagination to understand the nature of some of the treatment I received as one of the very few (if not the only) female inmate there, it’s not rocket science to imagine what sort of abuse male guards might feel they were warranted in visiting upon me and, in all honesty, I don’t really want to go there again, to re-visit it or to spend too long thinking about it. I’m sure we all know what I’m talking about so let’s leave it at that. I suppose that would have been bad enough but, actually, some of the other abuses I suffered there seemed to affect me far more. For the last five months or so, I was kept in total sensory deprivation. I really wouldn’t encourage anyone to try this out, not even for a few minutes, but I can tell you that after several months of it, you do begin to lose all sense of reason, rationality, space and time. In fact, when I was released, I didn’t even remember my name. This is why I say that I got to the point where death seemed preferable. I never knew when abuses were going to happen, I couldn’t hear, see or predict if someone was about to enter my cell and I was mostly unable to move around and so I was quite literally a deaf, dumb and blind sitting target for whomsoever chose to come in.
You can’t terrify someone for ever. You can do it a few times, maybe a few more, but in the end, the terror ceases. I won’t pretend that I stop being frightened, although I’d love to be able to report some kind of heroic stoicism to you all. But the terror did stop. Or maybe I just stopped noticing it, I’m not sure. I was beaten, kicked, assaulted in every way you can imagine, burnt, electrocuted, and water-boarded. Do I really need to go into all the details? I hope not. But, anyway, I no longer really cared. I just hoped and prayed that one day someone would come in and, instead of playing endless games of Russian roulette with me by putting a gun in my mouth and pulling the trigger, someone would actually come in and just shoot me, dead. It would have been so much easier, so much less painful, and so much less terrifying. When they played their Russian Roulette games, they always seemed to have at least one bullet in the chamber – at least one would go off randomly in the room but, for all I know, they may have had another gun for that purpose as I couldn’t actually see who was doing what, but inside of my head, there was a very loud voice trying to scream out loud “PLEASE JUST SHOOT ME”. And I meant it. But, of course, they didn’t.
Shortly before I was released I had a weird kind of a trial. Again, no one told me what I was charged with, but I was presented in court and asked if I’d been treated appropriately and decently – my face was the size of a balloon and I was covered in bruises and injuries but, clearly, I had no alternative but to vaguely nod my head in assent. To be honest, I don’t even really know for sure what the Judge said, I just know that it seemed to require me to agree, so I did. Then sentence was pronounced (for the charge I didn’t know and for a crime I was unaware of having committed) and I was duly sentenced to death.
Now, at this point, did I really think they would do it? That’s really hard to say now when I think back. As I said, I’m not sure I really cared, maybe I felt a sense of euphoria even, I really don’t know. I suspect I just agreed with them and then allowed the guards to drag me from the room, it’s all a bit of a blur.
Anyway, of course they didn’t put me to death. They flogged me (why is it that Westerners are always so obsessed with flogging? If I could have a dollar for every time someone’s asked if they could see my scars (the answer is no!), I would be a very rich woman by now!) and attempted to cut my throat. I doubt this was a very serious attempt for, had it been, then they would undoubtedly have managed it. However, they made two fairly deep incisions and then seemed to change their minds. About half an hour later I was released into the custody of a waiting air ambulance (unbeknownst to me, my release had been pre-arranged and the air ambulance sent over to get me and so I would imagine this was their last ‘fling’ so to speak, before allowing me to go free.
I use the words ‘go free’ very carefully. I don’t think I am free to be honest. Maybe I never will be. The experience changed me in ways you can’t even begin to imagine. Be glad that you can’t. All I can say is this : once you’ve realized, seen and experienced first-hand, just how heinous humans can be to each other, it’s very difficult indeed to come back from that precipice. That’s not to say that it’s all bad, or that I live a miserable and depressed life, I certainly don’t. But there are good days and bad days, that’s certainly true to say. It has impacted on my life in ways I could never even have imagined, not all bad ways either. Of course I wish none of it had ever happened and, one day, I’d really like to know what prompted them to arrest me in the first place but, for now, I’m happy to be free and to live and love without restraint.
Subsequent to my release, my life has taken a very different course, I am now doing a completely different job and very happy to be doing it. Sometimes life works in mysterious ways and I can’t say that I haven’t enjoyed my newfound career path because it gives me great pleasure daily and perhaps that is yet one more good thing to have come out of a truly terrible situation.
As I said near to the beginning of this piece, ‘humans being’ are sometimes irrational, illogical, cruel or just plain bad. I can’t explain it, I can’t find any particular reason for it, I just know it’s true. I wish I didn’t. It’s one of those things which I learned in Saudi, which I’ve never been able to completely throw off. If I’m sitting comfortably with you, having a drink somewhere, and you accidentally move your arm too quickly or too aggressively, I will still flinch away automatically, I can’t seem to stop myself. I still wake up regularly having had nightmares the like of which I couldn’t even begin to write down in a blog. These things do not go away, they remain with you, but you HAVE to find a way of living with them for, if you do not, then it will be impossible to move on. I’m not anyone’s heroine, I’m not particularly brave or courageous, I’m just a normal person who went through a very abnormal situation, one which isn’t listed in many textbooks, and for me, it’s something which I’ve found very hard to cope with. I have coped of course, but it’s been a bit of a battle if I’m honest.
I’ll end by saying that some days are still better than others, but overall, my life is ok nowadays. People can and do recover from these things but I am not the same person as I was before I was imprisoned, I doubt I’ll ever be that person again. I’m now someone who knows a lot more about human nature, and about that side of human nature which no one really wants to know about. But, if there is to be any one positive to come out of all the negative, I want to say that I have learned a great deal, both about myself and about other people, while going through my recovery from this episode of my life. I rarely judge anyone else these days, I rarely try to ascribe motivations to the actions of other people. But that doesn’t make me lethargic about wanting to try to ameliorate some of the wrongs which I do see, and which I see every day and maybe this blog is just one small way I can try to get across my message that the NDAA is very bad news, it affects us all. Don’t ever think “it won’t affect me” because there is no room for complacency any more. I no longer trust that there are any benevolent governments left in this world and, the more bills such as the NDAA are passed, the more I become convinced that we must do something to call a halt to this creeping erosion of our liberties. We must never allow our government to take away our constitutional freedoms and rights for political or any other internal motives. Security is for OUR benefit, not theirs. Of course we all want to be protected from terrorists but I, for one, would like the chance to know what someone is accused of and to know that they are going to stand a free, fair and open trial. I do not want my government making those decisions for me. I did not elect them for this purpose and I do not have any desire for them to take such action on my behalf.
I always thought, when coming back to America, that I would never feel ‘at risk’ of anything similar ever happening again. The Constitution would prevent my sudden and ‘arbitrary’ arrest and imprisonment. I could say whatever I liked and no one would or could punish me for it and, if I were ever arrested, I would have recourse to lawyers, courts and a fair and free trial. With the passing of the NDAA, this is no longer so. The bill may be meant to protect America from terrorists but, once the government get to decide who are terrorists without having to provide US, the public, with any information as to how they came to that decision, then I think we really are in big trouble. It’s the thin end of a very thick wedge.
Detention without trial, or detention for indefinite periods of time destroys people. It very nearly destroyed me. It could destroy any one of us, it could destroy you. Remember that if you are unconcerned about the NDAA. If you think I am over exaggerating or scare-mongering then I beg to differ. I speak only from my own experience and my own knowledge about how this episode affected my life, my soul and every fiber of my being.
Maybe I seem over paranoid, or over concerned. Maybe you think such things can only happen in faraway lands to people who have very odd jobs. Maybe you’re right to think that. I can only base my own thoughts on my own experiences. I wish I could be a little more naive to the darker side of human nature, it isn’t comfortable here in the abyss but, since I AM here, I may as well try to provide a cautionary tale for my fellow human beings, in the hope that someone, much stronger than I, can do something about the worrying trend in America to remove our essential rights and freedoms. As Benjamin Franklin once so rightly said “those who compromise essential freedoms for security, deserve neither” (or something along those lines!) and Amen to that.
I don’t want to feel at risk in my own country. I don’t want anyone to feel at risk in my country. This blog isn’t written for anyone in particular, it’s written for everyone as perhaps a cautionary recollection of just how wrong things can go if we start sanctioning secret arrests and hidden charges. We must not go down this route. It is the beginning of the end.
I have a redacted version of the medical report which I mentioned earlier but have now decided against posting it up here for anyone and everyone to see. If you have some particular reason for wishing to see it, let me know via Twitter and we can discuss it. Thank you.
ACT NOW, take part, get involved, do whatever you can do, write to your congressman, your senator, your tv station, whoever, just do something, PLEASE.