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TERRY Colin Holdbrooks Jnr has never been a conformist. When his grandmother woke him up on September 11, 2001, to see the attacks on the World Trade Centre being broadcast live, media speculation about what he was watching irritated him so much he went back to bed.
“I honestly remember sitting there thinking to myself how ridiculous are the claims that these reporters are making,” he said. “We had reporters that were saying this was a training attack gone wrong, we had reporters claiming that this was the end of world, evangelical Christians claiming that this was the Rapture ... I decided I didn’t want to hear anymore about 9/11 till we actually knew what was going on.”
A year later, when he and his colleagues were being trained for duty at Guantanamo Bay they were told they would be dealing with the worst of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban — anti-American, anti-Christian terrorists who were martial arts experts and hated concepts like freedom. But Holdbrooks was reluctant to form an opinion about his future charges without first meeting them. “If you’re going to tell me I have to hate someone, you have to give me good reason to do so.”
Even so, Holdbrooks admits his first encounter with a Guantanamo Bay detainee was an unexpected one.
“When we first walked onto the block of Guantanamo and six cells down on the left hand side is Ruhal Ahmed from the United Kingdom, rapping from the top of his lungs, he’s rapping Eminem, and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Al-Qaeda is rapping — I thought they hated music, but here it is rapping, and it’s rapping rap music in English … I thought they hated America, if that’s the case, why is he rapping something that is a cultural icon in America? Maybe I got lied to.”
Born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1983, Holdbrooks enlisted in the U.S. army in August 2002, not out of a desire to defend his country but to escape a troubled family history. “I didn’t want to end up like my parents,” he said. “Both my parents suffered from addictions; I have an uncle who is an alcoholic, I have an uncle who died from HIV and smoking crack.”
“I think what most enticed me to the military was the idea of receiving structure, order and discipline,” he said. “That was what I was searching for with the military — it wasn’t to defend my country, it wasn’t to further the War on Terror; it was simply to change the Holdbrooks’ legacy and to discipline and structure myself, to get myself set up in a lifestyle I could maintain for the rest of my life.”
Holdbrooks ignored orders limiting interaction with detainees and was inspired by what he encountered.
“I saw doctors, lawyers, teachers, professors, tradesmen, merchants, cooks, individuals of all professions and all walks of life, individuals who spoke upwards of eight different languages, individuals who knew the Qur’an inside ... It was amazing — with most of them having an adequate if not excellent education, they were able to teach the others, and to keep each other motivated.”
Holdbrooks was particularly impressed by their strong faith.
“This, after having been there for three years with no sign of when they were going home, with no reason as to why they were there, with no contact with their family. They could still wake up each day and smile, they could still wake up each day and jest and joke around with their brothers, they could still wake up each day and pray five times a day and have faith that there was a God and that that God cared for and loved them.”
Holdbrooks questioned the detainees about Islam, read the Qur’an and gradually adopted Islamic practices and finally formally converted in the presence of two detainees. Although the detainees quickly came to know about Holdbrooks’s conversion, fondly naming him Mustafa (the chosen one), it was only when he returned to the U.S. in 2004 that his superiors heard about his newfound faith and when his unit was deployed to Iraq they became uneasy. Holdbrooks’s five-year contract was shortened to three and he was offered an honourable discharge which he happily accepted.
However, for the next four years Islam took a backseat in Holdbrooks’ life; a divorce and the death of his father saw him hit the bottle and he was also haunted by memories of Guantanamo Bay.
“I felt that I could have done so much more than just being a nice guard. I could have been the whistleblower. I could have spoken up and said, ‘This is wrong’.”
Holdbrooks says that while the nutritional, medical and religious needs of the detainees were well attended to, their treatment at the hands of some of the guards and interrogators got to him.
“Seventy five percent of the guards disliked the detainees, disliked being in Guantanamo, and disliked the job in general and took that anger and aggression out on the detainees by just being rude. There wasn’t much interaction, but when there was, it wasn’t uncommon to see guards being complete jerks.”
Sleep deprivation was a standard interrogation tactic. Every two hours a detainee would be moved from one block to another in what was known as the Frequent Flyer Programme.
“And then when they go for interrogation they’d be shackled in a stress position, have a strobe light in front of their face, loud blasting music in a very cold room. The interrogator would come in and cover them with water and yell at them or scream. Interrogation was different depending on the interrogator. I saw some awful things in interrogation, and I saw some good things.”
Holdbrooks says he believes most of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay were innocent, and just happened to be in the “wrong place at the wrong time”.
Even though the guards tried to keep themselves motivated it was well known they were unhappy.
“It’s an awful place to be in. Even if the detainees are able to keep themselves motivated, you still know they are unhappy and to be around 50 people who are unhappy at work all day then to go home and be away from your family — it’s just this feeling of unhappiness and it manifests itself in the military by alcoholism. Alcoholism is encouraged as well as acquired in the U.S. army.”
Ironically enough it was the memory of who he had been at Guantanamo Bay which saw Holdbrooks clean up his act on New Year’s Eve 2008.
“That night I was thinking, ‘You’re miserable — when were you happy?’ It occurred to me that I was happy when I was in Guantanamo — life had a purpose there, I was working towards a better goal. So I found a mosque, started attending prayers and getting sober.”
These days Holdbrooks travels the world talking about his experiences at Guantanamo, and encouraging Muslims to help others understand Islam.
“Ninety percent of Americans are scared beyond belief of Islam. I’m Freddy Krueger because I dress like this. I want to help Americans understand what Islam is about, what Islam means, and to be able to differentiate between what is cultural practice as opposed to what is Islam.”
Holdbrooks is aware that his new vocation and religion could see him on the other side of the bars at Guantanamo Bay.
“The 168 detainees that are there will be home soon. They’re going to be moved out, but now Guantanamo is going to be filled back up with United States citizens,” he said. “The reason I say that is that in the new National Defence Act that prime dictator Barack Obama signed approximately two weeks ago there were a couple of new laws that were enacted that basically violate the first, fourth and sixth amendments of the constitution.”
“Any U.S. citizen such as myself, who is of questionable interest to the well-being of America such as myself, who is speaking positively about Islam, who is perhaps inciting change, or perhaps be seen as a radical or fundamental Muslim, such as myself, can now be picked up by any government official and deported to a place like Guantanamo or to Guantanamo itself for that matter. “If that happens, I’ll take advantage of the time and do exactly what the detainees did, I’ll become an Islamic scholar, I’ll memorise the Qur’an. I’ll leave there knowing Arabic, hopefully.”