In his fourth year of U.S. detention, Mohamedou Ould Slahi bonded with one particular Guantánamo guard over prison meals, American TV and the quirky movie, “The Big Lebowski.”
So when former Army Sgt. Steve Wood made the trek from Oregon in May to visit Slahi as a free man in Mauritania, they shared Ramadan break-fast meals, American TV and one more screening of — what else? — “The Big Lebowski.”
“We went to the dunes, visited a lot of family, watched ‘The Office’ a lot. It was amazing, seeing Mohamedou,” Wood said. “We sat there drinking tea, and we watched ‘The Big Lebowski’ like we did years ago, his same smart-ass attitude, giving each other crap. It was almost like I left Guantánamo Bay a few months ago and just saw him again. It was cool.”
In fact, a decade elapsed before their remarkable Ramadan reunion.
Many American soldiers have said how glad they were to leave Guantánamo behind. They remember hostile stares and the era when bored, angry captives flung their feces and urine from their cells, a universal prison backlash against solitary confinement.
Not Wood, who left the Army a decade ago and today works construction in Oregon. In 2005, as a 23-year-old soldier doing a nine-month tour of duty at the U.S. military prison in Cuba, he got a most unusual assignment: A 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. shift watching over Slahi, a 34-year-old captive who’d been described to him and fellow guards as a former al-Qaida member whose answers under interrogations allegedly saved many Americans.
Declassified military and congressional investigations later showed that Slahi was subjected to U.S. military abuse at Guantánamo, and he would renounce his confessions. The abuses were the product of a special interrogation package personally approved by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Slahi, a German-educated electrical engineer, joined the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan in 1990 but swore he had broken with al-Qaida by 9/11. He was kept naked, packed in ice, blasted with blaring music for hours, and threatened to arrest his mother and bring her to the U.S. base in Cuba.
In his bestselling memoirs, Guantanamo Diary, Slahi recalls his early interrogations after his rendition from his homeland Mauritania as a nightmare of beatings, sleep deprivation, sexual humiliation, maddening isolation and a threat of rectal feeding.
But by the time Wood arrived, that abuse had ended and the command sergeant major was looking for trustworthy men. It was during the George W. Bush administration, Guantánamo still had hundreds of prisoners and Slahi was segregated from the others in a special compound for men considered to be cooperators.
“Not once did I ever see Mohamedou in handcuffs or shackles,” Wood said. “That was after he supposedly spilled the beans and given all this information and saved thousands of lives. ... He would walk into the guard area and hang out.” Slahi and his special guard unit would play cards or Monopoly, Wood recalled, share the same military meals, or sit side by side on plastic chairs watching TV.
A particular favorite was “The Big Lebowski,” the 1998 Coen Brothers comedy about a devoted, pot-smoking bowler who calls himself “The Dude,” played by Jeff Bridges. In it, the Bridges character, a victim of mistaken identity, has his head jammed in a toilet by criminals, a pre-9/11 Hollywood version of waterboarding.
Back in 2005, Slahi and his guards had watched the cult classic together, reciting lines along with the characters. And that memory of Guantánamo stuck with Wood, he told McClatchy in a telephone interview from home after their May reunion.
“When I think about my time there, that’s always what comes up,” the former sergeant said. “Sitting there laughing with the guy speaking along with the movie.” He called it alternately “hilarious” and “surreal. I was sitting next to one of ‘the worst.’ With an al-Qaida member.”
Wood recalled another “surreal” part. The first day he went to guard Slahi, a fellow Oregon soldier let him into the segregation compound, Camp Echo Special, and “started laughing. He said, ‘Go and see.’ This little guy walks out with a smile on his face, shakes my hand and I thought, ‘What the hell is going on?’ “
Slahi is 5-foot-6-inches. He weighed 146 pounds in 2005, according to a prison chart. Wood is 6-foot-2-inches, and weighs 210 to 230 pounds.
Only after Wood left Guantánamo did he learn, in his words, that Slahi was “innocent.” In 2010 a federal judge ordered Slahi’s release through a petition of habeas corpus, declaring the Mauritanian unlawfully detained. The Obama administration would appeal and eventually get that judgment reversed. But Wood had been following the news, went on Google and found Slahi’s attorney, Nancy Hollander. They first spoke in January 2011.
Later, the Pentagon started holding parole-style hearings for Guantánamo prisoners who weren’t charged with any crimes, including Slahi. When his turn came, in mid-2016, lawyers presented the panel of U.S. government bureaucrats with a letter of endorsement from the man who guarded him a decade earlier.
When Wood got to Guantánamo, the letter said, he expected to guard “angry and brutal men” who “hate me and everything the United States and I stood for.”
Instead, Slahi was “polite, friendly and respectful,” something the American found all the more remarkable after leaving service and reading the Mauritanian’s “descriptions of the abuse he suffered during interrogations and in his first months in the prison.”
He recounted Slahi’s “good sense of humor despite his surroundings” and the captive’s “compassion and empathy” upon learning that Wood’s first child was born while he was at Guantánamo guarding Slahi. “I would be pleased to welcome him in my home,” Wood wrote the board. “I do not have safety concerns if I were to do so. I would like the opportunity to eventually see him again.”
Slahi was repatriated to Mauritania six months after Wood wrote that letter. Earlier, while Slahi was still at Guantánamo, his lawyers published his memoirs — a partially blacked out, intimate account of abuse in his first years in custody that took years to emerge from U.S. military censorship. Under the terms of his release, Slahi still can’t travel abroad.
So Wood went to Nouakchott, the capital of the west African nation of Mauritania, on a ticket purchased by a British documentary filmmaker who has been recording Slahi’s life in freedom. They shared Ramadan break-fast dinners, starting off with Wood’s first ever taste of a date, Islam’s traditional first bite after a day of fasting and reflection. He played soccer with the young children in Slahi’s extended family, for fun and to reassure nephew Salim, 6, that he wasn’t there to take his uncle back to prison in Cuba.
They reclined on cushions on the floor of Slahi’s apartment, Mauritanian style, and watched “The Big Lebowski” one more time.
The visit “validated a friendship,” Wood said. “Back then I told him I thought we were friends. I wondered if he thought I was an actor, BS-ing.”
Slahi had reason to be suspicious. U.S. investigations of his interrogations revealed that the military was using deception at Guantánamo. In addition to being deprived of daylight and sleep to the point of hallucination, a civilian interrogator posed as a U.S. military envoy from the White House, saying he had come from Washington to warn Slahi that his mother could be brought to Guantánamo, conjuring up fears that she’d be sexually assaulted.
But for their May reunion the tables were turned. The former captive was the host, and the former captor was in a foreign land. “As soon as he arrived at the airport he was my responsibility,” Slahi said via a scratchy Skype line linking Mauritania to Miami. “In a way I was his responsibility at Guantánamo Bay.”
Slahi said that he worried that Mauritanian security officials might be suspicious of his guest, who he thinks resembles the pro wrestler John Cena.
“He’s very American, you know. Very big. Works out. Accent, from Portland, Oregon,” said Slahi. “When he emerged out of the airport it was the same guy. He didn’t change a bit. We hugged and I took him to the car and we drove off. It was early morning.”
Theirs is a “a very, very powerful story” that sends a message to “warmongers everywhere in the world,” Slahi said one Ramadan evening in Nouakchott before the stars came out signaling he could eat. “We are not at war with Americans. We love our American brothers and sisters.”
Wood says he wants to go back to visit again. His return flight stopped in Istanbul and Turkish Airlines lost his luggage. Inside were a present from Slahi, a prayer rug, and two signed copies of Slahi’s memoirs, one each for his daughters.
“He’s a very forgiving guy, a big-hearted guy,” Wood said while driving a truck from a construction site. “I was glad I could be there for him. I feel like I was a small part of his giant adventure.”