Scars of Guantanamo on inmates’ mental health
Greek-American psychiatrist Stephen Xenakis stresses why the interrogation techniques used at the US naval base must never be repeated
Stephen Xenakis, a retired brigadier general and US Army medical corps officer, is still haunted by a 2008 meeting at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in a room that had previously been used for interrogations. The psychiatrist was there to meet Omar Khadr, who had been arrested in Afghanistan in 2002 at the age of 15 on charges of killing an American medic by throwing a grenade during a firefight. The discussion between the two was short.
Despite the chill of the air conditioning, Dr Xenakis observed that Khadr – 22 at the time – was sweating. “He took off his shirt. It was evident that he was having a panic attack, but he wouldn’t admit it,” the former US military official tells Kathimerini. “He only told me he was nervous when I asked if I could check his pulse.”
As Xenakis was to learn later, one of Khadr’s previous experiences in that room involved US soldiers using his body like a mop after he had urinated on the floor during interrogation.
Xenakis was not there to grill him with more questions, however. The doctor – an American of Greek parentage – had been called in by Khadr’s lawyers to assess their client’s state of mind. “I was shocked when I read everything he had been through,” says Xenakis.
In the years that followed he interviewed more Guantanamo inmates and reviewed the medical files and military records of more than 50 prisoners and terrorism suspects as a representative of legal firms and humanitarian organizations. His research revealed that the torture and other interrogation methods used at Guantanamo caused post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and left indelible scars on inmates’ mental health.
Xenakis’s condemnation of these tactics has been thrust back into the limelight following suggestions made by US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump that he would allow the reintroduction of banned interrogation methods such as waterboarding.
The New York Times recently published a report on the long-term damage suffered by Guantanamo inmates as a result of torture and also presented Xenakis’s work. But for the retired military man whose father fought in both World War II and the Korean War, questioning the establishment was not something he did lightly.
“To this day I ask myself whether I did the right thing. Am I betraying my fellow soldiers? Am I doing what’s right for my country? I knew that some of my colleagues would ostracize me and that it would be harder for me to find a job as a high-ranking consultant in a company after my retirement, but I felt that I was doing the right thing,” he told Kathimerini via Skype from Virginia in the USA.
Xenakis’s maternal and paternal roots lie on the coast of Asia Minor and the Aegean island of Chios, with the two families immigrating to the United States in the early 20th century. Even though his father had served in the US Air Force, Xenakis had not been planning on a military career but eventually took that path in order to cover his university expenses.
He first witnessed the symptoms of PTSD in Vietnam War casualties while he was serving as a young psychiatrist in the 1970s. “You could see their pain and you just had to listen to their stories to understand,” he says. Decades later, he observed the same symptoms in Guantanamo inmates.
A report he published with Vincent Iacopino for the humanitarian organization Physicians for Human Rights records the torture sustained by nine inmates. The long list of abuses included sleep deprivation, exposure to extreme temperatures, threats of rape and beatings, forced nudity, mock executions and waterboarding. None of the inmates assessed in the context of the report had a history of mental illness before being incarcerated at Guantanamo.
After this mistreatment, however, some suffered from nightmares, suicidal tendencies, depression, delusions, claustrophobia and attention deficit disorder. In some cases, in fact, psychologists working at the base – instead of helping the inmates cope – would pinpoint psychological weaknesses that could be used by interrogators to crack their subjects.
“I found it very hard to believe at first that someone could be so cruel to another person,” says Xenakis. “[The interrogators] kept detailed records. Maybe some of them at the time did not consider these methods torture. Maybe they believed they were on a mission or acting for the good of their country.”
Even today, after being released from Guantanamo and returning to their families, former inmates suffer from mental illness. Some have anger management issues, others are still in the grips of nightmares or painful flashbacks. Xenakis keeps in touch with many of them, including Khadr, who now lives in Canada.
“There is no doubt that what they went through over there will stay with them forever,” he says. “I try to tell them that life did not stop there.”
Xenakis and Iacopino recently referred to the case of another former Guantanamo inmate, Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a Syrian national who was imprisoned at the base from 2002 to 2014. When the doctors evaluated him in 2014, Dhiab was suffering from chronic pain and partial paralysis because of injuries sustained in an old road accident.
“Our review showed that the staff at Guantanamo routinely withheld Dhiab’s crutches and wheelchair and refused to give him basic over-thecounter painkillers,” they wrote in a report on the Physicians for Human Rights website on October 13. They also said that during a hunger strike, Dhiab was “forcibly fed while strapped into a five-point restraint chair.”
After he was released from the detention center, Dhiab was given asylum in Uruguay but he wants to rejoin his family in Turkey. The psychiatrist and his colleague note that he was never formally accused of any crime.
“Many former Guantanamo detainees are being released with serious medical conditions,” the authors stress in the report, referring to the cases of a chronically ill Egyptian who was transferred to Bosnia without adequate medical support and a former inmate who died in Kazakhstan of kidney failure just six months after his release and about a decade of force-feeding.
Stephen Xenakis (left) testifies during a hearing of the US Senate Judiciary Committee in 2013 in Washington DC on the issue of Guantanamo, seen at right in a file photo from 2012.
Retired Army Brigadier General