I recently spent 10 1/2 months in a grave-sized cell in Syria, unsure why I was there, unsure how to get out. Fear paralyzed my wits when I needed them most. I was beaten and I was tortured and I was constantly scared. Every day I worried that I would never be released, that I would disappear into that concrete grave forever.
Why was I being held? I still don't really know. I am not a terrorist. I am not a member of Al Qaeda. I am a Syrian-born Canadian. A father and a husband. A telecommunications engineer. I have never been in trouble with the police and have always been a good citizen.
My ordeal began on the afternoon of Sept. 26, 2002, when my flight back from a family vacation in Tunisia stopped over in New York and American immigration officials pulled me aside to answer a few questions. At first it was only an inconvenience thorough airport security, post 9/11-style. But my questioners persisted. And when someone waved a copy of the 1997 lease for my Ottawa apartment, I was shocked and confused. What was going on here? Who gave them the lease and what was its significance to them? For the first time, I began to realize that the questioning was not simply routine.
My interrogation in the United States took days. Shuttling in shackles among immigration officials, FBI agents and police officers, I asked repeatedly for a lawyer but was told that I didn't have the right to one because I was not an American citizen. There were no phone calls home either.
Only after days of often abusive, insulting, degrading questioning about whom I knew and what I was up to (besides computer work for my Boston-based employer) was I finally permitted to use a telephone.
But still I couldn't see the full picture. In the early hours of Oct. 8, 2002, I was formally notified that the U.S. government had classified information about me that it would not reveal and it would be deporting me that very day, without a word to my family, to the long-forgotten place of my birth, Syria.
To this day, unnamed American officials continue to allege that I have ties to Al Qaeda, although I have not seen the details and I have not been charged with a crime.
I hadn't been to Syria since moving to Canada with my family when I was 17. For half my life I have had no connection at all to that country. Yet I would surely be tortured, I told my New York captors, because I'm a Sunni Muslim; because my mother's cousin had been accused of being in the Muslim Brotherhood and imprisoned for nine years; because I had left the country before undertaking my military service.
My arguments were useless. Soon I was in a small private jet, chained and panic-stricken; then in a succession of cars in Jordan and Syria, blindfolded and beaten repeatedly; and finally placed in that shallow grave.
I describe my cell in Syria as a grave because it was just 3 feet wide, 6 feet long, 7 feet high and unlit. While I was there I sometimes felt on the verge of death after beatings with a black electrical cable about two inches thick. They mostly aimed for my palms but sometimes missed and hit my wrists. Other times, I was left alone in a special "waiting room" within earshot of others' screams. At the end of the day, they would tell me that tomorrow would be worse. In those 10 1/2 months I lost about 40 pounds. I never saw, but only heard, the agony of my fellow prisoners. I was so scared I urinated on myself twice.
I agreed to sign any document they put before me, even those I wasn't allowed to read. And eventually I would say anything at all to avoid more torture. "Do you want me to use that?" someone would ask when I didn't answer soon enough, pointing to a steel chair in the corner of the interrogation room.
No, I told them, I did not want them to use that. And yes, I told them, I had been to Afghanistan. It wasn't true, but it seemed important enough to my jailers. After a month, broken physically and mentally, I was also instructed to write these things down on a piece of paper next to other answers to other questions that they had gone ahead and penned on my behalf.
After almost a year in hell, I was taken out of my cell, brought before a prosecutor and forced to sign a confession and stamp my fingerprint on it. After that, I was released and flown home.
Today, the questions remain too numerous for me to list them all here.
For starters, I want to know why the United States sent me to one of the seven countries that the Bush administration has designated a sponsor of state terrorism and that President Bush singled out just last month as a country that tortures its own people. And I want to know why the Canadian government sent information on me to the United States and what the nature of that information was.
I need to know why this happened to me. My priority is to clear my name, get to the bottom of the case and make sure this does not happen to anyone else again.
Maher Arar is back in Canada. He's seeking a public investigation there and preparing a lawsuit, with the help of the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, against the U.S. government.
Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times