A Guantanamo Guard And His Detainee Reunite

Aug 12, 2018
Originally published on August 13, 2018 4:57 pm

Mohamedou Ould Slahi and Steve Wood met in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in 2004.

At the time, Slahi had been in captivity for two years, accused of acts of terrorism.

Wood, then a member of the National Guard, was assigned to watch the Mauritania native. For nine months, they spent their days together.

After more than a decade, the two saw each other once again this spring, when Wood traveled to Slahi's home in Mauritania to see his old friend.

Slahi says that when he and Wood met, Wood asked him if he drank coffee. Slahi is a tea drinker, but he accepted Wood's offer of coffee. The two became fast friends.

"You know, we played with each other, we gossiped about interrogators. We gossiped about girls behind their backs," Slahi told NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro on Weekend Edition.

They bonded over the movie The Big Lebowski. Slahi related to the main character, "The Dude," a victim of mistaken identity.

Slahi's favorite line is one of the most famous in the movie: "You got the wrong guy," the Dude says.

"He was speaking for me in a way," Slahi told NPR. "I saw myself in him."

The U.S. government detained Slahi in Guantanamo for 14 years, but never charged him with an offense. As NPR's David Welna reported in 2016, a Justice Department investigation found that Slahi "was beaten, sexually throttled, put in extreme isolation, shackled to the floor, stripped naked and put under strobe lights while being blasted with heavy metal music."

Slahi told NPR that in Guantanamo, "I was at peace in my heart at that time." He said he went to sleep knowing he hadn't done anything to anyone.

"There is nothing I was hiding," he said.

In 2010, a federal judge ruled that Mohamedou should be released from Guantanamo. Wood reached out to Slahi's legal team, telling them that he'd like to help in any way he could. He wrote a letter supporting Slahi's release.

While Slahi was still in prison, his 2015 memoir, Guantanamo Diary, became a bestseller in the United States.

The next year, the Department of Defense finally allowed Slahi to return to his home in Mauritania.

Wood, who now lives in Oregon and works in construction, flew there in May to see the man he once guarded. The story was first reported by Carol Rosenberg in the Miami Herald.

Slahi said that he saw the same man he once spent his days with when Wood emerged from the gate. The two picked up where they left off.

They didn't just bond over The Big Lebowski during those months together at Guantanamo.

"We never believed in this war," Slahi said. "There is no war between Muslims and Americans. There is no war between Americans and the poor people in the world. There is only a war between people on the top who have their own agenda."

"People are people no matter what," said Wood. "When we die it doesn't matter what passport we hold."

He said he'll be back to see his old friend again.

If you want help with your missed connection, email us a voice memo with your story at weekend@npr.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Sometimes, we can connect surprisingly deeply with someone and then never see them again - a missed connection. In our ongoing series, we're now going to bring you the story of a reconnection first reported by Carol Rosenberg of the Miami Herald. It's an extraordinary tale of two unlikely friends - one an inmate in Guantanamo Bay prison, a man named Mohamedou Ould Slahi, accused of acts of terrorism - the other his guard, former Army Sgt. Steve Wood - and a recent trip Wood took to Mauritania, where Slahi now lives. We brought them together again to speak with us. Steve Wood is with us from Portland, Ore. Welcome to the program.

STEVE WOOD: Thank you very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And Mohamedou joins us via Skype from Nouakchott, Mauritania. Welcome to the program to you.

MOHAMEDOU OULD SLAHI: Thank you for having me, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mohamedou, I want to start with you because your story is the subject of an internationally best-selling memoir called "Guantanamo Diary." Just remind us. Why were you detained?

SLAHI: I first came into the radar of the U.S. intelligence when I received a call from my cousin Mahfouz. It was 1999. He wanted me to help him transfer some money to his sick father. And he called me from the phone of UBL.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: UBL - you mean Osama bin Laden?

SLAHI: Correct. So I helped him. And my name was flagged ever since. And the Mauritania, your country and Canada agreed to lure me to a place where there is no law.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What they used to call extraordinary rendition, when the United States would take someone from a third country - take them to be interrogated.

SLAHI: That is correct. That was 2000, mind you. And when 9/11 came, that was open season to violate human rights. And that's how I was kidnapped.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Steve, I'm going to take you back, as well. You met Mohamedou in 2004. How did you end up as a guard in Guantanamo?

WOOD: So I was in the - actually, in the National Guard. And we were told - our unit was told that we were, you know, going to be deployed. And they wouldn't tell us where we were going at first, so we thought we were all going to go to Iraq. And then I thought, like - about a week before we leave, they said, oh, yeah. You guys are going to Guantanamo Bay because we're a military police unit.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What do you remember about first meeting Mohamedou?

WOOD: I remember it was, like, I expected, you know, like, when I got the job to watch him, I didn't - they didn't tell us what we were doing. You know, they said it was, you know, one detainee you're all going to watch. So I was expecting somebody, like, really hardcore, like, big guy or, you know, scary guy that's, you know, supposed to be really dangerous. And he walks out, this little guy, and just smiles and shakes my hand.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. Mohamedou, do you remember meeting Steve for the first time?

SLAHI: Yes. I was very scared. I didn't want to talk to anyone. And he came. And he asked me - I remember the first question. Do you drink coffee? And I'm not a big coffee drinker. So - I'm a tea drinker. And then I said, yeah, yes. Yes. And then said, yeah, I made some coffee. He said, do you know how to play card? I say, I don't know, but if you teach me, I can play. I don't know whether I told him that I kick his ass in any game he teaches me.

WOOD: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I hear there's a particular film that you kind of bonded over.

WOOD: Yeah, "The Big Lebowski."

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's a great film.

WOOD: We watched that over and over.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mohamedou, what did you like about "The Big Lebowski"? - The Dude.

SLAHI: Yeah, The Dude. I'm not The Dude. You got the wrong guy. You know, he has everything. He was speaking for me in a way. You know, he was like my surrogate. I loved him because he was, like - in places, his name was mistaken for a very, supposedly, bad guy. And I saw myself in him.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So just months before you arrive, Steve, Mohamedou had been subjected to what was called by the Bush administration enhanced interrogation, effectively torture. And what Mohamedou went through was really extraordinary. According to a Justice Department investigation, he was, among other things, beaten, shackled to the floor, stripped naked. Were you aware of what had gone through?

WOOD: Mohamedou - he told me a little bit. You know, he said how they messed him up pretty good, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mohamedou, after going through something like that, it must have been hard to trust a guard like Steve.

SLAHI: You know, I had no choices. Steve struck me as a very nice guy. And we became, quote, unquote, "friends." And there is nothing I was hiding. I don't have any hidden agenda or anything. And I was at peace in my heart at that time because when I go to sleep, I know I haven't done anything to anyone. I told the people before they tortured me, please, don't torture me. I didn't do anything. They say, we have to torture you very much. Then when they tortured me, I told them everything they want to hear. I signed confession. That said, the ball was in their court. You know, I very much surrender to my lot.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Steve, you left Guantanamo after nine months there. And you stayed in touch.

WOOD: I think in - it was actually in 2010, I think, that, like, a federal judge said that he needed to be released. And that's when I had got a hold of somebody on his legal team and just, you know, wrote an email saying, hey. You know, I was Mohamedou's - one of his guards. And, you know, I would like to help any way I can. And, you know, tell him hi for me, you know?

SLAHI: I did not actually know who was talking to my lawyer because he gave her a fake name. Then I recognized him. I said, please, do tell him that I appreciate his help, but I don't want him to hurt himself. He was very brave. And he wrote a very bold letter, and that helped me really get out. And for that, I'm very thankful to him and to all those who stood by me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mohamedou, you were in captivity in Guantanamo for 14 years. You were never charged with an offense. And both the review board at the prison and a U.S. federal judge eventually said you should go for lack of evidence. So, Steve, Mohamedou ends up in Mauritania. You're in the United States, but you decided to take a recent trip there to visit Mohamedou during Ramadan.

WOOD: It was a really good time. You know, Mohamedou - I don't think he changed at all. I don't think he aged, honestly, since I saw him last.

SLAHI: You know, I went to the airport. And I was so happy. And then when he emerged out of the gate, same guy. You know, same guy (imitating Steve) with this American accent, obviously, you know? You know, he was clearly a military guy. And that scared me, scared me because I want him a little bit to blend in. I mean, he doesn't have to look, like, Arab or African, but he need to blend a little bit. But he did not blend at all. And then, you know, we just, like - there was no gap of time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You just picked up where you left off.

SLAHI: Absolutely. And my family accepted him.

WOOD: That was probably the coolest part about it. I was sitting there eating dinner with Mohamedou and his family and, like, all his million little nephews and playing soccer with them. And it was totally awesome.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Steve, since this story was made public by the Miami Herald, I'm curious what the reaction has been from the people that you know.

WOOD: It's actually been - I've had really good reactions. Like, I'm from a small town in Oregon, very Republican. And, like, honestly, everybody that I've talked to about it has been, like, really supportive and positive about it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, yeah. You guys are unlikely friends.

SLAHI: I think the one thing that Steve and I have in common - that we act like small children. The first day we met, we were, like, friends. You know, we played with each other. We gossiped about interrogators. We gossiped about guards behind their backs.

WOOD: (Laughter).

SLAHI: And we never believed in this war. There is no war between Muslims and Americans. There is no war between Americans and poor people in the world. There is only a war between people on the top who have their own agenda.

WOOD: Yeah. I totally agree with Mohamedou. People are people, no matter what. When we die, it doesn't matter what passport we hold, you know? I don't want to, like, go through my life, you know, like, using politics on helping me decide who I'm friends with or not, you know?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Planning on seeing each other again?

WOOD: Definitely. So, like, when I went to Mauritania, I got a bunch of souvenirs and stuff. And Turkish Airlines lost my bags on the way back. So, like, I have nothing that I bought from over there, so I have to go back and get some more souvenirs anyway, so maybe I'll see Mohamedou.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Steve Wood, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, thank you very much.

SLAHI: Thank you, Lulu, for having me.

WOOD: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.