It was a simple prayer. Every day, Mariem Mint Elwadia asked God for the same thing: She wanted to see her son, Mohamedou Ould Slahi, just one more time before she died.
The last time she laid eyes on him, Slahi was on his way to the police station for questioning, an inconvenience that had become somewhat routine back then, in November 2001. It was just after dusk on the outskirts of Nouakchott, the dusty capital of the arid West African nation of Mauritania. Slahi had come home from work and was preparing to shower when the police arrived at the family home. As usual, he drove his own car to the police station.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon,” the 30-year-old told his family. But Slahi never returned. His car sat idle in the police parking lot for weeks, and Mauritanian authorities refused to provide his family with any information on his whereabouts.
Sixteen months later, in March 2003, a 4-by-6 postcard arrived at the house. It didn’t offer much in the way of details. At the top right sat an 80-cent stamp from the US that featured a picturesque mountain vista. The return address read 160 Camp X-Ray, Washington, DC 20353, USA. The postmark, dated 2002, suggested the card had been sent via the US Postal Service. In a section labeled “camp,” there was a four-letter acronym penned in narrow, inelegant handwriting.
It read “GTMO.”
Mohamedou Ould Slahi had become a Guantánamo Bay detainee, and his mother found out through a postcard.
“I am writing this postcard for the fourth time, and I have not received any response from you. I do not know if you are receiving these cards or not,” Slahi wrote on the back. “I do not know if God will help me and deliver me from this injustice, but in any case, be patient and invest time in prayer.”
At the time, Elwadia could not have known that US intelligence officials considered her son to be a key player in al Qaeda’s European and North American operations and a central figure in the 9/11 attacks. Nor could she have known that Slahi would be tortured for months at a time over the course of several years, or that a judge would order his release, or that that decision would be cruelly reversed. And no one could have predicted that Slahi would become a New York Times best-selling author from inside the walls of the world’s most infamous prison. But there is little about the globe-spanning life of Mohamedou Ould Slahi that follows a straight line, which is why his story, steeped in unknowable complexity and murky details, is perhaps the perfect parable of the post-9/11 era.
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