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The Retraumitization Of A people: Nearly 20 years After Abu Ghraib Made Headlines, Sde Teiman Is Exposed


Sde Teiman

My friends and I joke about our “inner 9/11 voice”. Twenty-three years later it’s still hardwired into our subconscious, fattened with the fear of arbitrary arrests under the Patriot Act – the irony of the acronym was not lost on us, an act named after the very thing we were accused of lacking. It’s a survival mechanism: don’t say that on the phone! Don’t search that up! Make sure you get to the airport 3 hours early; you’re going to be randomly selected.  

It’s not out of nothing the voice lingers. The events and discriminations we faced as Western Muslims are archived in our brains, a chronological snapshot of flashbulb memories. The look on my teacher’s face, the urgency as we were shuttled home. The grim line of my mother’s mouth and the terror in her eyes. George W. Bush’s declaration of Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ and the impotent rage in the clenched fists and veins bulging in my father’s forearms.

Are We Not Human Enough?

One memory in particular still haunts me. In 2004, I was 15 years old in grade 10, and learning to live in a post-9/11 Western country as a young Muslim woman in hijab. I had three years of discrimination and Islamophobia under my belt and a litany of horror stories across North America to keep me wary and constantly alert. 

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I remember walking into a convenience store one morning and picking up a newspaper. I can still feel the sheer horror and shock that washed over me at the sight of naked men piled atop each other in a sadistic pile of limbs and hoods. It took a couple of minutes for my brain to untangle the image and comprehend I was looking at the contorted bodies of men. Men cowering in front of dogs, men sodomized. I remember looking back and forth between their brown skin and black hair and the starkly contrasting white faces stretched in broad, toothy smiles. I remember one clear thought as I looked into the pixelated eyes of the soldiers: are we not human enough?

Those men could have been my father, uncles, or brothers. Despite being a fairly light-skinned Syrian, their dark skin was strong arms and safety, invoking the troth of blood and kinship. My legs felt numb, my mind went blank, and my ears rang with shock. I went to school that day in a daze. Why weren’t people screaming about this depraved rape and abuse? How were the faces around me smiling and not twisted in fright and repulsion at the sadistic smiles and cocky thumbs-ups? 

That flashbulb memory comes to me often, Abu Ghraib 2004. I believe we lost any remnants of hope and trust when news of Abu Ghraib broke. The tattered shreds of ‘we belong’s and it will get better’s we were clinging to shed silently, leaving us more vulnerable than ever. It was confirmation of the worst kind: the dehumanization of our brown skin and our faith didn’t just make us a perceived threat or a demeaning and time-consuming ‘randomly selected’ at the airport. 

It made us subhuman, not worthy of dignity or decency. It was the humiliation of our men and our honor, screamed silently into a deaf world. Are we not human enough?

Sde Teiman

20 years later, we watched in horror as men and boys were stripped to their underwear and crammed into the open back of a military truck. Brown skin and blindfolds. In the back of our minds, brains programmed by Western powers and their unholy War of Terror, that voice was screaming shrilly: executions or a horrific fate worse than death. 

Isn’t it strange how neural pathways of primal fear, pathways we were taught and worked so hard to break, were reignited like wildfire by that one image? Are we not human enough?

Twenty years later we’re reading the sadistic, sodomized details of Sde Teiman and it is Abu Ghraib all over again. We’re retraumatized, forcibly reminded that despite the passage of time and so-called advances in diversity and equality, our skin and creed continue to make us subhuman. 

Twenty years ago, the photo of a man in a black hood and cape, strung up like a Christmas tree was plastered on front pages setting the tone for what was to come. The headlines were 2004’s idea of a trigger warning: torture, humiliation, sodomy all laid out clear as day. 

Today’s coverage broke softly, with all the force of a warm summer breeze. 

Today Patrick Kingsley of the New York Times writes about Sde Teiman following a rare visit. He buries the lead and prioritizes reporting on his observations, a detailed and tedious description of a farce he must have known was staged for his visit. He then meanders through the story, dropping a progressively more sinister fact every 500 words or so. Like Hansel and Gretel and their trail of breadcrumbs, he surreptitiously treads a fragile path, as though fearing it will crack and break beneath him if he says too much too fast.

It took Kingsley 3317 words before the sodomy of an innocent man using what is described as an electrified metal rod was mentioned. More than three-quarters of the way into his article (87% to be exact; I calculated it) when his readers had probably dwindled to the dedicated few who felt compelled to bear witness. 

Sde Teiman

This undated photo taken in the winter 2023 and provided by Breaking the Silence, a whistleblower group of former Israeli soldiers, shows blindfolded Palestinians captured in the Gaza Strip in a detention facility on the Sde Teiman military base in southern Israel. (Breaking The Silence via AP)

Meanwhile, Julie Frankel for the Associated Press disingenuously refers to Sde Teiman as a “shadowy hospital.” She begins her article by referencing “patients…surgeries…doctors” as though the sole purpose of this place is to treat the wounded, framing this as some act of mercy and kindness on the part of the Israelis. She even goes as far as stating this was the primary purpose of this former military barracks, a complete fabrication. Sde Teiman has field hospitals, and doctors tasked with putting together bodies broken by torture. Its primary purpose, however, is the illegal detention or, more accurately, kidnapping of Palestinian men and youth and their subsequent torture and criminal interrogation. She underhandedly undermines the testimonies of tortured innocent civilians and horrific eyewitness testimonies by writing them off as merely “critics allege.” 

Frankel barely refers to these facts, which are based on whistleblowers, CNN reports, firsthand testimonies, eyewitness statements, and the anonymous confessions of Israeli soldiers and doctors. Instead, she disproportionately favors the Israeli narrative and voice. In fact, she leaves off reporting the Israeli military’s murder of innocent Palestinians until the very end of the article. Her only inclusion of a Palestinian voice comes right after that, burying the extent of torture and the Palestinian perspective underneath the disproportionate Israeli references, justifications, and her whitewashing of these crimes.

Although the structure of Kingsley’s article and the surface-level reporting of Frankel’s irked me the most, I was also disappointed by the decontextualization evident in their articles. Reading this as an account of a ‘detention center’ and the men simply ‘detainees,’ only added insult to injury. The unequivocal truth is holding someone innocent, without charge, legal representation or their family’s knowledge of their whereabouts renders them kidnapped or, at best, hostages. One cannot even use the term “hostage” as Israel wants nothing in return for their release, they merely want to torture, interrogate, and obtain confessions under duress. Adding torture and sexual abuse makes this a torture center reminiscent of Abu Ghraib. Both facts are supported by extensive international humanitarian laws that criminalize torture, secretive arbitrary imprisonment, holding people incommunicado, and inhumane prison conditions. 

Yet none of these caveats and dictates of International Humanitarian law are mentioned in these articles. Kingsley merely alludes to it with a simple “some legal experts say is a contravention of international law” as though this were up for debate and not readily available on the United Nations website and in their reports. 

Neither do they mention how pervasive the torture and illegal imprisonment against innocent Palestinians is across Israel. Both reporters fail to address how systemic these conditions and testimonies are; Israel has a long and sordid past when it comes to the grotesque and inhumane treatment of Palestinians they kidnapped and held. They also go to great lengths to ensure families and lawyers of the kidnapped do not know where they are and have no means of contact with them. Sda Teiman is merely a continuation of this horrific system intent on crippling, torturing and humiliating innocent Palestinians. 

Half-Truth Coverage

Now, I am well aware of leaked internal memos ‘guiding’ journalists on the correct terminology for referring to Palestine, where to start history, and Palestinians displacement and current genocide. However, while that may explain some literary choices, it does not absolve reporters of this half-truth coverage. As journalists and ones tasked with the monumental responsibility of exposing war crimes in the foul and degenerate torture center of Sde Teiman, there is an ethical and moral obligation to apply the best practices of investigative journalism. 

For instance, as is expected in investigative journalism, reporting should counter the statements and claims of Israeli officials, rather than quoting them verbatim. For instance, when the Israeli military denies systematic abuse and claims it may have been invented under pressure from Hamas, it would be relevant to include some of the relevant statistics, such as how many children and innocent women are illegally imprisoned, the extent of sexual abuse and humiliation, the methods of torture, and the Israeli military court’s failure to prosecute any of the soldiers involved. 

Reporting should also humanize these men. Who are they? What family was waiting for them, believing them dead? What stories of horror, fear, and humiliation do they carry, scars on their bodies and minds? Kingsley references the men’s feelings twice, once regarding how long the imprisonment felt and once how a hot metal rod inserted in his rectum felt, and Frankel, not at all. I believe these men, being the complex human beings they are, felt much more than that. 

I stress these points intentionally. Sde Teiman has shown us the world has not learned from the heinous crimes of Guantanamo Bay or Abu Ghraib. In 2003, George W. Bush looked dead at the camera and said: “the people you liberate will witness the honorable and decent spirit of the American military.” Today Israel is no different, claiming to have the most moral army in the world. 

If Bush taught us anything, it’s that even though talk is cheap, it exacts a heavy price from those it demonizes. 

In 2004, when I was 15, I choked on the bile in my throat as proud, strong men were humiliated, tortured, and broken in both body and spirit. 

It’s 2024, and Sde Teiman shows we haven’t learned to care that underneath brown skin, bones break and flesh splits just the same as white skin. Nor have we learned that minds that worship Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) recoil in horror and humiliation at sexual abuse just the same as minds that worship any other God. 

Perhaps the humanization of these men will grant people the ability to see that. 

Perhaps this will help end this cruelty and prevent the next shameful Abu Ghraib or Sde Teiman. 

Perhaps then, my 11-year-old Palestinian son won’t be putting pen to paper in twenty years, choking back the bile in his throat at the dehumanization and demonization of his skin.  



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The Prophet (SAW) has taught us the best of deeds are those that done consistently, even if they are small. Click here to support MuslimMatters with a monthly donation of $2 per month. Set it and collect blessings from Allah (swt) for the khayr you're supporting without thinking about it.

Walaa Katoue is a mother of four beautiful kids based out of Calgary, Canada. Her passion for the overlap of psychology and Islam led her to obtain her Bachelor’s in Psychology and pursue an independent Islamic education. She is currently a research coordinator, with a particular interest in immigrant populations, their mental health and their discrimination. She is a long time advocate for Palestine and human rights.

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