How to Survive Waterboarding?

Waterboarding, or water dousing, (or, a dunk in the water, if you ask Dick Cheney) is a euphemism for the more revealing term water torture, an interrogation technique not intended to kill, but to extract information from a person. Throughout history, it’s been known as a particularly cruel torture method, but despite this reputation it has still been used in recent years.

In the process of waterboarding, you are immobilized and tightly bound to a bench. A cloth is then placed over your eyes, mouth, and nose. Most likely, there will be many hands on you to restrict any possible movement, and you won’t know what’s happening to you. At this moment you can still breathe through the cloth, but as soon as water starts being poured, the cloth saturates, and no more air can pass through.

It will just be water entering your system. No matter how hard you try to breathe, you will just be inhaling water, essentially giving you an experience identical to drowning. For about 20 to 40 seconds water is poured from 12 to 24 inch. After this, there’s a big chance you will die from suffocation, so the cloth is lifted, allowing you to breathe, and usually vomit. After just a few deep breaths though, the cloth is put back, and the process repeated. 

What is feels like to be waterboarded?

This an edited excerpt of an account by Abu Zubaydah, the never charged, but seemingly forever imprisoned Saudi national, suspected of being a senior Osama bin Laden official. Zubaydah was subject to many forms of torture on some of CIA’s so-called black sites before he was transferred to Guantánamo Bay. One of the secretly authorized interrogation methods used on him was waterboarding, which he underwent no less than 83 times.

“They restrained me to a metal bed so totally that I was unable to move at all. Then they restrained my head using strong plastic cushions which made it impossible for me to move it, not even a centimeter to the left or right, neither up nor down. I didn’t understand the reason for this severe restraint. Suddenly they put a black cloth over my head, covering it completely. I felt water being poured. It shocked me because it was very cold. The water didn’t stop. It was poured continuously over my face to give me the feeling of drowning, of suffocation. They kept pouring water on my nose and mouth until I really felt I was drowning, and my chest was just about to explode from the lack of oxygen.

That was the first time I felt I was going to die from drowning. All I remember is that I started vomiting water. I tried to yell: “I don’t know anything”, but I suddenly felt the water flowing again. They interrupted the operation for a few minutes to allow me to breathe or vomit, and then they would resume. 

The humiliations, the terrorizing, the hunger, the pain, the tension, the nervousness and the sleep deprivation lasted for some time until one day they did all these things to me but with more intensity and for longer periods of time before they brought me back to the big box [‘big’ here means a coffin-sized box he spent 266 hours in, in contrast to a much smaller box he was put in for 29 hours].”

waterboard interrogation technique

The description above is paraphrased from the CIA’s Torture Memos, a top-secret document from the US government that was partially leaked to the press in 2004.

A CIA report on the usage of waterboarding on Abu Zubaydah says:

“The waterboarding technique was physically harmful, inducing convulsions and vomiting. Abu Zubaydah, for example, became “completely unresponsive, with bubbles rising through his open, full mouth. Over a two-and-a-half-hour period, Abu Zubaydah coughed, vomited, and had “involuntary spasms of the torso and extremities” during waterboarding, immediate fluid intake and involuntary leg, chest and arm spasms” and “hysterical pleas.”

To get an idea of what waterboarding looks like, check out the video below, where writer Christopher Hitchens volunteered to undergo it, after which he published a story named Believe Me, It’s Torture.

What types of waterboarding are there?

Various forms of waterboarding have been around for centuries and were a favorite during the Spanish and Flemish inquisitions in the 16th century and by European powers during the colonial era. It also became popular by the US police after physical violence during interrogations became prohibited, as waterboarding doesn’t leave visible scars or bruises. 

In recent years, waterboarding has been used by the Chinese government in their notorious Uyghur ‘re-education camps’, by the terrorist organization Islamic State, and in the North Korean prison system. The CIA was a bit slow to take this form of torture off the table, but finally in 2009 Barack Obama signed a decree banning the method for usage on prisoners by any government agency. 

Apart from the application of the method described above, there are varieties where victims are forced to drink a seemingly endless flow of water, called the water cure. Either with or without a tube inside their throat. Or another, where the head is held back, and water is forcibly poured into the nostrils. Or how about the ‘Swedish drink’, a method where the victim is forced to swallow large amounts of foul, contaminated liquid, even containing human excrement.

Can you prepare yourself to be waterboarded?

According to psychologists, ex-torturers and people who underwent waterboarding, there isn’t any way to prepare yourself for it. However, until 2007 the US army’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) training program prepared its participants for various forms of torture, including waterboarding. As one former SERE-student puts it: 

‘I was waterboarded one time. I just didn’t think it would be that bad. It is. It is a horrific ordeal. You know you’re on dry land and not in any danger of drowning. Your brain just overrides your common sense and goes into full out panic mode. It is one of the worst experiences of my life.’

It turns out that, even though we’re able to hold our breath much longer, most people who voluntarily undergo waterboarding, while knowing they’re in safe hands and can make it stop whenever it’s too much for them, don’t usually last more than 10 to 15 seconds. Simply because of the all-pervasive primordial fear that gets triggered, which tells you you’re drowning. Holding your breath doesn’t change that experience. Apparently, your system can go into such violent panic and spasms that people have broken bones while being strapped onto the waterboard. 

According to Steven Kleinman, one of the US military’s most recognized interrogators, it’s impossible to teach coping with waterboarding: “It teaches failure. No one succeeds. They can’t teach a strategy during that. Literally, it was absolutely so painful.” Kleinman argues that instead of making trainees more resilient to brutal treatment, waterboarding “leaves students psychologically defeated with no ability to resist while under pressure. This was said about military professionals who are already in a training program which teaches you to cope with being interrogated and potentially tortured by enemies, not about untrained people like us who may even give up after 5 seconds. 

So, it seems there’s hardly any way to prepare yourself. Perhaps to undergo it so many times until your system somehow understands it’s probably not going to drown. But before that happens, you may suffer such terrible psychological damage that there’s indeed only failure to be found.

A Justice Department memo even confirms that the CIA went much further with their terror suspects than when training their own elite soldiers:

“The difference was in the manner in which the detainee’s breathing was obstructed,” the document notes. In soldier training, “The interrogator applies a small amount of water to the cloth (on a soldier’s face) in a controlled manner,” DOJ wrote. “By contrast, the agency interrogator … continuously applied large volumes of water to a cloth that covered the detainee’s mouth and nose.”

Evolution designed you to go into the most frantic survival mode when you’re unable to breathe. So even if you manage to not mentally collapse and go into a wild, raging panic from being waterboarded in a mock-setting, which is already rare, then you’re still nowhere near prepared for what real torturers may do to you, given the fact the even well-trained CIA agents with medical staff pushed waterboarding beyond any reasonable level on actual prisoners. Our unlikely, but still possible, scenario assumes your potential waterboarders are not up to much good and are determined to get information from you or to just make you suffer a great deal.

Is there really any way to prepare for that? We’ll get to one trick a little later.

What does it feel like to be waterboarded?

In addition to the accounts above, I’d like to share some of the experiences from American soldiers who underwent waterboarding voluntarily during their training program, shared with Huffpost during interviews.

“The most searing, burning learning experience I’ve ever been through.” – George Wolske, navy aircrew

It was the worst thing I’ve ever felt (…) You’ve got water in your lungs, your brain is on fire, your nasal cavity is on fire, your throat is completely swollen up. – Jeromy Shane, former Army interrogation instructor

it is horrifying to watch and if it goes wrong, it can lead straight to terminal hypoxia. When done right it is controlled death. – Malcolm Nance, retired interrogator.

Can you die from waterboarding?

 You’re unable to breathe, your movements are restricted, and all that’s entering your system is cold water. Waterboarding is experientially no different from drowning in a locked cage. Unless you get a chance to clear your lungs within a few minutes, you will pass out and die. Prolonged and repeated deprivation of oxygen, combined with fear and constriction, water intoxication, hyponatremia, can cause permanent organ damage. Other than physical injuries, survivors have reported severe post-traumatic stress, nightmares, incontinence, and panic attacks when it rains.

Unless your torturers understand what they are doing, chances of them pushing you beyond survivable limits are very real. Political scientist and author on torture practices John Schiemann puts it like this: 

It is simply drowning that is stopped before the detainee dies, though often not before he or she loses consciousness. It is, in other words, an arrested execution. Since it is more easily—but never perfectly—controllable, it permits torturers to bring detainees closer to death gradually over a relatively longer period of time.

How to survive waterboarding?

  1. What’s going on?

Having a thorough understanding of what is happening may be of some help. At least, despite the overwhelming panic, there might still be a voice in the back of your mind telling you they won’t actually kill you. 

  1. Breathe

Try to make your body supple and relaxed and try to breathe deeply while you still can. The less panicky you enter the arena, the better chances you stand to hold out.

  1. Through hell

This is hell. This is death, or the nearest you’ll ever get to feeling death’s hot breath. Or rather cold in your case. If there’s any way you can find peace with this fact, you’re probably either an accomplished Stoic or yogi. Either way, any tiny bit may help to get you through another second.

  1. Exhale

If your torturers pour water from cups or jugs, they may need a few seconds between each pour to refill or change the cup. These few seconds can be your lifeline. Once the water stops, exhale sharply and forcefully, which will blow a great amount of water out of your system and may grant you a little bit of oxygen before the next pour begins. 

  1. Lie!

The little trick I promised? The best way to escape the waterboard is either by fighting your way out, which is quite unlikely since you’re strapped onto a board, probably by armed people, or by convincing them you have what they want to hear. Lying your way out of your precarious situation may be your golden ticket. More on this below.

How to fool your captors while undergoing waterboarding?

Even US officials concluded that victims of waterboarding will do anything to get out of their situation, so there’s a high chance of them making up stories, as reportedly happened with 9-11 suspect Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, when held on a CIA site in Poland where he was waterboarded 183 times during 15 sessions. He told the CIA an elaborate story about an Al-Qaeda plan to recruit African American Muslim converts in Montana, which he later admitted to have made up just to make the torture stop. In other words, preparing a plausible, coherent, and detailed nonsense story to distract your torturers and show them you’re actually cooperating, could be the best way to avoid repeated waterboarding.

A 2014 CIA report even says that waterboarding is not effective for acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees. Unlike some politicians claim, Osama bin Laden was not captured after a breakthrough using waterboarding, but through conventional interrogation methods.

Another example, seen with BBC-journalist Chris Sampson, is that people who are being waterboarded will even admit to having been born a bunny rabbit. Anything to make it stop.

One more disturbing reconstruction on the box some waterboarded prisoners were in below:


To be honest, I can’t share much of real practical use for those strapped onto the waterboard, nor words of solace, other than the fact that you probably won’t die.

Being mentally prepared is one of the best ways to survive waterboarding. But regardless of your assumed mental readiness or breath-holding ability, this form of torture can have long-lasting physical and psychological effects on you, and will make you feel like you’re actually dying. Even the most hardened combatants are likely to give in within moments of being on the waterboard. 

So, for once, I suggest lying is the way. Preparing a good-sounding bogus story is the best way to keep yourself dry and away from the waterboard.

A bit more on the political dimension of waterboarding, together with the tragic story of Suleiman Abdullah Salim, a Tanzanian man who was handed over to the CIA by a Somali warlord, while they were actually looking for a Yemeni national with a similarly sounding name. He describes his traumas of 5 years of torture, including being waterboarded.

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