Abandoned to their fate in Guantanamo

A wave of suicides in Guantanamo Bay illustrates the despair of prisoners who cannot even hope that their governments might one day demand that they either have their charges heard in court, or be freed. For while the camp’s European citizens are now out, citizens of Arab states have been sent to the back of the queue. (16-JUNE-06)

A wave of suicides in Guantanamo Bay illustrates the despair of prisoners who cannot even hope that their governments might one day demand that they either have their charges heard in court, or be freed. For while the camp´s European citizens are now out, citizens of Arab states have been sent to the back of the queue. (16-JUN-06)

Text: Index on Censorship / Clive Stafford Smith. This is an edited version of a longer article from Index on Censorship, 3/05

In the debate over Guantanamo Bay, the prisoners with European links get a disproportionate amount of newsprint. By the time the US had released 100 per cent of the European nationals (various residents remain), only four per cent of the Arabs had been sent home. Statistics cannot tell the whole tale, but this is an emphatic difference. In part, perhaps, this reflects the relative political influence of their home countries: the US indubitably cares more about what Tony Blair says than his Arab counterparts. It may also reflect the greater freedom but more parochial concerns of the European press. There are two factors not mirrored by the release figures: one, many of the Arab prisoners are certainly no more culpable than their European brethren who were seized in Pakistan or Afghanistan. Two, their stories are equally fascinating. I have been trying to help represent the Jordanians in Guantanamo Bay, and I have been intrigued by the cross-section of issues that these ten men present.

Released after four years
Perhaps the saddest Jordanian story belongs to Khalid Alasmar. He is married to Fatima, an Afghan woman whose life had already been coloured with tragedy. In 1984, a Soviet jet scored a direct hit on the house where her family was sheltering, killing her mother, her father and her sister. She fled to Pakistan where she met Khalid, then a refugee from Palestine . They married and had four boys (Abdulrahman, Abdullah, Yousif, and Yahya), and three girls (Aisha, Mariam, and Asiya). Khalid worked selling herbs. When the region was tipped into turmoil by 9/11, both were foreigners in Pakistan, and they had to leave. They initially planned to stay with Fatima¡’s relatives in Afghanistan, but they found the family riven between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. They retreated to Kabul, which seemed relatively safe. Then the US war came to the capital, and Khalid had to find a way to get the family to safety. Two parents and seven children got into their sole possession, a white Toyota car.

Unfortunately, the US military believed that the Taliban had a penchant for white Toyotas. As Khalid drove towards Pakistan, a US jet turned to attack their vehicle. The family leapt out of the car, the children waved, the plane fired, and Fatima thought she was about to lose a second family. Fortunately, the rocket narrowly missed, showering the children with dirt as they cowered in a ditch. They piled back into the car, only to be spotted by a second plane. This time, they had no time to get out. Another rocket came at them, but again missed. The family finally made it to Pakistan, where Khalid dropped the family off, sold the car and worked to get them back to Jordan. However, on 15 February 2002, he was arrested by the Pakistani authorities and was handed over to the US military. With seven children and little money it took Fatima months to get to Jordan, where Khalid¡’s family took them in. It took even longer before she received a card from Guantanamo, where Khalid was waiting to find out what crime he could possibly have committed. I met Khalid there in early 2005. It took the US military three years to hold a tribunal at which Khalid was able to convince them of his innocence. It took several more months before he was finally set free. Almost four years after he was snatched from his seven children and sold to the US , Khalid came home.

“Difficult for me to talk about this”
There is Hussain Mustafa, from Azarka, Jordan. Dignified, with a graying beard, I met him in Amman in 2004. He has a Masters in Islamic Law from Medina in Saudi Arabia and taught at the Gallilee University up to 1984, when he went to teach in Pakistan. Hussain lived near the Afghan border, teaching refugees. On 25 May 2002, around 8 pm, he returned home with his son Mohammed in the car. Ten minutes after entering the house the doorbell rang. “I asked Ibrahim, my youngest son to answer the door. He came back scared, calling, “Police, Police!” He was crying. As soon as he came in the room, the Pakistani police followed, armed and with their guns pointing at us. They asked if it was me, and I said yes, I was about to eat with my children and my wife. I asked the officer what he wanted and he said he needed Hussain. I said, “I am Hussain.”

Hussain had a refugee card from the UN. The police looked at it, and took Hussain and his son to the car. The US authorities took him to Bagram. He was threatened repeatedly that his wife would be brought to prison as well. “I felt a true anger. I was torn on the inside because of what they said. This was a terrible threat.” Prisoners were repeatedly threatened “with ghastly and immoral acts like rape”. He thought that the worst moment in his life took place in Bagram. It was very difficult for him to speak of it, but eventually he told me: “An American soldier took me blindfolded, my hands were tightly cuffed, with my ears plugged so I could not hear properly, and my mouth covered so I could only make a muffled scream. Two soldiers (one each side) forced me to bend down, and a third pressed my face down over a table. A fourth soldier then pulled down my trousers. “They forcibly rammed a stick up my rectum. It was excruciatingly painful. I have always believed that I am not a person who would scream unless I was really hurt. But I could not stop screaming when this happened. This torture went on for several minutes, but it felt like hours, and the pain afterwards was almost as bad as anything I experienced at the time.”

The truth must be known
Unsurprisingly, Hussain says these events have affected him deeply. “I simply cannot understand why it happened to me. It is a smear that will always cloud my life. It is something that I am ashamed to think about, let alone talk about, but it is something that, inevitably, I cannot press out of my mind. What they did to me was disgusting, and it is difficult for me to talk about this!” “Naturally, I do not want this known in public, yet my fear for my own privacy is overridden by my desire to make sure that the truth is known, so that others are not made to suffer in this way in the future.” Hussain was ultimately released in 2004 because there was no evidence against him, but his family did not all survive to welcome him home. His oldest son Abdullah died of a heart condition in February 2004. In Hussain¡’s new world, anything might happen to him. “I have had the experience of doing nothing wrong or illegal, and yet being held for over two years of my life. I will never be the same person. Now I spend a lot of my time alone, sitting in the Mosque, as I have become an introvert. I only go out where it is really necessary.”


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