The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me

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Sami al-HajOn my first trip to the base, in January of 2006, I was very nervous. I remember following a soldier through a series of gated doors in to a dusty court yard to a painted brown door. I quickly arranged the shawl I’d brought over my head and arms. Normal 0 false false false /* Style Definitions */ table.MsoNormalTable {mso-style-name:”Table Normal”; mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0; mso-tstyle-colband-size:0; mso-style-noshow:yes; mso-style-parent:””; mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt; mso-para-margin:0in; mso-para-margin-bottom:.0001pt; mso-pagination:widow-orphan; font-size:10.0pt; font-family:”Times New Roman”; mso-ansi-language:#0400; mso-fareast-language:#0400; mso-bidi-language:#0400;} Sami al-HajRecently, the Pentagon released No. 345 after holding him for going-on seven years in a concrete box. No. 345 is the stripped down alias for Sami al-Haj, a journalist, a talented poet, a husband, and father. He endured countless indignities, hundreds of interrogations, and horrific abuse. In a letter to his lawyer, he wrote in prose, imagining “small, iron” cells like the one that imprisoned him at Guantanamo lining the foot of the statue of liberty. “Inside there are creatures wearing orange clothing. It hardly seems possible that they are human (but) they breathe, just as we breathe, they have feelings, just as we have feelings, sentiments and emotions,” he wrote. “Will the world stand for a moment of silence one day beside that colossal wreck saying, ‘There once was a stone statue here, a statue called liberty?'”

I was studying Guantanamo Bay in law school at the time and realized that this big Gitmo charade was really nothing more than a lawless black hole where prisoners were being caged, tortured, and hidden away from the world, without a voice, without being charged, without an impartial hearing. Sami al-Haj was never charged before his May 1 release.

I was also baffled that Washington policy makers were debating the legality of medieval torture techniques. Once upon a time, they called it Chinese water torture. Today in America, it’s “waterboarding”. I didn’t know if the men at Gitmo were good or bad – simply that they shouldn’t be stripped of basic civil and human rights. Only a fair trial could separate the good from bad.

Eventually, I Googled the cases I had read so much about and got in touch with the attorneys. When I learned that there was no one with security clearance who spoke Pashto (a predominant Afghan language), I applied for security clearance and got my foot in the door as an interpreter for habeas lawyers representing detainees. My role eventually grew to representing an Afghan detainee under supervision, but that’s how it started.

On my first trip to the base, in January of 2006, I was very nervous. I remember following a soldier through a series of gated doors in to a dusty court yard to a painted brown door. I quickly arranged the shawl I’d brought over my head and arms. I think I was expecting a violent foreigner, even a member of the Taliban. When I walked in, I saw a man standing at the far end of the room behind a long table. I went over to him and shook hands with my first “terrorist”, No. 1154 – Dr. Ali Shah Mousovi, a fragile pediatrician shackled to the floor by his ankle.

 I’ve now lost count of the number of times I’ve been to the base. Several dozen, at least. But despite all those trips, I still get uncomfortable every time I arrive. It’s a strange unsettling feeling in my stomach. I never eat much and never sleep well. Objectively speaking, Guantanamo is always sunny, the water is blue-green, the weather is perfect. What makes it unsettling is the knowledge that innocent men’s lives have been destroyed there. No doubt there are terrorists at Gitmo too, but I haven’t met them. Instead I came to the realization of why men like Sami al-Haj, No. 345, and Dr. Ali Shah Mousovi, No. 1154, have been stripped of their identities.

Stripping Gitmo prisoners of their names and identities makes their abuse easier to swallow. They become nameless, faceless bomb-makers, terrorists, boogey men – cataloged and referred to by serial number as a way of dehumanizing them. A name makes a person – or even an animal – individual and unique. Serial numbers are for inanimate objects. When I went to Guantanamo Bay, I listened to the numbered men tell their stories and quickly realized why the military had made them invisible entities.

The numbers denied the humanity of those assigned to them: No. 1009, No.1103, No.902, No. 0002, No. 1021, No. 693, No.0004, No.560, No.928, No.953, No. 969, No. 713, No. 976, No. 1001,No. 914, No. 801, No. 848, No. 304, No. 1037, No. 1074, No. 702, No. 892, No. 1453, No. 0003, No.10006, No.1458, No.0061, No.753, No.306, No.954, No. 1010 . . .

It’s easy to skim over the numbers. And there are hundreds like them.

I listened to an 80-year-old paraplegic white-bearded grandfather speak of being beaten by American soldiers at Bagram. He clung to me before we left him there. I watched a 43-year old pediatrician’s (who worked with the United Nations to increase Afghan electoral support) eyes well as he recalled the last time he saw his daughter. I listened to No. 1001, Hafizullah Shabaz Khail, protest that he was a university-educated pharmacist and a staunch supporter of Hamid Karzai’s ascendancy. I saw No. 1021, Chaman Gul, crouch in his cage and weep for fear that his family would forget him, then I later watched him bury his face in a dozen roses as he worried about his aging mother. The first time I met my client, No. 1119, it was clear to me that he missed the company of a woman. “I am happy you are here,” he told me. “Even if they throw me in the ocean with a sweet lady like you, I would be happy.” I’ve arm-wrestled and told jokes and forged friendships and cried with men who are like my brothers and uncles now. Guantanamo is a surreal place. It’s hard to go there and just as hard to leave those men behind.

No. 977, Izzatullah, also stands out in my mind. The military granted us permission to show him a home video of his family in Sarobi, Afghanistan. He was overwhelmed when he saw his children on the tape and began laughing and crying at once. It was strange. I had never seen two such intense emotions expressed at the same time. When the video was over, the six-foot Afghan looked up at us with watery eyes. For a moment, he was at a loss for words. He held up his thumbs and glanced at us in silence. Finally, he spoke. “Manana – thank you. What you have done for me today is something I will never forget. For the rest of my life, until I die, I will remember this act of kindness,” he said. “I had not seen my children in five years. Today, you have allowed me to see them, to hear them. For that, I will always be grateful.”

And every time it got to the part with his children lined up to face the camera, Izatullah inched closer to the portable DVD player’s small screen, listening intently to every word, exclaiming over the children’s shy gestures. They fidgeted with their clothing. Their eyes darted about. Their high voices and small movements made him laugh even as tears streamed down his face. When the guards came to bring some requested documents to the door, Izatullah’s eyes never moved from the video. The tears kept rolling, and the tissues he clenched became a wet ball.

While they’ve been infamously touted as the “the worst of the worst”, I think some of the men I’ve met are in fact the best of the best. If I had kids, I would allow many of those men at Gitmo to watch them. They are some of the most hospitable and gracious individuals I’ve come across. I continue to be in awe of their generosity and how dignified they remain under the most trying circumstances.

No doubt, some of the men at Gitmo are evil – even deserving to be called “worst of the worst”. Terrorists like 9/11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammad come to mind. However, none of the guys I’ve met fit that bill, and only a fair trial will separate the good from evil. I really became convinced that innocent men had been swept up into the Gitmo mess when I learned about the bounties. During the war after September 11, the U.S. military air-dropped thousands of leaflets across Afghanistan, promising between $5,000 and $25,000 to anyone who would turn in members of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Considering that per capita income in Afghanistan in 2006 was $300, or 82 cents a day, that’s like hitting the jackpot. The average Afghan would have to work for eighty-three years to make that kind of money.

Of course, offering large sums as bounty doesn’t violate any international laws. But when the result is a pattern of hundreds of men being randomly sold into captivity and then held without due process on the basis of flimsy allegations made by people who benefited financially, it’s at the very least cause for concern – and a second look.

Mahvish Khan is an American lawyer of Afghan descent who has worked as a translator for prisoners held in Guantanamo Bay. She recently published a memoir of her work, My Guantanamo Diary, which is available for purchase on Amazon.com. More information about her work and her upcoming book tour can be found on her website www.mahvishkhan.com. This article originally appeared in Amnesty International Magazine.

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