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Exiled Home

September 15, 2009
by Andrew Moss
artist's depiction of life in limbo

The Guantánamo detainees who got sent back to Afghanistan endure lives in limbo.

Guantánamo is the name of a bay in Cuba and the American naval base that has operated there since 1898. But since 2001, when the United States government built a detention center on the base to incarcerate the enemy as defined by the Bush administration’s “war on terror,” the name has become synonymous with that detention center and the “aggressive interrogation techniques” practiced there. Like “Abu Ghraib,” “Guantánamo” is a name that conjures a mix of shame, dread, and uneasiness. Most of us would rather not think about it or about the men behind the razor wire. All told, some 770 detainees have been held at Guantánamo, most of them from Afghanistan. More than 500 have been released, without ever having been charged or tried. Many have returned home in an effort to resume lives that were interrupted by a long nightmare of isolation, deprivation, and—let us speak the word—torture.

Berkeley’s Human Rights Center and International Human Rights Law Clinic, in partnership with the Center for Human Rights, released a 136-page report in November entitled “Guantánamo and Its Aftermath.” As stated in the introduction by Judge Patricia Wald, the report details the “dismal descent into the netherworld of prisoner abuse since the tragic events of September 11, 2001” and “traces the missteps that disfigured an internationally admired nation and tainted its self-proclaimed ideals of humane treatment and justice for all.”

As part of the Center’s research effort, Professor Emeritus Andrew Moss, Ph.D. ’79, traveled to Afghanistan to interview men who had returned to their country after being released from Guantánamo. He filed this report.

Friday We are in a dusty suburb of Kabul, at the office of the Afghanistan Human Rights Organization [AHRO]. The sun is going down and a few kites are flying from the rooftops. Laurel Fletcher, from the Berkeley School of Law (Boalt), her former student Zulaikha Aziz, and myself have come to interview former Guantánamo detainees for the Berkeley Human Rights Center. We will ask them about their time in detention and their lives since they returned.

Two-thirds of all the prisoners held in Guantánamo have been released, either because of home country pressure or because the U.S. Combatant Status Review Panel found no evidence of “enemy combatant” status. About half the Afghans who have been sent home—some 40 individuals—have agreed to be interviewed by us. The Afghanistan Human Rights Organization will bring them into Kabul from the neighboring provinces.

Lal Gul, the AHRO director, thinks we should stay inside the office, which is also his house. We shouldn’t walk around the neighborhood, he says. It’s not safe to go downtown. He has given me his bedroom, Laurel and Zulaikha have the visiting consultants’ room, and he will bunk in a spare kitchen.

“We will make a schedule for the bathroom,” he says. Ali Shah, a retainer who sleeps on the floor downstairs, will bring up hot water in a kettle. I volunteer for the 6:30 a.m. bathroom slot. Night falls and the generator comes on with a clunk. In this high-desert town it gets cold as soon as the sun disappears.

Saturday We set up chairs for the translator, the interviewee, and me in Lal Gul’s red-cushioned and red-carpeted bedroom. As Afghan hospitality dictates, there is a table between us for sweets and tea. The first interviewee is a Taliban conscript. When he came home they thought he was gay—”you know, like boy to boy”—because he had been in Guantánamo. Then they thought he was a U.S. spy. Now he can’t join the army, he can’t get a job, and his family won’t find a woman for him to marry. He’s been tabooed—because he was in Guantánamo he is dangerous to know.

Sunday I interview the head of a police checkpost who had a feud with his commander and got sold to the United States. He explains: “When somebody was informing the U.S. troops about somebody, that they have links with Al Qaeda, the Americans would pay them $2000 to $3000.” He was sent to Bagram, the huge U.S. air base outside Kabul, where, he says, they chained him to the ceiling for eight days. “Then two people died of the chain, then they stopped chaining people to the ceiling.” He says he was interrogated in a kneeling position, overnight, multiple times. “I don’t care about the beatings, how they were beating us, the worst thing for me was when we were going to the toilet. There were no toilets, we would do in front of all the other prisoners.”

At Guantánamo, his interrogator told him he would be there for 95 years. “I tried several times to kill myself, but the prison personnel came…it was not possible to kill oneself. If there was a possibility to kill oneself, I would kill myself then.”

The interviewing is hard work. It’s hard to stay connected during the interpreting, hard to establish rapport with the detainees. Many of them are here primarily because they think it will help them get compensation. Compensation from the U.S. government would be an acknowledgment that the United States was wrong when it imprisoned them. This is what they seem to want most, to have their names cleared.

Monday Today we have four interviewees from one village in Khost province, including a father and his son. The boy’s mother was killed in the American bombing. They were a rich family with enemies in the village and somebody turned them in as Taliban supporters. “Yes, of course it was for the money,” the son says.

At lunchtime, I escape from the office and borrow a translator to go downtown to the H. Shah bookstore, made famous in The Bookseller of Kabul. On Interior Ministry Street an Afghan National Army convoy approaches, sirens shrieking, then bogs down in the traffic jam. The soldiers point their weapons aggressively at nearby cars, but nobody can move.

In the evening, we have dinner with Lal Gul at a Persian restaurant in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, considered the safe zone for foreigners. Wazir Akbar Khan is the man who massacred the British at the Khyber Pass. The restaurant is one of only five that are approved for U.S. government employees, who always travel with a Mobile Security Detail—i.e., armed guards in two armored SUVs.

Tuesday I wake up feeling cheery—strange, since I’ll be interviewing two more Afghans whose lives were ruined, who were stripped naked at Bagram, hung from the ceiling, menaced by dogs, beaten, abused, left in the snow in chains, shackled hand and foot to the floor on the plane to Guantánamo, then shackled again going home even after the Combatant Status Review Tribunal declared them No Longer An Enemy Combatant.

Ali Shah arrives promptly at 6:30. He flicks his head toward the bathroom: There’s your hot water. Noises are coming from the kitchen downstairs. Yesterday there were tomatoes and garlic in the scrambled eggs and everybody grabbed for them eagerly.

Later we go to a coffeehouse to meet an Afghan-American who works for an NGO. He says, “Don’t tell anybody what you’re doing. You can disappear very quickly in Kabul.”

Wednesday A crisp, clear morning, a sharp line of hills around the city, blue sky over the desert tan of the hills.

I interview a medical worker from Paktia province who says he was turned in by his neighbors/rivals with some involvement of the local warlord. Americans, he says, are “Dogs. Dogs!” He’s living in a kind of limbo. The U.S. Embassy won’t talk to him, and the Afghan government doesn’t care. He has a wad of character recommendations, but no one will hire him and he has lost all his money. Like everyone we interview, he wants compensation, wants his status corrected, wants to be exonerated. And he wants revenge for his mother, who died of a heart attack.

Thursday Today, I interview a really angry man, so angry he can’t hear my questions. After raving for half an hour about the injustice of his imprisonment, he turns on me. “I am asking you guys whom should I ask for compensation? Just show me the guy who gave you wrong information about me…. I don’t think these talks or interviews will help my life…. What direct benefits will these talks and interviews have for me? What kind of government is the American government?” He gets angrier and angrier until finally I shut down the interview.

I need a timeout. Lal Gul thinks the Mine Museum will be safe, so I grab a translator and a cab. Unfortunately, the taxi driver drops us off at the mine-clearing headquarters, not the museum. We walk nervously across town, pretending to be relaxed. At the museum there are pictures of kids with maimed hands and missing legs, a dusty diorama with G.I. Joe dolls and little dog figurines to demonstrate how mines are sniffed out, and an aquarium with mermaids, exhibiting a Pakistani mine that can sit on the bottom of a pond for years and then explode. Also on display are Russian anti-tank rockets, IEDs that were used against the Russians, and a couple of ancient muskets. “From the wars against the British,” the guide says.

Back at the house, Laurel is crazed after an interview with a stone-faced kid who was taken to Guantánamo at 16 and is, she says, “totally PTSD” [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Another man cried while telling her how, as he was leaving Guantánamo, he brushed his fingers over the fingers of the prisoners still in their cages.

Friday I realize I have been repressing yesterday’s interview with the angry man. He got to me and I didn’t want to be pushed around so I shut him off. Then I felt guilty. “I don’t think these interviews will help my life,” he’d said. I explained that we were doing a research study and that the results would become part of the U.S. debate about Guantánamo. I said it might help get compensation in the long run. It didn’t make any sense to him.

Saturday Coming to the end. Today’s interviewee memorized the Koran in Guantánamo. It made his life tolerable, he says. But he is angry that Taliban higher-ups who were also in Guantánamo now live well on the U.S. payroll. How can that be when his own life was ruined?

Sunday My final interview is with a shepherd from Bamiyan who was conscripted by the Taliban because he didn’t have enough money to buy himself out. He wouldn’t say a bad word about the United States. An illiterate shepherd with a red beard, ignorant of the world, and the only thing the interrogators cared about was whether or not he knew Bin Laden personally.

Monday My last day in Kabul. I go to the National Museum in the far south of the city to see the Nuristan sculptures. I am the only tourist. The sculptures are pagan, from the Eastern mountains: giant wooden figures with an African look. I am staring at them when someone hustles me out of the gallery: Something has happened and the staff are shutting the museum down. Outside, the staff members board a bus and disappear. I am left waiting for a taxi in the middle of nowhere. After a while an International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, patrol comes rolling past. The troopers in their combat armor stare down at me from atop the armored vehicles looking like giant war insects.

In the evening I eat dinner with some Americans in Wazir Akbar Khan, along with a U.N. bureaucrat and a man from British intelligence. The Brit pulls a handgun from the back of his pants, parks it on a side table, and informs us there was a giant suicide-bomber attack at Baghlan, in the north of the country. A former Afghan vice president and five MPs were killed. Also dozens of bystanders, including schoolchildren. The U.N. administrator is taking phone calls. He doesn’t know yet how many casualties. The hostess is having flashbacks to the evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Saigon in 1975. “Will we have to be taken out of here by helicopter?” she asks anxiously.

On the plane homeThe detainees I interviewed weren’t the “worst of the worst,” as Vice President Cheney characterized the Afghans who were locked up in Guantánamo. They were mostly illiterate Taliban conscripts or bystanders who got swept up in the craziness after 9/11. Guantánamo wasn’t always the worst of what happened to them. Bagram was often nastier. Days shackled to the ceiling, dogs, humiliation, everything we saw in the photos from Abu Ghraib. At Guantánamo, if you kept quiet and did what you were told, life could be manageable. You just had to put up with it till they let you out. But if you didn’t do what the guards wanted, you ended up in the “crazy block.”

“If you saw the situation of the prisoners,” a taxi driver who ended up in Guantánamo after refusing to give up his cab to police at a roadblock, told me, “you would just imagine that if these prisoners were released they would eat all human beings…. If I stayed until now I would also become crazy.”

So far, none of the released detainees has received any compensation (though some of them are represented by U.S. lawyers). And, as in the case of Abu Ghraib, nobody with any seniority has been held responsible for what happened. The U.S. government won’t do anything because it can’t admit it was wrong and the Afghan government won’t do anything for fear of offending the United States. What happened to a bunch of Afghan villagers is just collateral damage.

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