A Voice from Iraq: Former Guantánamo Prisoner Speaks

10.6.10

In a fascinating interview with Mohammed Furat, the Iraqi editor of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (IWPR), an Iraqi and former Guantánamo prisoner (one of the three Iraqis released from Guantánamo in January 2009), told his story.

His account is fascinating on his own terms, as it provides an insight into how vulnerable refugees from other countries could end up in Guantánamo, but it is also of great interest because, to the best of my knowledge, it is the first ever interview with a prisoner released from Guantánamo to Iraq, and although the man in question — who uses the pseudonym Hussein Latif — is clearly struggling to make a living in Baghdad, it is reassuring that he is a free man, and was only imprisoned on his return for “several months,” as those of us who have been studying Guantánamo closely feared that the men returned from Guantánamo to Iraq might languish in Iraqi jails for years (or forever), unnoticed by the outside world.

I leave it to readers to see if they can ascertain, from the accounts of the three Iraqis released from Guantánamo in January 2009, which of the three is “Hussein Latif,” who, as the credits to the original article explain, was cleared for release from Guantánamo in 2006.

From Iraq to Guantánamo: The Accidental Prisoner

An Iraqi’s tale of an odyssey through war zones, trying to reach the West but ending up in Guantánamo.

As a young man in Iraq, I longed to live in the West. Yet when I finally came within reach of the free world, it was no longer as a free man.

The quest to escape my homeland ended with my imprisonment by the United States military at Guantánamo Bay. I spent eight years there, followed by several months in jail in Baghdad when I was repatriated, before I was finally freed.

Today, I live at liberty in the country I spent my youth trying to flee. As I drive around my home city, Baghdad, I ask myself whether I have been treated fairly. Perhaps I was wrong to try and leave my family behind in the first place.

I grew up with reckless desires and whimsical dreams. I wanted to live in Europe, and to date a beautiful, blonde woman; I wanted a job and a car. My family was poor and I wanted to help them buy a house.

My experiences have taught me to be patient. I have learnt that an Iraqi wandering abroad is like a ball flung around in different directions, from one misfortune to another.

I was born in 1974 in southern Baghdad. When I was six years old, my uncle was executed for links to a banned Shia religious party, the Dawa. The party was founded in Iran and its members were regarded as traitors by the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, which was suspicious of Shia Arabs and spent much of the 1980s at war with Iran.

My uncle’s execution plunged my family into a state of fear. The security forces searched our home. My father seemed to be lost in a vast, black sea, perplexed about how we were to survive, and worried for his own safety.

At the age of 12, I started working part-time. At first, I helped mechanics fix cars. Later, I took to the streets, selling cold water, cigarettes and juice to support my family.

After finishing technical school, I was conscripted into the army. Military intelligence had been briefed about my uncle, and I was constantly intimidated, interrogated and insulted. Faced with this hell, I decided to desert and join the opposition.

It was 1995, and Iraq was under international sanctions as a result of its invasion of Kuwait. I set off for the semi-autonomous Kurdish north, where opponents of Saddam could operate relatively freely.

However, I was arrested en route when the security forces stopped me and discovered I was carrying a copy of my uncle’s death sentence. I had hoped to use the document to prove my credentials as a dissident once I reached the offices of the United Nations or an opposition party.

I was tried as a deserter and sentenced to death by firing squad. My family sold their most valuable possessions to bribe the judge, and the sentence was reduced to a year’s imprisonment.

Back in the military, life was even harder, as I was now stigmatised as a deserter. My family borrowed money from relatives to obtain a forged document that said I had been demobilised. I used this to procure an Iraqi passport, and in 1998, I crossed the border into Jordan.

My search for work took me to Libya, Syria and eventually to Turkey — the gateway to Europe.

The Turkish authorities arrested me and sent me to northern Iraq. After another failed attempt at crossing through Turkey, I changed tack and set off eastwards through Iran. I thought that, with luck, I would be able to get to Russia, or perhaps travel by sea from India to Australia.

I lived as a vagabond in Iran and Pakistan, sleeping rough and scavenging for food. My family lost touch with me.

Eventually, a friend suggested I go to Afghanistan for work. I’d never heard of Afghanistan, but I didn’t think twice about going. I had found it impossible to find employment in Pakistan, where Iraqis seemed to be viewed with distrust.

The border crossing between Afghanistan and Pakistan was a sight to behold — a lone policeman, sitting on a chair with a stick in one hand and a hashish cigarette in the other.

In August 2001, I made my way to Kabul along with a group of other homeless Arabs. We were given shelter by some men who appeared to be very religious. They hired me as a driver to ferry their fighters around.

The work was unpaid and it felt as if I was a captive. I was regarded with great suspicion by my employers, perhaps because of my Shia origins. They were very different to me — I could not understand why they did not shave, while they didn’t understand why I hadn’t grown a beard.

Soon after I came to Afghanistan in 2001, the radio broadcast news of the attacks on the World Trade Centre in New York.

The Arabs handed me over to a group of Afghans, who promptly sold me on to the American military.

I was initially relieved to see the Americans, as I felt they would believe my story and grant me asylum.

Instead, they sent me to Guantánamo Bay.

Many of my fellow prisoners there were hard-line Sunnis who regarded Shia Muslims as apostates. They threatened me because of my faith, throwing food at me and cursing Iraq loudly, because most of its population is Shia.

I spent a lot of time in solitary confinement because of the way other prisoners behaved towards me. I also developed a friendly relationship with some of the guards. A Turkish-American officer gave me books, and a female soldier shared her cigarettes.

Over the years, I taught myself good English. During a military hearing held by the Americans, I asked for the official interpreter to be dismissed because I knew he was not translating what I was saying accurately.

One evening, I was playing cards with some American guards when the extremists started shouting abuse at me from their cells. I did not share their religious vocabulary, so I responded in the only way I could — by blowing a raspberry at them. Everyone started laughing, the American soldiers and the prisoners.

I guess I am easily amused. Even when I was being interrogated by the Americans, I kept recalling images from an Egyptian comedy film about a witness who knows nothing.

Since I am Shia, I think it is ridiculous that I was imprisoned by the Americans together with Sunni extremists. I still don’t know whether to laugh or cry about the years I spent there.

The rules in Guantánamo were strict, but as long as you obeyed them, you did not get into trouble. On the streets of Baghdad today, no one knows what the rules are any more. There is danger everywhere.

I no longer have wild fantasies about the future. I am a realist now. But my family is still poor, and they still don’t own a home. I still dream of the day when I will not have the landlord at my door asking for the rent.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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