Former Hunger Striker Abu Wa’el Dhiab and Other Guantánamo Prisoners Freed in Uruguay Discuss Their Problems

15.4.15

Abu Wa'el Dhiab (aka Jihad Dhiab) photographed for the Washington Post by Joshua Partlow in March 2015, four months after his release from Guantanamo.

To donate to support the six men released in Uruguay, please follow this link to a Just Giving page set up by Cage for Reprieve.

A month ago, I wrote a well-received article, “Guantánamo Prisoners Released in Uruguay Struggle to Adapt to Freedom,” looking at the problems faced by the six former Guantánamo prisoners given new homes in Uruguay in December. The six men, long cleared for release, couldn’t be safely repatriated, as four are from war-torn Syria, one is from Tunisia, where, it appears, the US is now concerned about the security situation, and the sixth is Palestinian, and the Israeli government has always prevented Palestinians held in Guantánamo from being returned home.

As I pointed out in my article, and in a follow-up interview with a Uruguayan journalist, “Strangers in a Strange Land: My Interview About the Struggles of the Six Men Freed from Guantánamo in Uruguay,” the former prisoners are struggling to adapt to a new country, in which they don’t speak the language and there is no Muslim community, and in which they are still separated from their families, over 13 years since they were first seized in Afghanistan or Pakistan by or on behalf of US forces.

Most of all, however, I believe that, while there have been murmurings in Uruguay about the men’s apparent unwillingness to work, those complaining are overlooking the fact that all six men are evidently grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after their long ordeal in a experimental prison where abusive indefinite detention without charge or trial is the norm.

Since I wrote my article and undertook my interview, there have been developments. On April 8, the Associated Press reported that Uruguay’s new President Tabare Vazquez said the US should provide financial assistance to the six men, and promised to raise the issue with President Obama at the Summit of the Americas in Panama, which began shortly after he spoke to the media.

President Vazquez said, “Uruguay gave them asylum, but the US government should provide all the necessary means so that those citizens of other countries can have a dignified life in our country.” As the AP put it, he also said he had “heard Obama was worried about the men’s progress in adapting and added that he also saw them struggling.”

“I put myself in their place and it must be very hard to come from another part of the world, with other cultures, other religions, other customs, and be planted in a foreign country,” President Vazquez said, adding, “I’m also worried because their arrival, this placing of Guantánamo prisoners here, has also impacted our society.”

On April 11, President Vazquez  told reporters at the Summit of the Americas that, following discussions, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees had provided a commitment that the UNHCR would provide homes for each of the six men, who were assigned a house to share by a prominent Uruguayan trade union on their arrival in December, and are given $600 a month to live on.

After meeting with President Obama, President Vazquez confirmed the news. “UNHCR has the necessary resources to meet the needs of the prisoners and soon each will have a home,” he said.

On Monday, Fox News Latino followed up by suggesting that the six men are “considering a job offer at a meat warehouse not far from Montevideo, the capital,” adding, “A company located in the department of Canelones is giving the men the chance to work processing tons of beef,” according to local newspaper El País, which is also “offering them a place of worship at the site.” The local paper said that the offer “is being seriously considered by the former prisoners.”

While we wait to hear if this is a genuine offer, and if the men are willing and able to take it up, further insights into their state of mind were provided in a detailed article last month in the Washington Post by Joshua Partlow, who spent a week with the men in the house in Montevideo that was assigned to them.

Describing the men’s arrival in Uruguay, and the plans for their resettlement, Partlow wrote:

Uruguay arranged for a workers’ union to take care of their daily provisions. The union moved them into a two-story building in a working-class Montevideo neighborhood across from a bakery and a bicycle repair shop, a few blocks from the Atlantic. Their building abuts an overgrown vacant lot ringed in barbed wire. Graffitied across the wall is a man’s screaming face, a cluster of skyscrapers growing out of his head. On hot days, a dead-fish tang wafts up from the sea.

Their place, which used to be a home for battered women, has the feeling of a convalescent ward. The men pad around the hardwood floors in flip-flops and sweat pants. Their thoughts seem elsewhere, on the Arabic news streaming over the Internet, in the hours of long-distance calls and laptop Skype chats to relatives in the Middle East. Five times a day, they go to their rooms and face northeast, toward the bakery and beyond to Mecca, and pray.

The men were invariably gracious and welcoming — offering tea and small talk — but most did not want to discuss their situation on the record. Some want to forget about Guantánamo. One would talk only if paid.

Partlow spoke the most to Abu Wa’el Dhiab (aka Jihad Ahmed Mustafa Dhiab), the former hunger striker who was involved in a significant court case against the US government last year regarding their claimed right to be able to force-feed him as they saw fit.

The men’s new freedom in a strange land has been “hardest on Dhiab,” according to Partlow, who wrote:

The marks of a dozen years in a cell and the hunger strikes he held there show in his gaunt 43-year-old frame, his beard flecked with gray. He hobbles around on crutches, still wearing the Army green T-shirt and sweat pants given to him in Guantánamo. The infamous orange uniform — a Bob Barker brand 65-35 poly-cotton blend made in El Salvador — hangs in his closet for safekeeping.

Partlow also noted that, “While free — in theory — to leave Uruguay, the men do not yet have passports.” Dhiab, he added, “hardly ever goes outside now. He feels the promises made to him have been betrayed. He wants his own house, his family brought from Syria, enough money to live with dignity and start a business. He demands that the United States own up to its responsibility for having imprisoned him without charge for more than a decade, finally releasing him with a letter from the State Department saying there was no information he or any of the other men had any role in ‘conducting or facilitating terrorist activities.'”

At the time, Dhiab was threatening to embark on a hunger strike outside the US Embassy, but it now seem probable that the latest developments, involving the UN, will have addressed at least some of his concerns.

Nevertheless, as Partlow noted, “For Dhiab, the anger has not subsided.” During those discussions with the journalist last month, he “invariably returned to what he sees as the ultimate culprit, the United States, which he blames for an unjust war against Islam, for the theft of 12 years of his life, for the death of his son (one of four children) in Syria, who may have been killed in a chemical attack by the Damascus government. As he sees it, he is guilty of one thing: being a Muslim. He is grateful to Uruguay for accepting him but feels the United States needs to provide for his well-being. ‘Who is to blame for my wife and I living in hell?’ he asked. ‘America.'”

Partlow also noted Dhiab’s struggles to adjust to a world in which so many changes have taken place in the last 13 years. He stated that he “had a fascination with technology before his imprisonment,” but that “the developments of the past decade confound him. His last computer before his capture ran a Pentium III microprocessor. Now, he wants to understand the differences between the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the Apple iPhone 6. He wants to know which Canon camera is good for video, how to install Viber on the house computer.”

However, when he sits in front of the computer provided by the union, He “is mostly frozen,” Partlow wrote, adding, “He doesn’t know how to copy and paste. He said he has opened several e-mail accounts, but keeps forgetting the passwords.”

As Dhiab told him, alluding to what I see as his PTSD, “I forgot everything in Guantánamo.”

Partlow proceeded to tell Dhiab’s story, as follows: “After growing up on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, Dhiab served three years of compulsory military service in the Syrian air force in the early 1990s. He worked for years in his father’s restaurant, which had more than 100 tables amid gardens and fountains … Before Sept. 11, he said, he sold honey in Kabul … He was captured in Lahore during a Pakistani police raid in 2002 and later taken to Guantánamo.”

Unconfirmed are claims aired by Partlow that appeared in Dhiab’s classified military file, released by WikiLeaks in 2011: that he was “a member of the Syrian Group, a dismantled terrorist cell that fled to Afghanistan,” that he was “sentenced to death in absentia, ‘probably for terrorist activities in Syria,'” and that he “once hosted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist, and received training at an al-Qaeda camp in Kandahar.” Trusting anything in the files that is not openly corroborated elsewhere is not recommended. Most of what purports to be evidence comes from statements produced by the prisoners themselves, or by their fellow prisoners, in circumstances involving torture, other forms of abuse, or bribery, none of which are conducive for revealing the truth.

Partlow proceeded to explain that Dhiab “did not want to discuss in detail” his life before Guantánamo, but added that he “has begun writing a book about his life that he insists will reveal all he endured. He alluded to beatings by the prison guards over the years — boot kicks in the back, punches to his neck. During his months of hunger strikes, he was strapped in a restraining chair and force-fed through tubing inserted into his nose, a procedure that US District Judge Gladys Kessler described as causing ‘unnecessary pain’ and ‘agony.'”

Partlow added, “Whether to make the videos of that process public is now the subject of a lawsuit brought on behalf of Dhiab and several media organizations, including the Washington Post,” and as I explained in a recent article, an appeal against the government’s obstruction has been submitted to the D.C. Circuit Court, with oral argument scheduled for May 8.

Partlow also noted how all the men “recounted smaller daily indignities. How the guards allowed them to go to prison classes but escorted them there so late they routinely missed most of the instruction. How the large sizes of the orange jumpsuits would go to the short detainees and the smalls to taller men. On their flight to Montevideo, five years after they were cleared for release, they were still shackled hand and foot and forced to wear blackout goggles and ear coverings. One of them said he urinated on himself twice during the flight because they were not allowed to use the toilet.”

Providing an overview of the men’s situation, Partlow wrote, “Adapting has come easier for some. After morning doctors’ appointments, some exercise at a gym. They have walked among crowds in parades and street festivals. They’ve saved from their stipends and bought cellphones. Some want to learn the language and make a life here.”

He added, however, that “several of the men feel they are not yet equipped to do so,” and added that they “don’t all get along well and chafe at living together in bunk beds.” He confirmed, as has been noted before, that one of the men, Adel bin Muhammad El-Ouerghi, the Tunisian, who is 50 years old, “now sleeps in a nearby hotel,” and that they generally “complain the money is insufficient.” He pointed out that one of the Syrians, Ali Husain Shabaan, 33, “said in a televised interview that he would not be able to provide for his family if they came to Montevideo.”

Shabaan said, “Give or take, almost half of my age has been spent in a prison. To ask me to support myself and to be independent from the first week or the first month or two months, that’s quite unreasonable.”

As with some of Dhiab’s complaints, it is to be hoped that the intervention of the UNHCR will address some of these problems, but it seems likely that, even if the housing situation is resolved to the men’s satisfaction, money problems will probably persist. It has, as Partlow noted, “become a sore subject with their hosts. A couple of weeks ago, the union sponsors cut off the long-distance phone line to the house after they saw the bill. They stopped buying the men the kosher meat they had requested, because it was too expensive. Although they were given some laptops, the men each wanted their own headset for Skype calls, while the union wanted them to share one.”

Importantly, however, Partlow recognized that many of the men “still struggle from the effects of chronic ailments such as tuberculosis and hepatitis B.” As he pointed out, “Shabaan has impaired vision that he attributes to his time in Guantánamo. Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, a 37-year-old Syrian, has intestinal trouble and a perforated eardrum. Dhiab can’t drink coffee or tea because of kidney problems. The right side of his body frequently goes numb. He says his constant pain keeps him from sleeping more than two hours a night. His lawyer says Dhiab is plagued with post-traumatic stress and mental illness.”

Leonardo Duarte, a union official who, as Partlow put it, “regularly visits the house and ferries the men on their errands,” succinctly explained the men’s problems. “They didn’t arrive here in good health,” he said, adding, “They’re not ready to work; that’s the reality.”

Dhiab’s lawyer in London, Cori Crider of the legal action charity Reprieve, “praised Uruguay for its goodwill,” but also highlighted Dhiab’s problems as a result of his long and brutal imprisonment. “It shouldn’t surprise anyone that after over a dozen years in Gitmo, years of brutal force-feedings, a son’s death and a homeland laid waste, both Dhiab’s body and his mind are going to need time to recover,” she said.

In conclusion, Partlow wrote, “Dhiab doesn’t know what he will do. He cannot go home; his village of Otaybah has been devastated by the war, his family scattered to refugee camps. He wants to be elsewhere — Qatar, Malaysia, Brunei — somewhere he can speak Arabic and be among Muslims.”

As Dhiab told him, “In 13 years, I’ve not seen my family. I miss my family. I need my family. Nobody helps me like my family.”

“We are broken,” he added. “And we need to heal.”

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, the co-director of “We Stand With Shaker,” calling for the immediate release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by the University of Chicago Press in the US, and available from Amazon, including a Kindle edition — 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. He is also the co-director (with Polly Nash) of the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (available on DVD here — or here for the US).

To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to Andy’s RSS feed — and he can also be found on Facebook (and here), Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Also see the six-part definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, and “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” an ongoing, 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011. Also see the definitive Guantánamo habeas list, the full military commissions list, and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

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24 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at the most recent news about the six ‪Guantanamo‬ prisoners given new homes in Uruguay in December, and how they are adjusting to their new lives. The UN is stepping in to fund homes for all of them, but as a Washington Post article about former hunger striker Abu Wa’el Dhiab demonstrates, overcoming PTSD is still a major hurdle for the men.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Mahfuja StayHuman posted a link to the JustGiving page for “The Uruguay Six – 12 years detained and tortured in Guantanamo Bay”:
    https://www.justgiving.com/gitmosix/
    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10155469980795084&set=p.10155469980795084&type=1&theater

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Mahfuja, thank you so much for reminding me of the appeal for the six men set up by Cage for Reprieve. I’ve just added a link to it to the start of the article. Supporters have so far donated over £8,300 ($13,800), and the target is £20,000 ($33,200). You can pay in dollars if you’re in the US, and there are also a variety of other currencies, including Euros.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Mahfuja StayHuman wrote:

    🙂

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    🙂 to you too, Mahfuja!

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Betty Molchany wrote:

    He certainly looks frail.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    He certainly does, Betty. Nice to see him smiling, but you can also see the damage that has been done to him over 13 years.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Betty Molchany wrote:

    Yes, he may be smiling but there is a lot of pain in his face.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Agreed, Betty. I really hope he and the others will be able to be reunited with their families as soon as possible. It’s so important. Imagine not being able to be with your loved ones after 13 years of hell in Guantanamo. It would be like being in prison still.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Betty Molchany wrote:

    Yes, I agree. I think that you are one of the few people who help them keep hope alive.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    You have just made my day, Betty. Thank you. And you reminded me that what I try to do – and have been trying to do for nine years – is to bring these men to life, not just tell a journalistic story that is supposedly “balanced and objective.”

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Betty Molchany wrote:

    I hate balanced and objective. I doubt if it is ever fair.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I agree, Betty. I’m proud to be a campaigning journalist. When faced with something like Guantanamo, where does being “balanced and objective” get us? The same goes for the crimes of Wall Street/the City of London, Israel’s crimes, and many other topics that are too important for a complacent media to be in charge of.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Lorna Watson wrote:

    They need EMDR therapy. It is a great cure for trauma and PTSD. Is there not a humanitarian EMDR organisation that could treat these men?

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the information, Lorna​. I had not heard of EMDR therapy: http://www.emdrassociation.org.uk/home/about_EMDR_therapy.htm
    I see the NHS mentions it here: http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Post-traumatic-stress-disorder/Pages/Treatment.aspx

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Lorna Watson wrote:

    And I found this: http://www.emdrhap.org/
    I wish it was more widely known about as the results can be incredible. My life has been transformed by it. Any bad experiences over a long time mean the past is always affecting the present. The past memories become an imprint on the brain which EMDR can reverse. Talking therapies are like telling someone with a broken leg to walk on it until it gets better.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Lorna. Very interesting. I hope some of the men’s lawyers also hear about it and think about whether it might be possible.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    It’s interesting, Lorna, that on the page you linked to it is stated, “On February 7, 2014 the UN Committee on Non-Governmental Organizations recommended that the UN Economic and Social Council grant EMDR Humanitarian Assistance Programs Special Consultative Status.”

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Sanchez Montebello wrote:

    It is truly inconceivable to imagine what kind of anger or PTSD issues these poor souls now have as a result of their incarceration and torture. I was part of Occupy LA and was arrested (along with 300 other people) back on November 30, 2011. I was deliberately left ALONE locked in a holding cell for only three hours, and I was already going stir crazy with just THAT. In order to distract myself, I tried to imagine what these poor men in Guantanamo were feeling after YEARS of this abuse.
    GOOD FOR YOU, Andy… I cannot stand our complacent and milquetoast corporate American “journalists”. They are no more than “talking heads” which I no longer watch or pay any attention to…
    I PREFER Campaigning Journalism.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Sanchez. Let us celebrate campaigning journalism, then! To be honest, from early on in my Guantanamo work it was obvious that we were going to get nowhere if we played a “fair and objective” game, and allowed Dick Cheney any time at all to spread more of his lies. In my film “Outside the Law” I refused to try to interview any of the mouthpieces of the Bush administration, because they had already dominated the conversation, and as a result the film is much more powerful than it would have been if establishment liberals had made it. And of course when it comes to the right-wingers, they have Fox News so they have no interest at all in being “fair and objective”; it’s only the liberals who hand-wringly insist on presenting both sides of the argument fairly. There is no objectivity. The “war on terror” is a moral, legal and ethical abomination, and no attempt should be made to water down that conclusion.

  21. Anna says...

    Great to have fresh news about those whom I still consider the ‘lucky six’.
    It’s beyond me how anyone could ever seriously expect these mangled men to pick up their lives just like that in a strange country, no matter how exceptionally hospitable it may be. Feeling pressured to ‘perform’ will not help them either.
    All it takes is to try and imagine oneself being released after such an (even with the deepest empathy unfathomable) ordeal to Mongolia or Saudi Arabia, or the moon for that matter. Great that president Vazquez has taken such a positive stand in their case.
    It’s also beyond me, why a journalist looking into resettlement problems has to once more drag out not only false (judging by the letter they got from State Dept) but in this context utterly irrelevant accusations, additional ballast to be dragged along by these men on their exhausting climb towards a more just existence.
    During WWII in order to get an exit permit from Soviet occupied territory, my mother was interrogated over and over with the same questions and so much concentrated on this, that she actually forgot some of her past.
    That interrogation lasted one week …, so no wonder Dhiab, after 12 years of systematic brainwashing, has trouble remembering details from his past life.
    I do hope that getting separate accomodation will help to speed up the arrival of their families, although there will be no miracles there either: they will be virtual strangers.

    As for financial support, there still are -otherwise perfectly sane and harmless- people around without smartphones and/or credit cards, who would be happy to contribute by bank transfer, postal order or other such old-fashioned methods. The website does not seem to offer such an opportunity. Any suggestions :-)?

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Hi Anna,
    Lovely to hear from you. Another spring already for those of us able to savour freedom.
    Your empathy with the men is palpable, and I share your irritation with journalists – or their editors – wheeling out discredited allegations. It really is unnecessary – and unjustified – after the State Department’s admission that there was no information that “the men were involved in conducting or facilitating terrorist activities against the United States or its partners or its allies,” as Cliff Sloan, the recently retired envoy for the closure of Guantanamo, explained in a statement in a document dated December 2.
    As for donating to support the men, perhaps you could try donating directly to Reprieve.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Asiya Muhammad wrote:

    How devastating. What every single person released from there needs first and foremost is justice. Freedom to be a free citizen like everyone else. They don’t have criminal records and there is proof of their innocence that after years and years of torture and false accusations nothing could stick.

    No one who has been freed from these American hellholes is truely a free man. Those repatriated to foreign lands are totally stateless, which is illegal in most of the lands in which they reside. The torment of Guantanamo continues and the U.S. Put these conditions on them before they’re released as part of the agreement with the countries they’re released to.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Asiya, and thanks for your comments and suggestions.

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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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