Chef Held at Guantánamo Calls Shaker Aamer a “Beautiful, Great Man” But Warns of Difficulties Adapting to Freedom

8.11.15

Ahmed Errachidi on a poster at a protest in Birmingham in September 2005, outside Hiatt's, the manufacturers of the shackles used in Guantanamo (photo via Indymedia).The Guardian, yesterday, featured former Guantánamo prisoner Ahmed Errachidi speaking of his admiration for Shaker Aamer, the British resident released from the prison on October 30, but warning that it will be difficult for him to adapt to his freedom after nearly 14 years in US custody.

A Moroccan national and a chef, Errachidi, 49, had lived and worked in London for 18 years before he travelled to Pakistan and then Afghanistan in late 2001 in what appears to have been an ill-conceived combination of a business trip and a desire to aid the Afghan people. Seized and taken to Guantánamo, he was initially regarded as a significant prisoner. As Ben Quinn explained in an article for the Guardian, “he earned the nickname ‘The General’ by guards, after he was cast as the unofficial leader of more than 700 detainees — organising protests that included hunger strikes, a role he says occurred largely because he was one of the few English speakers.”

Oddly, Quinn failed to mention that Errachidi was bipolar, and suffered psychotic episodes at Guantánamo, sometimes during interrogations, and that it wasn’t until he was assigned Clive Stafford Smith as a lawyer that a claim that he was in a training camp was debunked, when Stafford Smith was able to secure the wage slips from a restaurant in Bond Street where Errachidi was actually working at the time. That was the key evidence that paved the way for his release in April 2007. Quinn also neglected to mention that, in 2013, his memoir, The General: The Ordinary Man Who Challenged Guantánamo, was published by Random House.

I first wrote about Ahmed in 2006, in my book The Guantánamo Files, and again in June 2007, after his release, which was when he first got in touch with me, and we have been in intermittent contact ever since. I also wrote about his book in 2011, when it was first announced, and again on its publication in 2013.

Nevertheless, Quinn’s article not only captured some powerful insights into Errachidi’s post-Guantánamo life; it also featured some wonderful comments about Shaker Aamer, who, Errachidi said, was a “beautiful, great man” and about whom he said, as Quinn put it, that he “played a similar role to him.”

“All the time in Guantánamo he would stand up for and help other prisoners,” Errachidi said, adding, “If he had a British passport he would not have been there all this time — he would have left with Moazzam Begg and the other British when they left around 2004 and 2005. Also, as anyone who speaks English, who is vocal and who stood up to the army, they regarded [Shaker] as a suspicious person, someone who is dangerous and dislikes the Americans and so on. They regarded him as someone who needed more attention. It happened to me as well.”

Errachidi also said that “readjustment to normal life after his five-and-half year imprisonment has not been easy,” as Quinn put it. “Now when you walk down the street you keep asking yourself: ‘Do these people know who I am? Do they know I came from Guantánamo?’” Errachidi said, adding, “Plus you have nightmares. The worst is when a prisoner will see an orange uniform and see himself back in Guantánamo. That is a nightmare that a lot of detainees have.”

Errachidi also explained that he now owns a restaurant and cafe in Morocco, although he added, “The big problem I have faced here is that everybody is very cautious when they are talking to me. No one asks for my phone number. No one asks me about Guantánamo. Perhaps they feel it will bring back the pain, but I actually wish that they would ask me questions.”

He also said, “I’ve wanted to keep a low profile and wanted my privacy, but now I feel an obligation to talk about Guantánamo. I want to talk to people, I want to enlighten them, to go in front of Congress and tell the people of America and the world about the truth of what happened.”

I hope he gets the opportunity, although he may not be welcomed everywhere — as another former prisoner, Mourad Benchellali, a French citizen, discovered last week. Although he has been working on deradicalization programs for many years, the Canadian authorities arrested him on his arrival in Canada, to take part in a documentary film, and to attend a conference, and then sent him back home.

As Ben Quinn put it, Errachidi also explained that “it would be the simple things, such as being able to take a few steps without shackles, through to the mental impact that might include nightmares of being back in a cage at the US base, that would be the hardest for Aamer to deal with.”

Errachidi was also asked about Jamal al-Harith, a former prisoner (and a Muslim convert who was born Ronald Fiddler), who, as Quinn put it, “was freed from Guantánamo in 2004 after lobbying by the British government and who is now said by his wife to be in an Islamic State-controlled area of Syria.”

“I’m very surprised at that and I feel sorry for anyone who would join Isis because he would be naive and misled,” Errachidi said perceptively. He added, “In Guantánamo you find a lot of people who had nothing to do with anything the British or the Americans were claiming. They were the scapegoats.” He also pointed out that he “can’t speak for” any of his fellow prisoners about “[w]hat they are going to do after Guantánamo.”

Errachidi also explained that he “has recently been able to get a passport again and wants to travel” — “to the UK” (which is, perhaps, possible) and “perhaps even the US” (which is, I think, extremely unlikely, although it is worth him trying, and trying to make a big fuss if, as I expect, he is turned down).

He also told Ben Quinn, “I have a very successful business but I am not happy because justice has not been done,” adding, “I’m not passionate about food in the way I used to be, for example. I lost interest.” He also said, “Guantánamo is not behind me, and it’s the same for a lot of prisoners. Unfortunately it is ahead of every prisoner. He sees Guantánamo in his eyes. It’s hard to put it behind them.”

In his final comments about Shaker Aamer, Errachidi reflected on the fact that he will be “negotiating many … day to day sensations which will suddenly seem new.” As he put it, “In normal life, you go to the kitchen and put the gas on and see the fire. But in the case of a detainee who has not seen fire for years and has been living in a cell, everything around him is steel, apart from toilet paper and the mattress. Glass, wood — he’ll be touching things he hasn’t touched for 13 years.”

Note: The photo at the top of this article is from an Indymedia article from September 2005, about a protest outside Hiatt’s, who make the shackles used at Guantánamo. The great protest band Seize The Day played, and campaigners present included Clive Stafford Smith and Dr. David Nicholl, still very much involved in the Guantánamo story and Shaker Aamer’s case, and Mark Thomas, who stood with the giant inflatable figure of Shaker that was at the heart of the We Stand With Shaker campaign I launched last year with Joanne MacInnes — as did Clive and David.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer, film-maker and singer-songwriter (the lead singer and main songwriter for the London-based band The Four Fathers, whose debut album, ‘Love and War,’ is available for download or on CD via Bandcamp — also see here). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign, the co-director of We Stand With Shaker, which called for the release from Guantánamo of Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in the prison (finally freed on October 30, 2015), 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).

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One Response

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, following up on a Guardian article from yesterday in which former ‪‎Guantanamo‬ prisoner Ahmed Errachidi (a UK-based Moroccan chef, released in 2007) spoke with great admiration about Shaker Aamer, as a “beautiful, great man” who “would stand up for and help other prisoners,” but warned that it will be difficult for him to adapt to reality.

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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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