Guantánamo’s Difficult Diaspora: Former Prisoner Hussein Al-Merfedy, in Slovakia, Still Feels in a Cage

26.5.17

Hussein al-Merfedy, a Yemeni and a former Guantanamo prisoner, photographed in Zvolen, Slovakia, where he was released in November 2014 (Photo: Alex Potter for Newsweek).Please support my work! I’m currently trying to raise $2500 (£2000) to support my writing and campaigning on Guantánamo and related issues over the next three months of the Trump administration.

 

Over the last few months, I’ve been catching up on some stories I missed, about former Guantánamo prisoners seeking — and often struggling — to adjust to life in third countries, which took them in when the US government refused or was unable to repatriate them after they had been approved for release by high-level US government review processes.

Since 2006, dozens of countries have offered new homes to Guantánamo prisoners, and the examples I have looked at have mostly focused on men resettled in various European countries — see Life After Guantánamo: Yemeni Released in Serbia Struggles to Cope with Loneliness and Harassment (about Mansoor al-Dayfi, released in July 2016), Life After Guantánamo: Egyptian in Bosnia, Stranded in Legal Limbo, Seeks Clarification of His Rights (about Tariq al-Sawah, released in January 2016), and Life After Guantánamo: Yemeni Freed in Estonia Says, “Part of Me is Still at Guantánamo” (about Ahmed Abdul Qader, released in January 2015). In The Anguish of Hedi Hammami, A Tunisian Released from Guantánamo in 2010, But Persecuted in His Homeland, I also wrote about the difficulties faced by Hammami, a Tunisian first released in Georgia, who returned to his home country after the Arab Spring, only to find that he faces “a constant regimen of police surveillance.”

One day, I hope, all the men released from Guantánamo will have lawyers successfully negotiate an acceptable basis for their existence with the US government. As it currently stands, they are regarded as “illegal enemy combatants” or “unprivileged enemy belligerents,” even though almost all were never charged with any sort of crime, and their status, compared to every other human being on earth, remains frustratingly and unacceptably unclear. This is especially true, I believe, for those settled in third countries, as no internationally accepted rulebook exists to codify their rights, and the obligations of those taking them in.

In catching up on the stories I missed, I’m cross-posting below an article that was published in Newsweek last September, written by the intrepid photographer and journalist Alex Potter, who mostly works in Yemen. Potter met with Hussein al-Merfedy, a Yemeni resettled in Slovakia in November 2014, along with a Tunisian, Hisham Sliti, and her article also includes a video of al-Merfedy speaking, and 20 photos, not just of al-Merfedy and his life in Zvolen, in Slovakia, but also of Salah al-Dhaby (known in Guantánamo as Saleh al-Zabe, or Salah al-Thabi), a Yemeni resettled in Tbilisi, Georgia at the same time as al-Merfedy (seen for the first time in Potter’s photos, as no photo of him at Guantánamo was ever released), and Sabry al-Quraishi (aka Sabri al-Qurashi), resettled in Semey, Kazakhstan in December 2014, who, as Potter describes it, “lives a lonely life in Semey.” He told her, “I miss my family — I was in prison for over a decade, and I am still not able to bring my family here to visit me.” When she met him in December 2015, he showed her “some of the artwork he created while in Guantánamo.” He “claimed to have had thousands of drawings,” but in the end they “returned to him only a small folder.”

For Hussein al-Merfedy (identified at Guantánamo as Hussein Almerfedi), as I wrote at the time of his release, his long imprisonment at Guantánamo was preceded by him being “one of dozens of the more unfortunate prisoners” to be “held in secret CIA prisons prior to his transfer to Guantánamo.” He claimed he had traveled to Pakistan as a missionary, but particularly hoped to make it to Europe, where he envisioned a more open society than Yemen. He also stated that he had paid a smuggler to get him to Greece via Iran and Turkey, but was seized in Iran, and ended up being handed over to Afghan forces, who then hand him on to the US.

In Guantánamo, he explained that he was held for a total of 14 months in three prisons in Afghanistan — “two under Afghan control and one under US control,” although he added that they all “seemed to be under US supervision.” One of these prisons was Bagram, and another was the “Dark Prison” near Kabul. Almerfedi stated that he was only interrogated on three occasions in Afghanistan, and that on each occasion he was told that the authorities knew he was innocent and would soon be released.

Potter runs briefly though the story of how he ended up at Guantánamo, but her portrait is more concerned with the contours of his life post-release, and the difficulties of adjusting to life in “the only EU member state without a real mosque, ‘ where, in response to the colossal refugee crisis, from Syria and elsewhere, prime minister, Robert Fico, told a Slovak news agency that “Islam has no place in Slovakia.”

For al-Merfedy, however, as for the other men Potter spoke to, the abiding impression is one of a dreadful loneliness. “We thought we would be free when we left Guantánamo,” he told her, adding, “Instead, we went from the small Guantánamo to here — a bigger Guantánamo.” As she also explained, he has “a large family back in Yemen and would like to see them again,” but he “is a permanent resident alien, not a refugee or an asylum seeker, so Slovakia is not legally obligated to reunite him with his mother, sisters or brothers.”

Life After Guantánamo: Former Detainees Live in Limbo
By Alex Potter, Newsweek, September 1, 2016

It’s early Sunday morning, and the streets of Zvolen are empty. Most in this midsize town in Slovakia are attending church, while others battle hangovers from the previous night. Hussein al-Merfedy has a bad headache too, but it’s a migraine, not something alcohol-related. He’s a Muslim and former detainee at the U.S. prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.

Two years ago, al-Merfedy was one of dozens of detainees the U.S. kept locked up at Gitmo, even though they were never charged with a crime. Though he had been cleared for release in 2008, he spent more than a decade in prison without explanation. That changed on November 14, 2014, when the military handcuffed and blindfolded al-Merfedy and put him on a plane. When he landed, however, he was not home in Yemen; he was thousands of miles away in Slovakia, a stranger in a new country.

Al-Merfedy pulls himself out of bed and trudges toward the bathroom, his baggy beige pajama pants hanging low on his hips. He received these pants at Gitmo and still wears them around the house. It’s a habit, he says, that’s hard to change. Standing in front of the mirror, he runs his hands through his hair; until a month ago, it fell past his shoulders. Now it’s cropped short, “so I could fit in. So people don’t stare at me so much.”

Soon al-Merfedy makes his way to the kitchen. It looks almost new: a few dishes are stacked neatly in the drying rack, the countertops are spotless, and the fridge is nearly empty. The apartment is silent, save for the ticking of a clock and the chirping of his pet finch, which sits in a cage. Al-Merfedy has few visitors. His only friends are his caseworkers and a handful of Gitmo detainees who live elsewhere in town. Today will be just like any other for him. There is nothing to do, no one to see.

“I am almost 40 years old,” he says. “I imagined having a family and children one day. But here I am, still alone.”

‘Islam Has No Place in Slovakia’

Over the past two years, the Obama administration has renewed its push to close Gitmo and release detainees it no longer deems a threat. Of the roughly 780 original prisoners, 61 remain behind bars, 20 of whom are cleared for release. But detainees from war-torn countries like Yemen, Libya and Syria cannot return home; the U.S. government fears they might join or rejoin extremist groups.

Instead, the Defense Department has released 55 former detainees to Gulf states rather than their home nations. But these countries will take only so many men, so others were forced to go to Kazakhstan and Slovakia, where they’ve struggled to adjust. “The idea seemed to be to get them out of Guantánamo at almost any cost,” says David Remes, a lawyer to many present and former detainees, including al-Merfedy. “They were dropped into strange lands, with cultures, religions and language far different from their own, and where they were bound to be treated like pariahs.”

Adapting to life in Slovakia has been difficult for al-Merfedy. In his new town, aside from four other former Guantánamo detainees, the only other Muslim he knows is a Turkish man who owns a kebab shop. He sometimes goes to Martin, a city about two hours away where a small group of Muslims hold Friday prayers in the back of a coffee shop. (Slovakia is the only EU member state without a real mosque.) “The people here are maskeen,” al-Merfedy says, using the Yemeni word for “kind” or “good-hearted.” “The problem is with the government.”

The refugee crisis that began in 2015 brought hundreds of thousands of Muslims from the Middle East to Europe. That brought a backlash over fears the newcomers will compete for jobs and resort to terrorism. “Islam,” the country’s prime minister, Robert Fico, recently told a Slovak news agency, “has no place in Slovakia.”

The first publicly available photo of Yemeni and former Guantanamo prisoner Salah al-Dhaby, at his home in Tbilisi, Georgia, where he was released in November 2014 (Photo: Alex Potter for Newsweek).Men like al-Merfedy are seemingly stuck in limbo, neither behind bars nor completely free. They are not banned from working, but no one will hire them; they want to marry, but Muslim women are scarce; they long to reunite with their families, but more than a year after release, they are still alone. “Each day, I walk through Tbilisi,” says Salah al-Dhaby, a Yemeni former detainee who was transferred to Georgia. “I live a silent life, wandering the streets, then going back to a silent apartment.”

That silence, al-Merfedy says, feels like a cage. “We thought we would be free when we left Guantánamo,” he says. “Instead, we went from the small Guantánamo to here — a bigger Guantánamo.”

Sold to the Afghans

Al-Merfedy’s troubles began when he traveled from Yemen to Pakistan to look for work in 2001. After connecting with an Islamic missionary organization, he decided to travel to Europe to find work. Yet in the wake of 9/11, visas for Yemenis, even those registered with legitimate organizations, were difficult to obtain. Al-Merfedy was undeterred. He paid someone to smuggle him across Pakistan and Afghanistan, through Iran and into Turkey, where he hoped to find a way to Europe. He was captured in Iran, accused of being an Al-Qaeda recruiter and sold to Afghan authorities. The Afghans sent him to the Americans, who then transferred him to Guantánamo on May 9, 2003. His missionary group, the U.S. believes, was often used a front for extremists.

For five years, al-Merfedy remained behind bars, maintaining his innocence. His attorney points out that local groups often exploited lucrative American bounties for those connected to Al-Qaeda and sometimes delivered innocent men. Others seemed to be marginal players in the war on terror. “Few ‘combatants’ are even accused of having fought,” according to a 2006 report by Human Rights Watch. “Many are held simply because they were living in a house associated with the Taliban or working for a charity linked to the group.”

Whether al-Merfedy is innocent remains unclear; the Defense Department and the State Department’s Special Envoy for Guantánamo Closure do not discuss the details of individual cases. But the U.S. cleared him for release in 2008, no longer deeming him a threat. After American intelligence officials discovered that Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (the “Underwear Bomber”) was trained in Yemen, however, the U.S. refused to transfer al-Merfedy or any of his countrymen back there. “The decision to transfer a detainee is made only after detailed, specific conversations with the receiving country about the potential threat a detainee may pose after transfer and the measures the receiving country will take in order to sufficiently mitigate that threat, and to ensure humane treatment,” says Lt. Col Valerie Henderson, a Defense Department spokesperson.

Some six years later, after more than a decade of intermittent “enhanced interrogations,” hunger strikes and solitary confinement, he was called into an office at Gitmo. There he met liaisons from Slovakia, who promised him a new life, and al-Merfedy was excited. “I wanted to leave Guantánamo,” he says.

Now that he is free, al-Merfedy is part of a two-year program run by the International Organization for Migration to make him feel more comfortable. This includes paid housing and a monthly stipend, Slovak language teachers, a psychologist and a social worker. Yet, so far, al-Merfedy has struggled to find a job and is worried what will happen next year, when the IOM cuts his stipend in half. The group says it would consider an extension, but only if it can prove to the government he is learning Slovak. Al-Merfedy says he is trying, but his classes are in English, a language he doesn’t speak well, which makes the learning process slow. He knows the basic greetings: dobry den (good morning), prosim (please) and dakujem (thank you). He can pass for a tourist, but nothing more.

Who’d Marry an Ex-Gitmo Man?

Around lunchtime, al-Merfedy strolls into town, gazing at the ground, occasionally looking up and smiling as he sees young couples holding hands or fathers playing with their children. Some pass him with a slight smile. Others eye him with suspicion or curiosity.

The 39-year-old had a large family back in Yemen and would like to see them again. But al-Merfedy is a permanent resident alien, not a refugee or an asylum seeker, so Slovakia is not legally obligated to reunite him with his mother, sisters or brothers. He wants to raise a family, but in a country with few Muslims and fewer who would marry a former Gitmo detainee, his prospects are bleak. According to Pooja Jhunjhunwala, a spokesperson for the State Department, “We support family reunification because we believe it leads to successful outcomes, successful integration.” However, the receiving countries actions do not always match State Department views.

Hussein is still waiting for the government to approve a visa allowing his family to visit. “Maybe if I was with my family, it would be OK,” he says, “but … I am a stranger. I am in exile. I have been longing for things my whole life, but they have all been decided for me.”

Later that day, as the sunlight fades, so too does Hussein’s headache, and by the time fog descends onto the streets, he feels better. He walks the solitary mile to his apartment, taking backstreets to avoid revelers spilling out of local bars. When he arrives, the sun is setting over Zvolen, and al-Merfedy pulls down his shades.

Once again, his apartment is silent, save for the ticking of the clock and the sound of the finch singing its evening song. “I hate to see anything in a cage,” he says as he fills the bird’s water and food containers. “I was in a cage my whole life.”

He pulls out a thin blanket and places it gently over the cage. After a moment, the bird goes silent.

This piece was produced with the support of the IWMF Howard G. Buffet Fund for Women Journalists.

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’ and EP ‘Fighting Injustice’ are available here to download or on CD via Bandcamp). He is the co-founder of the Close Guantánamo campaign (and the Countdown to Close Guantánamo initiative, launched in January 2016), 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).

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.

Please also consider joining the Close Guantánamo campaign, and, if you appreciate Andy’s work, feel free to make a donation.

4 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    My latest article continues my series of occasional reports on former Guantanamo prisoners resettled in third countries – a cross-post, with my own commentary, of a Newsweek article by photographer and journalist Alex Potter, who visited Hussein al-Merfedy in Slovakia, where he feels like he is still in a cage. Potter also visited former prisoners in Georgia and Kazakhstan, and the abiding impression was the loneliness these men feel, freed from Guantanamo but generally living solitary existences in countries that, in many ways, are quite alien to them, and where it is all too easy for them to be regarded with suspicion.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. It’s greatly appreciated as my friends in Witness Against Torture launch their new initiative, #foreverhumanbeings, to remember the 41 men still held and to call for the closure of Guantanamo once and for all: http://www.witnessagainsttorture.com/foreverhumanbeings

  3. Tom Pettinger says...

    Hi Andy,

    As always, another phenomenal post. So frustrating and angering to read about these guys’ stories, how our governments have so consistently screwed them over. I’ve been reading about some right-wing extremism in the US (lots of work done by the Southern Poverty Law Centre), and they openly declare their hatred for other races and intent to attack them, but largely are allowed to live free… if these were seen to be ‘Islamic’ ideologies, they would be banged up before you could say “Gitmo”, and forever after suspected of being a threat, in the way you talk about on this site.

    Tom

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Good to hear from you, Tom, and thanks for highlighting the hypocrisy of how white supremacists are treated by western, majority-white governments compared to the threat allegedly posed by Muslims. It’s depressing and dangerous on so many levels.
    Anyone interested in these points should definitely check out the Southern Poverty Law Center: https://www.splcenter.org

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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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