Life after Guantánamo: Stories from Afghanistan


On February 24, I was delighted to be interviewed about Guantánamo by BBC World News — the BBC’s global, commercial arm — as part of their “Freedom” series. As the website states, “Whether it’s freedom from surveillance or freedom to be single, the BBC is investigating what freedom means in the modern world.”

The interview, which, unfortunately, isn’t available online, was preceded by a short clip of two former Guantánamo prisoners, from Afghanistan, talking about their experiences to the reporter Dawood Azami, who travelled to Afghanistan to meet former prisoners. The two men were Shahzada Khan (ISN 952, also known as Haji Shahzada), who was released in April 2005, and Haji Ghalib (ISN 987), who was released in February 2007.

Dawood Azami’s visit, and his meetings with former prisoners were also featured in a BBC World Service broadcast, “Guantánamo Voices,” and in an article for the BBC World Service’s online magazine, which I’m cross-posting below because it provides a powerful insight into some generally little-known stories, which demonstrate clearly the kind of chronic failures of intelligence that led to so many insignificant or completely innocent men — and, in some cases, boys — ending up at  Guantánamo.

As Dawood Azami notes in his article, 220 of the 779 prisoners held at Guantánamo throughout its long and inglorious 12-year history were Afghans — and 19 are still held. Many, as I first discovered for my book The Guantánamo Files in 2006 and 2007, and have written about since in my articles, were unwilling Taliban conscripts, or even, in as many as a few dozen cases, people who were working for the Americans in Afghanistan, but were seized and sent to Guantánamo because rivals told lies about them, and no one in the US military or the intelligence services was providing the kind of overview required to work out who was telling the truth.

In one particularly notorious example, a man named Abdul Razzaq Hekmati, who had actually freed three senior anti-Taliban figures from a Taliban jail (including Ismael Khan, who became a minister in Hamid Karzai’s post-Taliban government) died of cancer in Guantánamo without anyone ever having believed his story. After his death, in December 2007, I wrote about the tragic circumstances of his death in a front-page story for the New York Times with Carlotta Gall.

I have previously written about Haji Shahzada, not just in my book but also in an article in September 2011, in which I explained that he was a father of six and a village elder in Kandahar province, who was seized in a raid on his house in January 2003, with two house guests, and held at Guantánamo for over two years until his release in April 2005.

As I also explained:

Shahzada’s story (and that of the men seized with him) was one that had struck me as particularly significant when I was researching my book The Guantánamo Files, as it was a clear demonstration of how easily US forces in Afghanistan were deceived, seizing innocent people after tip-offs from untrustworthy individuals with their own agendas. In Shahzada’s case, it has not been confirmed whether the tip-off came from a rival or from members of his family seeking to seize his assets, but the entire mission was a disgrace.

One of the men seized with him, Abdullah Khan, had sold Shahzada a dog, as both men were interested in dog-fighting, but he was regarded by the soldiers involved in the raid (and, subsequently, by US interrogators) as Khairullah Khairkhwa, a senior figure in the Taliban. The problem with this scenario was not only that Khan was not Khairkhwa, but also that Khairkhwa had been in US custody since February 2002 and was held at Guantánamo (where he remains to this day).

In addition, Shahzada, a landowner who had never liked the Taliban, endured numerous aggressive interrogations in which he was obliged to repeat, over and over again, that his friend Khan was not a Taliban commander, and that he had not been supporting the Taliban. He was also particularly eloquent in warning his captors that seizing innocent people like him was a sure way of losing hearts and minds in Afghanistan.

“This is just me you brought but I have six sons left behind in my country,” he said. “I have ten uncles in my area that would be against you. I don’t care about myself. I could die here, but I have 300 male members of my family there in my country. If you want to build Afghanistan you can’t build it this way … I will tell anybody who asks me that this is oppression.”

I also analyzed Haji Shahzada’s Detainee Assessment Brief (one of the classified military files released by Wikileaks in April 2011) here.

In The Guantánamo Files, I wrote about Haji Ghalib as follows:

40-year old Haji Ghalib, the chief of police for a district in Jalalabad, and one of his officers, 32-year Kako Kandahari, were captured together, after US and Afghan forces searched their compound and identified weapons and explosives that they thought were going to be used against them. Both men pointed out, however, that they fought with the Americans in Tora Bora. “I captured a lot of al-Qaeda and Arabs that were turned over to the Americans,” Ghalib said, “and I see those people here that I helped capture in Afghanistan.” He explained that he thought he may have been betrayed by one of the commanders in Tora Bora, because he “let about 40 [al-Qaeda] escape so I got on the phone and cussed at him and that is why I am here.”

In 2008, Ghalib also told Tom Lasseter of McClatchy Newspapers (as later reported here) that he was detained “in a basement at an airstrip in Jalalabad during March 2003” by Special Forces troops, and added, “At night they would strap me down on a cot, and put a bucket of water on the floor, in front of my head. And then they would tip the cot forward and dunk my head in the bucket … They would leave my head underwater and then jerk it out by my hair. I sometimes lost consciousness.”

Also featured in Dawood Azami’s article are four other former prisoners: the father and son Haji Nasrat Khan (ISN 1009), who was released in August 2006, and Izatullah Nasratyar (ISN 977, also identified as Izatullah Nasrat Yar), who was released in November 2007. Both men were pro-US and opposed to the Taliban, and, as well as featuring them in The Guantánamo Files, I wrote about Haji Nasrat Khan, who was 78 years old when he was freed, here, based on an analysis of his Detainee Assessment Brief, and including his powerful criticism of how the US betrayed Afghan hopes, and I wrote about his son on his release here.

Also featured were Haji Ruhullah Wakil (ISN 798), a tribal elder from eastern Afghanistan, released in May 2008, who I wrote about on his release and also here, and Mawlawi Abdul Razaq (aka Abdul Razak Iktiar Mohammed, ISN 1043), the former Minister of Commerce in the Taliban government, who I wrote about briefly on his release in August 2007.

I hope you have time to read the article,and to share it if you find it useful. One piece of information that I had not come across before, but found very interesting, is that, in 2012, about 90 former Afghan prisoners came together to form “The Association of Former Guantánamo Detainees from Afghanistan,” and I’d very much like to find out more about this association, as I believe it could help to dispel some of the lies that are still told by those in the US who still support the existence of Guantánamo.

Life after Guantánamo prison
By Dawood Azami, BBC World Service, February 25, 2014

Some 220 Afghans have been held at the US military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, making them the largest single group of the nearly 50 nationalities involved. The vast majority have returned home, where their stories of imprisonment, and sometimes abuse at American hands, have made a big impact.

I stopped strangers on the street in Kabul and other provinces of Afghanistan to ask if they had heard of Manhattan or the World Trade Centre. Few of them had. But all of them knew about Guantánamo.

“In the history of mankind, there have been only two such cruel prisons. One was Hitler’s and the other one is this American prison,” says Haji Ghalib, a former district police officer from eastern Afghanistan, who was arrested in his office in February 2003.

That sums up the reputation Guantánamo has in Afghanistan.

Three Afghans died in detention. Of the rest, all but 19 have been freed without charge, and have usually returned home to a hero’s welcome.

“Thousands of people from my villages and the surrounding area had gathered to welcome me. I shook hands with more than 2,000 of them,” says Haji Shahzada Khan, a village elder from Kandahar, southern Afghanistan.

It was much the same for Izatullah Nasratyar, a former Mujahideen fighter who helped push Soviet troops out of Afghanistan, with American help, in his youth.

“People gave me a very warm welcome. They brought me cattle and other things they could afford,” he says.

But how much the ex-detainees are prepared to say about their experiences varies.

Some have written books that have become bestsellers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Others are more guarded.

“They did things to us that is against humanity, against human rights and against Islam. I cannot even talk about that and I will not talk about it,” says Haji Nasrat Khan, Izatullah’s elderly father.

He was already in his late 70s and in poor health when he was seized in 2003 by the US forces in a raid at his house in a village a few kilometres outside the Afghan capital, Kabul.

“I told them find me a single bit of evidence. If you don’t have the evidence, then why have you arrested me and kept me here? It was not only me, there were a lot of innocent people they detained.”

Haji Shahzada also prefers to remain silent.

“I usually say to people that Guantánamo is like the mother-in-laws’ home. That it’s a nice place,” he says.

“If we tell the truth about conditions there, then it will increase the worry and the suffering of the relatives of remaining detainees. I cannot disclose the realities of life in Guantánamo.”

The experience of Guantánamo is different for different prisoners.

So-called “compliant” detainees — those who follow the rules — live together in a communal way, can meet other inmates from their own block and are able to learn as well as read.

“People there don’t waste their time. The only good memory I have from Guantánamo is that I learnt the Koran and writing and also got a different experience,” says Haji Ghalib.

“I memorised the Koran there and learnt many new prayers that now I recite regularly,” says Izatullah Nasratyar.

Both men spent four and a half years at the detention facility.

But Haji Ruhullah, a tribal elder from eastern Afghanistan, paints a harsher picture.

“Guantánamo not only took the freedom of movement, it also took all the other rights. Even talking was not allowed,” he says. “We were not even allowed to move our lips while reading a book or reciting the Koran. The guards would punish us because they thought we were talking to other prisoners.”

Nearly all the former inmates I spoke to said they did not expect to return back alive. Many compared the experience of Guantánamo with death — and their release to being reborn.

“When we were transferred [to Afghanistan] from Guantánamo, it was like rising from the dead,” says former Taliban government Minister of Commerce, Mawlawi Abdul Razaq, who spent five years in detention after his arrest in April 2002, four of them in Guantánamo.

“While in Guantánamo, we didn’t have any knowledge of the outside world. The letters we were exchanging with our families were mostly censored and blacked out by the Americans. We were worried about our families … The difference was like coming out of the grave.”

Izatullah says the experience of Guantánamo changed his outlook on life.

“This prison has given me a lot of good things,” he says, surprisingly.

“I was never thankful enough for the bounties Allah has bestowed upon us. I had not thanked God for the freedom to be in the sun or the shade at your own free will or to go to the toilet whenever you want to.

“But when we were in the hands of other men we realised that God has bestowed a lot of bounties upon us. It was only then we realised what a privilege freedom is.”

After the joy of homecoming, though, the experience of picking up after four or five lost years has often been bitter.

“I went to see my vineyards after my release and found out that up to 5,000 of the vine trees had dried up. That is the memory that haunts me the most,” says Shahzada Khan.

“My small children couldn’t look after them in my absence. That was the day when I realised that I had really been imprisoned.”

Some of the former detainees lost their livelihoods and jobs.

“Neither the government nor anyone else will employ us — I’ve been without a job since I came home. Even after we were proven innocent, why won’t they help us?” says Haji Ghalib, the former district police officer.

Although released without charge, many of them say they are still harassed by the US and Afghan security forces, who suspect some of them of possible links with the insurgents.

A few former detainees have been killed in raids, mostly by US forces. Some have been re-arrested and imprisoned in Afghanistan, accused of being “involved in subversive activities”.

In fear of such a fate, about 90 of them came together in 2012 to form “The Association of Former Guantánamo Detainees from Afghanistan”.

“We came together in this body to support each other and protect our rights,” says Haji Ruhullah Wakil, the head of the association.

“We have met President Karzai, Nato commanders and the US officials in Kabul to discuss our problems and assure them that we pose no threat.”

The mere existence of Guantánamo, however, does continue to pose a threat — as the Taliban is able to exploit the fact in verse designed to recruit and motivate fighters.

One such chant describes a young Taliban detainee writing a letter to his mother.

“I am a prisoner in Cuba’s jail // Neither at night, nor at day, I can’t sleep, oh mother,” it goes.

The singer describes the hardship of life at Guantánamo and tells his mother there is no hope of seeing him alive.

The Americans have to weigh this danger against the risk of releasing potentially dangerous men.

The detention facility still holds 155 detainees — down from a peak of nearly 800.

“The detainees that were brought here were picked up on the battlefield. We kept them here to keep them off the battlefield,” says Admiral Richard Butler, commander of the Joint Task Force, that runs the Guantánamo military prison.

“Once the chain of command decides they’re no longer needed to be kept here for that reason, then we’ll transfer ’em. But until then I make no judgement on the guilt or innocence of the detainees.”

Haji Ghalib did return to Afghanistan, and was reunited with his family. But without a job, living in a cold damp apartment in Kabul, his life has undergone a radical turn for the worse.

“Two Americans told me that our American government apologises from you because you spent five years here but you were proven innocent,” he says.

“I told them, ‘I cannot forgive you from my heart.'”

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and 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. 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 four-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 and the chronological list of all Andy’s articles.

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9 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks to everyone liking and sharing this. It’s very much appreciated – and I’m glad to see that some people are still interested in these poor men whose lives, in many cases, were ruined by the US, and for which they have received no compensation whatsoever.

  2. arcticredriver says...

    Andy, thanks for drawing attention to the BBC article.

    I had never heard of the Association of Former Guantánamo Detainees from Afghanistan. That is interesting news, I hope it helps.

    I have had a dark fear as to what may have happened to some former Guantanamo captives. There is a meme, in US culture, one 180 degrees directly contradicted by the Geneva Conventions, that GIs, on the ground, who think they have captured someone who committed a war crime, are authorized to take him behind a building, and perform a summary battlefield execution.

    Of course, what the Geneva Conventions say, what the USA’s Uniform Code of Military Justice says, what Army Regulation 190-8, which spends 150 pages laying out how US forces should treat captives all say, is that once a captive has been disarmed, and is no longer a threat, US forces have an obligation to keep them safe; an obligation to feed them, treat their wounds, keep them clean and dry, and finally to protect them from public humiliation. I recall AR-190-8 in particular being very clear that soldiers are not allowed to exact private justice, private vengeance, once a captive is disarmed, and is no longer a threat — no matter how sure they are the captive committed a war crime.

    One of the three children who was kept in the more human Camp Iguana was one of the first former captives the USA called a “recidivist”, only four months after his release. At the time the USA said the proof he was a recidivist was that he was carrying a “Taliban letter”. I suspect this “Taliban letter” may have been nothing more than a letter from a local Taliban leader that told other Taliban something like:

    The youth carrying this letter was held in Guantanamo, but you should not regard his early release as a sign he was a collaborator there. The local shura has ruled, he was just a kid, and that no one should retaliate against him, so leave him alone.

    There have been no updates about him, since this report he was captured, and I have wondered whether this wasn’t due to over-eager US special forces acting on this meme, and performing a summary battlefield execution.

    I was struck by the hypocrisy of the US, to have aged him several years, during his four months of freedom. They reported his age, at capture, at 17 years old, but he had only been 14 or 15 when he was released four months earlier.

    I don’t think we have seen the text of the contract the camp authorities tries to force the captives who are about to be released to sign. I think we know it compels captives to refrain from any pro-Taliban activity. And I am afraid it may contain clauses where the captive agrees he can be subjected to summary punishment if he is captured engaging in pro-Taliban activity. I am afraid that the hot-head special forces who have recaptured former captives used those clauses in the contract to justify playing judge jury and executioner.

    Of course, legally, a contract someone is made to sign, under duress, is worthless.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, my friend Willy Bach shared this, and wrote:

    Andy Worthington tells the story of Afghans released from Guantanamo and their lives after their great trauma at the hands of North American torturers. Don’t let this happen again.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for sharing, Willy. Much appreciated. I’m reflecting at the moment on how long I’ve been doing this work on Guantanamo -and I didn’t even start on it full-time until it had been open for four years. Eight years ago, when I began in earnest, I read and devoured Moazzam Begg’s autobiography and watched, gripped from start to finish, “The Road to Guantanamo,” and, at the same time, the Pentagon was obliged to release the documents that formed the basis of my book “The Guantanamo Files.” So much has happened in my life since, and yet, for those still in Guantanamo, nothing has changed. Such a disgrace.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. I’m trying to recall where I have seen the text of the document the US tried to get all released prisoners to sign – although many, of course, refused to do so, calling America’s bluff right at the end, when they finally had some power. I recall that former prisoners interpreted the agreements as stating that the US would pursue them if they spoke about what had happened to them, and that some found this very worrying.
    I’m not sure I agree that ex-prisoners would have been hunted down, as I don’t think many Afghans have actually been “recidivists,” or have done anything to engage in anti-American activities apart from living in a country still occupied by the US. It’s obvious that some men were re-captured after release, but that proves nothing, as Bagram held thousands and thousands of prisoners, most of whom were swept up in dragnets that didn’t involve any kind of focused intelligence whatsoever, so if a former prisoner lived in an area where there was insurgent activity, it was perhaps probable that they would end up in US custody again.

  6. arcticredriver says...

    Saber Lal Melma 2011 killing, during a night raid, wasn’t a summary battlefield execution, but it was highly questionable. Anger After a Raid Kills a Wealthy Afghan With a Murky Past
    Ray Riviera’s article implied, to my eyes at least, that the rogue elements in the US special forces had been reined in, to the extent they didn’t just assassinate high profile individuals. But, if they could keep raiding his house, and hauling him away, they figured that, eventually, they would have an excuse to shoot him, shoot him because he was carrying a gun, shoot him because he was trying to escape.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, arcticredriver. Sabar Lal Melma’s death always troubled me, and I think you’re correct to interpret his death as the end result of a process of armed intimidation, at least. The story, as I understand it, was that the people of Kunar province had been helped by bin Laden, and therefore were indebted to him, but were opposed to the Taliban.

  8. Kabuli says...

    I have no idea about the presumed, real, or imagined ‘murkyness’ of Mr. Sabar Lal.

    As for the Pech valley however, for years it was considered to be (one of) the hotbeds of foreign terrorists, including ‘Chechens, Arabs, Pakistani’.
    I write this with inverted commas, as no one really knew whether that was true, although it did make it into a prime target for US occupation and bombing.

    What was true is that it was so dangerous there that even Afghans from Kunar’s main valley could not go there and the odd NGO which had been working there already since Soviet times, did so exclusively through local staff who would once in a while come to Kunar’s capital Assadabad.
    What also was known were the US bomb explosions heard at night from across the mountains which separate Pech from the main valley, the forest fires and the horror stories which sometimes would emerge. The US military were so desperate for ‘intelligence’ from that region that USAID and its commercial representative DAI tried hard to dress spy projects as ‘development’ ones, by and large unsuccessfully I am glad to say, as serious development organisations are much less naive and more intent on remaining neutral than their would-be handlers presumed.

    Then the ‘withdrawal’ of foreign troops started in 2010 and lo and behold, this is what I read about Pech valley, after years of torture and murder: “What we figured out is that people in the Pech really aren’t anti-U.S. or anti-anything; they just want to be left alone,” said one American military official familiar with the decision. “Our presence is what’s destabilizing this area.” (This of course can be extrapolated to all of Afghanistan.)
    I managed to find an indirect link to it :
    The withdrawal did not last all that long though, as ‘taliban’ were quick to gain control over it and US (presumably special-) forces were again deployed there.
    Since then I’ve lost track, it’s too depressing anyway.

    Which reminds me of another quote from a US official a few years ago, who suggested that the ‘Coalition Forces’ concentrate on keeping Kabul and Bagram base (for themselves, of course) out of the hands of the insurgents and simply forget about the rest, abandon it. So much for ‘stabilizing’ the country, not to mention strategic ‘partnerships’ …

    As for people coming out of their house with a gun when their compound is being attacked in the middle of the night -and then being simply gunned down- that is a regular occurence. What if the racket was caused not by ‘friendly’ coalition forces but by ‘bloodthirsty terrorists’? Leaving the house unarmed might then be deadly, right? And who are any US authorities -of all the nations in the world- to blame Afghans for keeping guns for self-defense?

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Kabuli, for the comments abut Kunar and, in particular, the Pech valley – and also for that telling comment by the US military official about how the people of the valley – and, by extension, Afghanistan as a whole – just want to be left alone. I’m always appalled at how western leaders are so self-satisfied and so complacently colonial in their outlook that they never imagine how they would feel if they were under foreign military occupation.

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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 and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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