Guantánamo Prisoners Released in Uruguay Struggle to Adapt to Freedom


Released Guantanamo prisoner Abu Wa'el Dhiab in a screenshot from an interview he did with an Argentinian TV channel in February 2015, two months after his release in Uruguay with five other men.In December, the release of six Guantánamo prisoners in Uruguay attracted the attention of the world’s media — in part because Uruguay’s President Mujica was a former political prisoner, who had openly criticized Guantánamo and had welcomed the men as refugees.

At the time, the situation looked hopeful for the men — four Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian — but that may just have been because of President Mujica’s attitude. After 13 years in Guantánamo, the reasonable expectation would have been that the released men would have post-traumatic stress disorder, and would find it hard to adapt to life in an alien country with no Muslim population.

In February, the most prominent of the former prisoners, Abu Wa’el Dhiab (aka Jihad Diyab) — a Syrian who had embarked on a hunger strike in despair at ever being released, and had fought in the US courts to prevent the Obama administration from force-feeding him — made what the Guardian described as “a surprising visit” to Argentina, Uruguay’s neighbour, to ask the country to take in other prisoners from Guantánamo, where 55 of the remaining 122 prisoners have also been approved for release, but are, for the most part, in need of third countries to offer them new homes.

In a 19-minute interview with the Argentinian website Barricada (posted below), Dhiab said, “I’m never going to forget my companions [in Guantánamo]. That’s why I came here to fight.”

In the video, he “sported the orange jumpsuit he wore during his 12 years in US detention,” saying, “These clothes are part of me. Before leaving they told me to change and put on a brown suit. I put it over this, because this is symbolic and very important to me. The Americans made us wear this to terrorize the whole world. Thank God that has flipped around now.”

Although he “refused to give details of torture” at Guantánamo, he said, “I would need many hours to develop that subject, but speaking generally, we were tortured from the first moment we arrived until the last moment we left Guantánamo. They thought we’d go crazy in six months but we resisted years and years, thanks to God and thanks to our patience.”

The Guardian wrote that Dhiab “claimed that there are prisoners in Guantánamo on never-ending hunger strikes who have been force-fed since 2005,” but that is not accurate. It is absolutely certain that there are prisoners on never-ending hunger strikes who have been force-fed since 2005.

“We hear Obama say that prisoners at Guantánamo have to be treated humanely,” Dhiab said, “but every time he appears saying that on television we see that has a very negative impact.” [the Guardian‘s translation of “impact” was “repercussion”].

Dhiab also explained that he had been a hunger striker over the years, and had first refused food in 2005. “I started having health problems in 2004 and I would write on my food plate,” he said, adding, “I handed back my food, because I felt that food was not good for my health.”

He also said, “Before leaving Guantánamo I was in a place where I was force-fed. It was a tube through my nose that forced me to eat. There I spoke to a companion from Yemen who said: ‘Don’t forget us when you leave.'”

That was obviously key to him saying that he would “continue to fight for the release of those left behind,” as the Guardian described it. “The Argentinian government could accept prisoners from Guantánamo for humanitarian reasons,” he said, adding, “I am requesting the government here to accept more people, more Guantánamo prisoners to save them, at least for humanitarian reasons.”

Dhiab also said he was “still waiting for his wife and children to be brought to Uruguay to join him,” as the Guardian put it, noting also that the Argentinian government declined to comment on Dhiab’s visit to the country.

Two weeks ago, the Associated Press visited Uruguay to see how the men were coping with their new lives, speaking to two of them “at the four-bedroom, one-bathroom house they share with the other former detainees in a middle-class neighbourhood of Montevideo,” noting, “Their landing has been anything but smooth.” The AP claimed that Abu Wa’el Dhiab had “said he felt like he had been transferred from one prison to another and complained that Uruguay needed a better resettlement plan,” adding that, soon after, “another controversy erupted when Uruguayans learned that the men didn’t take jobs they had been offered.”

That was not strictly true. Fernando Gambera, the secretary of a trade union that worked on the men’s resettlement plans, said that the men had been offered jobs that “ranged from construction to cooking,” and explained, “When the offers arrived, [the men] went to the interviews, and visited the places they would be working, but later fear set in” and they did not show up for the jobs.

President Mujica visited the men, at the house they share in Montevideo, and, according to the AP, said on his radio program that “they were not as hardy as the ancestors of Uruguayans, who he said were gritty, hard-working immigrants.” This, again, however, was not strictly true.

According to Reuters, President Mujica, who has called Guantánamo “a human disgrace,” actually said, “These people are destroyed. They could be here for two years and they won’t understand a goddamn thing, because even though you want to teach them Spanish, they lack the inner strength, the will to move on with their lives. They have been turned halfway into vegetables.”

That is a rather inelegant way of describing their PTSD, but it certainly acknowledges it, unlike the version of his comments that compared the men unfavourably to the Uruguayan people.

Reuters also noted that President Mujica said, “They need to recuperate. But I don’t know if they will.”

Speaking to the AP, Adel bin Muhammad El-Ouerghi, the Tunisian, who is 50 years old, confirmed that, during the released prisoners’ meeting with President Mujica, he “encouraged the men to begin working, but also said he understood they needed to learn Spanish and had to forget about Guantánamo to move on with their lives.”

El-Ouerghi stated, “The president never said we were lazy,” adding, “If all the world’s presidents were like Mujica, there would be no problems.” According to the AP, like others in the house El-Ouerghi “spoke fondly about the eccentric leader who drives a Volkswagen Beetle.”

The AP also noted the difficulties facing the six released men, as understood by El-Ouerghi: “Resettled in a foreign land, surrounded by a language he doesn’t understand, he finds the challenges of everyday life to be daunting.” As he explained, “In Guantánamo, we only thought about leaving. Here we have to think about food, clothes, all kinds of things.”

Three of the six Guantanamo prisoners given new homes in Uruguay in December 2014. From L to R: Adel bin Muhammad El-Ouerghi, Ali Husain Shaaban and Omar Abdelhadi Faraj in the house they share in Montevideo (Photo: Matilde Campodonico/AP).El-Ouerghi and another former prisoner, Omar Abdelhadi Faraj, a 34-year old Syrian, spoke to the AP, who noted that they wouldn’t talk much about what happened to them at Guantánamo or how they ended up there, for reasons that “ranged from fear of reprisal to a desire to leave the past behind.” El-Ouerghi explained that “he had lived in Italy for seven years, where he worked as a cook and learned to speak Italian fluently, and then in Afghanistan, where he said he was married to a Pakistani woman and had a house but declined to provide more details about his life there.” He added that his wife had divorced him while he was at Guantánamo, but that he still hoped to have a family. “I have one sister and three brothers,” he said. “They are all married and have children.”

After quoting from the extremely unreliable allegations against them in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011, the AP noted that the men’s appearance in Montevideo provided “a sharp contrast” — and with good reason of course. El-Ouerghi, described as “neatly bearded” and wearing “shorts, a collared shirt and sandals,” was also described as being “quick to offer coffee,” and Faraj, “also with a trimmed beard and glasses,” was described as “soft-spoken and shy, often carrying prayer beads in his right hand.” The AP also met Abu Wa’el Dhiab, who, it was noted, “gets around on crutches because he is still weak,” but he “did not want to be quoted,” even though he was “welcoming and chatty.”

Following up on the discussion of the men’s willingness — or otherwise — to work, El-Ouerghi and Faraj told the AP that they “want to work,” but first of all need to “address nagging health problems, from anxiety and an inability to concentrate to physical ailments like stomach bacterial problems and blurred vision.”

They added, as the AP put it, that they “appreciated the hospitality they had received, and hoped to bring their families, at least for visits,” but “they worry about the future.” They said they receive 15,000 pesos a month (about $600) from the Uruguayan government, “which they must use for food, clothing and everything else except lodging, which is currently paid for by the union.”

Faraj, who was only 21 when he was seized, “expressed shock” at the prices of houses in Montevideo. “Buying a house here is impossible,” he said, adding, “How could I ever marry?” A former butcher, in his hometown, Hama, he said he “hoped to open a shop selling halal meat,” and El-Ouerghi “said he wanted to open an Arab restaurant that would serve shwarma, kebabs and other traditional Middle Eastern foods, which he had not found in Montevideo.”

Noting that they also “lamented the lost time, particularly the years since the United States cleared them for release,” the AP stated that El-Ouerghi, arguing the US had “a moral obligation” to help them, asked, “Why can’t the United States help me?”

The AP also noted that the men “spend most of the day in the house,” where there is a widescreen TV and computer, which they use to learn Spanish and to communicate with their families — sometimes on a daily basis — via Skype. With no mosque in Montevideo, they also use the house for prayer, sometimes together, sometimes alone.

Al-Jazeera followed the AP to Montevideo, providing further details about their lives. Adel El-Ouerghi said, “I have no passport or papers. I asked for the Americans to send me back to Tunisia, but they refused.”

El-Ouerghi also expressed some disappointment with his new life, stating, “When we were in Guantánamo, the Uruguayan authorities made many promises. But when we arrived we didn’t find those promises.” However, he added, pragmatically, “I want to stay in Uruguay to rebuild my life. If I didn’t, what would I do?”

While mentioning his plans for a restaurant, he also said he “would like to be reunited with his mother,” although he acknowledged that he “doesn’t know when or if either of those wishes will become a reality.”

Al-Jazeera also claimed that El-Ouerghi and another of the released prisoners had moved out of the house provided for them by the trade union, and that El-Ouerghi explained that it was “too crowded,” and that he “now lives at a nearby hotel.” It was also noted that the Uruguayan government and the UN refugee agency “continue to support the men financially.”

Al-Jazeera visited the other four men, and found Mohammed Taha Mattan, the Palestinian, sitting “on the balcony talking to his family on Skype,” while two others watched football on TV. It was also noted that they were “making little progress” with their Spanish lessons

Abu Wa’el Dhiab told Al-Jazeera he was “desperate to be reunited with his family,” and that he hoped they would “soon be able to join him in Uruguay.” As is known to those who have followed Dhiab’s story closely, his wife “has had a particularly trying time. She had to leave Syria because of the civil war, and one of the couple’s children died while Dhiab was in Guantánamo.”

Omar Abdelhadi Faraj also told Al-Jazeera that he “hopes to see some of his family members soon in Uruguay.” One of his lawyers, Eldon Greenberg, said he has been “assured that the Uruguayan government is working to fulfill that request.” Greenberg added that “Faraj sees Uruguay as his country now,” also stating, “Going back to Syria had never been an option.”

He also said that Faraj is “impatient to start his new life,” and “wants to live independently, work and get married.” As he pointed out, “Even though it has only been a couple months, the transition seems very slow to them,” because of the 13 years they have already lost.

I hope their aspirations to establish businesses — and for being reunited with their families — come true. It is certainly the minimum they deserve after their long years lost in Guantánamo.

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 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 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 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.

11 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    When I posted this on Facebook, I wrote:

    Here’s my latest article, looking at the latest news from Uruguay about the six men released from ‪Guantanamo‬ in December, who are struggling to cope with PTSD, a new life in an unknown country with an unknown language, and their ongoing separation from their families. Includes information about Abu Wa’el Dhiab, the Syrian who spent the years before his release fighting the US government in the courts to try and stop them from force-feeding him.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    Heartbreaking. Sharing.

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Pauline. I was catching up on the story, looking at the various reports about the men, when it dawned on me that – of course – they have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although none of the journalists who visited the men and spoke to them spelled it out – or even, perhaps, noticed.
    It’s too easy, I think, to forget that the Guantanamo prisoners have been subjected to a vile experiment – at base, open-ended imprisonment without charge or trial, but also including torture and human experimentation.
    It was interesting too that the men made a point of mentioning the difficulty of coping with their time imprisoned after they had been approved for release and were told they would be leaving Guantanamo – a cruelty for which I have repeatedly criticized the Obama administration.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Pauline Kiernan wrote:

    Abject cruelty indeed. Thank you Andy. The world needs you to bring attention to the iniquities which others fail to do.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks again, Pauline. In the last few days I’ve been thinking that perhaps my focus was drifting away from some of the essential truths about Guantanamo – the horror of the men’s treatment over 13 years, and, I must add, the largely ridiculous allegations against most of them. It’s why I ignored the Associated Press trotting out allegations from the files released by WikiLeaks in 2011. They really shouldn’t ever be cited without significant caveats.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Monique D’hoohge wrote:

    if i weren’t feeling crap because of a fibromyalgia flare up and faced with a lot of urgent work to try and stay on top of, I would say this is the article i need to translate right now…..

    you know i admire your work, Andy, but here you excelled yourself again…. understanding the burden of undergoing something of the nature of guantanamo and re-humanising these maligned men and giving the public at large a possibility of understanding….

    good job…. you earned yourself an increase in “i gotsa give andy a hug” urges on my end…. not that i have forgotten that i want to exploit you for high tea shocking tories purposes 🙂

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Monique! 🙂

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Jan Strain wrote:

    Andy – you follow your heart and soul..

    Bare, cherry-picked facts rarely speak to the truth of a thing. Background and story always do.

    I always hated the manner in which the US relocates former Guantanamo POWs. We refuse to be humane even to those we release. Removing them from friends, family and culture – plopping them in some unrecognizable Twilight Zone world with nothing even remotely recognizable or friendly, or back to a nation that cares nothing for them and only about retribution, harassment, “rehabilitation” or punishment (like those “repatriated” to Algeria or Saudi Arabia). All made worse by the fact of Guantanamo – years and years of isolation, abuse, degradation and, for at least some, torture.

    You do tell the stories well and are one of only a few people willing to do so.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Love you both, Monique and Jan. Thanks for getting it. I don’t always remember what it is that I do!

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Monique D’hoohge wrote:

    yes you do, Andy, you do remember… it is why you are so invested in telling this story…. why it has absorbed your main focus as a writer and activist…. it is just that from an activism point there is so much more to do than to write articles about the psychological impact….. but they need to be written too

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Yes, I do remember, Monique, but I think what I was obliquely referring to was the mainstream pressure not to do it the way I do. I often find the assertion of self-worth to be a constant battle in this commodified, status-obsessed world we live in.

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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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