Strangers in a Strange Land: My Interview About the Struggles of the Six Men Freed from Guantánamo in Uruguay


Andy Worthington speaking to Witness Against Torture activists in Washington D.C. in January 2013, on the eve of the 11th anniversary of the prison's opening (Photo by Justin Norman).Recently, I was delighted to be interviewed for the Montevideo Portal website by a Uruguayan journalist, Martin Otheguy, who wanted to know my thoughts about the situation facing the six former Guantánamo prisoners who were given new homes in Uruguay in December. I wrote about the negotiations for their release here and here, and I also wrote about the men following their release, here and here. In addition, I looked at the stories of their difficulties adapting to their new lives just a few weeks ago, which was the spur for Martin approaching me for an interview.

The interview is below. I translated it from the Spanish via Google Translate, and then tried to reconstruct it so that it reflects as accurately as possible the original interview, which was in English. I hope you find it useful, and will share it if you do:

Strangers in a Strange Land
Andy Worthington interviewed by Martin Otheguy for Montevideo Portal

Andy Worthington, documentary filmmaker and author specializing in Guantánamo, told Montevideo Portal that a dedicated team of psychologists should treat the men released from Guantánamo in December. “They are in a unique and horrible position in which nobody can understand what they went through,” he said.

Andy Worthington is a British investigative journalist (also a writer, filmmaker and photographer) who has devoted much of his work to Guantánamo Bay.

He co-founded the influential “Close Guantánamo” campaign, co-directed the documentary “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” and is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (which includes references to the six refugees who are now in Uruguay).

Through his website, he has closely followed how the six Guantánamo prisoners released in our country have adapted to their new home and their new lives, while continuing to actively demand the release of other prisoners held without charge or trial in Guantánamo.

In the midst of an ongoing controversy about how the former prisoners are adapting to life in Uruguay, focused on how they are still without work, and questions about how the men’s resettlement has been handled, Worthington chatted with Montevideo Portal on the backgrounds of the former prisoners, their problems adjusting to their new lives, and a couple of things that Uruguayan society tends to forget.

Martin Otheguy: In Uruguay some people are frightened by the former prisoners, even though the US government clued them for release. What is known about these six men?

Andy Worthington: They are people who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan from their countries as refugees — economic refugees more than anything else. They had been told that in Afghanistan the Taliban had established a pure Islamic state, and they believed they could find a new life there.

There was a significant number of people from North Africa and the Gulf who traveled to Europe to try to find work and settle there, but they found it very difficult, so they ended up going to Afghanistan, where they could live very cheaply. That was the situation when they were arrested. I understand that people worry because they are former prisoners, but in their case there are no genuine allegations of their involvement in military activities or indeed any kind of terrorism.

Martin Otheguy: But can they be considered religious fundamentalists, even though they have not been involved in terrorist activities?

Andy Worthington: I don’t think so. My impression is that they are not fundamentalists, there is no evidence of that. They are four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian who don’t behave as through they are fundamentalists. They appear to be happy with their civilian lives and have not insisted on devoting themselves to any kind of religious figures, for example.

Martin Otheguy: Former President Jose Mujica said that they were people who were not used to working hard. Do you think it was unfair?

Andy Worthington: I’ve seen different interpretations of what he said. For me it’s more appropriate to understand they were very damaged by their experience in Guantánamo, and I must say that these are people who were not only tortured and abused and held for 13 years without charge or trial; the process of detaining them in that manner has a tendency to create a state of weakness and impotence — and of people who, when released, are unable to act independently.

And especially in Guantánamo, the United States undertook a process that was designed to dehumanize the prisoners, to break them and make them completely dependent on the authorities. It is very clear to me that these men have post-traumatic stress disorder (PRSD), that they have psychological problems that must be addressed so that they can re-motivate. I know one of them mentioned how difficult it is to have to now make their own decisions because, as prisoners, they were completely powerless.

Martin Otheguy: Is psychological therapy necessary to prepare them for work and to have a normal life here?

Andy Worthington: I think it would be appropriate for them to have psychological help, and I also think that, in the meantime, financial support to keep them should come from the US. I don’t know really how that has worked so far; from what I have heard, though, it has involved the assistance of a Uruguayan labor union. It is the moral obligation of the United States to keep these men until they are in a position to move on with their lives.

Another thing that is very important is that they need to rejoin their families. They spent 13 years in a horrible, horrible prison where they were badly mistreated and separated from their families; nobody was allowed to see them, even if they could afford to travel the naval base, unlike any other US prisoner who has been convicted for the most terrible crimes. This is a unique situation.

Martin Otheguy: In the interviews there have been some complaints about the Uruguayan resettlement plan. Do you think it was not well planned?

Andy Worthington: I don’t know. I think the fact that former President Mujica has been so receptive about the need to help prisoners at Guantánamo is more positive than almost all other countries. Other nations have taken in other prisoners who could not be safely repatriated, but have not been as sympathetic as President Mujica.

I think the problem we all have is that this is a completely unique situation. These are men who were tortured, abused and wrongly imprisoned by the United States, and the US has refused to do anything about it. The US hasn’t offer new homes to any of these men, but expects other countries to be willing to help, countries that receive very damaged people who are then placed in unfamiliar surroundings.

I hope if they decide to stay in Uruguay they can get used to the Latin American hospitality, even though they are Muslims from the Middle East, and are unfamiliar with the language and the culture; It is a strange place for them.

I hope everything goes well, but I must say that the most important thing for me is that people understand how unreliable are the rumors and allegations about Guantánamo prisoners. People should be careful because there are documents on Guantánamo — the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in 2011 — which, if people see, they can say, “Such a person is such a thing or the other,” but most of that information is completely unfounded. It is not worthwhile for people to worry about those documents.

Martin Otheguy: You talked about adapting. Is it possible that eventually they will adapt to the country despite there being virtually no Muslims here, and despite the fact that there is not even a mosque for them to pray at?

Andy Worthington: I would say yes. These are people who understand that they have no other place to go. If you have to leave your country and go to another, there will always be a problem adapting. The main problem for Uruguay is knowing how damaged they are, and what their experiences were, but I would say that, as long as the men are in a supportive environment, I cannot see why they cannot adapt to it.

Martin Otheguy: Do you think that Uruguayan society and its politicians have to be more patient, that the refugees need more time before working?

Andy Worthington: Yes, clearly they need to overcome their PTSD. Some countries have organizations dedicated to dealing with victims of torture. I think that in Uruguay they should be treated by a team of psychologists who can help them to cope with what has happened. We must remember that, for the people in Guantánamo, no one else has gone through anything similar.

If you or I were to go to jail, it would be because we were accused of a crime, prosecuted and sentenced. These men were captured by the United States, who told the world that they were “the worst of the worst,” and they were held without rights and were given no opportunity to challenge the allegations against them. They are in a uniquely horrible position in which no one can really understand what happened to them except for other Guantánamo prisoners.

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.

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

2 Responses

  1. Anna says...

    That’s great, that Uruguayan press is interested to get background info and that you – as usual 🙂 – provided essential understanding.

    You might want to check this out on AlJazeera English
    It’s the story of three Iranian women – now living in Europe – who were imprisoned and tortured for several years when Ayatolla Khomeini took over. There are similarities with the fate of Guantanamo prisoners and while of course they all will forever carry the trauma, it is interesting to see how they cope and have managed to somehow rebuild a life. It will no doubt be repeated, it’s in the ‘Witness’ series.

    While I’m at it, also a very interesting international debate on whether the ‘GWoT’ is fighting terror or Muslims, moderated by a sharp-witted Christian Palestinian, originally from Izrael …:
    And a peaceful and sunny Easter to all :-)!

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Great to hear from you, Anna. Buona pasqua – Happy Easter – from Venice, where I’m on holiday with the family! Thank you for your kind comments about my work!
    Your links look very interesting. It is depressing to see European governments cranking up the hysteria for “War on Terror 2.0,” rather than shelving the whole thing. The Charlie Hebdo episode – following attacks that were absolutely horrible and unforgivable, of course – was, nevertheless, followed by a hideous and unacceptable show of “solidarity” – which might as well have been an official anti-Muslim platform – from all those disgraceful world leaders who turned up (and good on Obama for not doing so).
    And in the UK, of course, it is important to remember that it would be difficult to imagine a more vile and bigoted person to be home secretary than the wretched and dangerous Theresa May.

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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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