KABUL - They call them the Bandi Guantánamo, the Guantánamo returnees, and
their welcome home is far from warm. All across Afghanistan in recent
months, scores of men have been coming back from a long journey halfway
around the world. About 100 have been released from Guantánamo Bay by
United States authorities in the last 12 months as Washington, under
mounting pressure from governments around the world, attempts to
moderate the damage done to America's image by the Cuba-based detention
centre. A third are Afghan and more are due to return in the coming
After more than five years in detention thousands of miles
away, often traumatised, often angry, or just broken and poor, the
Bandi Guantánamo try to build new lives, with limited success. Most
claim innocence. Others are unashamed of their acts of violence.
Interviewed in Kabul last month, Mohammed Umr described how he had
trained in terrorist techniques, met Osama bin Laden and fought at the
battle of Tora Bora in 2001. Released 10 weeks ago, he spoke of how
angry the presence of his former jailers in his homeland made him. 'If
they have come here to help us, why do they kill civilians and why
can't they even provide electricity to Kabul seven years after
invading?', asked the 30-year-old former footballer, arrested in
Pakistan during the closing days of the war of 2001.
the former detainees describe mistreatment - ranging from waterboarding
- the repeated half-drowning of prisoners to get them to talk - through
to beatings, sleep deprivation, being kept in 'stress positions' and
exposure to extreme temperatures for long periods. Most say that the
worst abuse occurred in US bases in Afghanistan, notably in the eastern
and southern cities of Jalalabad and Kandahar, or at the logistics
centre of Bagram airfield, where a 500-capacity makeshift prison was
built. American military spokesmen in Afghanistan deny any mistreatment.
comparison, the former prisoners say, Guantánamo was relatively
bearable. 'It was better there,' said Abdul Nasir, who added that he
had been deprived of sleep in the Bagram prison. 'The food was OK.
There was more exercise. When I arrived [in 2003] we had just 20
minutes twice a week. By the end it was two hours a day.' Like others
interviewed by The Observer, Nasir, 26, claimed that rows frequently
broke out in Guantánamo over religious practice. 'The guards made noise
when we were praying. They shouted bad things,' he alleged. 'There was
nearly a riot because they were handling the Koran that we were allowed
in our cells.'
Many former detainees say they have been told by
the Afghan government or their former jailers not to talk to
journalists. Several senior former Taliban figures, such as Mullah
Abdul Salam Zaeef, their former ambassador to Pakistan, are under house
arrest in Kabul, supposedly as part of the largely moribund
'reconciliation process'. The head of the reconciliation commission was
in Canada and unable to comment, his office said.
Deputy Speaker of the Afghan parliament, played down the danger of
returnees joining Taliban insurgents in control of large parts of the
south and east of the country. 'We should try to reintegrate them, but
[the returnees] should not get any special treatment,' he said from his
office in the new Afghan parliament building. 'Their story is that of
Afghanistan: a tragic tale.'
Many former detainees return to
hardship, chaos and violence. In the six years he has been gone, Abdul
Nasir's village on Kabul's outskirts has barely changed but for a new
road and new insecurity. 'We are worried to go into the fields at night
because the coalition think we are Taliban and shoot at us,' said
Nasir's elder brother. 'Every week, the Taliban are firing at the
police in the village. Our school was burnt down and there have been
Nasir was arrested by Afghan troops in 2002,
accused of attacking a border post with a group of Pakistani Taliban.
Though he now denies the allegation, legal sources close to his case
said he had confessed, claiming he had been press-ganged by fellow
students at the religious school where he had been studying in the
anarchic Pakistani tribal zones.
Saeed Jan was freed two years
ago. He says he does not know why he was arrested in 2002 and says he
was repeatedly beaten after his arrest in the eastern Kunar province
and again at Bagram by American personnel. He returned to his village
to find his sick wife and mother had died and his 12-year-old son had
been killed in a fall while collecting wood. 'When I got home I said to
myself it would have been better to have stayed in detention,' he said.
'At least my village is peaceful, but I have four other children and no
money. We are hungry and I cannot afford food.'
The detainees are
being released into Afghan custody after their cases are reviewed by US
authorities. They are usually held in the new wing, built with American
funds, at Pul-e-Sharqi prison near Kabul, where they are tried under
Afghan law by local terrorist courts. Most are released and given about
£5 and some clothes. Many claim to have been the victims of
denunciations by tribal enemies or rivals in complex local power
struggles. It is difficult to confirm their stories, although many
details appear convincing. In the aftermath of the invasion of 2001,
with large bounties on offer for information leading to the arrest of
al-Qaeda or Taliban supporters, coalition authorities with little
knowledge of Afghanistan were often manipulated by factions and
individuals to eliminate long-standing enemies.
Haji Ghalib, a
tribal elder from eastern Nangahar province released late last year,
claimed he was falsely denounced after closing down a drugs bazaar when
he was police chief in a rough district near Jalalabad. 'It was a
ridiculous accusation, but the Americans believed it. They beat me,
gave me no food and interrogated me by strapping me to a wooden plank
and pushing my head into water. I kept telling them they had got the
wrong person,' he said.
Independent sources confirm that
Ghalib, a former fighter against the Russians, had fought against the
Taliban in previous years and was allied with an anti-Taliban warlord.
spent four years in Guantánamo without any evidence of any guilt at all
because I am innocent,' he said in Kabul. 'But I am not angry at the
Americans because they were the victims of bad information. But I would
like the money and vehicles they took from me. I am in a very difficult
situation now, and I am worried about the people who accused me,
because they could do it again.'
More than 500 detainees have
been released from Guantánamo and American authorities have indicated
that only about 70 of the 263 still in their custody will be tried.
They include at least a dozen senior al-Qaeda figures. A few hundred
prisoners are still held in Bagram, where two have died of injuries
sustained during interrogations.
The detainees often return to
tragedy and destitution. Saeed Ameer, from the eastern Nangahar
province, was arrested in 2002 after explosives were found in his home.
He denies all knowledge of the cache and blames a relative. 'I told the
US that I had fought against the Taliban and spent five years in their
jails,' he said last week. 'But they took me to their base, beat me
until I was unconscious and kept me awake for days and days. Then they
took me to Guantánamo and I stayed there for four years.' Ameer now
scrapes a living trading livestock, though he cannot afford meat
himself. 'There are 30 people in my family and a kilo of mutton is £2.
How can I afford that?', he said.
Tora Bora veteran Mohammed
Umr said he just wanted to join his family in Saudi Arabia, where he
grew up. It was from Medina that he travelled in 2001 for 'jihad'. He
said that he had now forsworn violence and hoped to get married, settle
down and have children.
Yet Umr was still angry. 'Osama bin Laden
is the only person who is concerned about the plight of the Muslim
world. This Afghan government are un-Islamic collaborators with the
West,' he said. 'No one here likes the Americans. In the provinces
there are civilians being killed for nothing. There is chaos, violence,
tyranny. This is enough to make even an ordinary person furious.
Imagine how someone who has suffered for years in prison feels.'