PESHAWAR – Two Afghan journalists, who spent three years in the infamous United States military prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have released a new chronicle on life in the now famous iron cages.
Their 453-page volume in the Pashto language is even more graphic than the one released recently by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, Taliban’s former ambassador to Pakistan who was handed over to the U.S. military, shortly after it invaded Afghanistan and ousted the fundamentalist regime in 2001.
Titled ‘Da Guantanamo Maatai Zawlanai’ (Broken Chains of Guantanamo), the volume describes the extreme physical and mental torture to which the inmates — mostly suspected Taliban and their allies who were picked up from Afghanistan or Pakistan — were subjected to.
”There was a ten-month-old infant and a 125-year-old Afghan among the prisoners,” Muslim Dost, 45, and his co-author and brother Badar-uz-Zaman, 37, told IPS during an interview on the weekend.
Startlingly, they also claimed to have seen evidence of female inmates in Guantanamo. ”We saw forms filled in by female inmates at the office of the investigators.”
One of the forms, left lying around carelessly on a table by U.S. military investigators, had apparently been filled in by a woman from Lahore, in the Punjab province of Pakistan, and it showed that she was pregnant, they said.
Dost and Zaman, both journalists, were exonerated by a military tribunal at Guantanamo and released on Apr. 22, 2005. They were originally picked up by Pakistan’s military Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) on Nov. 17, 2001 from the Speena Warai village on the outskirts of Peshawar and were taken to a detention centre in Bagaram Air Base, before being flown to Guantanamo.
“We used to publish Arabic, Pashto and Urdu monthlies. Some of the articles in them had angered the ISI, which handed us over to the U.S. forces, handcuffed and blindfolded. We didn’t have any connection with the Taliban, but the ISI wanted to settle scores with us,” said Dost, who migrated to Pakistan with his entire family 24 years ago from his native Kot district in Jalalabad, Afghanistan.
Like Mullah Zaeef, the brothers lay blame for many unjustifiable detentions at Guantanamo on the shadowy ISI, which, they said, went about picking up innocent citizens to show cooperation with the U.S. military and also to claim large bounties.
”A father was taking his ailing son to hospital in Quetta, Balochistan, when he was caught by police and asked to pay a bribe for his release. He refused to pay and ended up at Guantanamo with his son. After two years, the son had so transformed that he was talking in English and was unable to recognize his father,” they said.
Only ten of those ever held at Guatanamo, since its establishment in January 2002, have been formally charged. An investigation conducted, earlier this year by the Seton Hall University in New Jersey showed that 55 percent of prisoners are not alleged to have committed any hostile acts against the U.S., and 40 percent had no affiliation with al-Qaeda.
Military documents, cited by the university, suggested that only eight percent of prisoners were alleged to have been fighting on behalf of any Islamist group, and that 86 percent were captured and handed over to the U.S. military by the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan that opposed the Taliban or by Pakistani authorities.
Photographs in the new book were mainly sourced from members of the U.S. forces who took pictures to be sold clandestinely to the media. ”We were happy to be photographed. We knew that photos were the only thing that could inform the world community about our ordeal,” Zaman told IPS.
”The ISI people, which thoroughly searched our house took away valuables including precious gemstones, worth 300,000 US dollars,” Dost said.
”We had not committed any war crime but had exercised our basic right of writing about the ISI’s wrongdoings what was fact for which we paid a huge price,” said Zaman.
A father of nine, Dost says he received his first letter from his family after 11 months through ICRC. “A total of 24 letters, out of hundreds sent by the family, reached us with most of its contents deleted by the U.S. forces in an effort to make us worry.”
“The shortest period between letters from the family was two months. Most of the letters took more than four months to reach us,” he added.
”Among the prisoners were real brothers, fathers and sons, who were kept in 180 sq cm iron cages. Sometimes, the cages would be placed close enough to enable conversation,” said Dost.
”Water was plentiful for drinking and ablutions, but supplies were cut when we protested on some matters. We were made to perform congregational prayers while caged,” said Zaman. “Trimming our beards and eyebrows, making us strip and desecrating the Holy Quran were other matters that angered us.”
Their testimony corroborates what former envoy Zaeef recorded in his 156-page “Da Guantanamo Anzoor” (The Picture of Guantanamo). “So harsh was the torture and treatment that prisoners even prayed for death rather than be in detention,” Zaeef, wrote. “Their oppression can never be forgiven.”
Zaman said that food was served to the detainees were deficient. Sleep deprivation was another way in which the inmates were constantly harassed, he recalled.
After inspecting the camp in June 2004, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a confidential report — which found its way to the New York Times in November 2004 — in which the inspectors accused the U.S. military of using “humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes, use of forced positions” against the prisoners.
To be translated into English soon, ‘Broken Chains of Guantanamo’ is priced at 3.3 dollars and has 64 pictures showing some of the trauma the prisoners were subjected to.
”We have fully naked pictures of the POWs, but decided not to include them in the book to avoid hurting further the sentiments of Muslims,” the brothers said.
”We had no link with the outside world. The U.S. army would give us information that they thought would make us worry. They informed us, for example, that Saddam Hussain had been captured,” Dost said.
The brothers said that, in general, Spanish-speaking members of the U.S. army were kinder to the prisoners but they were transferred when the authorities felt they had a ”soft corner for us”.
“From the cages, the POWs would spit at the U.S. army men who seemed to be extremely fearful. They would allow us to write, but would give us only refills fearing that we would hit them with them with pens,” said Dost, who still fears being whisked away by the ISI.
Many governments, including U.S. allies, and human rights groups have criticised the indefinite detentions and the prisoners’ lack of legal rights at Guantanamo.
While the the Pentagon insists the detainees are treated humanely, international concern concern increased after three prisoners hanged themselves recently. “If three detainees had hanged themselves many others had gone on hunger strikes and were alive only through painful force-feeding,” Dost said.
What he regrets most is that he was not allowed to carry back with him literary pieces he penned during his incarceration. He had translated the Holy Quran and 25,000 poetic couplets.
“We were allowed to bring only a fraction of this literary work. Those poetic pieces were written under a certain ambience, which is precious to poets. Pieces I wrote on Islamic jurisprudence and Pashto grammar were also confiscated,” he says.
The brothers said a French journalist has offered to translate their book into French. ”But we intend to translate it into English, Urdu and Arabic first.”
Following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the Guantanamo Bay military tribunals had no legal status, the administration of President George W. Bush announced on Jul. 11 that all detainees in U.S. military custody would be entitled to protections under the Geneva Conventions.