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July 25th, 2008
05:56 PM ET

A reality check from Guantánamo Bay

Mahvish Rukhsana Khan | Website
Author, My Guantánamo Diary

I expected a stern, forbidding place. Instead I found sunshine and smiling young soldiers, boozy nighttime barbecues, snorkeling and beaches that call to you for a midnight swim. Guantánamo Bay is physically a beautiful place. The water is green. The weather is perfect. There should be a Four Seasons hotel there instead of the dungeons and guard towers. Over two years, I've heard many stories - of betrayal and mistaken identity, of beatings and torture, of loneliness and hopelessness.

But there were also a lot of laughs, interfaith dialogue and intense friendships forged. When the legal talk was over—the detainees and lawyers often took time to quiz one another. Both were curious of the others mysterious culture.

One American attorney wanted to know how his Afghan client juggled two wives, whether the women were jealous of one another and what the sleeping arrangements were. His Afghan client couldn’t fathom the concept of internet dating or drinking to the point of intoxication. Of course, I do not believe that everyone at Guantanamo is innocent. (Although innocent is a strange choice of words. Innocent of what? Only about 20 of almost 800 have ever been charged with anything criminal).

On my first trip to Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, I was very nervous. Everything that I had heard in the media about the “worst of the worst” had settled in and I was feeling apprehensive about sitting down with a terrorist.

Before I walked in to the first meeting room, I draped the shawl I was carrying over my head and arms. I had no idea how conservative the Middle Eastern prisoner would be and wanted to be careful about covering myself. When I opened the door, the prisoner was standing at the far end of the room behind a long table. His leg was chained to the floor beside a seven-by eight-foot cage. He looked wary as the door opened, but as our eyes met and he saw me in my traditional embroidered shawl, a smile broke across his weathered features. I smiled back and gave him the universal Islamic greeting:

"As-salaam alaikum — May peace be upon you."

"Walaikum as-salaam — May peace also be upon you," he responded.

With that, I shook hands with my first "terrorist."

He was a handsome, soft-spoken man with a short, neatly groomed beard. His once-dark hair was heavily flecked with gray. He was dressed in an oversized white prison uniform. I thought he looked much older than his forty-six years — closer to sixty or seventy…

His name was Dr. Ali Shah Mousovi. He was a pediatrician and the son of a prominent Afghan family from the city of Gardez, where he'd been arrested by U.S. troops more than three years earlier. He had returned to Afghanistan in August 2003 after twelve years of exile in Iran, he told us, to help rebuild his wathan, his homeland. Dr Ali Shah had also worked for the United Nations to help increase Afghan electoral support in the new American led democracy. He was a Shiite Muslim—who were persecuted by the Taliban. And yet, there he was being accused of working with the Taliban.

The following day, I met detainee No. 1009. His name was Haji Nusrat, an 80-year-old white bearded parapalegic who had been paralyzed by two strokes that he had suffered 15 years before. He was brought to Gitmo on a stretcher. Despite his poor health, the military made no concessions for his old age. His swollen and immobile legs were shackled to the floor.

I don't know exactly what I had expected coming to Guantanamo Bay, but it wasn't this. The government says these men are all terrorists and monsters, but after meeting so many of them, I felt deceived by my government.

I had been studying the Guantánamo detentions in law school. Outraged at how the U.S. government had stripped the detainees of their most fundamental rights, I got in touch with the detainees’ attorneys to see how I could help. When I learned that no one with security clearance spoke Pashto—the language of my immigrant parents—I went through a rigorous 6 month FBI background check and got security clearance to work as an interpreter for the habeas lawyers representing Guantánamo detainees.

Maybe part of my interest had to do with my heritage. My Pashtun parents are doctors who met in medical school in Peshawar, a city in northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border. They came to the United States to continue their medical educations. I was born in America, but I grew up speaking Pashto at home, and am a practicing Muslim. I've always felt the pull of my heritage, and the tragedy of the Afghan people, whose country has been overrun so many times throughout history.

My favorite detainee was Taj Mohammad. Taj, No. 902, was a 27 year old goat hear from Kunar Afghanistan who formed crushes on his female interrogators and had taught himself perfect English in his four years at Guantánamo . It’s not that I liked Taj better than the other detainees. They’re all different. But he was easy to tak to and he made me laugh. I felt sorry for Haji Nusrat, who was old and sick and for Ali Shah Mousovi because he was so polite. But Taj was my age and loaded with personality. He mostly wanted me how to teach him English cuss words.

At the beginning of my second meeting with Taj, he pulled out a small piece of creased white paper and handed it to me. “I told the guards that the girl who speaks Pashto is coming, and I asked them to make a list of words so you could translate them for me,” he said.

My jaw dropped as I scanned the list. “Bestiality, pedophile, intercourse and horny” were the first four words.

My new book, My Guantánamo Diary, transcends the stories of the prisoners. It is about friendship, forgiveness and betrayal. It is also a journey of heritage. I learned a lot about my heritage from these men—many of whom I view as family. They strengthened my desire to go to Afghanistan and made me proud of my ancestral roots. In turn I tried to bring them a semblance of the culture they were denied. It was often in the form of starbucks chai (the closest thing to the type of tea they drink back home) or rice and lamb dishes, photos of their children back home. The ultimate experience has been visiting some of the prisoners after their release. Dr. Ali Shah was released over three years after his arrest. He was never charged. When I visited him, I found he really was exactly who he had claimed to be. A pediatrician who wanted to set up a health clinic in Afghanistan. He has since done that. Dr. Ali Shah also suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and now sleeps in a fetal position. While Donald Rumsfeld famously called them the worst of the worst—some of them are in fact the best of the best. If I had children, I would without hesitation allow many of them to watch them.

I've now been down over 30 times. And each time, I'm struck by the ordinariness of Guantánamo Bay, the startling disconnect between the beauty of the surroundings and the evil they mask.


Filed under: 360° Radar • T1 • War on Terror
soundoff (17 Responses)
  1. J.V.hodgson

    You call this a reality check? On what?
    You insult even my peanut sized brain.
    You ignore:-
    Red cross allegations of torture..waterboarding.
    The equally tortuitous semantics of trying to create a new form of POW with no rights to human dignity or any legal protections when the states from which they were "arrested/detained/ or extradited" illegally because you or they had not declared war ,and in total complete ignorance of the Geneva war conventions and the fundamental human right of habeus corpus against any King, or commander in chief to detain any one infefintely without charges or trial ,not by a "miliitary" tribunal but by a court and jury of his peers!
    In this sense you have lost so much international respect, and do not even believe you have, and is why many international observers do not get as upset as you Americans seem to do when someone says "God Damn America" .We the outsiders see you as bunch of Philadelphia Lawyers playing semantic legalistic games with the basic human rights embedded in your own constitution and bill of rights for GODS sake!!
    Stop telling me about how you relate to this prisoner or that and why a perfectly innocent man had to suffer three years of chained imprisonment, and think that it is fair or even "balanced reporting"
    I cannot even comprehend how you can detain, even for so called "Terrorists" or the other euphemism which esacapes me for now ,for more than 90 days without a specific charge and date for a hearing of the evidence.
    I know why these people will continue to fight America forever if you carry on as now.
    It is simple, put me in their position, and potentially you are doing so, unlikely but possible, and if that possibilty arose then before I was arrested I would try to inflict a greater pain than 9/11. When will you Americans realise that by pre-emptive strike you cannot kill a suicide bomber, the solution is in the mind and "freedom of all people "and starts with "education, basic human rights" and not war , imprisonment of any kind.
    Regards,
    Hodgson.

    July 28, 2008 at 9:03 am |
  2. Pardesi, Michigan

    We need more Mahvish Khan’s to analyze the true criminals at Guantanamo. These innocent men who have been forced to undergo torture under the name of terrorism will forever hate the Bush administration. Can anyone of us imagine getting caught with criminals and knowing we are innocent be treated worse than animals?
    It takes more than a human being to forgive and forget what happened to these innocent men at Guantanamo and live freely without resenting their captors. Would you forgive and just end up sleeping in fetal position and take it as a day in our life???? I salute Dr.Ali Shah who is a better man than we all can be after all those years being treated as the worst criminal…
    Thank you Mahvish for givin us this side of human stories ar Guantanamo.

    July 28, 2008 at 2:55 am |
  3. Pardesi

    We need more Mahvish Khan's to analyze the true criminals at Guantanamo. These innocent men who have been forced to undergo torture under the name of terrorism will forever hate the Bush administration. Can anyone of us imagine getting caught with criminals and knowing we are innocent be treated worse than animals?
    It takes more than a human being to forgive and forget what happened to these innocent men at Guantanamo and live freely without resenting their captors. Would you forgive and just end up sleeping in fetal position and take it as a day in our life???? I salute Dr.Ali Shah who is a better man than we all can be after all those years being treated as the worst criminal...
    Thank you Mahvish for givin us this side of human stories ar Guantanamo.

    July 28, 2008 at 2:51 am |
  4. greg N.C.

    iI have read these 5 post and am disgusted with all of you who has written in here. First i don not really give a damn about any of those people at Gitmo. There were captured in war and are terroist that have had their hands in the plotting against the United States, trying to kill all the Americans they can.

    They do not deserve a speedy and fair trail for that is a right that we as Americans have and they are not Americans.

    It would not bother me in the least to see them all shot in the head and be done with them.

    William, stay in Canada and tell your country men to do the same.

    July 28, 2008 at 1:06 am |
  5. Mark, New Bern NC

    Ok, it's September 12th 2001 and you're George Bush, the President in office when the worst attack on American soil since the War of 1812 happened just the day before. How do you respond? Your people tell you that the attack is the work of an international terrorist ring that is based in many different countries all across the globe. You advisors tell you that declaring them criminals that need to be arrested and prosecuted would put the response into the hands of under resourced and poorly led international police organizations. By declaring them enemy combatants you are able to exploit the resources and freedom of action of the military. Your people also tell you that waging war against this terrorist organization will result in taking prisoners in places that are not viewed in the traditional sense as a "battlefield" where prisoners of war were detained in past wars between countries. So what do you do? If Ms Khan thinks of herself as an American lawyer then I would recommend that she go through the mental exercise of determining the prosecutorial merit of the case against Osama Bin Laden and the other leaders of Al Qaeda who murdered 3000 innocent people in cold blood to further their political agendas. If she comes to the conclusion that there is insufficient or flimsy evidence against them, then I would ask her what should we have done to respond to 9/11?

    July 27, 2008 at 12:02 am |
  6. Roger Paris, TX

    There many facts that are left out of the story. Several were captured during battle. Of course, it can be easy to get caught in a battle if it, literally, comes into your backyard. Also, the military often review cases, most of the people captured have been released. Third, there have been over 20 "innocent" people that were released that recaptured on the battlefield. Fourth, age and disabilities do not necessarily deter people from accomplishing things. After Euler went blind in his old age, he still wrote several major treatises in mathematics. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is in his 60s and has a heart condition. Would anyone say that he is incapable? I certainly hope not. Next, the treatment of the detainees are by most reports amicable. They have access to the Koran and fed according to their religious beliefs. They are permitted to exercise. They are no worse off than someone in county jail except their stay is longer. They are not sitting bound and gagged in chair in a cell. Finally, people like Bin Laden's driver are in Gitmo. A driver does not sound important but it is. The driver has be someone that you can trust or may find yourself in a shootout. Since shootouts are possible, though not likely, the driver has to be good with weapons and have the ability to kill without regret. It is common practice that only soldiers drive generals on or near the battlefield. Bin Laden is a general in the Al Qaeda network and his driver is a soldier in that army. Will the army get it right all time? In a war, are you kidding yourself? The processes of the army are almost as slow as Congress but in the end they usually work. Besides, people not forget the most important reason that they are there. It is for information not crimes. Otherwise, we could have killed them on the battlefield.

    July 26, 2008 at 7:23 am |
  7. Jeanine

    I wonder why american offenders are treated so differently than the Guatanomo Bay offenders?

    July 26, 2008 at 4:19 am |
  8. Ron

    I'm appalled, but it don't surprise me or any honest, objectively thinking person (be American or whatever nationality). The injustices will come back to bite us.

    July 26, 2008 at 1:36 am |
  9. Kim

    In a country where conservatives are constantly reminding us of the Constitution they are first to abandon it when it is difficult. Convictions are nothing unless you are willing to sacrifice for it. I am tired of the self riteous moral flexiablity of the right it is hard to take them seriously.

    July 26, 2008 at 12:44 am |
  10. sohail khan

    Interesting excerpt.... but everyone who knows you and your background, knows that your "pakistani" NOT " afghani... lets keep it real!

    July 26, 2008 at 12:29 am |
  11. Jolene

    Mavish: I found your post today very captivating. I'm impressed with your desire to meet and learn about some of the detainees. Thanks for sharing. Sounds like a great book to add to my reading list.

    Jolene, St. Joseph, MI

    July 25, 2008 at 11:13 pm |
  12. William Courtland, Waterford, Ontario

    So how about an international prison in the middle of the Atlantic or some other ocean. We send them thier and on arrival and they will be sorted, beats killing them.

    Figure it will require an extreme security force, but we let those who are willing donate and file "gifts" to individuals, but in the sorting those in their they might lose some of those "gifts" violently to other inmates.

    All rescue attempts will be released on the island, or taken as petition for transfer to a another... lighter facility?

    July 25, 2008 at 8:52 pm |
  13. Annie Kate

    This was a fascinating post. I wonder how many other detainees are exactly who they claim to be and need to be released so they can reconstruct their lives and hopefully their country as well. How many lives I wonder have the excesses and the paranoid mindset of the Bush administration destroyed by charging them as a terrorist and literally locking them up and throwing away the key far from where anyone that would protest this outrage see?

    Thank you for your short introduction to several of the men. While I doubt everyone at Gitmo is as innocent as they claim to be I think we all realize that Gitmo is an example of excess that we need to clean up and let the real innocents get back to living their lives.

    Annie Kate
    Birmingham AL

    July 25, 2008 at 8:33 pm |
  14. Don Anderson

    When will politicians and the media stop talking about winning the war in Iraq? We won the war in Iraq in a week! McCaine keeps saying we cant leavew until we win and that Obama would rather win the election than win the war. Guys, again we won the war in a week. We are their today trying to win the peace.

    July 25, 2008 at 7:56 pm |
  15. Melissa, Los Angeles

    Guantanamo Bay is a travesty for many of those detainees who have been imprisoned for years without the right to a fair and speedy trial. I have no doubt some may be guilty but how many are innocent and not given access to lawyers who speak the language because they don't have the clearance? These people are the forgotten – imprisoned with no clear justice system. It's another tragedy of the Bush Administration at work.

    July 25, 2008 at 7:14 pm |
  16. walter

    John Mccain stated today that he knows how to find Bin Laden and what he would do to him once he is found, the question I have if he knows how to find him, why he want share that information with the military now or may he want to win an election, but lose the war. He's so two faces.

    Walter

    July 25, 2008 at 6:28 pm |