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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.