Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Tough Homecoming

Afghans freed from United States captivity say Kabul is worse than Guantanamo Bay.
By Rahimullah Samander

Afghan prisoners recently released from a year’s imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay say the Kabul police have treated them more severely than their former American jailers.


Badshah Wali, a taxi driver arrested in Khost province last year, was freed last month from the US jail along with several other Afghans only to be imprisoned upon their return to Afghanistan. He said they had to spend several days in a cramped cell with several other local criminals, with nowhere to lie down and no food.


“They beat me and my two other friends and were interrogating us,” Badshah Wali said. “These three days in jail were harder and worse than one year in Cuba. Guantanamo was a good and beautiful place, and good for passing the time. We were treated well.”


The Kabul police also took the clothes and gifts given to them after their release from Guantanamo Bay, he said, and refused to give them enough money for their transport fare home. Deputy Interior Ministry Helaluddin Hilal denied the prisoners’ accusations.


Back in their homes in Khost, four of the 18 men freed by the Americans were greeted by steady streams of visitors with hugs and tears, serving them candy and tea. The guests sat and talked with them as though they were pilgrims just back from the Haj to Mecca.


Badshah Wali and the other ex-prisoners said they were arrested by the US without cause. They were somewhat reluctant to talk about their treatment at the hands of the Americans, but said they weren’t tortured and allowed to practice their religion.


Alif Khan, a car dealer who lives in southern Khost province, was arrested in Gardez city while travelling from Kabul on April 4, 2002, because he was thought to be a cousin of Pacha Khan, the dissident leader of Paktia province.


Sayed Abaseen, the driver of the taxi in which Alif Khan was travelling, was detained for giving the latter a lift. Alf Khan has denied that he is affiliated to any particular group or party.


After his arrest by US soldiers, Alif Khan said, “[The Americans] blindfolded me, gagged me and tied my hands, and I was in lock-up [in Bagram] for 45 days. They came to interrogate me three times and told me, ‘We have discovered that you are the accessory of al-Qaeda and terrorists’. I was not even given water to wash, nor would they allow us to talk to anyone.”


He was transferred to Kandahar and was held there for another 25 days, with other suspects. Their moustaches, beards and heads were shaved.


“We were pushed down one by one in front of American soldiers standing with scissors. We were citing the Kalima (the Islamic creed) because we thought that they would kill us. But using the scissors they cut all our clothes and we stood bare. After the search, they gave us special clothes for captives,” he said.


He and other released prisoners said they were blindfolded, gagged and shackled in the plane. Some were given injections to keep them quiet during the flight to Cuba. Once there, they were kept in mesh cages inside metal containers.


“When I entered the cage for the first time, I thought that I am imprisoned like a bird,” Alif Khan said, adding that he thought he would never see his country again.


Abaseen was reluctant to talk about his experiences because he and other ex-prisoners repeatedly tried to publicise their conditions through the BBC Pashto service - to no avail.


He did say, however, that his US captors allowed them to prey and to study Islam, providing, for instance, copies of the Koran and hadiths - the collected sayings and acts of Mohammad and the first Muslims.


The Afghan prisoners say they were regularly interrogated, but not usually mistreated - probably because they were mostly docile.


“All the prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay prison agree that they had not been beaten during the interrogation, because the Afghans didn’t behave badly,” Alif Khan said.


Another two of the released captives Niaz Wali, a cobbler from Khost, and his brother Badshah Khan, a taxi driver from the city, say they were targeted for arrest by local people, who were their enemies from another Pashtun tribe. They were too scared to talk about their experiences.


The ex-Guantanamo Bay prisoners were critical of the Red Cross because they said it had agreed not to hand them over to the Afghan authorities when they returned.


They said the Kabul police told the Red Cross they only wanted to ask them about conditions at the Cuban jail. But when they arrived to be questioned, officers accused them of being Taleban and beat them, the men claimed.


In a statement, the Red Cross appeared to deny that it had given the former inmates assurances that they would not be handed over to the Afghan authorities. A spokesman for the organisation, Simon Schorno, said it does not negotiate the terms of prisoner releases and believed the Kabul police were only interested in questioning the ex-detainees. He said his colleagues interviewed them after about their treatment, but said their remarks were confidential.


While the former prisoners say the Americans treated them better than their own people, they’re nevertheless angry with the US for holding them for so long when it was clear that it knew they weren’t criminals.


“Where were the human rights organisations? Where were the journalists, when we were being held for year?” said Abaseen.


But the men said they are glad to be home and eager to get their lives back on track. “It is good that we were proven innocent. We will begin our former work again,” he said.


Rahimullah Samander is an IWPR editor/reporter in Kabul.