Boy, 12, recounts days as terror inmate
San Francisco Chronicle
by Sonia Verma
February 13, 2004
Youngest captive spent 17 months detained, a year in Guantanamo
Khuja Angoor, Afghanistan -- A single day forever changed the life of 12-year-old Asadullah Rahman.
Struggling to remember the exact date he was captured by American soldiers, or when he was flown to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where the United States holds "enemy combatants" without charges, he presses his fingers to his temples to conjure memories that have grown fuzzy after months in detention.
He was just 10 years old when American soldiers stormed the compound of the local Afghan commander who was holding him captive, he says. They grabbed his gun. There were handcuffs and blindfolds. Since then, he has seen the inside of three separate interrogation rooms.
On Jan. 29, after being released with two other young detainees, he returned to this village in eastern Afghanistan, a three-hour drive along dirt roads from Kabul. He was free but burdened with the uncomfortable distinction of being the youngest person ever jailed in America's war on terror.
"They should have arrested al Qaeda, not me," he said in the first interview since his release. "I was just innocent."
U.S. military officials say that based on medical tests, they believe Asadullah is older than he claims, perhaps 13 to 15. The two other youngsters released with him, who are both 15, say he was about 13 when he was freed.
As proof of his youth, Asadullah points to a Polaroid hanging on his bedroom wall, too fresh to have faded, taken just before he was captured. In the photo, he looks like a child -- standing, flanked by his cousin and older brother, in a field of wildflowers. Today he is 5 feet tall and mostly muscle, with a tired smile, dense lashes and old-man eyes.
The Pentagon claims he was a trained gunman conscripted to fight in an anti-U.S. militia.
"The Taliban leadership directed younger members to counterattack the U.S. forces in the area,'' Lt. Cmdr. Barbara Burfeind, a Pentagon spokesperson, said by phone. "The juveniles were removed from the battlefield to prevent further harm to U.S. forces and to themselves.''
Asadullah maintains that he was sold into sexual slavery to a local militia leader, one of many in lawless prewar Afghanistan, in nearby Paktia Province.
One day, his favorite uncle approached Asadullah with the offer of paid work at the compound of a local gunman known only as Commander Sammoud -- a militia leader with a reputation for terrorizing surrounding villages.
"I was brought there to service the commander's men," Asadullah says in a quiet voice. During the day, he served food and washed dishes. At night, he was asked to do other things he is too ashamed to utter.
By his 10th birthday, he had spent about a month with the militia and knew his way around an AK-47, but never pulled a trigger, he claims. And while Sammoud had lots of enemies, Asadullah insists Americans weren't among them.
"He wasn't Taliban, but he was a criminal," he says.
The military commander of the district police force, Mohammad Sabir, agrees. He says Sammoud and about 30 armed followers were not Taliban but an armed band that often extorted money from local villagers.
One autumn night -- a year and a half ago, Asadullah figures -- the gunmen were sitting down to dinner when around 50 American soldiers stormed the compound.
"They said they were looking for al Qaeda and Taliban soldiers," Asadullah says.
Most of Sammoud's followers escaped, but seven people, including Asadullah and Sammoud, were captured and taken to the U.S. base in Gardez.
Over the next week he was interrogated several times. What did he know about the Taliban? Why was he carrying guns? Had he shot at an American? Had he ever killed one? Who was he working for?
"At Gardez, I was beaten. But I wasn't beaten too much. There was some kicking, nothing more."
From Gardez, he was transferred to Bagram, a U.S. air base near Kabul. Again he was interrogated. Asadullah believes he remained at Bagram for four or five months.
Then he was blindfolded and hooded and taken on a journey by plane that lasted a very long time.
"The Americans told me it was none of my business where I was going," he says.
When he arrived at Guantanamo Bay naval base, he was questioned for hours. At the end of the session, his interrogators asked how old he was. They seemed shocked at his response.
"I was the youngest person they had ever arrested," he says.
The first sign his family received that Asadullah was alive came in a letter delivered by the International Committee of the Red Cross more than a year after he went missing.
Asadullah's mother retrieves it from the folds of a prayer mat. The letter, written in his native Pashto, is creased and tear-stained and bears the stamp of military clearance.
"All of the greetings from my heart I convey to the family,'' Asadullah wrote. "I keep my hope alive by the grace of Allah. Please send me a letter when you can. Please don't cut the connection, write soon."
Asadullah and the two other boys who were released lived in a separate compound a two-minute drive from the main prison at Guantanamo Bay. From his bedroom, he could see the ocean.
"We recognize the special needs of juvenile detainees and the unfortunate circumstances surrounding their young lives," Burfeind says. "Every effort was made to provide them a secure environment free from the influences of older detainees."
During the days, they were allowed to run on the grass inside the compound. Sometimes, the soldiers would play football with them. Asadullah even developed a certain prowess at chess.
"Guantanamo was like home if you compare it to Bagram," he says. "But I wished I was more independent, more free. I wished I was not like a prisoner."
The boys were taught to read and write English. It was the first time they had attended anything resembling school. Asadullah was also given books in Pashto and a copy of the Koran.
"Sometimes we were allowed to watch television. I liked to watch movies," he recalls.
The soldiers assigned to guard them became friends. "They were so kind to us," he says.
Almost a year after he arrived, he was called into the office of a commanding officer and told he was going home. Military officials said the boys had provided useful intelligence but had no further value and were no longer a threat to the United States. He had spent 17 months in U.S. captivity.
Private W, a guard who had become his friend, gave him a football and a chessboard to take back to Afghanistan.
"The guards gave me a big hug and said, "Be good. Go to school,' " he recalls.
When they landed at Bagram, a Red Cross representative took him to the Interior Ministry, where he received identity papers. Then a UNICEF case worker took him to Kabul for a reunion with his family. "We did not expect to see him alive," his mother says. "Everybody was crying.''
She barely recognized her son. His voice had changed. He had whiskers and a sprinkle of acne.
For Asadullah, life in this village of 2,000 in Logar Province, where his family moved after his capture, is disorienting. There is no electricity, no running water, no school, no medical clinic. He misses football games with Private W, math lessons and speaking English.
"I am not feeling very good. There is nothing to do here," he says.
How can he explain to his family that sometimes he feels Guantanamo was the best thing that ever happened to him? That he nurtures dreams of life beyond the mountain pass?
He wants a motorcycle so he can attend school in Kabul and learn more English. He wants to become a teacher or a doctor or an engineer. Most of all he wants out of this village, he says.
"I want to go to America."
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