Cuba? It was great, say boys free from US prison camp
by James Astill
March 6, 2004
Asadullah strives to make his point, switching to English lest there be any mistaking him. "I am lucky I went there, and now I miss it. Cuba was great," said the 14-year-old, knotting his brow in the effort to make sure he is understood.
Not that Asadullah saw much of the Caribbean island. During his 14-month stay, he went to the beach only a couple of times - a shame, as he loved to snorkel. And though he learned a few words of Spanish, Asadullah had zero contact with the locals.
He spent a typical day watching movies, going to class and playing football. He was fascinated to learn about the solar system, and now enjoys reciting the names of the planets, starting with Earth. Less diverting were the twice-monthly interrogations about his knowledge of al-Qaida and the Taliban. But, as Asadullah's answer was always the same - "I don't know anything about these people" - these sessions were merely a bore: an inevitably tedious consequence, Asadullah suggests with a shrug, of being held captive in Guantanamo Bay.
On January 29, Asadullah and two other juvenile prisoners were returned home to Afghanistan. The three boys are not sure of their ages. But, according to the estimate of the Red Cross, Asadullah is the youngest, aged 12 at the time of his arrest. The second youngest, Naqibullah, was arrested with him, aged perhaps 13, while the third boy, Mohammed Ismail, was a child at the time of his separate arrest, but probably isn't now.
Tracked down to his remote village in south-eastern Afghanistan, Naqibullah has memories of Guantanamo that are almost identical to Asadullah's. Prison life was good, he said shyly, nervous to be receiving a foreigner to his family's mud-fortress home.
The food in the camp was delicious, the teaching was excellent, and his warders were kind. "Americans are good people, they were always friendly, I don't have anything against them," he said. "If my father didn't need me, I would want to live in America."
Asadullah is even more sure of this. "Americans are great people, better than anyone else," he said, when found at his elder brother's tiny fruit and nut shop in a muddy backstreet of Kabul. "Americans are polite and friendly when you speak to them. They are not rude like Afghans. If I could be anywhere, I would be in America. I would like to be a doctor, an engineer _ or an American soldier."
This might seem to jar with the prevailing opinion of Guantanamo among human rights groups. An American jail on foreign soil, Guantanamo was designed, according to Amnesty International, to deny prisoners "many of their most basic rights", which in America would include special provision for the "speedy trial" of juveniles. But, seized in the remotest wilds of violent Afghanistan, the boys knew practically nothing of their rights, and expected less.
They were also unaware that the American defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, had described Guantanamo's inmates as "hard-core, well-trained terrorists" and "among the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the Earth."
Naqibullah and Asadullah were arrested one night in November 2002, in Musawal village, Paktia province, by around 30 American special forces soldiers. More than 30 local men were also arrested, and remain in Guantanamo.
Naqibullah, the local imam's son, said he stumbled into the raid while cycling from a friend's house. Asadullah is from a village three days' walk away, in neighbouring Logar province, but was working for a local farmer along with several men who were also arrested.
It seems likely the Americans were looking for a local commander, Mansoor Rah man Saiful, who had fought against the Taliban for years, but joined the radical Islamists when America attacked Afghanistan. If so, they were unsuccessful: Mr Saiful is still at large.
The captives were taken to Bagram airbase, a short helicopter ride away. Naqibullah grins as he mimes the Chinook's whirring rotary blade; but he was less relaxed at the time. "It was terrifying, I didn't know what was happening to me," he said, seated cross-legged in a small reception room, cut into a thick fortress wall. "There were many of us in a small cell. Some men were screaming to be let free."
Naqibullah was interrogated every day at Bagram. "They kept asking me, 'Do you know the Taliban? Do you know al-Qaida? Have you given them shelter? Have you given them food?'," he said.
"I told them, 'I don't know these people, and I am too young to give anything to anyone without my father's authority'." After two weeks, Naqibullah said, he was asked whether he had any objection to being taken to "another place".
"I said, 'What can I do? You will take me wherever you want to'." That night, bound, blindfolded and fitted into orange overalls, he was loaded on to a cargo plane and flown non-stop to Cuba. Naqibullah's first 10 days in Guantanamo were the worst of his life, he said. He was put in a tiny cell with a single slit-window as his interrogation continued. Then everything changed. "I was taken to an American general who said, 'We will educate you and soon you will go home'. And my situation improved."
Naqibullah, Asadullah and Mohammed Ismail were moved into one large room, which was never locked. They were taught Pashto (their own language), English, Arabic, maths, science, art and, for two months, Islam. "The American soldiers ate pork but they said we must never do that because we were Muslim," said Naqibullah. "They were very strict about Islam."
The boys played football every day, and sometimes basketball and volleyball with their guards. Asadullah said his particular friends were called Special Sergeant M and Private O - their real names were kept from him. Officially, he was called Prisoner 912. "But my friends called me Asadullah, which made me happy."
The boys never spoke to Guantanamo's other prisoners - "lots of Arabs and Afghans," according Naqibullah.
Meanwhile, their own interrogation became a predictable affair. "I said, 'Look, I don't anything about the Taliban'," said Asadullah. "But anyway, the Taliban were the government so lots of people worked with them. Just because you were Taliban it doesn't mean you're a criminal."
After five months, Naqibullah wrote home for the first time. Taking this first letter, written on Red Cross notepaper, from his pocket, he now reads it aloud. "My greetings to beloved family, to my beloved father, to my beloved uncles, to my beloved cousins, to my beloved brothers. I am in good health and happy. I am in Cuba, in a special room, but it is not like a jail. Don't worry about me. I am learning English, Pashto and Arabic." The next two lines of the letter were scrubbed out by the Guantanamo censor. Asadullah said he couldn't for the life of him remember what they said.
Despite their gentle treatment, the boys were homesick. "I was very sad because I missed my family so much," said Asadullah. "I was always asking, 'When can I go home? What day? What month?' They said, 'You'll go home soon', but they never said when."
Meanwhile, the boys' parents were suffering agonies. In Khoja Angur, Asadullah's village, the boy's mother describes how she cried "every night thinking about my son."
Covered entirely by a sheet of turquoise silk, she speaks through a male relative while the Guardian's translator stares respectfully at his feet. So conservative is Asadullah's society that his mother's name is a family secret. "I prayed to God, I asked, 'Where is my son?'," she continued. "He was just a boy, much too young to disappear on his own."
Asadullah was gone for seven months before his parents discovered his whereabouts. For the first two months, his uncles and cousins were afraid to tell his elderly father, Abdul Rahman, that he was missing, believing the shock might kill him. Almost the entire male population of Khoja Angur, a fortified mud-village, snowbound and ringed by icy peaks, downed tools and went searching for the boy. "They went to Bagram, but the Americans said they didn't know anything about him," said Abdul Rahman, white-bearded and heavy-breathing. "They went to Logar and Gardez, even to Kandahar, but no one knew about him."
When Asadullah returned to Khoja Angur last month - at a day's notice - the village elders gathered to ask how the Americans had treated him. When he said they had treated him well, they ruled that the matter was closed. "We have nothing against the Americans, they looked after the boy. They taught him English and other things," said Haji Mohammad Tahir, an elder of the village, gesturing to Asadullah's drawings of the planets, which were proudly displayed on the floor.
But, for Asadullah's father, the matter is not closed. He borrowed several thousand dollars to support his relatives' families while they looked for his son. To raise the money, he was forced to forfeit his land. Now, his creditors come visiting every day to demand money that he cannot repay, he said. His eldest son - a shopkeeper in Kabul - last week cancelled his engagement, for want of $2,000 to pay the dowry. And that is not Abdul Rahman's only concern. "I thank God that my son has come back, but he has changed," he said. "He is impatient and refuses to listen to his elders. He has grown disobedient."
So, while Naqibullah is at home now, helping his father in the fields, Asadullah is in Kabul, seeing if the UN will continue his schooling. "There is no electricity and no clinic in my village. It's a bit boring, nothing new happens there," he said, looking embarrassed.
Loitering in Kabul this week, Asadullah came across an American soldier. "I asked him, 'How are you, sir?'," he recalled, grinning shyly. The soldier said he was well, and asked the boy what he wanted. Asadullah replied: "Nothing, I was just asking," as the American walked away.
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