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Guantanamo Inmate Database: Shahzada

McClatchy Newspapers
by Tom Lasseter
June 15, 2008

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Shahzada must sing the words to remember them.

He closes his eyes for a moment and begins, his voice rough yet melodic, stringing together a poem of Guantanamo, of the prison that held him for more than two years:

"This is the jail of Cuba, to whom shall I describe it?

"Listen, Muslims, this is the jail of Cuba

"Made of chains, made of iron cells."

Shahzada closes his eyes again, pauses and more words come, in a slow cadence:

"There are humans in the cages of Cuba.

"They are deprived of their lives and know nothing, not even themselves.

"At nighttime the guard comes and they call you to interrogation."

Shahzada didn't write the lines; they were passed along in folded notes, poetry written by other men hunched over notebooks in their small wire-mesh cells, then handed to him quickly, before the guards could see.

Shahzada — who like many Afghans has just one name — was known across the camp at Guantanamo for his beautiful, sad voice, and prisoners smuggled him poems as often as they could, waiting for him to sit on his mattress and begin to sing, his words floating over them, over the camp under the blazing red sun, to remind them of a home that they doubted they'd ever see again.

Sitting on a sofa in Kandahar last June, in a house guarded by men with AK-47s, Shahzada smiled after his small performance and said that Guantanamo, along with his trip there, was stranger than anything he could have dreamed.

Before the Americans arrested Shahzada in January 2003, he was an elder of his village in Kandahar province, as his father and his father's father had been.

The Russians put him in jail for a year in the 1980s for shooting a man over a land dispute, and the Taliban detained him for a week when he refused to give them conscripts from his family — they would have killed him, but didn't want the tribal complications that would follow. But all that was part of life in Kandahar, a violent tract in southern Afghanistan where kidnappings and murder aren't at all unexpected.

The Americans, though, were something different, he said

Shahzada was arrested in his home, after a long evening of playing cards with two men who'd stayed the night as his guests. He awoke to an AK-47 pointed at his face, and the Afghan soldier behind it warning him that U.S. troops were there.

He was pulled out into the cold night in a blindfold and handcuffs, as were his two guests. One of the guests was a man named Abdullah Khan, whom the Americans identified as Kheriulla, a hard-core Taliban commander. Shahzada was accused of helping him smuggle weapons and plan attacks on U.S. soldiers.

Shahzada wasn't immediately interested in the allegations; he was trying to comprehend the idea that someone would come to his house — the house of a village elder — in the middle of the night and not only drag him out the front door, in front of his wife and neighbors, but also do the same to his guests. In the world of ethnic Pashtuns, it was an outrageous chain of events, on the order of Martians coming to town and asking to marry his daughter.

He tried explaining to the U.S. special forces soldiers that Khan raised dogs for dog fighting: Hard-line mullahs such as those in the Taliban consider dogs filthy, and they see dog fighting as especially sinful.

The soldiers weren't interested, Shahzada said, and they took him away to a local special forces base, then the prison camp at Kandahar Airfield, where U.S. soldiers stripped him naked, another event that seemed unbelievable to him, even as it was happening.

Shahzada later told a McClatchy reporter that he'd been handed over to the Americans for a bounty paid to men in his village who wanted to get rid of him. He wouldn't say who the men were.

Hekmat Mugaddadi, a senior official at the peace and reconciliation commission in Kandahar — a government office that's notified when the U.S. releases detainees — said that Shahzada's case was a well-known instance of the Americans detaining, then humiliating, the wrong man.

"He is from my village, I know him. He is a good, honest man," said Mugaddadi, who risks his life daily trying to get fighters to defect from the Taliban, and isn't a man who's likely to lie on behalf of anyone who's aided them in the past. "Some people told the Americans that he had a hand with the Taliban. . . . It was some of his relatives, his cousins, who did this. It was because his sons were young, and they thought they could take his land and one of his younger sisters once the Americans took him."

Five days after Shahzada arrived in Kandahar, he was sent to Bagram Air Base, where he stayed for two and a half months.

"They did the same bad thing, except this time my eyes were open. They stripped me naked; there were women and men in front of us, soldiers, looking at me and laughing and yelling things," he said.

The guards at Bagram strictly enforced a rule that detainees not talk in their cells. But Shahzada wouldn't stop singing, despite the guards' telling him to be quiet.

"They would say shut up, don't talk. I would sing to myself, lying on the ground," he said. "Because of that, they would hang me by my hands from the ceiling on my cell. The first time, it lasted for 12 days, the next time for seven days and then again for four days. My feet were not flat on the ground; I was standing on my toes."

He was let down to eat his meals, Shahzada said, sometimes for half an hour, sometimes for 15 minutes.

During interrogations, after the Americans yelled that he'd aided a Taliban commander, Shahzada would tell them they had the wrong man. He told them the Taliban had jailed him, that he liked dogfights, that he spent his time overseeing his ancestral farms, which grew grapes, corn and wheat. He would say, slowly so that the interpreter understood: I-am-not-Taliban; this-is-a-mistake. During the interrogations that followed, the Americans continued to yell that he'd aided a Taliban commander.

He was flown to Guantanamo and kept there for 29 months, where he was surrounded by Taliban and Arab al Qaida fighters. It made for a lonely life.

"The Arabs . . . were not good people. They made problems all the time," he said. "When the guards walked by, the Arabs threw water at them and peed at them."

And Shahzada had little in common with the Taliban members at Guantanamo, who he said spent their days following the orders of their senior leaders, such as former Taliban Ambassador Abdul Salam Zaeef.

"For the Taliban, Mullah Zaeef was their leader," he said. "But I did not follow him; he was not from my party. He was not a man who liked dogs."

The Arabs and the Taliban spent much of their time fighting with the guards and organizing hunger strikes, while Shahzada sat in his cell and sang poems he'd memorized and those that came sailing through the air in small paper packets or were slipped into his hand on the way back from the exercise yard.

When the time came for his appearance in front of the military tribunal at Guantanamo, Shahzada had thought a good deal about his case.

He told the military judges that the man the American military thought it had captured in his house — the Taliban commander — had been detained one year before he was. They'd picked up the wrong man and, in doing so, had taken Shahzada along with him, he said.

Beyond his own case — "I am like a dog chained here in Cuba" — he said there were broader issues the U.S. military should be considering.

"The first two years we did not fight against (the Russians who occupied Afghanistan before insurgents pushed them out in 1989) but in later times we fought against them. We don't want to fight against you the same way," he said. "For example this is just me you brought, but I have six sons left behind in my own country. I have 10 uncles in my area that would be against you. . . . I can die here, but I have 300 male members of the family there in my own country. If you want to build Afghanistan you cannot build it this way. First you beat me and then you will tell me to go and help my country. This is not a way to build a country."

Of the 572 detainees who sat before tribunals at Guantanamo from July 2004 to July 2007, only 38 were declared to be no longer enemy combatants, the closest that U.S. officials have come so far to admitting that they had innocent men at the installation.

Shahzada was one of them.

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