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The London chef who was forsaken for five years in Guantanamo

Times Online
By Sean O’Neill
June 16, 2007

Like Robert the Bruce in his cell, Ahmed Errachidi drew inspiration from a creature’s struggle as he waited for the allegations against him to crumble.

Ahmed Errachidi had never heard the story of Robert the Bruce and the indefatigable spider until this week.

But in the cell blocks of Guantanamo Bay, Inmate 590 learnt the same lesson as the Scottish King, in the same hard way.

Just as the Bruce took heart from the spider, the most inspiring moment in Mr Errachidi’s five-and-a-half years of internment came as he watched a solitary ant’s struggle for life.

The insect was trapped inside the fortified glass dome housing the security camera that watched Mr Errachidi’s every move in his isolation cell. It was trying to climb out, but kept slipping backwards again and again.

The tiny creature’s survival became, at that moment, the most important thing in the world. Mr Errachidi decided to intervene, taking a square of toilet paper, separating it into single ply and rolling it between his palms to form a thin thread.

He slipped the lifeline through a slim gap between the ceiling and the glass and hoped that the ant would find it.

To his delight, it did – climbing on to the paper and walking along it as Mr Errachidi pulled the paper out of the dome. In a matter of moments he had the ant in the palm of his hand and laid it down in a corner where other ants were feeding on the crumbs that he had left them from his meal. “I was so pleased, so excited,” Mr Errachidi said as he described the rescue operation to The Times in his first interview since he was freed from Guantanamo.

“When you’re alone for so long, when it’s only you, you do a lot of thinking. You see things that before you never paid attention to. I learnt a lot from the ants. They were another form of life and reminded me that there was hope. I used to get so angry with the guards when they killed the ants.”

In similar vein, a pebble that fell from the sole of a guard’s boot assumed huge significance when he was in the punishment block.

Apart from himself, the stone was the only nonmetal object in the cell.

It is just six weeks since Mr Errachidi, 41, a chef who worked in London hotels, restaurants and gastro-pubs for 16 years, was released from the camp, where he was interned without charge or trial, at the United States naval base in Cuba.

He was freed after the sole allegation against him – that he had been a senior figure at an al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in July 2001 – fell apart. The claim came from an unidentified source and was proved false by lawyers from the London-based charity Reprieve.

According to payslips, witness statements and bank records, Mr Errachidi was a long way from Afghanistan during July 2001 – working in the kitchens of the Westbury Hotel, Mayfair. The US military eventually declared Mr Errachidi “approved to leave Guantanamo” – as close as it comes to proclaiming him innocent.

Even though the evidence that could have freed him years ago lay in Britain, and that British officials were aware of its existence, Whitehall had rejected appeals to help him.

Mr Errachidi, a Moroccan, had been a resident in Britain but never a citizen and the Government decided it had no obligation to negotiate his release.

Freedom came on Tuesday, April 24, with a brutal farewell present. Mr Errachidi was taken from his cell in his orange jumpsuit, his ankles shackled, arms cuffed to a waistband, ear-muffs, goggles and a muzzle clamped on his head.

“The mask was cutting into the corners of my eyes, it was hurting me and I couldn’t see so I tried to lift my shackled hands to pull it down,” he said.

“As I did that, they grabbed me and threw me against the wall, my head smashed into the wall and they started beating me. They tightened the shackles and gave me one last beating.

“I decided not to scream. I said to myself this is the last time, I’m going to take it.”

Mr Errachidi was then taken to the base’s airfield. As he approached the cargo plane on which he would be flown to Morocco, the mask and goggles were removed to allow a military film crew to record his departure. Once inside the aircraft they were replaced and remained on his face throughout the seven-hour flight.

The Red Cross had asked him before he left Guantanamo if he would not rather stay than go back to Morocco where there was a risk of torture. He found the question insulting and says that in his homeland the police received him with kindness, courtesy and mint tea. After seven days, he was sent home to his family in Tangier.

It has been hard to get used to liberty. For five years he has not been allowed to walk more than three paces – the length of his cell – unshackled.

Sitting in the shade of a tree at Cap Malabata, overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar, it is not long before he stumbles over memories of captivity that are too raw and painful to talk about.

There were 19 days in the Dark Prison at Bagram airfield near Kabul, permanently in chains; 26 days of torture; long, long periods of solitary confinement. The tears well up and the usually fast-flowing words are choked off.

“I am on the edge,” Mr Errachidi says after a pause. “I don’t want to fall off.” He is remembering how to cook, but learning again how to be a father to his sons, Mohammed, 11, and Imran, 7, is much more difficult.

He pretends to his family that he is OK, that he is a tough guy, that he has come through it all unscathed. Everyone is going along with the pretence for now, but no one is really fooled.

Mr Errachidi’s incarceration was worse than that endured by many other Guantanamo inmates because the guards decided he was a senior man in al-Qaeda. Camp Delta’s commanders nicknamed him “The General” because he seemed to wield an influence over the other inmates.

He did, but only because he spoke English, understood what the guards were saying, got bored easily and was prepared to challenge the petty rules. It was Mr Errachidi who, after three-and-a-half years of arguing, convinced the commanders that toothpaste and toothbrushes were not “comfort items” and achieved an increase in the allocation of toilet paper from ten sheets per day to thirty.

It rankles, however, that he was not able to have the inmates recognised as people. Mr Errachidi said: “Even the name detainee was not given to us. We were called packages because we were in identical jumpsuits and wrapped up in chains.

“Two guards would escort you everywhere, they would radio their control room and say, ‘Package has been picked up’ and outside the interrogation room they would contact the interrogator and say, ‘Package is at the door’.

“If you ask why you are called a package, why you can’t be called a person they say, ‘This is the procedure’.” The same procedures forbid the guards from telling the inmates what day or month it is.

The process of dehumanisation began, Mr Errachidi said, shortly after he was arrested in Pakistan. He had gone there in September 2001 pursuing a wild scheme to buy and sell silver in an effort to raise money to pay for a heart operation for his youngest son and was still in the country when the US bombing raids began after 9/11.

It seems an unlikely story but appears to be verified by evidence. The Times has seen the detailed medical records indicating the diagnosis of Imran’s heart problems in the summer of 2001. Witnesses in London have spoken of Mr Errachidi’s desperation that summer to raise the money for the boy’s treatment. Mr Errachidi has a history of mental breakdowns and bipolar episodes which lead him to take impetuous actions.

Pakistani police passed him to American agents in return for a $5,000 bounty and he was taken to Bagram, then to a prison camp at Kandahar.

As he was being marched on to a flight to Cuba, a guard hissed in his ear: “From now on, we dictate your food, your water, your sleep and your shit. You have no life.” Mr Errachidi said: “That whisper lived with me for five years, it became louder and louder in my ears.”

There were things, however, which kept his hope alive: the ants, the pebble and many hundreds of letters and cards sent by British people who he had never met but who wished him well and remembered him in prayers of many faiths.

He never received the originals, just black-and-white photocopies stamped with the approval of the camp censor.

When he boarded the aircraft that took him off Cuba, that collection of letters were the only possessions that Mr Errachidi had with him.

He said: “The people who wrote those, the students and the retired ladies and everyone else – I have so much to thank them for.”

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