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3 Afghan Youths Question U.S. Captivity

New York Times
By Carlotta Gall
March 12, 2004

There is no doubting their youth. Asadullah thinks he is 12 or 13 -- certainly he is too young to grow a beard. His friend Naquibullah, 15, has just fuzz on his cheeks. Muhammad Ismail Agha says he is 15 but looks older.

Young as they are, the three were recently released from the United States detention camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, after being held more than a year on suspicion of belonging to the Taliban. Never charged, given merely a spoken apology from American officers, they were freed in January and returned home, where they told stories of study and fun and games.

But their detention leaves unanswered the question of why three juveniles, none of whom were captured on a battlefield or were carrying weapons, were held for so long without explanation at the Bagram air base, near Kabul, and then at Guantánamo Bay.

More juveniles are still being held in Cuba, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross, which visits prisoners there. Juveniles continue to be picked up by the American military, Afghans say, often with scant justification.

''Already at Bagram they knew I was not a Talib,'' Asadullah, the youngest of the three, said in an interview below his mountain village, Khoja Angur. He was interrogated daily at Bagram for several months and then sent to Guantánamo for 11 more months.

Naquibullah, a little older, did not blame the Americans. ''This is not their fault,'' he said in an interview at his home in the eastern province of Paktia. ''They did not know if I was Taliban or not.''

Ismail, the eldest of the three, never expected such a long imprisonment. ''At the end they told me, 'You were wrongly detained,' '' he said in an interview in Nauzad, near his home in southern Afghanistan.

Aside from homesickness, the boys did not suffer at Guantánamo. They were kept apart from the adult prisoners, learned to read and write in their own language, Pashto, and studied English, math and astronomy. They played board games and soccer. Once they even went with their guards for a picnic on the beach and snorkeled, Asadullah said.

But the Red Cross has expressed concern that Bagram and Guantánamo are inappropriate places to hold juveniles.

The United States military defended detaining the three youths. ''Age is not a determining factor in detention,'' Lt. Col. Matthew P. Beevers, chief spokesman for the United States military in Afghanistan, wrote in an e-mail message.

One of the boys, he wrote, was trying to procure weapons to fight against American forces. The two others were captured in raids on Taliban camps, at a time when the Taliban leadership was directing younger members to attack American forces, the colonel said.

Still, they were released, and the boys offer a substantially different account of how and why they were picked up. Naquibullah and Asadullah say they were captured at the same time that American troops raided the base of a notorious local bandit, Samud, who according to Asadullah had dealings with Taliban and anti-Taliban groups.

Asadullah said he had been working at the base washing dishes after his uncle had left him there to earn money. Naquibullah said he had just been passing the compound that day, but a local official in the nearby town of Zurmat said Naquibullah had been with the armed band for some time.

Asadullah said he was kicked by American soldiers in his first five days of captivity, once so badly in the stomach that he still felt pain when he got to Cuba several months later.

The third boy, Ismail, said he and a friend had been looking for work and spent the night at an Afghan militia post in Gereshk, in Helmand Province, when he was detained by Afghan troops, accused of being one of the Taliban and handed over to American soldiers.

''I am angry with the Afghans who handed me over to the Americans,'' Ismail said. ''The Americans did not know what was happening.'' One of his relatives repeated a common assertion that American troops paid bounties for Taliban suspects, and so encouraged unscrupulous local militias to accuse people falsely.

The boys have returned home as minor celebrities because of their education and their ability to speak English, but there is also suspicion of their pro-American attitudes.

Ismail said his family had spent a great deal of money searching for him for 10 months before they received news that he was in Guantánamo. The United States should pay his family compensation for his lost earnings, he said.

Asadullah said his father had mortgaged his land to pay for the search for him. ''We are ashamed that we owe a lot of money to people and we cannot go to our land now,'' he said.

Naquibullah is troubled that many Afghans are still being detained by American troops in his district.

''We know who is Taliban here and who is not,'' he said. ''They took away some people just recently from a village nearby. They took away Mullah Abdul Manan. He is not a Talib, he is old and does not hear well, and he is sick.''

''Thirty to 40 people were captured by the Americans in the last two months,'' Naquibullah added. ''We don't know where they are. They are just farmers.''

Janad Gul, a farmer from the eastern province of Khost, said he had been looking for his son Adel, 15, for seven months. Adel disappeared on his way to his religious school. The family did not know what happened to him for months, until they received a note saying he was being detained somewhere in Afghanistan. They think he is at Bagram.

''He committed no crime,'' his father said. ''He is just a young boy.'' He suspects that tribal enemies gave information against him to the Americans, alleging that he was a member of the Taliban.

''We have not raised him in a bad way,'' he said of his son. ''He had no weapon, and has never fired a gun in his life.''

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