Collateral damage: the impact of Guantanamo on a family

Ahmed Rabbani has been held without trial at Guantanamo for 18 years. He describes the impact on his children.

The control tower seen through razor wire inside the Camp VI detention facility in Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba [File: Alex Brandon/AP Photo]

Ahmed Rabbani is Pakistani Rohingya and is currently being held in Guantanamo Bay. Following his divorce in 2002, he had just remarried and – unknown to him at the time – his wife was pregnant when he was captured in Karachi on September 10, 2002. His youngest son was born some months later. They have never met.

He was picked up by the Pakistani authorities and handed over to the US, then taken to the Dark Prison in Kabul where he says he was tortured for 540 days. It is believed he had been falsely identified as Hassan Ghul, a Pakistani member of al-Qaeda.

Later, it was reported (in the US Senate Report on CIA Interrogation, 2014) that the US had captured Ghul and even held him briefly in the Dark Prison – but then let him go back to Pakistan. He was killed in a drone strike in 2012. Ahmed, meanwhile, was rendered to Guantanamo Bay.

Since 2013, Ahmed has been on a hunger strike in peaceful protest against his detention. He is force-fed every day. He has an older son and daughter from an earlier marriage who are now in their early 20s. This is his description of the impact of his detention without trial on his children (whose names have been omitted for the sake of privacy). It was dictated to his human rights lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith:

I spoke to my youngest son on a Skype call arranged by the Red Cross and I asked him, “You are living an isolated life, and you are not having a normal time for a 17-year-old. You are depressed and your mindset is muddled and introverted. Why do you do this to yourself and what can I do to help you out of it?”

He told me, crying as he spoke, “Dad, as I have grown up, I have been scared and afraid. When I was young, my mother and my grandmother would not let me out of the house at all unless it was to walk to school. They were so afraid of losing me as they lost you: that someone would come along, grab me, and give me to the Americans. They were also afraid that the local officials would turn on us for money.

“They did not even let me go to the shops across the street, as they thought I might talk innocently to the people there and bring more trouble on us, so it was safer to keep me locked in the house, like a prison.

“My mother does not want me to ask for anything from anyone, even from my uncle or aunts – her sisters. We are so poor, we never see fish and chicken, except in the market. I know you have been on hunger strike for eight years now, and you cook for others but cannot eat – it is like that, I suppose, to live across from a market and never be able to taste the good things they sell there. I do sneak out from time to time, as the shop owners throw things away that are spoiled, and I creep around when they have gone to pick them up.

“Now, I am almost 18 years old yet I still cannot go out freely, and all because of what happened to you.” He wept as he said it, and I weep every time I think of it.

I spoke to my older son, too. “You do karate and other martial arts. Why are you so scared of life? Why don’t you live freely?”

He answered, “Dad, when I was very young – around seven years old – my mother, grandmother and grandfather lied to me and told me that you were working in Saudi Arabia. They used the same lie with my sister. We used always to tell our friends that our father was working in Saudi, and so we were taught to deceive, too. When we found out that you were in prison rather than working in Saudi, we were still quite young and it made us resent you and our grandparents because our lives had been a lie for so many years.

“Still, I find I lie to others. I know you have been tortured and treated terribly. But I have been too embarrassed to tell my friends about you. I am not able to prove you are innocent if anyone challenges me, though I believe it in my soul. This makes me doubly guilty, as I now worry that I am committing a crime against you.

“When I understood what happened on 9/11, and its aftermath, I began to understand the fear that gripped everyone. I also understood the oppression and injustice that was exacted on Muslims, some prompted by the torture you went through. Also, I understand the horror of your long imprisonment.

“But now there seems to be another lie. You keep telling us that you will be released, and it never happens. This means I continue to grow up fearing that a terrible injustice could happen to me, too, at any time. It has had a profound impact on my faith. I had memorised the whole Holy Quran. Then, I found it hard to be religious when such injustice was visited on you. I began to forget even what I had memorised. I think I did this because, I think psychologically, I did not want to suffer the way you have suffered for your religious beliefs.”

My daughter had memorised 15 parts of the Quran, but then stopped. I asked her, “Why did you stop? You got so far, why not memorise the rest?”

She replied, “If someone joked or made fun of me that my father was in prison, I would be struck silent, so I could not even speak. Once in a phone call with you, my aunt was with me, and she joked, ‘Your father is in prison and it seems he will never be released.’

“I was so stunned by that simple statement that I was just unable to talk for the call, not even to say hello to you. This is what happens to me whenever someone jokes or makes a small comment to me – I am stunned, struck dumb and unable to speak a word.

“So my aunt asked you, my father, ‘If you give permission we will withdraw her from school as she is unable to talk to people, sitting in the corner totally quiet.’ As my father, you gave permission for this in the end, as there was no point putting me through the torture of school.”

I asked my daughter recently if she had any plans to get married. She said, “Who will agree to marry me when he finds out that my father is imprisoned in Guantanamo? Who would mar his reputation and character that way? Whoever marries me, one day he will use your situation in Guantanamo against me. My silence and my anger are still there. I am afraid this will taint anyone who would marry me. I worry that he would divorce me, and that would pitch me into a situation that is even worse. So, I will get married only when you are released.”

She said that clearly and frankly to me. It struck me in the heart.

This is the situation for my children. I weep to think of the terror that fills them because of where I am. Every time I say I will be released, now that more than 18 years have gone by, they think it is false. They say: “This is what you believe, but the American authorities will never release you.” They say that they will only meet their father in a coffin. It will be covered in flowers, but my body will have rotted by the time it travels halfway around the world to Karachi. They describe how even the flowers on the coffin would have been picked in 2002, when I was taken, and they, too, are dead now.

Who will take care of the psychological pain that my children are going through? Who will agree to marry them? Which commercial company will agree to employ my children when they finish their studies? I am forgotten here, and my future is entirely lost. Yet far more important to me is the future of my children, which has been stolen by this awful prison.

Source: Al Jazeera