A few months ago, on what started like an ordinary day in Belgrade, I received a phone call from a number I did not recognise.
I hesitated to answer. I am originally from Yemen. I was detained in Guantanamo for 15 years without ever being charged with a crime. I was eventually released in 2016 and placed in Serbia, but I still carry the scars of my unjust imprisonment. So I am wary of calls from unknown numbers.
But on that day, I picked up the phone and answered: “Salaam alaykum, hello?”
When I recognised the voice at the end of the line, I struggled to hold back tears.
It was Saifullah Paracha – Guantanamo’s oldest ever prisoner who was a second father to me throughout my years in the prison camp.
“Welcome, welcome for the one who came,” I sang loudly into my phone in Arabic, greeting him with a song we used to sing together at Guantanamo.
Hearing Saifullah’s voice again after almost seven years, for the first time since I left Guantanamo, brought life and joy to my heart. He still had the same laugh, a laugh that I had missed dearly.
“How are you?” he asked.
“I’m so happy, wallahi,” I replied. “Thanking Allah for your release.”
After spending almost two decades in prison, Saifullah was finally released in October 2022. He returned to his home country, Pakistan. He is now living there with his family.
I asked him to turn on the video so that I can see his face again. What I saw on my phone’s screen gave me mixed feelings. I was so happy that he was home, where he belongs, surrounded by his family. But at the same time, I was very sad to see how jail had aged him in the last few years.
Prison steals your life and destroys your soul. Not the prison itself, of course, but the people who imprison you. Saifullah’s eyes looked tired, and his face showed signs of the years that have been stolen from him. But thankfully, he had not lost his sense of humour, his caring nature, or his joyful take on life. He was still the same man who I came to love as much as my own father.
Saifullah is truly a second father to me. And as any father would, on our first call after years apart, he asked me if I was married yet. I told him I was waiting for him to get out of prison so that he could attend my wedding.
We then spent some time talking about my book – I had sent a copy for him to Guantanamo, but he was not allowed to have it. He also asked me about my education. I told him that I had already received my bachelor’s degree and would soon complete a master’s degree in management. His face lit up as I spoke, I could see that he was proud of me.
He then asked me about the other brothers who had been released before him, and shared news from those who are still stuck in Guantanamo.
Every one of us was clearly in his thoughts.
In Guantanamo, Saifullah was our father, teacher, mentor, chef, therapist and mediator with the prison camp’s administration.
He often told us that he views everyone at the camp – both prisoners and staff – as “his children”. Because of this, everyone, including all the guards, called him “father” or “shasha”.
He dedicated all his time and energy to helping others – not only prisoners, but also guards and other staff.
He had his own class in camp six. In a makeshift classroom converted from a cell, he used to teach different groups of prisoners different subjects and skills for hours every day. He taught many fellow prisoners English and business skills during his time there.
He had a huge impact on the lives of prisoners. He had a huge impact on my life.
I was not allowed to see him before leaving Guantanamo in 2016. Leaving the camp without saying goodbye to him was one of the hardest things I had to do. I really did not want to leave him behind. I wished he could take my place and leave instead – I would have happily stayed at the camp if it meant he would be released instead.
Ever since I left, I have been eagerly waiting for the news of his release.
I wanted to send him letters through the International Committee of the Red Cross, but my lawyer warned me that any such communication could be used against him and others, so I remained silent.
When I received the news that he would soon be released, I could not contain my excitement. On the night the plane carrying him took off from the Guantanamo military base, I was tagged in a post on Twitter that included his flight number. I spent the entire night tracking the plane online. Just two hours after his plane landed, I received confirmation that he really was at home, in Pakistan.
I was so happy. It felt like I myself had been freed. I was happy that he made it out alive, that he got to see his family. I was happy that he will get to experience life outside Guantanamo once again.
I posted the good news on a WhatsApp group of former prisoners – everyone was ecstatic. Just like me, they all felt like their own father had been released.
After my first call with Saifullah, I once again posted on the chat group to let everyone know that our father sends his salaam to them. They all asked for his contact details so they too can talk to him, and asked about his health.
They also asked whether shasha shared some news from our brothers still at Guantanamo.
This is the irony of being a former Guantanamo detainee. For years, we were stuck in that camp, desperate to know what was going on in the world. But now that we are free, we are equally desperate for news from the prison – from brothers we had to leave behind.
Today, I am grateful – we all are – that our father, Saifullah, is finally home. I am grateful that I can once again see his face, hear his laugh, and seek his advice when I am in need.
But our fight for justice is far from over.
Father Saifullah was kept in US custody without trial or charge for nearly two decades. He lost his business. He lost his health. His family suffered immensely – some of his children had to grow up not really knowing their father.
He has now returned home, but he is still facing countless challenges because of what has been done to him.
Will those who wrongfully imprisoned him do anything to help him settle down and rebuild his life? It is not an exaggeration to say the US government ruined his life – it ruined all our lives. Yet, Washington clearly has no intention to atone for the crimes it committed against us.
Leaving Guantanamo does not mean you are free, or that you can just start living your life. The fact is that if you have ever been imprisoned in Guantanamo, that place remains a part of your life forever. The years of torture and abuse leave permanent scars on your body and soul. I wonder if any of us will ever recover from the trauma inflicted on us in that camp.
Just like Saifullah, all former Guantanamo prisoners are still suffering in one way or the other. We are all trying to process our trauma and adapt to our new reality. Some of us are still in prison in other countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Others live in limbo, without any legal status or rights, in countries like Kazakhstan. With no one to help them heal and rebuild their lives, some have become houseless in their home country or the third country they have been sent to after their release. A few lost their lives due to medical negligence.
Today, we appear to be free, but we are all actually living in Guantanamo 2.0. After decades of abuse, the US simply threw us away, offering no support, care or compensation. Many are suffering in countries they should have never been sent to, being treated like convicted terrorists or worse. We are not part of any rehabilitation or integration programmes. We have been freed, but we have not found justice.
Guantanamo has been open for over two decades. Of the 34 men still imprisoned, 20 have been cleared for transfer – some, for over a decade. None of them has been charged with a crime, and yet they are still trapped in the Guantanamo torture chamber.
As former prisoners, we are campaigning for Guantanamo to be closed and for men still stuck there to be released. But we are also calling for justice.
We want the US government to be held accountable for the torture and abuse it inflicted on us. We want compensation for all the harm inflicted on us.
Are we likely to see justice in our lifetime? Perhaps not. But we will continue fighting, campaigning and protesting – for our father, Saifullah, and all our brothers inside and outside the prison camp.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.