Al Jazeera Correspondent

Growing Up Guantanamo

Follow the incredible journey of Asadullah Rahman, the youngest inmate to be held at Guantanamo Bay.

Filmmakers: Faris Kermani and Sonia Verma

Asadullah was only 10 years old when he was arrested and imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay.

While working as a tea boy for an Afghan commander, he, along with 30 other Afghans were rounded up by US soldiers and sent to the notorious military site in Cuba.

Branded a ‘terrorist’ he was held for 17 months before finally being released.

Al Jazeera’s Sonia Verma was the first journalist to find Asadullah after he was freed, travelling to his remote mountain village to interview him.

What she discovered was a young boy who had been victimised by the US, abandoned by his country, yet nostalgic for his brief and unusual taste of the West.

Ten years later, Sonia returns to Afghanistan to find the 22-year-old. This is no simple task. As her friend Graeme Smith put it, “You only had a name. A first name, which is like looking for a guy called John in New York City.”

But when Sonia finally does find Asadullah, she discovers a young man trying to rebuild his life after a lost childhood.

Asadullah was missing for some seven months before his family discovered his whereabouts [Faris Kermani/Al Jazeera]
Asadullah was missing for some seven months before his family discovered his whereabouts [Faris Kermani/Al Jazeera]


By Sonia Verma

I first met America’s youngest prisoner in its “war on terror” more than ten years ago. Asadullah Rahman had just returned to the remote village in Eastern Afghanistan where his family lived, a scattering of mud huts about a three hour drive from Kabul.

He was bright, easy-going and ambitious. He’d also just served seventeen months at Guantanamo Bay as a “juvenile enemy combatant.” Asadullah was about 10 years old when he was arrested, 12 years old when he was released.

Asadullah says he was beaten while in US custody [Al Jazeera]

I have spent more than a decade covering the conflict in Afghanistan, But over the years, I have never forgotten Asadullah. I was the first journalist to find, interview him and write about his ordeal.

He was enslaved to a local warlord when US special forces raided the compound where he was being held and arrested him. He spent a good chunk of his childhood in America’s most notorious prison camp.

As a person, Asadullah was also remarkable. When I met him, he was the only person in his village to speak English, understand that the world was round or know that dinosaurs had once roamed the planet. He’d learned all of those things in Guantanamo Bay.

On some level, he was grateful for his experience in prison. He’d received an education, learned how to play chess and enjoyed picnics on the beach. He told me the doctors and guards who were in charge of him were kind.

None of that squared with anything else I knew about Guantanamo Bay, a place where prisoner abuse was rife and had driven many detainees to commit suicide.

I was also, of course, shocked that such a young child had been in American military custody for so long. By all accounts, Asadullah was innocent of any crime. Even after he told me his story, I was left with so many questions. How did such a young boy end up in Guantanamo Bay? What did the Americans want from him and why did they keep him there for so long?

Over the years, I’d always wondered what happened to Asadullah. I wanted to know what happened to that precocious young boy I met in the Afghan village so long ago. What was it like for someone to grow up in Guantanamo Bay?

This is a story I’ve wanted to tackle for 10 years, but it was always going to be a gamble. I wasn’t even certain I’d be able to find Asadullah again, or whether he’d be willing to talk to me, much less agree to go on camera for a film. Farid Barsoum, the executive producer of Al Jazeera English’s Correspondent series, was willing to take the risk and for that I’m eternally grateful.

We not only managed to find Asadullah, but also some of the commanders, guards and medics who were responsible for him in Guantanamo Bay.

Our film, Growing Up Guantanamo, traces Asadullah’s journey from his arrest and imprisonment to his subsequent return to Afghanistan and present day struggles. It also features rare interviews with American military veterans who served at Guantanamo Bay – some of whom are speaking for the very first time about how they felt about having child prisoners in their custody.

We discovered Asadullah’s ordeal didn’t end with his release from Guantanamo Bay. In many ways, his return to Afghanistan marked just the beginning of his struggles. We also discovered how conflicted some of the American soldiers felt who were responsible for Asadullah at Guantanamo Bay, and how, in their own way, they tried to help him.

Today, Asadullah is a young man struggling to survive in Afghanistan, a country that remains at war with itself. It is a country full of stories of endless injustice. Asadullah’s story is nevertheless unique and one that deserves to be told.