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Friday, November 24, 2006

Face to face with the war on terror

Gitmo: A young Pakhtana writes ...
Face to face with the war on terror


The sailor at the entrance to Camp Echo peers through the gate as Peter
and I hold up our laminated blue cards. ‘‘HC,’’ for habeas counsel,
they read. ‘‘Escort Required.’’ He waves us through, searches our bags,
then issues safety instructions—dial 2431 on the wall phone in the
room—in case anything should happen in our meeting with prisoner no.

The gravel crunches beneath our shoes as we follow a soldier
across a courtyard to a painted brown door. Before we go in, I drape
the shawl I’m carrying over my head and arms. This is my first meeting
with a Guantanamo Bay detainee, and I’m feeling nervous about sitting
down with a “terrorist”.

Ali Shah Mousovi is standing at attention at the far end of the
room, his leg chained to the floor. His expression is wary, but when he
sees me in my embroidered shawl from Peshawar, he breaks into a smile.
Later, he’ll tell me that for a split second he mistook me for his
younger sister.

I introduce myself and Peter Ryan, a lawyer for whom I’m
interpreting. I hand Mousovi a Starbucks chai, the closest thing to
Afghan tea I’ve been able to find on the base. I open up boxes of pizza
and cookies. He doesn’t reach for anything and urges us to share the
food we have brought for him.

Mousovi is a physician from Gardez, where he was arrested by US
troops two-and-a-half years ago. He tells us that he had returned to
Afghanistan in August 2003, after 12 years of exile in Iran, to help
rebuild his watan (homeland). He believes someone turned him in to US
forces just to collect up to $25,000 being offered to anyone who gave
up a Talib or al-Qaeda member.

As I translate from Pashto, Mousovi hesitantly describes life
after arrest. Brought to Bagram air base, he was thrown—blindfolded,
hooded and gagged—into a 3 1/2-by-7-foot shed. He was beaten regularly
by Americans in civilian clothing, deprived of sleep by tape-recordings
of sirens that blared day and night. He was dragged around by a rope,
subjected to extreme heat and cold.

He had hoped he would be freed at his military hearing in
December 2004. Instead, he was accused of associating with the Taliban
and of funneling money to anti-coalition insurgents. When he asked for
evidence, he was told it was classified. And so he sits in prison, far
from his wife and three children. When he talks about his 11-year-old
daughter, Hajar, his eyes fill with tears. His head droops.

I don’t know what I had expected coming here, but it wasn’t
this weary, sorrowful man. The government says he is a terrorist and a
monster. When I look at him, I see simply what he says he is—a
physician who wanted to build a clinic in his native land.

A guard knocks at the door. Time’s up. Mousovi signs a document
agreeing to have Peter represent him before US civilian courts. ‘‘I
pray to Allah,’’ he says, holding his palms together, ‘‘for sabar.’’

It was Google that got me to Gitmo. My interest in the US
military base in Cuba was sparked by an international law class I took
last year . So I Googled the names of the attorneys on the 2004 Supreme
Court case Rasul vs. Bush, which held that the US court system had
authority to decide whether non-US citizens held at Guantanamo Bay were
being rightfully imprisoned.

Maybe part of my interest had to do with my heritage. My
Pashtun parents are doctors who met in medical school in Peshawar, a
city in northwest Pakistan near the Afghan border. They came to the
United States to continue their medical educations. I was born in
America in 1978, but I grew up speaking Pashto at home, and am a
practising Muslim.

As an American, I felt the pain of 9/11, and I understood the
need to invade Afghanistan and destroy the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But I
also felt the suffering of the Afghans as their country was bombed. And
when hundreds of men were rounded up and thrust into a black hole of
detention, many with seemingly no proof that they had any terrorist
connections, I felt that my own country had taken a wrong turn.

The attorneys I e-mailed eventually put me in touch with Peter
Ryan at Dechert LLP, which represents 15 Afghan detainees. I’ve now
been down a total of nine times. Over three months, I’ve interpreted at
dozens of meetings with detainees and heard many stories.

I’ve listened to Wali Mohammed protest that he was just a
businessman trying to get along in Taliban-run Afghanistan. I’ve
watched Chaman Gul, crouched in his 7-by-8-foot cage, weep for fear
that his family will forget him. I’ve marvelled at the pluck of Taj
Mohammad, a 27-year-old goat herder who has taught himself English
while here.

As we leave our meeting with Mousovi, I pull the heavy shawl off
my head. Primo, our military escort, is outside the fenced compound,
puffing off a Marlboro Red. Over a steak dinner, they joke with us.
Primo gives me pointers on shooting pool, everyone brings them beer and

But Tom Wilner, a partner in Shearman & Sterling LLP,
retorts: ‘‘Yeah, they’re nice. But the face of evil often appears
friendly.’’ Tom gets angry talking about the conditions under which the
detainees live. Most are held in isolation in cells separated by thick
steel mesh or concrete walls. Every man eats every meal alone in his
small cell. The prisoners are allowed out of their cells three times a
week for about 15 minutes to exercise, often in the middle of the
night, so many don’t see sunlight for months at a time.

I think of Ali Shah Mousovi when he says that. Even the
presiding officer at Mousovi’s hearing declared that he found it
‘‘difficult to believe’’ that the United States had imprisoned Mousovi
and flown him ‘‘all the way to Cuba.’’

Two-and-a-half years, in a 3 1/2-by-7-foot shed, a prisoner of terror.

Mahvish Khan

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