When I began researching and writing about Guantánamo, nearly six years ago, one of the stories that seized my attention was that of Mohammed El-Gharani, a Chadian national, who had grown up with his parents in Saudi Arabia, and, after traveling to Pakistan to study, had been picked up in a random raid on a mosque in Karachi — many hundreds of miles from the battlefields of Afghanistan — when he was just 14 years of age. I included his story in my book, The Guantánamo Files, and also introduced him to readers in my April 2008 article, “Guantánamo’s forgotten child: the sad story of Mohammed El-Gharani.”
Mohammed was horribly abused in US custody, and was never held separately from the adult prisoners, even though that is a requirement of the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which the US ratified a year after his capture. The Optional Protocol also requires its signatories to promote “the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict,” and not to punish them — but in fact just three of the 22 confirmed juvenile prisoners held at Guantánamo (those under 18 when their alleged crimes took place) were ever held separately from the rest of the prisoners, and treated humanely.
Mohammed’s fortunes only finally turned in January 2009, when Judge Richard Leon, an appointee of George W Bush in the District Court in Washington D.C., granted his habeas corpus petition and ordered his release, after finding that the government’s claims — primarily, that he had traveled to Afghanistan for jihad — were based on statements made by a mentally unstable prisoner who had provided demonstrably false information against numerous other prisoners, confirming what I and other researchers had discovered in the files made available to the public, and preempting what has been made even more obvious in the classified military files released by WikiLeaks in April (on which I worked as a media partner). Mohammed had also been subjected to one of the most idiotic allegations of all, which Judge Leon also recognized as idiotic — namely, that, was a member of an al-Qaeda cell in London in 1998, when he was just 11 years old. As his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, explained in his book, The Eight O’Clock Ferry to the Windward Side: Seeking Justice In Guantánamo Bay, “he must have been beamed over to the al-Qaeda meetings by the Starship Enterprise, since he never left Saudi Arabia by conventional means.”
Since the release of the WikiLeaks files, I have been analyzing them in depth for an ongoing 70-part, million-word series entitled, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” which confirms that Guantánamo is a house of cards, built on the dubious statements of the prisoners themselves, or their fellow prisoners, either in Guantánamo or in secret prisons run by the CIA, in which the use torture, coercion and bribery was rife.
Now, however, the London Review of Books has published an extraordinary article based on interviews with Mohammed (described as Mohammed el-Gorani) conducted by Jérôme Tubiana, who has reported regularly from Chad, Sudan and Rwanda, and whose book Chroniques du Darfour was published last year. I’m cross-posting the article below, and I do hope that anyone interested in Guantánamo can find the time to read it, as Mohammed is a compelling interviewee — articulate, often funny, and sharp to comprehend the scale of the injustice to which he and the other Guantánamo prisoners were subjected.
Unflinchingly, he speaks of the hardship of his life as a foreign national in Saudi Arabia, the random nature of his capture in Pakistan, the unexpected brutality of his American captors on his transfer to Afghanistan, and the ways in which he and others fought back against this violence and tyranny in Guantánamo. He also speaks frankly about the difficulties of life after Guantánamo, and his brief escape to Sudan, which I had not heard mentioned before, and the article ends with notification that he has now left Chad for good, despite an agreement between the US and Chad which is supposed to guarantee that this poor young man, who was cleared of all wrongdoing by a US judge, is never allowed to leave the country.
I wish him the utmost success in his endeavors to find a new life.
By Mohammed el Gorani and Jérôme Tubiana, London Review of Books, December 15, 2011
We met every afternoon for two weeks in N’Djamena. After the midday prayer, I would pick him up in a taxi at the shop he hoped to turn into a laundry. We ate fish and rice in my hotel room — he would have been recognised outside — and he just talked, beginning at the beginning.
I was born in 1986 in Saudi Arabia, in Medina, the Prophet’s city. My parents came from North Chad — I don’t know exactly where. They left Chad for Saudi because they believe that if you live in a holy place, it’s easier to go to paradise. They were nomads, from the Gorare tribe. When they arrived in Medina, they took the tribe’s name as our family name, so I’m called Mohammed el Gorani, ‘the Goran’. My parents were camel herders and always had to keep moving to find grass. But when they arrived in Medina, my father did a lot of different jobs: washing cars, working in a shop belonging to a Saudi — you can’t have a shop if you’re not Saudi. There’s a lot of stupid rules about foreigners in Saudi Arabia. When my parents tried to send me to school, they said: ‘Is he Saudi?’
‘There are no places left. Come back next month …’
When I was eight, I went to a school run by a man from Chad. He taught anyone who couldn’t go to a Saudi school. I was there four years until my father got ill. Then my brother and I, we had to start working. We washed cars and sold in the street cold water, prayer mats and beads — you can make good money during the Pilgrimage and the Ramadan. I went every month to Mecca with kids from Sudan and Pakistan to sell to the pilgrims. If the police came, we ran away. We had to be careful. If they capture you, they take your money and your stuff. Sometimes they take you to prison and your father had to come and sign a paper. Thus we paid for hiring our house, for the electricity. We changed house seven or eight times, but we always had electricity and tap water. Not like here in Chad.
He became friends with a Pakistani boy who lived near him. We called him Ali.
When I got 14, Ali asked me: ‘How long are you going to keep washing cars?’ He knew I wanted to be a dentist. All my friends had teeth problems, but there wasn’t a good dentist for non-Saudis — they just pull your teeth out. Also foreigners have no way to study after high school. Ali had taught me some Urdu, his mother tongue: numbers, words you need for selling, anything that’s useful with Pakistani pilgrims. Ali told me: ‘You’re good at languages. If you could speak English, you could work in a hotel in Mecca.’ His brother spoke English and had a good job in a hotel. Ali told me about English and computer lessons in Pakistan. ‘Go to Karachi. My uncles and cousins will welcome you, you just need to pay the lessons.’ I told my parents, they refused. My uncles said, ‘You’re crazy!’ but they knew if I decided something I would do it. My goal when I went to Pakistan was to help my family — life was getting difficult.
Without telling anyone, I went to Jeddah to ask for a passport at the Chadian Consulate. The consulate guy told me: ‘You need to change your name and lie on your age.’ I needed to be 18 and I was only 14 or 15. ‘And you need to pay me baksheesh.’ I had enough money. Every day I gave a part of my earnings to my family and saved the rest in a powdered milk tin that I buried in front of the house. On my last day in Medina, I went to see my Uncle Abderahman. I couldn’t say goodbye openly, but in my heart it was goodbye. It was 1 a.m., not a normal time to visit, as I was planning to leave the same night. I took his hands in mine and kissed his head, like we do in our tradition. In the morning, he told my mum I must have left.
‘Maybe he went to Jeddah, like he does usually,’ she said.
‘No, this time he’ll go far away.’
I took a plane to Karachi. Even Ali was surprised. I called his cousins and they came to the airport. Ali’s uncle taught in his house: the lessons lasted six months, three months of English lessons, and three months of English and computer lessons. I planned to go home after those six months. But two months after my arrival, there was 9/11. I didn’t pay attention — I was very busy with my lessons. Every day, I woke up, went to school, ate lunch, played football with the neighbourhood kids, studied, prayed. Every Friday, I went to pray in a big mosque not far from the house. Most of the people praying there were Arabs, because the imam was Saudi and spoke a good Arabic. One Friday, at the beginning of the sermon, we saw a lot of soldiers surrounding the mosque. After the prayers, they started questioning the people. They were looking for Arabs. They asked me: ‘Saudi?’
‘Don’t lie, you’re Saudi!’ It must have been because of my accent. They put me on a truck and covered my head with a plastic bag. They took me to a prison, and they started questioning me about al-Qaida and the Talibans. I had never heard those words.
‘What are you talking about?’ I said.
‘Listen, Americans are going to interrogate you. Just say you’re from al-Qaida, you went with al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and they’ll send you home with some money.’
‘Why would I lie?’
They hung me by my arms and beat me. Two white Americans, in their forties, arrived. They were wearing normal clothes. They asked: ‘Where is Osama bin Laden?’
‘You’re fucking with us? You’re al-Qaida, yes!’ They kept using the F-word.
I didn’t understand this word but I knew they were getting angry. A Pakistani was in the room, behind the Americans. When they asked if I was from al-Qaida, he nodded, to tell me to say yes. I wasn’t doing it, so he got mad. The Americans said: ‘Take him back!’ The Pakistani was furious: ‘They’re looking for al-Qaida, you have to say you’re al-Qaida!’ Then they put the electrodes on my toes. For ten days I had them on my feet. Every day there was torture. Some of them tortured me with electricity, others just signed a paper saying they had done it. One Pakistani officer was a good guy. He said: ‘The Pakistani government just want to sell you to the Americans.’ Some of us panicked, but I was kind of happy. I loved to watch old cowboy movies and believed that Americans were good people, like in the movies, it would be better with them than with the Pakistanis, we’d have lawyers. Maybe they’d allow me to study in the US, then send me back to my parents.
They started taking detainees away every night, by groups of twenty. We didn’t know where they were going to, but we thought the US. One day, it was my group’s turn. The Pakistanis took away our chains and gave us handcuffs ‘made in the USA’. I told the other detainees: ‘Look, we’re going to the US!’ I thought the Americans would understand that the Pakistanis had cheated them, and send me back to Saudi.
So my hands were tied in the back and a guard held me by a chain. We were twenty, with maybe fifteen guards. They covered our eyes and ears, so I couldn’t see much. When they took off our masks, we were at an airport, with big helicopters. Then the movie started. Americans shouted: ‘You’re under arrest, UNDER CUSTODY OF THE US ARMY! DON’T TALK, DON’T MOVE OR WE’LL SHOOT YOU!’ An interpreter was translating into Arabic. Then they started beating us — I couldn’t see with what but something hard. People were bleeding and crying. We had almost passed out when they put us in a helicopter.
We landed at another airstrip. It was night. Americans shouted: ‘Terrorists, criminals, we’re going to kill you!’ Two soldiers took me by my arms and started running. My legs were dragging on the ground. They were laughing, telling me: ‘Fucking nigger!’ I didn’t know what that meant, I learned it later. They took off my mask and I saw many tents on the airstrip. They put me inside one. There was an Egyptian (I recognised his Arabic) wearing a US uniform. He started by asking me: ‘When was the last time you saw Osama bin Laden?’ ‘Who?’ He took me by my shirt collar and they beat me again. During all my time at Bagram, I was beaten. Once it was like a movie — they came inside the tent with guns, shouting: WE CAUGHT THE TERRORISTS! And they put us in handcuffs. ‘Here are their guns!’ And they threw some Kalashnikovs onto the ground. ‘We’ve been fighting them, they killed a lot of people!’ All that was for cameras, which were held by men in uniforms. I was lying on the ground with the other prisoners. They brought dogs to scare us.
One day they started moving prisoners again. They picked you from your tent, put you naked, shaved your head and beard (I was too young to have a beard), then beat you. They dressed you with orange clothes, handcuffed you, and put gloves with no fingers on you, so you couldn’t open the handcuffs. ‘You guys are going to a place where there is no sun, no moon, no freedom, and you’re going to live there for ever,’ the guards told us, and laughed. They put you in completely black glasses and headphones, so that you couldn’t see or hear. With those on, you don’t feel the time. But I could hear when they were changing the guards, probably every hour. I must have spent five hours sitting on a bench, with another detainee in my back.
Then they put us in a plane — I don’t know what kind because I couldn’t see. As soon as you moved or talked, they beat you. They were shouting: IF YOU DON’T FOLLOW OUR ORDERS, WE’LL KILL YOU! I passed out. We had no water and no food. I woke up hearing voices shouting at me in different languages. They took me to my cell. I saw soldiers everywhere, and guns, like if it was war. There were big metal fences everywhere. We were in Guantánamo, in Camp X-Ray. It’s a prison without walls, without roofs — only fences. Nothing to protect you from the sun or the rain.
The sky was blue. Except for sky you couldn’t see anything. Later, when I was moved to Camp Delta, I could look by the windows. The camp was ringed with a green plastic sheet, but there were holes and I could see trees. And even the sea. I saw it even better, years later, when I was moved to Camp Iguana, where they put you before release. Through the plastic sheet, I saw the ocean, big ships and the guards swimming. Only in Iguana can you touch the sand.
In Camp Five as well, there was a window in my cell, but it was covered with brown tape. One day I was sitting, mad, sad, angry, and a woodpecker came and knocked, knocked until it broke the tape — a hole big as a coin. It did this to a lot of windows. It started doing it every day and the guards had to put new tape every day. Sometimes, they left the holes. I could see the cars, the soldiers, the sky, the sun, the life outside. We called the bird Woody Woodpecker.
For months, I didn’t know where I was. Some brothers said Europe. No, others told: ‘It’s the weather of Oman.’ Others told Brazil, also because of the weather. We arrived in February, but it was so hot in comparison to Kandahar. There we shivered night and day, especially when we were naked. After a few months, an interrogator told me: ‘We’re in Cuba.’ It was the first time I heard this name. ‘An island in the middle of the ocean. Nobody can run away from here and you’ll be here for ever.’ The older detainees knew of Cuba, but didn’t know there was an American base. I’d seen a lot of American movies, and arrested people always said: ‘I have the right to a lawyer!’ The interrogators laughed at me: ‘Not here in Guantánamo! You got no rights here!’
The night I arrived, I was still tired from the flight, I had a first interrogation. The old man started by saying: ‘We have two faces, one nice and one ugly. We don’t want to show you the ugly one.’ He carried on with questions: ‘What were you doing in Afghanistan? Are you from al-Qaida? Are you a Taliban? Have you been in training camps?’ My answers were just: no, no, no! He started to shout and he sent me back to my cell. I was tired and scared. Prisoners were tortured somewhere. When you heard them crying, you were really scared — you thought you’d be next.
In the beginning there were interrogations every night. They tortured me with electricity, mostly on the toes. The nails of my big toes fell off. Sometimes they hung you up like a chicken and hit your back. Sometimes they chained you, with your head on the ground. You couldn’t move for 16 or 17 hours. You peed on yourself.’
Suddenly he stopped. ‘I don’t see the benefit of telling you all that,’ he said. We had been talking for several days and he was tired. I called a taxi to take him home. ‘We are in the middle of our work,’ I said as he left, ‘it would be a pity to stop now.’ The next day, he agreed to carry on.
Sometimes they showed you the ugly face: torturing, torturing without asking questions. Sometimes I said, ‘Yes, whatever you ask, I’ll say yes,’ because I just wanted torture to stop. But the next day, I said: ‘No, I said yes yesterday because of torture.’ My first or second interrogator said to me: ‘Mohammed, I know you’re innocent but I’m doing my job. I have children to feed. I don’t want to lose my job.’
‘This is no job,’ I said, ‘this is criminal. Sooner or later you’re going to pay for this. Even in afterlife.’
‘I’m a machine — I ask you the questions they told me to ask, I bring them your answers. Whatever they are, I don’t care.’
Another guy told me: ‘We know you were doing bad stuff in Sudan.’
‘I’ve never been there.’
‘I know. But if you co-operate, I’ll bring you pizzas and McDonald’s. I know the food is bad here.’
Another one: ‘We know you were in London, working with al-Qaida, in 1993.’
‘You’re sure about this?’
He showed me a paper. ‘Look: ’93.’
‘You should be smart and say ’98 or ’99. In ’93, I was six.’ He laughed.
In the cells there were other kinds of torture. Above all they prevent you to sleep. They brought big vacuum cleaners to make a lot of noise. They put on music — I understood the words were bad words. At night, they switched on lights everywhere. If they saw you sleeping, they came shouting: WAKE UP! GET UP! Sometimes they put a sign on your door: NO SLEEP. Others had NO FOOD, NO EXERCISE, NO TALKING. In Camp Delta, they prevented you to sleep by moving you from your cell every hour. Every time, they came with handcuffs: DETAINEE, MOVE! It was bad, but thanks to the moving I was learning more English. I was picking up words from the guards and asked their meaning to the detainees who spoke English. But when the guards saw somebody was teaching me words, they would move one of us. I started stealing soap to write English words on the walls. I was hiding it under the door or in my shoes.
Mohammed often used words like ‘shit’ or ‘fuck’ and immediately apologised. ‘I learned soldiers’ English,’ he said.
I had even a song, a song I made in English. It’s called ‘Number Two’. At the beginning, they gave us a bucket to piss and shit. They told us to call ‘Number One’ or ‘Number Two’, and they would take out the bucket. We started to throw buckets of shit on the guards through the fence. It was quite easy. So we called any bad thing made to a guard a Number Two.
And when I sang it, every detainee in the corridor used to sing with me. And even some good guards.
Number Two, Number Two!
I will never regret what I do!
You will never forget it, Number Two!
If you treat us as human, human beings,
We will treat you as human, human beings!
If you treat us as animals, so will we,
We will treat you as animals!
Number Two, Number Two, Number Two!
When the guards disrespected us, I told them: ‘Don’t make me sing “Number Two”.’
Did I tell you I was a bad boy in Guantánamo? They called me a troublemaker. There was a big sign on my door: NO CONVERSATION WITH 269. 269 was my number, but I didn’t like to be called 269. ‘Call me by my name!’ They started calling me Chris Tucker. Have you seen the movie Rush Hour, with Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, a black actor? I bought it in the N’Djamena market after I was released. Everyone had a nickname in Guantánamo, even the guards, because most covered up their name on their uniform. When I asked their name, they said: ‘Don’t worry about it!’ I used to ask the good guards the names of the bad guards. When I knew the name of a bad guard, I started to call him it. I remember one, with blond hair, blue eyes, in his twenties — it was the first time I was seeing so many people with blond hair and blue eyes. ‘I know your name and I know where you’re from,’ I told him. ‘I’m going to get out someday and I’m gonna kick your ass!’ He looked at his name on his uniform — had he forgotten the tape to cover it? No.
‘How could you know my name?’
‘I know your name is …’ I don’t remember it today, but let’s say he was called Smith.
‘Don’t say that aloud!’
‘I know your city, I know your family, I know details!’ Actually, all I knew was his name and his city.
‘Who told you this?’
‘I won’t say. But one day I’m gonna go home and then you’ll see.’
He started walking in the block. I don’t think he slept that night. The next day he came back: ‘Brother!’
‘Oh, I’m a brother now …’ Normally, it’s the prisoners who called each other ‘brother’.
‘I know, I’ve been bad. I’ve got a lot of problems at home. But I don’t hate you.’
I learned in Guantánamo that there are really racist people. The guards were often calling me or other black people with the N-word. ‘Fucking nigger!’ One of the guards who called me so, I gave him a headbutt and I broke him a tooth. He was very young, between 20 and 25, as most of the guards. I did nothing the day he actually insulted me. But days after, I started joking with the guards. I wanted the one who had insulted me to trust me. There were two windows in the door, one up, to shackle your hands, the other down to shackle your feet. They didn’t open the door — we were so dangerous! I wanted the guard who had insulted me to come to the door and open the upper window. I called him: ‘Hey man, long time no see you!’
‘What do you want? You’re not angry anymore?’
‘No, come, let’s chat, open the window.’ He was an idiot. He opened. ‘See this!’ I said, and I knocked his nose. He was bleeding, I was laughing. The other guards sprayed me with pepper spray, something they used very often. It burns and makes it hard to breathe. It’s not the only guard I knocked on his face. I pissed on their faces too. I was a bad boy in Guantánamo.
Once, in 2005, one of our brothers was badly beaten in front of us. I sat in my room not speaking to anyone all day. During night shift, one of the good guards, a black guy from Louisiana, came to me. We called him Mike Tyson because he was a boxer. He used to bump my fist through the bars: ‘Wassup, Chris?’
‘If at least we’d done something bad, I could understand …’
‘Brother, look at my face!’ he said. ‘How long you’ve been here with Americans?’
‘I’ve been suffering 27 years, man! I know what it is. They put my brother in jail for no reason, instead of a white guy.’ Most of the people in jail in US are blacks, he told me. ‘My grandfather and my great-grandfather were in the situation you’re in now.’ He meant they were slaves, shackled like us.
He asked me a lot of questions about Islam. ‘Before I came to Guantánamo, the media told me Muslims hate us because of our way of life, our democracy.’ But when he came here, he saw that we Muslims respect each other and have no hate for people of other religions. He saw me reading the Quran and calling everyone to prayer. ‘You’re the youngest and the only black guy, and they listen to you! There’s no racism between you!’
We talked during one year. One night, I was asleep when I felt someone was hitting me with something. It was Tyson, with an ice cream. Sometimes he brought ice cream, chocolate or chips — he could be fired for that. He was laughing. I was happy to see him. ‘Man, I’m leaving tonight.’
‘America! But as soon as I get to the US, I’m going to convert to Islam and leave the army.’ He shook my hand. ‘Good luck, my brother!’ He was the best of all the guards.
When the bad guards saw us sad and sick, they were happy. And I didn’t want that. Since I was little, I was always laughing, smiling, joking and I kept going in Guantánamo. They were telling me: ‘Why are you laughing?’
‘How can you be happy? You’re in jail.’
In fact he tried to kill himself several times. Once he cut his wrists on the metal door. Another time he tried to hang himself with clothes tied together.
Many detainees tried to commit suicide, but I don’t think they succeeded. Six died. I knew them — it’s so hard to believe that those six, especially, committed suicide. One day, an interrogator told me one brother died because he took more than a hundred pills. I was angry: ‘You’re the terrorists now,’ I said. ‘Why are you killing people?’
‘He took pills,’ the interrogator said.
‘You’re doing searches every day. How could he get those pills? Where could he hide them?’ He shut up. I was more and more angry. He asked the guard to handcuff me.
At the end of 2006, beginning of 2007, they opened a new camp — Camp Six. The guards told us: ‘You’ll have a big rec yard, football, TV. You’re going to be chillin’ like a villain!’ But there were a lot of lies. I was one of the first transferred there. The A/C was very very cold. I called the guard, politely: ‘Can I have a few words with you?’
After 30 minutes, he came: ‘’Bout what?’
‘The A/C is too cold.’
‘It’s cold out here too. It’s snowing.’
I said: ‘Brothers! This piece of shit wants to cause problems today.’
‘What? What do you call me now?’
One of my brothers said: ‘Let’s cover the A/C with paper.’ One hour a day, we were allowed to see our legal documents and to have paper to write letters. We had toothpaste — small and stinky, so we didn’t use it. I told my brothers: ‘Let’s paste paper on the A/C with toothpaste and water.’
We were 17 to do it. The A/C was blocked. The guard ordered: ‘269, TAKE IT DOWN!’ He was getting red from kicking the door. ‘Calm down,’ I said. ‘It’s bad for your heart! It’s snowing outside, and we don’t want the snow to get in.’
He radioed: ‘Control, it’s Foxtrot One!’
‘Go ahead, Foxtrot One!’
‘Cell 103 covering A/C!’
‘Not only me,’ I said. ‘102, 104, 105, 106.’ He repeated all the cell numbers.
A lieutenant came: ‘269!’
‘My name is Mohammed!’
‘Why are you covering the A/C?’
We knew that their rules said the temperature should be 78°. ‘Listen, your own book says it’s supposed to be 78°.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I’ve been here six years. I know the rules, it’s the same shit ever since we’ve been here.’
‘Same what? Don’t say shit!’
‘I’m speaking like you.’
BRING THE TEAM!
The team. Six guards wearing helmets, elbow pads, knee pads and gloves, like the riot police you see on TV. The first one carried a plastic shield. DETAINEE! LIE DOWN! CROSS YOUR FEET! DON’T RESIST THE TEAM! They want you on the belly, hands and feet crossed behind.
They hit me with the shield. I took one guy’s helmet and punched his face. They put me on the floor, beat me badly and shackled me. HANDS AND LEGS SECURE! I repeated: HANDS AND LEGS SECURE! I heard people laughing, even guards. DETAINEE! STOP TALKING! STOP RESISTING! It’s always like that: the team leader holds your head, and there’s one guard for each arm, and another for each leg. TEAM LIFT! They lift your body. TEAM PREPARE TO MOVE … TEAM MOVE! I was repeating everything. Someone said: ‘Come on, don’t make me laugh!’ Everything is filmed and they can be punished.
Once you’re out of your cell, they put you face down on the ground. PREPARING TO SEARCH! SEARCH RIGHT! They search the right side of your body. SEARCH LEFT! Then they searched my cell and pulled the paper off the A/C. The colonel arrived. I called him: ‘Come to see why we made trouble? See the temperature, it’s very cold. Believe me!’ It was night-time. In the morning they switched off the A/C. And we went to sleep. Two weeks later, my lawyer told me: ‘All your brothers in the camp learned what you did and thank you.’
At the end of 2004, civilian lawyers were finally allowed to visit the detainees. Among them was Clive Stafford Smith, the founder and director of Reprieve. Because Mohammed was a minor, he chose him as one of his first clients, but his trial didn’t take place until four years later. Sitting in a room with a big white phone, Mohammed heard Judge Richard J. Leon in Washington DC order his release.
He hoped to go home, to Medina, but the Saudi government didn’t want him back. Chad agreed to have him. In June 2009, a military plane dropped him at N’Djamena airport. He was jailed for eight days. When he was released, he was celebrated. ‘El Gorani Exults with His Relatives’ was the headline in the government daily ‘Le Progrès’. The picture shows him with uncles and cousins who had come from the desert to meet him. Then they went back to their camels.
He had no family in N’Djamena and shared a flat with seven other Gorans, all born in Saudi Arabia. He spent his days in front of a laptop, listening to ‘English for You’ or playing ‘Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?’ Sometimes he played football, but his back and stomach hurt, and he had problems with his vision. He needed medical treatment that wasn’t available in Chad. After months in N’Djamena, he wanted to leave. But the Chadians refused to give him a passport. In early 2010, after seven years, Chad and Sudan reopened their common border and he was able to leave.
As soon as the border opened, Sudanese brothers who had been released from Guantánamo called me: ‘Come, come!’ In April or May, I took a small bag, the court papers saying I was innocent and a few clothes. I gave all the rest to friends. I thought I’d never go back to Chad.
In Darfur, I found a space in a lorries convoy to Khartoum. Each lorry had maybe fifteen persons on the roof. Because of my back, I paid to sit in the cabin. We were over six hundred trucks. There were soldiers’ cars in front and next to the convoy, and helicopters above. There were checkpoints with armed men. I saw burned houses, broken trees, displaced people camps. The driver liked to talk: ‘I’ve been driving for 18 years, I know all the roads.’ He said it was a paradise before the war. We passed villages where nobody was living now. ‘That would have been a good place for a break, but it’s not safe. Without an escort, we would be killed.’ We met another convoy, as big as ours, coming the other way. In the evening, we learned it had been attacked by rebels.
When we got to Khartoum, I called my brothers Walid and Adel. They told me: ‘Your room is ready.’ A good room, with A/C, a bed, magazines, books. Soon after my arrival, Adel took me to hospital and paid for everything. They checked my eyes and told me I would need an operation, because of the coloured lights they put in my eyes during the interrogations in Guantánamo. They made me nice small square glasses. They did X-ray for my back, and I had an appointment to see the doctor later. But then …
He crossed his hands as if handcuffed. One evening, as he was going home, two Sudanese security agents picked him up in a car and held a gun to his head.
‘Why are you here?’
I showed them my stomach pills. ‘Medical care. Look.’
‘We know, but we were told to take you to jail.’ It was better than Guantánamo, but it was still a prison. I was with another prisoner, a man from Darfur — they accused him of being a rebel but he told me he wasn’t.
In the morning, I took all my pills and I passed out. They took me to hospital. In the evening, I asked to go to the toilets and I escaped by the window. I ran all night. I was bare feet, my feet were bleeding. They had taken everything — my shoes, my new glasses. I came to a big market. I found people from my tribe and told them everything had been stolen from me. They helped me get back to Chad. My trip to Sudan had been useless.
His parents came to visit him from Saudi Arabia and brought him new glasses. He married the daughter of a friend of his uncle. And finally, a few months ago, he got out of Chad.
When he was still in N’Djamena, talking to me, I asked the US Embassy if they kept tabs on him. Official reply: ‘We asked the Chadian government to treat him according to international human rights standards.’ But a US diplomat told me in confidence that he was the object of a ‘classified agreement between the governments of the US and Chad’. The US asked Chad not to let him leave the country, and to inform them if he ever did. ‘Twenty-five per cent of the detainees released from Guantánamo have contacted or re-contacted Islamist networks,’ the diplomat said.
We were almost a thousand in Guantánamo. Now less than two hundred remain. Where did they all go, if they’re all terrorists, if they’re all killers? They’re free, most of them back in their country. If I ever leave Chad, I’d like to go to court against the US.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. This article originally appeared on andyworthington.co.uk on December 16, 2011.