Abu Shayma and Abu Shifaa: On Losing Our Children While We Were In Prison | Prisoner 345 | My Six Years in Guantánamo

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Allow me to tell you the story of a forty-year-old Bosnian man of Algerian origin, who we called al-Hajj, from Bosnia. He was my neighbor in prison, a wise, calm and quiet man. I could see a deep sadness in his eyes, but he was distant and calm, not speaking of his pain. I learned his story when a letter to him from his wife arrived:

“To my absent husband, Abu Shayma, may Allah keep him from all that is harmful.

May the peace and blessings of Allah be upon you.

I hesitated before writing this letter to you. I don’t want to pour oil on the fire, or to add an ordeal to the ordeal you are enduring! But I need to divulge something to you, even if it is heavy and cruel. We must accept it even if it is bitter.

My absent husband, I took up the pen to write to you, so I’m stumbling over my words and hesitating over how I convey this. Here I am, writing this letter to you. The tears flowing down my sad face are my release.

My flower, Shayma… I woke our seven-year-old up in the early morning to give her breakfast. She said to me: “Mama, it’s normal for parents to die before their children, right?”

“Yes,” I said. “But why are you asking that?”

“I feel that I will die before you,” she said.

I put my hand on her mouth so that she wouldn’t get carried away.

“Breakfast is ready, little one,” I said. “Come now, so that you’re not late for school.”

I left so she wouldn’t see the tears flowing from my eyes. I returned after I had pulled myself together and found her in bed, still asleep. I asked: “Why are you being so lazy, my flower?”

She answered me weakly: “Mama, I feel tired. I can’t go to school today.”

I looked at her eyes and realized that she was telling the truth. I ran to the telephone and called the hospital. It wasn’t long before Shayma was in the ambulance instead of the school bus, and its siren was guiding us through early morning traffic. Shayma finally arrived at Sarajevo’s specialized hospital. Allah be praised, one of Shayma’s cardiologists was present in the hospital at that time. After some quick tests and tremendous efforts, Shayma was transported to the ICU.

Our little one lay there, in a complete coma. I watched her and followed her condition from behind a window for two nights – don’t ask me how long those nights were.

On the third day, the sun came up in the morning and set on the life of our little one. The moon left our home. Shayma’s soul was received and passed away.

After that, I don’t know what happened. I only recall that I witnessed her burial in Sarajevo cemetery among a large crowd, some of whom I knew and some I didn’t.

Shayma’s young school friends escorted her to her final resting place with their heads bowed and teary-eyed.

I came home but wasn’t able to enter. I felt like a monster. I stopped at the threshold of the house in which she had lived, unable to enter. This was even worse as – since you departed over four years ago – I haven’t been able to sleep in our bedroom. I had fled from it to Shayma’s room, but now there wasn’t anywhere in the house left for me to take refuge.

I decided to flee the house and to stay with my father until you return. We light lamps for you once again. I hope that will happen soon, with the permission of Him who hears and answers all.

Your wife, Umm Shayma The lawyer had traveled thousands of kilometers. After a long struggle, he delivered the letter to Guantánamo, this sad message for the father of Shayma.

Abu Shayma sat on a solid steel chair facing his lawyer. His hands were handcuffed, his legs tied to a metal rod in the ground.

This wasn’t the first meeting Abu Shayma had with his lawyer, but the task this time was painful. The lawyer began the session by welcoming him and as usual, asked him how things were going. Abu Shayma told him about the ongoing injustice and oppression he was being subjected to, day and night.

Abu Shayma told his lawyer about the ongoing daily interrogations, more than ten hours straight in a harsh, cold room. They wanted him to admit he was in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, during the barbaric war that the US launched on the defenseless Afghan people in 2001.

The lawyer patted Abu Shayma’s shoulder and said: “It’s all right. Tomorrow, I’ll expose it all, and we will reveal the truth to the whole world.

“The US administration is trying to gain public opinion as a short-term tactic that will inevitably fail. But forget about those things for now. You have a message from your family in Bosnia.”

Full of eagerness to hear the news of his family, Abu Shayma took the message and began reading. But he realized the tragedy and felt the catastrophe from the beginning of the message. A waterfall of tears rained down from his eyes.

He began to mutter: “We belong to Allah, and to Him, we shall return. We belong to Allah, and to Him, we shall return.”

The lawyer remained silent; then he left to ask the soldiers to return him to us. When he returned, dragging his feet, his tears were still flowing, his tongue repeated, “We belong to Allah, and to Him, we shall return.”

We realized immediately that something serious had happened, and asked him what happened. He wasn’t able to reply.

“Did the cruel one hit you?” we asked him.

He kept looking at the ground. A terrible silence prevailed, everyone looking at him with sadness, anxiety and anticipation.

“What happened? Please, tell us, Abu Shayma. What happened?”

He raised his tear-filled eyes to us. With a rattle, he stopped crying and said:

“My dear Shayma has died.”

Our eyes fell, our mouths agape, the shock didn’t allow for any expression.

That night we slept with our hearts almost broken in two.

The following morning, Abu Shayma told us that his daughter was born with a hole in her heart. He had wanted her to have surgery when she was younger, but doctors advised him to wait until she was five. He had started to put aside a modest amount of money to cover the $13,000 the operation would cost.

Before he was able to put together a third of the amount, the Americans imprisoned him, or we should say they kidnapped him.

“My efforts were wasted,” he said. “My travails were lost in the wind. I thought about my daughter and her condition after I was arrested and these shameful circumstances.”

Two weeks passed, and ironically letters arrived that were over three months old. One contained pictures of that little flower with sleepy eyes, a bashful smile and the innocence of children on her cheeks. There was also a letter written by the hand of that little one, in the wondrous phrases of a child.

Shayma wrote to her father:

My dear Baba,

Al-salaamu aleikum.

I miss you really a lot. Really really.

I’m fine, don’t worry. I’m still waiting for you. I look forward to your return and you taking me for a visit to grandmother in Algeria. Baba, recently we have celebrated peace day at school, and the tenth anniversary of the Dayton peace accords. My teacher thanked America for being the guardian of peace.

Before the party ended, I asked my teacher: “If America is the guardian of peace, why do they imprison people and take them far away from their families?”

She answered: “America, my little one, only detains war criminals to keep the peace.”

“But baba,” I said, “hasn’t been a war criminal at ever! Baba worked in orphanages and to help the sick. Baba handed out food and medicine and clothes. Why have they deprived me of baba for more than four years?”

The teacher was quiet for a moment, and then she said: “Baba will return to you soon, Shayma.”

Baba, you’ve taken a long time. You’ve been away for a long time.

We can’t live without you, baba.

I wait for you every day and remember you in the morning and the evening.


Goodbye, and my warmest kisses, Shayma, who misses you very much.”

I read Shayma’s letter (Allah rest her soul) with sadness and sorrow, then passed it to the other prisoners. We shared in Abu Shayma’s sorrow and partook in his ordeal.

One of them, my Sudanese Brother Adel Hassan Abu Diyana (Abu Shifaa), read Shayma’s letter and let out a long moan. The letter tore the scab off his own wound, leaving behind raw pain.

A year earlier, a message had arrived from his family in Sudan informing him that his daughter, Shifaa, had passed away. She was born after he was imprisoned – as was the case for tens of prisoners who had never seen their children. She died after a bitter struggle with her illness which lasted a year and a half. The family hadn’t been able to provide the drugs she needed.

Abu Shifaa told me: “I worked over fifteen years in the humanitarian field, in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. I had official residence papers issued by the Pakistani authorities and certified by UNESCO. I worked for orphans, never thinking the day would come when my own family would be in need.”

He paused, pensive and pained: “In the end, I worked as an official of one of the hospitals that offered free services to refugees. I never thought that the day would come when my daughter would be just like those poor girls I saw, without a father to take care of them. I never thought my daughter would die, suffering the pain of illness, tossing and turning on her sickbed. Just for a few hands, the inability to provide for medicine!! And now, why are the Americans holding me? Isn’t the death of my Shifaa, enough for them?”

About the Author: Sami Alhaj

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