Deployed to Cover The “War on Terror” | Prisoner 345 | My Six Years in Guantánamo

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Sometimes, when I think back and replay the stream of consciousness of how this all started, a wave of amazement rushes over me. It eases my physical pain, but the mental wounds only deepen.

I remember the beginning of my deployment to Afghanistan, we were sent there to cover the American “war on terror”. We were to arrive in Pakistan and to cross into Afghanistan from there, overland. Our first stop was Karachi; we were only there briefly as we took a flight to Islamabad right away.

There was a group waiting for us from the Qatari embassy at Islamabad airport, and they took us to the embassy to meet some of their colleagues, including Ambassador Abdullah Falah. They invited us to eat with them, as is the way of Arab hospitality, in a room full of tables laden with platters of rice and whole roast lamb on top. Large pots of Arabic coffee stood in the corners.

After the meal, we went to a nearby hotel where we met with our colleague and fellow Al Jazeera correspondent, Ahmed Zeidan. Ahmed helped me over the next three days as I applied for the necessary visas from the Afghan embassy. I remember that the ambassador at that time was Abdul Salam Zaeef, who later became my friend in Guantánamo.

During my time in Pakistan, I started getting used to the sound of the beautiful Urdu language. I enjoyed striking up conversations with people in the streets and alleyways, digging into plates of biryani and chicken and drinking gallons of spice-infused black tea.

I wasn’t a complete stranger to the Indian subcontinent, although I was not familiar with Pakistan. I had done my university studies in India, which gave me a taste for the land and its colours, opening me up to a wonderful culture with an incredibly rich history and civilisation. I can truly say love it and its people. India had been very important in my formative years.

Once we had our visas, we left Islamabad for Quetta, where we met Hassan alRashidi, the Al Jazeera correspondent covering that area. We stayed in a hotel where all the foreign journalists stayed, including our colleagues from CNN.

We were working with CNN at the time through a cooperation agreement, CNN covered northern Afghanistan for Al Jazeera, and Al Jazeera covered Kabul and some other parts of Afghanistan for CNN. CNN had a house in Kandahar where their correspondent was staying; we were planning to stay with him there for a while.

We entered Afghanistan through the land border, first Chaman then Boldak, the beginning of Afghan territory and the beginning of my path to Guantánamo.

Waiting for us on the Afghan border was Qari Sahib, our Afghan guide who spoke Arabic and was going to guide us to Kandahar that night. I heard after I left Guantánamo that Qari Sahib had been killed and I remembered his
children who had accompanied us that night, now orphaned.

As we arrived at the gates of Kandahar, there was an intense air raid on the city’s airport. I remember our colleague who was there, Yusuf al-Shomali, announcing live that Kandahar airport had just been struck and doing the first media interview after the attack.

We lived in the CNN house and carried out our daily coverage from Kandahar.

The focus was on the war in the north at the time, and Kandahar was considered the Taliban’s capital, which meant that our movements were limited.

One day, we were out and about and I was filming in the market when we were arrested by the Taliban. They kept us for the whole day while they checked our papers and confirmed that we worked for Al Jazeera. At the end of the day, they released us and asked us not to leave our house without their permission. We went back to the house and continued our work, covering American air raids in different areas.

Kandahar is a Pashtun city – the third-biggest in Afghanistan after Kabul and Herat. It occupies a strategic location in the south of the country, and controlling it has been a goal for successive empires in its history.

There are different stories about how it got its name. One story says that it was adapted from the name of the neighbouring kingdom, Gandahara, on the Afghan-Kashmiri border; another says that the name came from Alexander the Great who was the first one to revive the city and wanted to leave his mark on the names of the cities of Asia.

Islam came to Kandahar during the Abbasid era, bringing it into the sphere of influence of the Arab empire, then the Turkish. D On another day, a Taliban soldier told us about an air strike that had happened the day before on a village north of Kandahar. We drove for two hours to see what was left after the strike, and found a village destroyed, erased by rockets and bombs that didn’t even spare the graves or mosques.

There was much weeping over the terror of that calamity while people buried their dead in a huge crater left behind by the strike. They were gathering the bodies – or body parts – of their families whom they had left at home, in safety, they had thought, as they went out to seek a livelihood, aspiring to a calm village life.

There was an old man crying in agony. I asked his story,and he told me he had left the village for Kandahar to sell some things in the market to make money to buy necessities for his family. He came back to find everyone – his wife, his children, his parents, brothers and sisters – all eighteen of them, killed.

I was speaking to him through an interpreter, and he took us to see a rocket that had plunged into his small child’s bed. The interpreter translated for him as he asked: “What offence have we committed that all the members of my family had to be killed? What offence, whose cost was that my infant is cast out of this world by a blind air strike that wrongfully extinguished the flame that was his life?”

Why this village? The only explanation those defeated village men could offer was that there was a popular market held there every Wednesday and it seemed the crowds that day scared the Americans, who decided it was a Taliban gathering. They didn’t confirm this, they simply struck down those poor people and left them and their village in ruins. We produced a report about that village and sent it to Al Jazeera as part of our daily news packages.

When it was time for the evening prayers, we asked the imam to lead us in prayer, but he excused himself saying that he wasn’t feeling well. We let him be, and our colleague Yusuf led the prayers. After prayers, I approached the imam to ask how he was and why he wasn’t able to lead us in prayer. He told me that day had been exceptionally difficult for him; for the first time, one of the people had asked him for help and he hadn’t been able to offer it.

I asked him to tell me what happened, and he said: “Do you remember when you were filming the man crying about his family, there were some other men crying and talking to us?

“They mentioned that the planes that had obliterated the village had also shelled a village at the foot of the mountain, and that his family was there now, underneath the rubble.” The villager wanted someone to help him remove the debris so that he could bury the bodies.

I promised him that after dawn prayers we would go with him to try to help those ill-fated men and that we’d film their situation and write a report on the catastrophe. The next morning, as promised, we set off at sunrise, driving along rugged roads to find the village.

After driving for a while, we had to stop the car and continue on foot for a couple of hours. I wasn’t used to the rugged terrain or the cold mountain air. I was panting from the exertion but struggled to stay on my feet and continue walking.

As we walked to the village, we started seeing rocket shrapnel; then, the first deep bomb crater left behind by American bombs. The crater was big enough for a grown man to stand in and had been caused by one of those terrible rocket-propelled bombs. I marvelled at the size and wondered how many tonnes of explosive material the bombs held and how such massive weapons could be dropped so casually on the people below.

We continued, walking amidst more craters, until we were within sight of the village. But once we arrived and entered the village, we discovered that it was rubble. It only took a glance to confirm the obvious truth, that the people bombed here had been simple nomads. They had nothing to do with the Americans nor did they have links to the Taliban.

In this extremely cold village, the people dug their houses into the earth, leaving high chimneys for heating, which would have looked like trenches from above. As usual and in haste, the Americans bombed, thinking that they were hitting Taliban trenches without verifying that or confirming the identity of those innocent villagers.

After Kabul fell to the Americans and Herat was bombed until it, too, fell, the focus shifted to Kandahar, and the Americans soon focused their weapons on the city, tightening the noose. Every day, we saw tens of innocent civilians killed; women, children and old men. The sole hospital in the city – the “Chinese hospital” – was swamped.
I didn’t sleep in Kandahar. We’d be out all night, working, and return in the morning despite the continuing explosions. The situation got worse when power was cut, and soon there was nowhere to take refuge other than the Chinese hospital, so we went there to send reports.

In these difficult conditions, the blessed month of Ramadan arrived, but on the first day, we heard from the Taliban that they were going to withdraw and relinquish Kandahar. Our Afghan translator advised us to leave, telling us: “If
the Taliban go, there will be no security, and the Afghans will fight.” I recall his words: “Sami, you don’t know the Afghans when they fight amongst themselves. It’s more vicious than dogs. I advise you all to leave Kandahar.”

And so we left on that first day of Ramadan, Yusuf al-Shuli, engineer Ibrahim Nassar and I. We went to the border area of Boldak, from there to Chaman and on to Quetta.

We had been in Quetta for a few days when we heard that Tayyeb Agha, special secretary to Mullah Mohammad Omar, would be holding a press conference in Boldak. So, along with some other journalists, we went back to attend the press conference.

In Boldak, we had an opportunity to cover the situation of Afghan refugees, another experience that left bitter memories in me. We went to cover the camps in Boldak, and I was drawn by the sight of a woman in her twenties surrounded by her children, washing her clothes in muddy water. She had no soap but was washing with one hand and holding a baby she was breastfeeding in her other arm. There was a little boy by her side, between three and four years old, who stood there crying as she washed clothes and held her baby.

To me, her image summarised the Afghan tragedy, and I decided to film her; I wanted the world to know what wars were about. I wanted to show the people who were affected by the Americans’ wars, destroyed by American bombing, which was purported to be protecting global peace, rights and democracy.

I began filming. There was a burned suitcase in front of her; it looked if it had been caught in a fire. I took some video of the items scattered around her, which I thought were hers. I saw a partially burned copy of the Quran, and when I moved closer to film it, I saw a bundle of red fabric rolled up into a ball on top of it.

I tried to push the fabric aside a little, and the woman gave a huge gasp and fell to the ground as if possessed by djinn. She was crying and contorting and shouting, but I couldn’t understand her. I was startled and asked the translator why she was so agitated. “You have to hold her still,” I told him, “so that her clothes don’t come off her.” Suddenly, her mother came running. She pushed me aside, speaking in rapidfire Pashtu. I asked the translator what she was saying. He told me that she was angry that I had touched the red fabric on the Quran and that I had
caused her daughter’s epileptic fit.

She told the translator that the red bundle contained the ashes of her daughter’s young husband, her father, her brothers and the wives of her brothers. Jets had attacked their village, killing everyone in it except for the young woman, her mother and her two children. Their possessions had been destroyed and the only thing she possessed was this bundle, which she took with her everywhere.

The image of this poor woman and what was left of her family stuck in my mind, especially because they didn’t know what was happening to them. They didn’t know that Kabul was the capital of a country called Afghanistan and that they bore its nationality, that a war had started with the United States, a war against “terrorism”.

When he heard that the Taliban had fallen, we returned to Pakistan to sort out various visa issues and eventually made our way to Islamabad, from where we planned to finish filing our stories. It was still Ramadan when we returned to Islamabad and we were invited by the Qatari ambassador, Abdullah Abu Falah, to iftar, a breaking of the fast, with him.

I went to the iftar with my colleague Yusuf al-Shuli, engineer Ibrahim Nassar, Ahmad Zaidan, and Mia Baidoun. There we met officials from the Saudi embassy, and I told them about the Saudis who had been arrested on the Pakistani border and entire Arab families who had been detained. These families, mostly Yemeni, had emigrated to Afghanistan for different reasons, and had been fleeing to Pakistan when they were stopped on the border at Chaman; over a hundred families with women and children.

Ambassador Abu Falah confirmed that he had heard older reports about these families and said that he would contact the Yemeni ambassador and update him with what I had heard and offer his assistance in returning the families to Yemen as soon as possible.

After the meal, I returned to my hotel to prepare for flying back to Doha. Shortly after I got to my room, I received a call from Ambassador Abu Falah telling me that Mr Mohammed Jasim al-Ali, the director of Al Jazeera, had contacted him and asked that I stay on in Pakistan. My visa to Afghanistan would be renewed and I would accompany a new colleague from Doha, Abdul Haq Saddah, to cover the handover to the new government in Kandahar. The embassy took my passport so they could renew my permit to stay in Pakistan for another three months. After it was extended, the ambassador called to let me know that the Emirati ambassador would be travelling to Quetta on a private plane and I could accompany him there to meet my colleague, Abdul Haq Saddah, and go from there to Kandahar.

The next morning, I flew with the Emirati ambassador to Quetta. When theplane reached the airport, I saw a military plane waiting for the ambassador, as well as a group of journalists and a cameraman from Abu Dhabi TV. They were going to cover humanitarian operations on the Pakistani border that the Emirati government had organised. I asked the ambassador if I could accompany them, but a Pakistani general at the airport declined, saying that there wasn’t room for anyone else on the plane. There was limited space, he claimed, for the ambassador and the accompanying journalists from Abu Dhabi. The ambassador apologised to me.

One of the military officials there accompanied me into the airport. As he dealt with my papers, he asked where I was planning to go. I told him I was headed for a hotel in Quetta to meet my colleague. We were going to Kandahar, I said, to cover the situation following the fall of the Taliban state. He completed my entry procedures and I got a car that took me to my colleague, Abdul Haq Saddah, and we began to prepare for Kandahar.

The next day, we left Quetta for Chaman to enter Afghanistan from there. The road wasn’t easy, and we weren’t able to find our Afghan translator, so we weren’t sure what would happen. In Chaman, I was warned that foreigners, especially those who looked Arab, were being targeted. The message made it clear that our lives would be in danger.

We stayed in Chaman to produce some coverage and follow up on the border. I remember that Pakistani military and border authorities had penetrated two or three kilometers into Afghan territory, raising Pakistani flags and transferring their activities into the area.

About the Author: Sami Alhaj

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