The interrogations in Kandahar were worse than Bagram, they were longer and more complex. They could happen anytime during the day or night, the midnight ones were the most annoying and exhausting. They stretched for hours, with questions repeated in multiple variations. I was interrogated upon arrival and called back two weeks later, both times I was asked about my entire life.
Just like Bagram, soldiers would come in to take a prisoner for interrogation, ordering us all to line up, kneeling, hands above our heads. They would call on prisoner’s number, and he would go to their side of the tent and lie face-down on the ground with his hands behind his back. One soldier would put a knee firmly on his back and restrain his hands from behind while another soldier restrained the prisoner’s legs with iron cuffs. They would place a black hood over his head and stand him up, forcing his head down as if he was bowing for prayer. With two soldiers holding the prisoner’s arms and one pushing his head and neck down, they would escort him out of the tent, locking the door behind them.
They set off at a jog for the interrogation tent, making sure to pass through water, potholes and stones so the stumbling prisoner would get a little more hurt. They also never warned the prisoner to duck when entering the tent, so he would hit his head on the door frame.
Once in the tent, you would be shoved to the ground with the hood still on your head and one of the soldiers next to you. The interrogator would approach with a translator, then you would be sat up, two meters away from the translator and interrogator. A soldier would take the cover off your head, and the questions would begin, covering every detail of your life in sheer monotony. I went through this four or five times in total.
I was barefoot since the shoes they gave me didn’t fit my feet, swollen by humidity and the cold. They would take me barefoot, stumbling through cold puddles in that bitingly cold, dismal weather. Back in the tent, I would shiver and savoir my excruciating pain, unable to get a wink of sleep all night.
Once, a new interrogator who didn’t seem experienced enough in the role he had to play told me: “We’re at war, you know, and mistakes happen in war.
We’ve confirmed through our investigations that we were wrong. So, the military administration has decided to free you and return you to your country. We’ll give He spoke softly and was wearing civilian clothes, and spoke English with a British accent. There was no comparison between him and the Americans. I knew that Americans were a mix of peoples and nationalities, and perhaps the interrogator was an immigrant or resident. I didn’t think they would be employing British citizens.
A month later, I was called again and brought into a tent with a male and female soldier in it. They sat me down on a chair, and he said they knew that I was a cameraman for Al Jazeera and that I had come to Afghanistan to do
some reporting work.
I responded calmly: “Sure, you both know me, but who are you?”
The female soldier mocked me: “We’re Tom and Jerry. He’s Tom, and I’m Jerry.”
It didn’t occur to me to smile as I replied: “What do you want from me?”
“We know that you’re about to leave, so we’d like to ask you some questions. Who are the most respected men in the tent where you are right now? Who’s the leader, the important one in the tent? The person who, when he speaks, everyone listens, or when he orders, they obey?”
I told them: “There’s nobody that fits that description here. We’re all ordinary people.”
He replied with a question: “How about Hamza al-Batal? How many blankets does he have? How many meals does he eat a day?”
This Hamza al-Batal, a Tunisian quite deserving of the name (batal means ‘hero’ in Arabic), was a courageous man. He didn’t fear or shy away from anything that deserved censure, nor did he surrender to any of the Americans’ requests, rejecting them strongly.
“Hamza is a completely ordinary person,” I said. “He respects others, performs his prayers and lives like the others. He doesn’t have any authority or distinguishing characteristic.”
It was quiet for a while, then: “Well, who in your tent is thinking about escaping or carrying out violent activities against the camp?”
“Where would we escape to?” I said. “We’re in Kandahar, at the airport, on an American military base where we’re surrounded by soldiers everywhere. How would it make any sense for us to flee? And even if one of us managed to escape this place and get past all these soldiers, the Afghans will catch us.
Why would any of us think of escaping?”
“If you’re not thinking about escaping, others are.”
“I haven’t heard anything about that,” I told them, adding, “Everyone knows me and perhaps they’ve been warned about me. None of them has passed on any secret like that to me.”
Then they made their real request: “We want you to help us. If you hear anyone saying they want to escape or do anything bad, or see someone acquiring unusual status, then tell us or the guards. We’ll bring you here and give you food, blankets or whatever else you want.”
I repeated that I didn’t know any of what they wanted and I didn’t need anything, that what I needed was to be released and to return to my wife and son and work.
“We’ll release you soon,” they said. “Until then, we’ll take care of you and provide for all your needs in exchange for what we asked of you.”
I apologized again for not being able to help them with this: “I don’t know those people. I can’t help. They know who I am, but they don’t trust me. All I know about them is that they are ordinary people, far from any thoughts of
fleeing and the likes of it.”
They ended the meeting and returned me to the tent. Whenever one of us came back from an interrogation, three people (the maximum number allowed) would gather around to hear what happened. The rest would sit nearby and try to listen to their tent-mate who spoke loudly so everyone could hear.
This time, when I returned to the tent, Hamza the Tunisian was there. “The interrogators were asking about you,” I told him, “You’re extremely respected.
I told them that you’re a normal, good person who performs his prayers regularly.”
He replied: “I convinced them that I’m a vegetable salesman in Italy and that I have nothing to do with anything religious. Try to confirm that if you see them again in the future.”
Another interrogation began with: “Do you know who killed Ahmed Shah Massoud?”
I replied that I didn’t know. They repeated the question, and I repeated my answer.
“No,” they said. “You’re a journalist and find out information. Who do you think killed him?”
“If it’s about my opinion,” I said, “then Ahmed Shah Massoud was killed by a leader who had an interest in that. America might have done it because they have an interest. It’s known he had a special relationship with France, and America wasn’t happy with that.”
The interrogator asked about any other possibilities and made notes in his log.
“The Taliban also had interest in his death,” I said, “since he quashed them in the north.”
“Who else?” he said.
“Al-Qaeda,” I said. “They were an ally of the Taliban and concerned for their interests.”
“Who else?” he said.
“Pakistan”, I said. “Ahmed Shah Massoud Every time, they would tell me: “It’s imminent,” but would say that my cooperation was still insufficient. Towards the end, most of the questions dealt with people and places of which I was ignorant.
Over the six months I spent in Kandahar, most of the prisoners were transported to Guantánamo. The first plane to transport prisoners to that place of ill-repute did so on January 11, 2002. Was this a coincidence, or did they chose the four-month anniversary of September 11, 2001, to transport those they thought responsible for those attacks?
Each transport group was around twenty prisoners and they left about two or three days apart. We later learned that the transfers had caused temporary overcrowding in Guantánamo, which forced them to build Camp Delta.
Whenever they built a new prison unit, they would take us from Kandahar to fill it; eighty percent of the prisoners were taken from Kandahar to Guantánamo over about five months.
New prisoners were still arriving, and we heard their stories. I met a group of Afghans accused of joining the Taliban and preparing for military combat. The reality – as confirmed following investigations – was that they had gathered in a mosque to discuss social issues. When they heard about this, the Americans surrounded the mosque and arrested them, only to release them later after investigation, torture and punishment. Groups of Afghans kept coming in, only to be released later. But the Arabs or other non-Afghans were less lucky, as the error of their detention didn’t occur to the American authorities at the time.
Once, they brought in an Afghan-Uzbek warlord, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, in military clothing. We were prevented from talking to him, but found out later that he and his forces had fought the forces of a different warlord, General Fahim, to take control of a cement factory in the north, and that American forces had intervened and detained them.
By the end of May, only ten to twenty percent of the prisoners in Kandahar remained, no more than seven per tent. On June 13, it seemed there had been an order to transport everyone to Guantánamo and close Kandahar for good.
Journeys began every other day. They would call the numbers of the prisoners to be transported during noon prayers and take them to a different tent where they would remain until after dusk. Then, they would be put on a plane and shipped to Guantánamo.
They called my number at mid-afternoon on an extremely hot day, the kind of heat that makes a man think the sun is bearing down on him alone. I was with some other prisoners, we were bound with rope and knelt on the floor, then they covered our heads as we waited for the rest of the prisoners in that heat.
Our hands and feet were bound and each line of prisoners was tied to another with a rope that held us together.
After the sun had set, they took us to another tent and began a new episode in insults and humiliations, tearing the clothes off us until we stood there as naked as the day we were born. Then, they began an extremely humiliating inspection of every part of our bodies. Every part.
They handed the prisoners orange jumpsuits and took their pictures with their old and new numbers; I was now number 345, no longer 448. They repeated their DNA tests with blood samples, hair and saliva, then scanned our eyes and took fingerprints. After that, we were transferred to the plane, bound with a short chain that forced our heads down, our hand and leg restraints tight enough to stop blood flowing, black hoods over our heads and a muzzle over our mouths.
We were led in a line, guard dogs barking and the soldiers’ shouts following us with insults. On the plane, they sat us on a long wooden bench and attached us by our bound feet to the floor with a heavy chain. There we remained until the plane touched down at the airport.