Once again, a compassionate palm touches me: “Sami!” says my wife, “you’ve stayed up late enough.”
“My memories are flowing and have a life about them. Nothing like this has happened before. I want to write down everything.”
She turns to the window, smiles and points: “Your night friend will stay and sing for you, don’t overburden yourself.”
She withdraws quietly, and I write on: We stayed near the border for several days. On the last day of Ramadan, December 15, we headed to Kandahar, leaving for the border in the early morning to exit Pakistan and enter Afghanistan. We hired a group of armed men to protect and get us to Kandahar.
There were over seventy journalists from various news agencies at the border crossing, all of whom were trying to enter Kandahar. We were relieved to see that there was a good group gathered for the godforsaken journey ahead. We handed over our passports and press cards to the Pakistani officials to finalise our exit.
Our papers took a long time and my colleague Saddah, who was crossing for the first time, started wondering about the delay. I told him that Pakistani officials usually asked for a bribe. He wasn’t convinced and argued that our papers were complete and that they wouldn’t demand anything. I explained the basic truths of that frontier to him, of officials who lived a desolate life and sought to eke out any value they could.
Things weren’t going to go our way, so perhaps Saddah understood the harshness of everything later. It soon became clear from one of the border officers that the problem wasn’t a bribe, he said there had been a misunderstanding, he would explain in a while.
Our wait lasted another hour or two; then the officer returned with a sheet that he handed me. It identified a Sudanese journalist/cameraman working for Al Jazeera, named Sami, and instructed that he be stopped and returned to Pakistan. On the sheet, my birthday, passport number, and the English spelling of my name were wrong.
The officer said: “We know this is a mistake. You’ve crossed the border before, and we know you. But this paper was issued to us four or five days ago.”
I explained that I was in Islamabad when the paper was issued and if anything had been wrong, I would have been stopped there. He reiterated that there must have been a misunderstanding, he knew that I had passed through there before, he had processed my entry and exits himself. He asked for some time to correct the mistake.
We waited several more hours. Our colleagues from Al Jazeera were calling to find out if we were ready to send a report on something new. We explained that we hadn’t crossed the border yet and the director, Mr al-Ali, called us to find out why we had been stopped.
“There must have been a misunderstanding,” he said, and that he would contact the Qatari embassy to intervene in the matter. A second secretary from the Qatari embassy phoned us to ask about the situation. We told him what
happened and he seemed to think it was a simple matter he could fix quickly. We waited.
By mid-afternoon, Mr al-Ali had called again and we told him we were still on the border. We had checked several times with the border officer, who replied that intelligence still hadn’t responded.
At around three, an intelligence officer came to into the office to inspect my passport and press card. His colleagues also showed him the paper sent by the intelligence service. “There’s been a mistake,” the intelligence officer said, “we’ll fix it with headquarters in Quetta.” He left, we spent the night on the border, and the next morning it was ‘Eid. The passport officer contacted intelligence services to say that since he hadn’t been given any guidance as to why he had to stop me, he would hand over my passport and let me leave. Their response was: “If you do that you will go to prison.”
He persevered: “If you don’t send me a conclusive response in the next two hours, I will let him leave.”
And so, a military intelligence car arrived within two hours, and they asked me to go with them. I never saw my colleague Abdul Haq Saddah after that.
I was given a room at the intelligence services’ offices, and they assured me the mistake would be fixed. I spent the rest of ‘Eid day with them. The next day, the second secretary from the Qatari embassy arrived, accompanied by a man from Qatari security and intelligence services and some embassy employees. They had driven over eighteen hours since they had not been able to obtain plane tickets.
The delegation had come to end the confusion with Pakistani intelligence and to have me leave with them to Doha. The second secretary produced an official paper written in English and sealed with the embassy’s official stamp. It confirmed that I was Sami Alhaj, a journalist and that I was of good repute, not the kind of person to be under this kind of doubt by Pakistani intelligence services. The Qatari diplomat added that he knew me personally and that I had visited the embassy on numerous occasions, dispelling any confusion as to my name and identity.
The intelligence officer faxed the embassy statement to his bosses. We waited a few hours, but there was no reply. The officer proposed that the Qatari delegation come back the following day. Perhaps the people in the Quetta office were off for ‘Eid. The secretary and those accompanying him returned to Quetta to rest and follow up on the case. They promised they would return the next day or if anything new came up.
The next day, the Qatari diplomat called me to say that they had consulted the Quetta office but were told the matter could not be decided without an indication from Islamabad, which would take time. The officials there were
busy, either on their ‘Eid holidays or with the threat of an Indian invasion in Kashmir. Besides, the chief of intelligence was accompanying the interior minister to China on official business.
Two days later, the embassy called to say they still hadn’t reached a solution at the Quetta office and that they would return to Islamabad to follow up from there. I stayed on in the room assigned to me at the intelligence services office. I asked the Pakistani officer, Aftab, for permission from to call my family. He was convinced that my detention was a mistake, so he didn’t hesitate to let me use my phone. I gave him money, and he bought me scratch cards for credit.
I called my wife, Umm Mohammad, who was in Azerbaijan, and wished her and her family a blessed ‘Eid and promised that I would see her soon in Doha.
I called my family in Sudan, not telling them that I was being detained. I was still hopeful that a call would come that would end the situation. I didn’t call Saddah, since I knew from the Qatari delegation that he had reached Kandahar and was waiting for me to catch up with him there.
I stayed in the intelligence services’ building for roughly twenty-three days, from December 16 to January 7. During that time, I was able to move around freely; I left the building to use the bathroom – it was outside – and I was allowed to heat water for washing since it was winter. I used my money to buy food, and later to buy medicine when I got sick and they brought a doctor in to see me.
On the morning of January 7, I was told that an order had come to hand me over to the Sudanese government. I was very happy and called the Qatari embassy to tell the second secretary what the Pakistanis had told me.
“They’re lying,” he said. “We asked for their file on you so we could refute any claims that you’re a forger, but the file itself showed that wasn’t their belief anymore. We asked them to fix the situation since they didn’t think you were a criminal anymore, but they said they wanted you to meet some Americans to confirm your identity. We’re still in working on it; the ambassador will meet with the interior minister today about your case.”
Since my arrival at the intelligence offices, I had been able to move around freely within the building, on that day, I saw chains and restraints for the first time. On some nights, they would have an armed guard sitting in front of my
room. It was amazing, I was the same person, what had changed?
I had a radio in my room, so I listened to the news in the morning every day. I heard about some Arab prisoners who clashed with Pakistani police forces while they were being transported somewhere; the clashes ended with people killed on both sides.
While I sat listening to the news, some of the officers would sit and chat with me, our conversations going back and forth. One day, I was in my room, and an Afghan man came by. He spoke broken Arabic and said: “I am a friend of officer Aftab and I can help you.”
“How will you help me?” I said.
“I can ask him to release you,” he said, “and he’ll do it.”
I thanked him: “I don’t need anyone to intervene. My case is just an error, and it’ll be fixed soon.”
The next day, I saw him again and asked him where he learned Arabic. He told me he’d been to Dubai.
A few days later, an argument broke out between the Afghan and a Pakistani officer, and they turned to me to settle the dispute, so I asked what they were arguing about. The officer told me: “This Afghan claims he has American Stinger missiles and I’m accusing him of lying.”
The Afghan replied that he did have Stingers. Turning to the officer, he said: “How much would you pay me if I brought them to you?” Cornered, the officer said: “I’ll pay you $100,000 for each one.”
The Afghan said he had two and would bring them in. The officer realised he was serious and the argument got more interesting.
“Those rockets are out of date by now. Even if you have them, The Americans gave Stingers to the Afghans during the Afghan-Russian war. They were made at the end of the 1980s and only work for five years. After that, they’re useless. If these are that old, they are useless.”
The Afghan replied that it didn’t matter if the rockets were useless. “We agreed,” he said, “you said you’d give me $100,000 for every Stinger, and I’m going to bring you two.”
Needless to say, the officer beat a hasty retreat from his promise at that point. After the debate died down, I asked the Afghan again how he learned Arabic.
He told me he was a drug dealer and he’d been to Dubai for work. He moved drugs from Boldak, Afghanistan, to Chaman in Pakistan, then on to Quetta, then Karachi, where he normally sold them. He’d decided to expand by travelling to Dubai to make deals with drug dealers there.
“How much do you make selling drugs?” I asked.
“Drugs in Afghanistan are very cheap,” he said. “If the price for a kilo of cocaine in Boldak is a hundred dollars, it doubles by the time it reaches Quetta. In Karachi, it has quintupled. And by the time it is in Dubai, it is ten times the original price.”
“How do you get the drugs through the checkpoints?” I asked. “I have an agreement with Lieutenant-Colonel Aftab,” he said, “and I go from Chaman to Quetta on back roads, a journey that takes four to five hours. The Pakistani police checkpoints are along the main roads; they can’t set up on the back roads.”
“Sometimes, if I need to, I’ll get a ride with Aftab in his car to pass checkpoints. He drops me off in Quetta, and I pay him. I have an arrangement with a special intelligence officer in Quetta, and I pay him, too. I went to Dubai to discuss with a dealer there about how to get drugs in and have him sell them.”
I asked him: “What religion do you believe in?” He replied that he was a Muslim.
“You’re a Muslim who sells drugs,” I said to him, “do you not know that is not permitted in Islam? And that it is one of the clear corruptions on earth since it destroys other people and deprives them of their health and money?”
“We sell to non-Muslims,” he said to me.
“Who said that was OK?” I said. “Also, you sell in Karachi and Dubai, and these are Muslim lands. I don’t want to cast doubt on your faith, but I know that every Muslim knows that drugs are haram and that Islam doesn’t permit their sale, transport or distribution.”
I advised the man to repent and seek a halal livelihood instead of this unlawful path. He told me he had justifications that he described as permitted by Islamic law. I didn’t talk to him after that, but I saw him come back to the office a lot.
One day, they decided to transport us. At 8am, they led me out to board the bus; as I stood there waiting to get on the bus, a soldier approached to restrain me. I looked at one of the officers – the one who had quarrelled with the Afghan about Stingers – and he told the soldier: “Don’t restrain him. Sami hasn’t done anything. We’re handing him over to his country, not putting handcuffs on him.”
The officer said goodbye and gave me his mobile number, asking me to contact him when I returned to my family. When I boarded the bus, I realized there had been others detained in the office building; there were five people on
board who looked Arab. I greeted them, but they didn’t reply.
There were two police cars escorting us, one in front and the other behind.
Officer Aftab came in a separate car. The Afghan drug dealer joined us on the bus, too, which made me believe what he said about his dirty business.
I was in jeans and a shirt, my head clean-shaven and my face flushed, which seemed to give the impression that I wasn’t Arab. I found out a while later – after the other men made sure I was who I said I was – they thought I was a
black American who had come to hand them over.
The bus drove for ten hours, arriving in Quetta at six that evening. During the ride, I spoke to the five brothers, explaining that I was Sudanese and worked for Al Jazeera and that I had been told I was on my way to be handed over to Sudanese authorities. At first, they refused to engage with me. I changed tactics and spoke about the news, telling them what I had heard on the radio, including a report that said the Americans had a prison in Kandahar and that they were taking Arab prisoners to Cuba.
Eventually, the five men relaxed and told me they were Saudi: Abdullah alSharqi, al-Kurbi and three others whose names I don’t remember any more.
We spoke a bit, and they told me they had been captured on the Pakistani border and detained in the intelligence services building. They asked me to inform the Saudi embassy about what had happened to them.
As we entered Quetta, I told them: “Remember God when entering a city, and ask Him to spare us from the evil of its people.”
We were taken to the intelligence services’ building; it was right in front of the hotel I had stayed at before. We parked in front of it for half an hour; the Afghan drug dealer got off, and officer Aftab left, then a police escort moved us on.
We arrived at a military prison in Quetta, and the five Saudis were taken off. I was left on the bus, having been told that they would take me to the airport to travel back to Sudan. About half an hour after the five Saudis entered the
prison; they came for me. They asked me to go with them for a few hours until it was time to take me to the airport.
It was January 7, 2002, and we were all fasting. They had prepared food for us for breaking the fast at iftar. After iftar, they put me in a solitary confinement cell, but they put the Saudis in cells in pairs. The road to Quetta had been arduous, and I was tired after sunset. We prayed the Maghrib and Isha’ prayers together. I listened to some news on the radio then switched it off. As I was getting ready for bed, I heard movement, and the door of the cell opened. A man came in and gave me a blue shirt and trousers.
“Put these on,” he said, “so we can take you to the airport.”
This seemed odd to me, so I said: “I will wear my clothes.”
He replied in an imperious voice: “Don’t talk so much. Put these on.”
I put them on over my clothes and packed my bag. Another person came in to my cell; he had restraints with him. “We’re going to take you to the Americans,” he told me, “so they can execute you.”
I said, “Don’t you mean to say, ‘You are going to be handed over to your country?’”
“No,” he said. “We’re handing you over to the Americans so that they can kill you.”
“No problem,” I said. “I am not afraid of death. Death is simple. It isn’t the end of life; there is another life, accounts and punishments. The Lord is just, and he doesn’t lose sight of rights.”
“Without a doubt,” he said, “death is not the end of life, but the Americans are going to execute you.”
He put the restraints around my hands and feet, took my bag and put me in line behind the others to get on the bus. I spoke with the soldier who had come with us from Chaman. I asked him: “What’s the story here? Why are we
being sold to the Americans?”
“We are forced to do this,” he replied, with flimsy excuses that they were following orders.
“We will not forgive you,” I said, “in front of God Almighty. We will claim our rights from you there.”
There were eight in the vehicle, myself and the five Saudis and two other Saudis. The radio was on, and we listened to the news at around 10:30. The Saudi Brothers were still hoping to be taken to the Saudi embassy, but I told them that it was more likely that the Americans would take us and bring us to Kandahar, and from there on to Cuba. They were still hopeful, but I told them that I as far as I knew, there were also no flights to Islamabad until tomorrow.
I felt bad bringing such grim news to these hopeful Brothers, but there was no way out of the truth that we were on our way to being handed over to the Americans. And so it was.
“Stand up! Who are you?”
Those were the first words we heard through our blindfolds at around 11:30 that night. It was an American soldier, speaking in Egyptian Arabic. He came up to each of us and said that. When he reached me, I said: “I am Sami Muhi
al-Din Mohammad Alhaj, a Sudanese journalist …”
“Don’t talk so much,” he said. He pulled me towards him and said, “Don’t try anything. Otherwise, you’re going to get a beating.” “I have a bag with me,” I said.
“Stop talking,” he said.
He took me and my bag, walking me up some steps and through a door into a big room with an extremely strong light and the rumble of an aeroplane engine. Heavily armed US soldiers surrounded me in a circle, getting right up in my face, and one approached to search me.
I still had my radio, in my pocket. When he touched it, his hand froze, he froze. His colleague who spoke Egyptian Arabic said in English: “What did you find?”
The soldier remained silent but moved away from me quickly; I guess he thought the radio was a bomb. “What is it?” his Arab colleague asked.
“There’s something solid in his pocket,” he said.
The Egyptian speaker turned the light on me and ordered me to the ground. I did, then he said: “What is in your pocket?”
“A radio,” I said.
He translated for his colleague, and the search continued as I was told to empty my pockets. Out came the radio, my watch, wallet, money, passport, plane ticket, glasses, ring and shoes. They put all those items into a large bag and my luggage into another one. They changed my restraints from metal to plastic, binding my hands only this time. They put a black bag over my head, and two soldiers led me to the plane.