A Letter from Guantanamo

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Mohammed Azeem holds a photo of his son, Issa Khan, who is being held by the US at Camp X-ray in Guantanamo Bay

It had been a long time since anyone in this oasis village near the Afghan border had received a letter from America. So, quite a crowd gathered when the Pakistani postman strolled into the dusty courtyard of Mohamed Azeem's house and delivered the letter. Azeem didn't know anyone in America. The envelope had a pretty stamp depicting Mt. McKinley, and an unusual return address: Detainee, JBC, 160 Camp X- Ray. Even more mysterious, the missive bore the name of Azeem's son, Issa Khan, given up for dead months ago by his family.

Azeem tore open the envelope with the whole village looking on. He recognized Issa's writing, and his sad, ashen eyes lit up. "Kind Father, Mother & Sisters," the letter read. "I'm in the United States. I've been arrested. I hope I'll be released soon, since I'm innocent." Azeem shouted for his wife, Sardara, who tottered into the courtyard, disrupting the chickens; racked by grief, she'd suffered several seizures since their son went missing. "Issa's alive!" Azeem cried, adding with bewilderment: "But he's in America."

Close. He was actually in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, as a guest of the U.S. military. How did Khan, a homeopathic doctor whose family says he never picked up a gun, find himself 6,000 miles from home locked inside a razor-wired stockade? Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has described Guantanamo's prisoners as "the hard-core, well-trained terrorists." But according to his family and friends, Khan was nothing more than a fool in love, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In the summer of 2001, Khan, 28, was pining for his young Afghan bride, who had gone to Mazar-e-Sharif in northern Afghanistan to show off the couple's new baby to relatives. So Khan set off after them, traveling for a week by hitching rides on buses and trucks that were headed over icy mountain ranges. But soon after he arrived, the war swept him away. After the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance captured Mazar-e-Sharif from the Taliban, his parents heard nothing from him. "We were sure he'd been killed," says Azeem. Khan was a Pashtun, and the Uzbek conquerors of the city hated Pashtuns.

But the Uzbeks didn't shoot Khan. They scored points with their American overlords by turning him over as a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist. "Issa isn't a Taliban or al-Qaeda," says his dad. "He's a doctor who maybe likes to smoke too much hashish and laze around."

Like all detainees, Khan was shorn of his beard, stripped, forced into a bright orange jump suit, clapped into earmuffs so he couldn't hear and black goggles that obscured his eyesight. In chains, he was led onto a plane for the longest, strangest trip of his life — to Guantanamo Bay.

"Don't worry about me," Khan later wrote, trying to cheer up his family. "I'm happy. I've even given up smoking." According to the letter, like all Guantanamo inmates he lives in a 6.8-by-8 feet cell with a copy of the Koran for company. For 30 minutes every week, he is allowed out of this cage to exercise with his feet shackled. He and all other so-called "enemy combatants" were recently moved from Camp X-Ray to the larger Camp Delta several miles away, where the army is building an extra 204 cells for future captives.

Most of Guantanamo's 598 detainees are indeed al-Qaeda terrorists. But, as U.S. authorities are finally conceding, the lovelorn Khan — and perhaps as many as 100 other captives — simply aren't. They were grabbed by mistake in the chaos of battle. As Rumsfeld said last week: "If you don't want them for intelligence, and you don't want them for law enforcement ... then let's be rid of them."

Mixed in with the genuine terrorists are a 16-year old boy, two 90-year old Afghans ("They look 110," remarked one visitor), a Sudanese TV cameraman from the al-Jazeera network, and scores of hapless Pakistani youths who heeded the cry of jihad but found themselves abandoned and robbed on the battlefield by their fleeing Taliban brethren. Others were packed off to Guantanamo because they failed to pay extortion money to Kandahar city's secret police chief — supposedly a U.S. ally — who then denounced them as bin Laden henchmen.

Guantanamo has, in fact, turned out to be a windfall for America's Afghan confederates. According to Pakistani detainees, the U.S. military paid the Northern Alliance $5,000 for each captive who confessed to being a Taliban and $20,000 for each purported al-Qaeda fighter. With that incentive, the prisoners claim the allied commanders grabbed any Pakistani wandering dazed around the battlefield, then extracted confessions by force.

After visiting Guantanamo twice and interrogating the prisoners themselves, officials from Islamabad contend that only eight of the 58 Pakistani detainees had genuine links with al-Qaeda. Most, they say, are wannabe jihadis who were recruited from Pakistani mosques and crossed the frontier last October to join the Taliban after the war began. Their average age is between 20 and 22. "They broke down and cried when they saw us," says one Pakistani official. In Guantanamo, the Pakistani envoys say they asked the American jailers: "Why did you waste your time and money bringing them to Cuba when you could have interrogated them first in Pakistan? Most of them don't have any clue about al-Qaeda." And it is not only the Pakistani government that feels an injustice has been done: Kuwait is demanding the U.S. free 12 of its citizens, whom it claims were relief workers in Afghanistan.

At first, Guantanamo wardens kept the Arab and Pakistani prisoners in adjacent cages. But they were segregated when shouting matches broke out, with each group blaming the other for its misfortune. The Arabs harangued the Pakistanis for allowing the U.S. to launch its attack against Afghanistan; the Pakistani prisoners yelled back that if the Arabs hadn't used Afghanistan as a terrorist base, the Americans would have left everyone alone.

With hindsight, of course, the U.S. military should have screened its al-Qaeda suspects more rigorously and relied less on Afghan bounty hunters before doling out one-way tickets to Cuba. But the Bush administration was desperate to avert another terrorist attack, and to catch bin Laden. This haste, say human rights activists, led the administration to disregard Geneva Convention rules for the proper treatment of war prisoners. Meanwhile, a year on, the Guantanamo process has bogged down. Every suspect has been interviewed dozens of times by U.S. intelligence and anti-terrorism agencies. Yet not a single prisoner has been put before a U.S. military tribunal. The Pentagon insists this will happen soon, but officers say privately that the Bush Administration is moving slowly to avoid high-profile legal proceedings that would reveal a sorry fact: Most of the Taliban and al-Qaeda personnel netted by the U.S. were only of low to middling importance.

Soon, however, a batch of mistakenly detained captives is likely to be sent home. Among the first to "come down the chute", as Rumsfeld put it, are a handful Pakistanis. Back in the village, Issa Khan's family waits hopefully for his return. "We'll send a convoy of cars from the village to pick him up, with music and everything," promises his father Azeem. "Then we'll help him find his wife and baby in Afghanistan." Clutching a photo of his son, Azeem says: "No, I don't hold any grudge against the Americans." Then he adds with a grin: "But after all this trouble, the Americans should give him a job there. Please write this."