"Guantanamo is like a grave": the Syrian who tries to rebuild his life in Uruguay after spending 12 years in the most controversial prison in the US

Ahmed Adnan Ahjam

BBC Mundo

Ahmed Adnan Ahjam is still looking to rebuild his life in Uruguay after 12 years in Guantánamo.

When Ahmed Adnan Ahjam is mentioned to Guantánamo, the first thing he regrets is that there are still prisoners there. “I was lucky I got out,” he says.

It refers to the 39 detainees who are still in that military prison established by the United States 20 years ago for terrorism suspects, on which abuse and torture have been denounced.

Ahjam, of Syrian origin, was sent to Guantanamo in June 2002 after being arrested by security forces of Pakistan and delivered to the USA

He spent 12 years and six months locked up there, until he was transferred to Uruguay with the approval of an intergovernmental commission in Washington that reviewed his case.

He arrived in the South American country along with five other former Guantanamo inmates in December 2014, following a bilateral agreement.

But today at 44 years of age, Ahjam is still trying to rebuild his life in Montevideo and measures his words in Spanish to refer to the most controversial prison in the United States.

“If we are going to talk we do not stop for days, because it is a life there. But I can tell you: Guantanamo is like a grave. Whoever is lucky goes out to walk on Earth again, “says Ahjam in an interview with BBC Mundo.

“Symbol of injustice”

Guantanamo jail

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In 20 years, 780 detainees have passed through the Guantánamo prison

About 780 detainees have passed through that jail located in a US naval base in the southeast of Cuba in these two decades.

The first 20 arrived in a military plane on January 11, 2002. The controversy arose immediately when a photo of them kneeling, masked and bound, wearing orange uniforms was released.

Four months had passed since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, and the George W. Bush administration chose that site to send prisoners from its “war on terrorism.” without being governed by protections of domestic law or the Geneva Convention.

Most of the detainees who passed through Guantánamo were never charged or brought to trial.

Five of the 12 prisoners who have been charged are accused of participating in the plot of the September 11, 2001 attacks, including their alleged mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

But his trial has not started either.

One of the only two sentenced so far at Guantanamo, Majid Kahn, reported various abusesFrom enemas to chains for days or threats from his interrogators.

“The more I cooperated and told them, the more they tortured me,” Khan told a military jury in October, pleading guilty to aiding the Islamic fundamentalist group al Qaeda.

Seven of the high-ranking officers who made up that jury criticized the alleged torture he received, calling it “a stain on the moral fiber of the United States.”

Guantanamo “has become the symbol of injustice, racism, Islamophobia, serious human rights violations that include torture and indefinite detentions,” says Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, to BBC Mundo.

“What is clear to me”

Ahjam was described in US documents as someone who traveled to Afghanistan, linked up with fundamentalists, and was captured crossing from the Tora Bora region into Pakistan in 2001, during attacks by the Washington-led coalition.

But some of those documents indicated that the detainee himself denied having known members of al-Qaeda in Tora Bora, or having participated in training and fighting in Afghanistan, as the United States suspected.

Detained in Guantánamo

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39 people are still detained at Guantánamo

Instead, Ahjam argued that was sold by Pakistani forces for a bounty that the Americans paid.

By transferring him and five other former Guantanamo inmates to Uruguay, the US government ruled that they were dangerous.

Ahjam says he suffered abuse during “the first four or five months” he was in that prison, such as deprivation of toilets or clean clothes.

He also described mistreatment of Guantánamo soldiers, for example by leaving a towel in a forbidden place in his cell.

“They take you out (of the cell), they look for your whole body, they leave you on the floor, your foot on top of your head as well as five minutes and then they return you to the cell “, he relates.

When asked if he thinks Guantánamo will one day close, he replies that he at least hopes for a change.

“There is nothing that goes on forever,” he says. “That is what I have clear. It was clear to me in jail: everything has a beginning and an end.”

“Confusing messages”

Of the last four US presidents, three have expressed their willingness to close Guantánamo: Bush, Barack Obama and current President Joe Biden.

But when he arrived at the White House in 2017, Donald Trump put cold cloths on Obama’s plan to move the remaining inmates, and Biden did not reactivate it with force in his first year in office.

“President Biden keeps sending mixed messages: He promises to close Guantanamo, but recently announced that new courtrooms would be built so that the military commissions could resume the trials, “says Guevara-Rosas, of Amnesty International, who calls for the closure of the prison and accountability for the abuses committed.

About half of the 39 current prisoners have their transfer approved by a government commission, five of them announced this week.

Protest in front of the White House

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The situation of the prisoners in Guantánamo has generated protests around the world.

However, there are a number of obstacles to achieving these transfers.

On the one hand, it became difficult for the US. find countries willing to receive ex-prisoners, keep them under control or monitor their activities.

Biden asked Congress in December to remove restrictions on transferring Guantanamo inmates to other countries or even within the United States.

But eight Republican senators warned in a letter to the president in May that they want the prison to remain open, citing security reasons.

“While there were reasonable arguments with their predecessors to transfer and repatriate some low-risk detainees, we all agreed that relocating the remaining 40 or closing the facility would pose an unnecessary risk,” they said.

“The stigma of Guantanamo”

Two of the six ex-inmates sent to Uruguay in 2014 later went to Turkey, says Christian Mirza, who served as a link between the group and the government of then-President José Mujica.

The other four achieved only a precarious job placement.

“The stigma of Guantanamo has marked them and will mark them for the rest of their lives, not only to them but to all those who leave (that) jail “, assures Mirza to BBC Mundo.

Ahjam even opened a stall selling Arab sweets in a Montevideo market in 2018, something he described as a “dream” come true.

Ahmed Adnan Ahjam

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In 2018 Ahjam fulfilled his dream of having a candy sale, but had to close it due to the pandemic.

But the business closed during the pandemic and the aid it initially received from the Uruguayan government expired.

Now ahjam keep looking for your new life after Guantanamo.

“You don’t know if you are living or not living, because you have nothing to live for,” he says. “You have to do everything, fight, start everything in life from scratch.”

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