22 September 2009
Returning to Britain was the start of a difficult new journey for the detainees held without charge at Guantánamo. They meet every six months at a London restaurant to swap anecdotes and shake off memories of imprisonment. Oliver Shah reports.
On a quiet street behind Whitechapel tube station in London, the Maedah Grill serves up spicy lamb kebabs and deep fried squid.
Like any other Turkish restaurant in London, it buzzes with the chatter of city types, cash-strapped students and hungry locals. Once every six months, though, it hosts a more extraordinary party.
The dozen or so men who meet on these nights come from as far away as Birmingham and Manchester to embrace each other with warm cries of ‘salam e lekum’. They laugh and exchange gossip before ravenously scanning the menus and ordering portions of shish kebab and steak.
To an outsider, they look like brothers happily arguing, but their bond is as unique as it is terrible. They are the Britons who were held without charge in Guantánamo Bay naval base in the Bush Administration’s ‘war on terror’. These meals, dubbed ‘Cage Dinners’ in a wry nod to years spent behind bars in Cuba, are a chance to swap anecdotes of freedom and shake off memories of darker times.
A difficult journey
Media interest in Guantánamo Bay has gradually waned since Barack Obama announced plans for its closure in January. More than 540 of the 760 or so inmates held since 2001 have now been released without charge, and the lurid allegations of inhumane treatment that emerged with them have crystallized in the public consciousness as fact. For the 12 Muslim men sitting around the table in east London, however, returning to Britain has only been the start of a difficult new journey.
Among them is Tarek Dergoul, a 31 year old from Tower Hamlets. He was released from Cuba in 2004 after almost three years of imprisonment, during which time he alleges he was beaten and tortured. Beneath the jollity of every reunion, Dergoul says there is a starker reality. Meeting up with his fellow detainees is the only time he gets to truly relax.
‘I feel paranoid, like people are out to get me. I feel more comfortable with the guys that were there with me – I feel at ease and I’m OK. If I’m with other people I start to feel they don’t understand me’
‘It’s still hard for me to communicate with people who weren’t there,’ he begins. ‘I feel paranoid, like people are out to get me. I feel more comfortable with the guys that were there with me – I feel at ease and I’m OK. If I’m with other people I start to feel they don’t understand me.’
Dergoul’s struggle to settle back into life in the East End has been a long one. He came home to his terraced house five years ago, fighting his way through the gathered scrum of TV cameras and fending off the attentions of publicist Max Clifford. He sat down on the family sofa and realized he didn’t know where to begin.
‘All my brother said to me was that when I was looking at him, it was as if I was looking through him,’ Dergoul says. ‘I had this weird look in my eyes, looking straight at him as if he wasn’t in front of me. I had so much in my head, there was so much evil to explain. Who was I going to tell it to? Who was the right person to speak to? All these things were rushing through my head.’
Just a nightmare
Dergoul lost most of his left arm in a bomb blast in Afghanistan before he was captured by the Northern Alliance and sold to US troops in 2001. With this physical disability and the scars of mental trauma inflicted in Cuba, he finds it hard to work. But obtaining income support and housing benefits when he got home five years ago was, in his words, ‘just a nightmare’. Even with the help of the Helen Bamber Foundation and Oona King, then-Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, Tarek had to battle for three years to get back his passport and sign up for state support.
‘The Government was saying “no, no, no” to everything and I had to appeal every time,’ he says. ‘As if I wasn’t disabled, as if I hadn’t spent time in prison, as if I was a nobody. It took until about 2007 to get the things I was supposed to get in six months.’
Shafiq Rasul and Ruhal Ahmed came home to their Midlands town to find locals had erected an orange jump-suited effigy in the park under a banner reading ‘Hang the Tipton Taliban’
The story is a familiar one. Shafiq Rasul and Ruhal Ahmed, two of the ‘Tipton Three’ made famous in the 2005 film The Road to Guantánamo, came home to their Midlands town in 2004 to find locals had erected an orange jump-suited effigy in the park under a banner reading ‘Hang the Tipton Taliban’. The community is tight-knit and insular, they explain, and more than five years later all three men are still unable to find work. They blame Tony Blair’s Administration for refusing to help clear their names.
‘It doesn’t help that the Government didn’t openly say we were innocent,’ Ahmed says. ‘If they had turned around and said, “actually – these guys didn’t do anything wrong”, it would have made things a lot easier. Everyone in town knows us and still no-one wants to give us a job. After all these years there’s still the perception we’re terrorists.’
Ahmed recounts a rare interview with a media company for a telesales job. After three rounds, someone spotted a line at the end of his CV mentioning a part in a Channel 4 documentary.
‘Although I could have lied and said I was a tea-maker or technician or something, I told them I was a subject and the film was about my time in Guantánamo Bay,’ Ahmed shrugs. ‘Their eyes popped out on stalks and there were no more questions. They never called me back after that.’
The picture of three Muslim men outcast by a small-minded, working-class town on the grounds of religion is not entirely accurate. Rasul chips in to explain his experience of alienation extends into the Muslim community, too. He mentions a recent incident in which the imam of a mosque in nearby Walsall asked him not to attend prayers, saying he didn’t want the organization associated with any former Guantánamo detainees. Rasul gives a cutting laugh when he remembers his first moments of freedom in 2004.
The imam of a mosque in nearby Walsall asked Rasul not to attend prayers, saying he didn’t want the organization associated with any former Guantánamo detainees
‘After the three of us were released, it was weird walking down the road to [human rights lawyer] Gareth Peirce’s house in north London. In prison, everywhere we walked we had chains on our feet and we had to take baby steps and we realized we were still doing that, still thinking the chains were on our feet… Those chains might be gone but still today I feel like I can’t go into Birmingham by myself, even just to go shopping.’
Of course, some of the British detainees have been able to begin rebuilding their lives. Moazzam Begg, a former Islamic bookshop owner who was freed in 2005 after three years in Kandahar and Guantánamo Bay, has since written an acclaimed account of his time in US custody – Enemy Combatant – and acts as a powerful voice for those still detained in Cuba through the charity Cageprisoners. Omar Deghayes, who trained as a lawyer in Huddersfield before being arrested in Pakistan in 2002, now lives in Brighton and works with Clive Stafford Smith’s Reprieve, the legal charity which has helped many of the British men held in Guantánamo Bay.
The longest spell
Deghayes was released in January 2007. Like Dergoul, he faced a lengthy fight with the Government – in his case, to obtain UK residency as he was previously an asylum seeker – which would stretch out for almost two years. He strikes an optimistic note when talking about his plans to set up his own practice as a human rights lawyer, but the physical and psychological stains Guantánamo Bay has left on him are indelible. He is blind in his left eye, allegedly as a result of being gouged by a camp guard during a beating. Having been captured in Islamabad in 2002 he also endured the longest spell of imprisonment of all the British detainees.
‘Six years of your life is not an easy thing to lose, especially if you are a young man,’ Deghayes says. “It means destroying your life, destroying your family, your relationships, the relatives who rely on you. And without any compensation, without any apology, without anything. It’s a sad thing.’
To be refused UK residency on his return was devastating, Deghayes adds. ‘How are you going to support yourself if you’re not allowed to work? How do they expect you to live?’
‘Six years of your life is not an easy thing to lose, especially if you are a young man. It means destroying your life, destroying your family, your relationships, the relatives who rely on you’
Many of the detainees say their faith in Islam flourished in prison, fortifying them against the harsh cycle of interrogations, beatings and days of boredom. Ahmed and Rasul learned Arabic from other prisoners and deepened their knowledge of the Qur’an; Deghayes says he learned to pray inwardly, even when the guards forbade kneeling, and Dergoul believes his religion sustained him. The mood around the table at Cage Dinners can be boisterous or introspective, but it is never regretful: to curse your life’s course is un-Islamic, Dergoul explains.
‘We believe as Muslims that everything in our lives – whether you’ll be rich or poor, happy or sad – was written 50,000 years before the earth and the heavens were created,’ he says. ‘If you’re a Muslim you have faith, and that’s not something you do – sit there thinking about it.’
The spirit of equanimity extends to a few of the guards who patrolled the gangways of Guantánamo Bay. Some, such as Chris Arendt and Brandon Neely, have offered public redress by speaking out against the brutalities they witnessed being handed out to Muslim prisoners. Dergoul says those who recognize the wrongness of what has happened in Cuba in the name of the ‘war on terror’ should be forgiven.
‘Even if [former President George W] Bush apologized, I would invite him to my house and give him a hug,’ Dergoul adds with a smile. ‘Bush – who’s killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims, who said it’s a crusade, who’s an evangelist. If he apologized I’d invite him to my house, share my food with him, help him in whatever way I can.’