By Iftikhar Hussain
I am not sure whether I have seen any of the five former Taliban detainees, who have been released in exchange for the U.S. soldier Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl but I have seen prisoners at the U.S. military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during a visit in the summer of 2010. Behind barbed wire fences and guard towers the dark prison cells were clustered together. On that summer day, some of the Taliban and al-Qaida prisoners could be seen clothed in light white and half white dresses in the courtyard of their camps.
The five Taliban released last week by the U.S. in exchange for its soldier Bergdahl are high ranking Taliban leaders and have spent roughly 13 years of their life in Guantanamo Bay. American officials say “war criminals” captured from combat zones in Iraq and Afghanistan are being held since 2001.
The released Taliban leaders identified by the U.S. and as well as by a Taliban video released Wednesday, are Khairullah Said Wali Khairkhwa, 47, who was Taliban’s interior minister and governor of Herat province and administrative chief for southwestern Afghanistan; Mullah Mohammad Fazil Mazloom, also 47, is a former Taliban army chief; Mullah Noorullah Noori, 47, was Taliban’s administrative chief for northern regions; Abdul Haq Wasiq, 43, was the deputy chief of intelligence for the Taliban and Mohammed Nabi Omari, 46, was Taliban’s border security commander.
Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, Gen. Odierno, said in a statement Wednesday that “It was always a high priority that every soldier deployed to Afghanistan would return home. We will never leave a fallen comrade behind.”
On the way to Guantanamo or Gitmo: The weather was hot and humid. About 40 reporters from across the world lined up at the Gitmo main military media facility to get ready for a visit. “Keep in mind the ground rules, all you have the copies,” said Major Tanya Bradsher, the U.S. military coordinator for media, pointing out to the visiting reporters that each one has been given copies of rules on what they could or could not do during the visit.
The group of media persons was divided into print, radio and television. At first news briefing that afternoon, the U.S. officials told us, “the initial figure at the beginning was 751 but now we have only 180 detainees. They come from 30 countries. Out of them 40 are from Yemen.” Later, answering my questions on different occasions, the U.S. officer said that there were detainees from Afghanistan and Pakistan but they would not provide the break down.
The orange dress image: For a person who has not seen Gitmo, the image is of men blind-folded and handcuffed wearing orange jump suits. The first Gitmo camp I saw was just a deserted barbed wired facility. Our military guide pointed out, “it used to be the first of all camps where detainees had to wear the orange suits but the camp was shifted to a full-fledged facility on the next side after a few months.” From behind a female reporter working for a US media outlet said, “And obviously the stand-alone wired make-shift shelter is the place where the Yamani detainee was separately kept because he did excessive masturbation.” What? I said unintentionally.
A journalist view of the Gitmo: On the small, 45 square-mile island of Guantanamo, as we drove on a small bumpy road through the acacia shrubs sprawling on the crusty ground and passed the military barricades, the uniformed men and women escorting media persons disciplined the crew of four reporters. “We are at the Delta camp. Let’s go and keep in mind the ground rules,” the 22-year old American woman soldier said in a nice but imposing voice. The camp, secured by barbed wires and guarded by high positioned check posts was further divided into small cells with a bed and a rest room. I saw the detainees watching soccer on a big screen TV in the court yard with their headsets on. In the next chamber, saw a guard handing over food to a detainee.
A detainee’s life in Guantanamo: As a reporter I was curious about the lives of Gitmo detainees inside the cells but I found out the curiosity of a common listener was more than that when they asked me multiple questions in a one-hour show Deewa Radio conducted on the life of Gitmo detainees on June 16, 2010. “A detainee is allowed to pray, keep fast, exercise for hours, read and occasionally talk to his family over the phone, if his status allows,” said the cultural advisor at the facility. They may not like the food, will throw it back and shout at the guard but that’s understandable,” the advisor told me. I saw Quran in the library of Gitmo and 1400 books of different themes and when somebody pray, calm was observed by all around. They prayed together and there was formal Friday sermons were observed.
Gitmo trials –inside view of a Gitmo court room: The trials were conducted by military commissions and the judges are unformed military officers. I saw the Umar Khaddar trial, a Canadian citizen of Egyptian origin, who was 15-year-old. Each time he would be brought to the court room blindfolded in a vehicle to the courtroom. He sat on a chair chained and a pin-drop silence would prevail as the military judge of colonel rank ordered the court proceedings to start. Security is was so tight that looking in a different direction was noted by the military guards behind the chairs in the court. Interestingly, the defense and plaintiff were not present at the same time for arguments but representatives from human right groups and the Red Cross regularly attended the proceedings.
As of May 14, 2014, there were 154 detainees at the Guantanamo detention facility, according to a recent CNN report. The network says At least seven detainees have died in custody. It costs the U.S. Defense Department about $150 million a year to run the detention center.