The Man Who Has Been to America: Four Prisons. Three countries. Two years. One Guantanamo detainee's story.
by McKenzie Funk
First published in Mother Jones, September 2006
In the enemy combatant's house, in the room where he eats and prays and sleeps, a single window casts its light on a single adornment: an enormous Soviet-era map of the world. It is the first thing I notice after I arrive unannounced one cold fall morning and am ushered into the warmth of the room. We sit on the floor below an elongated Africa, a tiny America, and a colossal, pink-shaded U.S.S.R. A brother with a prosthetic leg appears and lays out a brightly patterned sheet still covered with past meals' bread crumbs. Non ham non, nonreza ham non, the Tajik proverb goes: "Bread is bread, crumbs are also bread."
The enemy combatant serves the tea. He pours it before it's properly steeped, dumps the watery cups back into the pot, and repeats. If he's unhappy to see an American after Guantanamo, he doesn't show it. He smiles, and two wrinkles appear on his left cheek. I ask him his full name. Muhibullo Abdulkarim Umarov, he tells me. He says he is 24 years old. He asks, "You want to know the story of my capture, yes?"
The village of Alisurkhon, where Umarov was born and eventually returned, is a collection of mud-walled homes and apple orchards beneath the 14,000-foot peaks of Tajikistan's Pamir Mountains. Physically, it's closer to Afghanistan than to the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, 12 hours and 150 miles of dusty, nauseatingly potholed road to the west. Along with post-communist detritus that litters the roadside—smokestacks, rusting tractors, half-finished cities of concrete and rebar—are occasional burned-out tanks, leftovers from the 1992-97 civil war that killed up to 150,000 Tajiks after the breakup of the U.S.S.R. The crumbling infrastructure disappears as you climb higher into the Pamirs; the frequency of gutted tanks increases. This valley along the Obihingou River was once home to the Islamist opposition, and nearly a decade after the peace accords, the ex-Soviets who control Dushanbe still believe they have enemies lurking here. It is a suspicious place to be from.
The valley has a wild-boar problem. The hogs are everywhere lately, trampling crops, tearing through fields of potatoes and wheat. Local hunters, increasingly orthodox since the fall of the Soviet Union and no longer interested in eating pork, have stopped controlling their numbers—and Russian hunters have stopped coming here altogether. Aid groups, wary of the valley's growing conservatism, have largely steered clear. When a friend and I visited on a mountaineering trip in the summer of 2003, villagers said we were the first Westerners they'd seen in 12 years.
I'm back in the Obihingou Valley a year and a half later when one of these villagers, a bearded farmer with a toothy grin and two missing fingers, tells me about Umarov. We're having fried potatoes and soup in the farmer's guest room, a converted shed with whitewashed walls and plastic bags for windows. "There's a man in the valley who has been to America," he mentions casually. I find this unlikely. "Really. He was in a prison. They made a mistake." He begins to chuckle—that America could make such a mistake amuses him. I ask where the prison was. "Koba...kaba?" It takes me a moment to realize he's trying to say "Cuba," and a few days to cancel trekking plans and find an ancient Uaz jeep to transport me down to Alisurkhon.
We sit cross-legged in Umarov's room, circled around the teapot, me staring at the wall and running a tape recorder, Umarov staring out the door. The brother with the prosthesis—Ahliddin —keeps shuffling in and out, and my friend Kubad (he asked that his name be changed for the purposes of this story), a Tajik mountain guide playing the role of translator, sits with us as well. Umarov looks mostly at Kubad when he answers questions, keeping his hands in his lap, speaking so softly that it sometimes seems he's whispering.
"As you know, 1994 was a year of continual war in Tajikistan," he begins, "and the planes came to bombard our village. I was 14. Ahliddin was 10." The boys were in the field outside their grandparents' home when one of the bombs fell, and day turned to night, so thick was the dust in the air. "My brother's right leg was amputated from the knee down," Umarov says.
In this same house, under the same Soviet map, he and his father readied a stretcher that would carry Ahliddin through the Pamirs to Afghanistan, where they would spend the winter in a camp along with thousands of other Tajik refugees. His youngest brother, Rahmiddin, then six, also came. Umarov does not know which pass they took. He only remembers the snow.
By springtime, Ahliddin had a new leg from the Red Cross, but the boys needed a new home. "The Taliban were not in Afghanistan at that time," Umarov says, "but the country was not peaceful either." Their father took them south to Pakistan, then returned to his wife and daughter in Alisurkhon. "We attended religious schools in Peshawar," Umarov says. "Our studies were paid for by wealthy Pakistanis and the government."
I ask what these schools taught about America, and he smiles knowingly. "Maybe there were schools with the primary goal of preparing fighters," he says, turning to face me, "but where I was, we never thought of these things. We were very young." He gestures to the wall. "I heard about America when I saw it on this map. But I didn't know anything about it."
He stayed for six years, moving through three schools. He learned Urdu, Pashto, and Arabic. He was a good student, and a good soccer player. In May 2001, soon after his graduation, the Tajik Embassy gave him a passport and documents for a trip home to newly stable Tajikistan. He returned proudly to Alisurkhon—the eldest son, diploma in hand—and helped his parents with the harvest, collecting apples and potatoes and walnuts. "But then America started bombing Afghanistan," he says, "and the whole world went crazy."
That fall, Umarov was dispatched by his parents back to Pakistan, to raise enough money to bring his brothers home. With direct flights nonexistent, and the land route via Afghanistan treacherous, he flew via Iran. Once in Pakistan he worked selling clothing, food, and pencils—whatever was in demand—in the Peshawar bazaar, and on May 13, 2002, he decided to visit Karachi in search of a steadier job. A Tajik friend, Abdughaffor, had a place for him to stay.
Abdughaffor lived in a room in the University of Karachi library, where he worked. Also staying there was another Tajik, Mazharuddin, whose name means "place for the miraculous appearance of the faith." All four walls in the library were filled with books, and on the floor were thin carpets. The three Tajiks slept on the carpets. They hung up their T-shirts. It was early in the morning of May 19 when Pakistani secret service agents came. The agents woke them up, took the T-shirts down, and used them to tie the men's hands and cover their eyes.
When his blindfold was removed, Umarov was in a jail cell, his friends at his side. "I was not afraid," he says. "I knew I'd done nothing wrong." The Pakistanis took them one at a time for interrogations, quizzing them in rapid-fire Pashto about their names, birthplaces, and histories—and about a bombing that had just occurred. "Somewhere in Karachi," Umarov says, "there was an attack. A bomb exploded."
It had been Pakistan's first suicide bombing: Eleven days earlier, a red Toyota Corolla had pulled alongside a minibus outside the Karachi Sheraton, its tires screeching. An explosion ripped the bus apart, shattered nearby windows, and left a smoking crater in the ground. Three passersby and 11 passengers—French engineers working for the Pakistani navy—were killed. At least 22 others were injured. Pakistani authorities immediately suspected outsiders; newspapers ran ads asking the public to report any suspicious foreign nationals. (The investigation would, in fact, lead to a homegrown mastermind, Sohail Akhtar, alias Mustafa, who was eventually arrested in April 2004.)
After 10 days of interrogations, Umarov was handcuffed, taken from his friends, and driven across the city. He thought he would be freed; the Pakistanis had said as much. But the drive ended at a building that looked like a luggage factory—a secret jail where leather briefcases were stacked high against the walls.
Two Americans were running the jail, both blond, one with long hair, one short. One was a "strong man," big and muscular; the other had an average build. Neither wore a military uniform. "The reason I knew they were Americans," Umarov says, "is that they told me so." Later, he would hear that America paid bounties for suspected terrorists, and he would wonder if he, too, had been purchased.
No longer was he questioned about the Karachi bombing. The Americans interrogated him about Al Qaeda. "They asked me what I knew about the terrorists," he says. "Did I know where they were?" They asked if his passport was fake, and if he'd seen or met Osama bin Laden. "Of course, I'd heard about him on the radio and TV," Umarov says. "But how would I, a student, know much about him if people who came from a powerful country like America did not know anything about him?" He pauses and looks at Kubad and me, inviting us to question his logic.
"I was not afraid," he repeats. "I am not a thief—not someone who should be afraid of them or anything. I told them what I knew." If he lied, the men said, they would send him to Cuba. Umarov remembers turning to the translator. "What is Cuba?" he asked.
When the questions were over, they locked him in a concrete room for 10 days. The room was three feet long and one and a half feet wide and insufferably hot. He wore iron handcuffs. It was impossible to stand up or move about. "All my thoughts were about how my life was going to end," he says. He worried about his brother Ahliddin, about an unpaid debt to his neighbors, and about the times in his life when he had made people angry or upset. "When I wanted to go to the toilet," he says, "I would knock on the door and three guards—one with the gun and two with the stick—took me there." Three times a day, he was given a bowl of rice, one chapati, and one glass of tea.
"I was angry at these men for putting me in that room without any reason," he says. "But if you read the history of Islam, you will know there are stories similar to mine—when people are taken or sentenced to death without any reason. It taught us to keep our emotions together." What confused him was that there seemed to be no purpose to his treatment; it was not a tactic to get him to talk. The blond Americans did not interrogate him again. He was returned, bleary-eyed and unwashed, to the Pakistani jail, where his friends were still being held. "From my appearance," he says, "they knew I had not been in a good place."
At 2 a.m. the next day, the Pakistanis handcuffed Umarov, Abdughaffor, and Mazharuddin and put black bags over their heads. There was a bus, where American soldiers took their photographs, and then an airplane, where they were tied together on the floor. They wore metal belts around their waists and chains over their shoulders. They could not move, Umarov tells us. They did not know where they were going.
When the plane landed, two soldiers lifted them and counted, in English, "One, two, three," and threw them into a truck. "As a sack of potatoes," Umarov says. He landed on the metal truck bed. His friends landed on top of him. "When we cried out," he says, "we were kicked."
Umarov breaks from the storytelling and stands up, and Kubad and I follow him outside into the blinding daylight. Walnuts are spread out on a canvas tarp, drying in the sun. He plucks a handful of tiny red apples from a tree, presents them to us, and disappears through a door. When he returns, he's carrying a stack of papers: documents, in English and in Russian, from the Red Cross and the U.S. Department of Defense.
"This individual has been determined to pose no threat to the United States Armed Forces or its interests in Afghanistan," one reads. "There are no charges from the United States pending [sic] this individual at this time." It goes on: "The United States government intends that this person be fully rejoined with his family."
These papers are now the only form of identification Umarov has, he says—a red flag that causes shakedowns at Tajik checkpoints and occasional arrests. The U.S., which offered no compensation upon his release, never returned his passport either. Attempts to get a new one have been blocked by a local official—part of the "KGB," as Tajiks still call it—who also blocked Ahliddin's passport application and demands periodic bribes from the now vulnerable family.
An airplane hangar, vast and bright with artificial lights, was Umarov's third prison: Bagram, Afghanistan. "Our cages were in a two-story building inside the bigger building," he tells us. "They had high fences and were surrounded by sharp wires." All the windows were covered. "The whole place," he says, "was blocked from daylight and man's sight."
Each cell held as many as 15 men; each man was issued blue prison dungarees, a wooden platform to serve as a bed, and two blankets. Umarov used one of the blankets as a mattress, the other to cover himself—though it wasn't enough. The nights were cold, and the guards would not let him put his head under the covers. Inmates wore shackles on their wrists as well as their ankles, even when sleeping, and each was assigned a number. Umarov's was 75. "Seventy-five," he whispers in halting English. "Seventy-five, come here."
Powerful lights flooded the cages 24 hours a day, and the guards made loud noises to keep the prisoners awake. They hit their billy clubs against the metal fences. They pounded on barrels. They threw cans and empty water bottles. "We lost count of days, let alone dawn and dusk," he says. "We never saw daylight. We were never outside." Groups of four guards worked eight-hour shifts; black tape covered the names on their uniforms. One American looked just like Rambo: no uniform, a scarf on his head, a cut on his hand. "I know him," Umarov says, smiling. "He was the guy who made the film about Afghanistan."
If the prisoners talked to each other, the soldiers forced them to stand and hold their shackles above their heads until the pain made them not want to talk again. If they talked again, Umarov says, the soldiers would take them upstairs and beat them. He was never beaten. But once he dared to talk to Abdughaffor and Mazharuddin, and the soldiers forced him to stand for hours, holding his shackles up while his arms shook. He did not talk again.
Umarov knew the other men in his cage as faces. He grew bored of looking at them. They were Arabs and Afghans and Pakistanis and men who spoke French and English. These, he assumed, must be the terrorists—the ones to be blamed for the world going crazy, the ones who should be punished. Sometimes, when a cellmate was taken upstairs, screams would ring out across the prison. "This did not happen every day," he says, "but it happened."
I ask for details, and he's reluctant to say more. "I did not see anything with my own eyes," he says, "and my friends and I did not experience this torture." He pauses. There were stories he later heard in Cuba, he says—stories that he believed—about "beatings with the wooden stick" and electrocutions. "American soldiers used electrical cables to shock them in their eyes, hands, and feet. Three men told me this. And some, mostly Arabs, were forced to remove their clothes in front of women. There were other things, too." He will not go on.
I wonder if I should put any faith in rumors passed from detainee to detainee to me, then realize I'm missing the point. Umarov's story is best understood as what happens when an everyman is imprisoned without trial, moving through a system built for the worst of the worst. It's not a story about the cruelest cases of torture—those that America may someday expose and bemoan and ban—but about something that may be scarier: what has become normal in the war on terror.
In two months at Bagram, Umarov says, he had only one interrogation—with an American woman who questioned him in Farsi and seemed confused as to why he was there. "We were alone in the room," he says. "She checked my documents and listened to my answers, then told me I wasn't guilty." Life became a haze. He would stand and sit and try to sleep in his cage, and every fifth day a soldier loosened his handcuffs and let him walk around the prison grounds. Every seventh day, he was brought to the showers, which often had female guards and shut off after two minutes, even if he was still covered in soap.
One day early in August, while Umarov and his friends were eating lunch, the soldiers came to take them to Cuba. They walked into their cell and started shouting, "Stand up, stand up!" and everybody did, leaving plastic containers of pasta and meat half-eaten.
"They handcuffed our hands with metal," he says, "and covered our eyes with something like sunglasses, only it was impossible to see through them. They covered our ears with something like headphones, only it was impossible to hear anything." His mouth and nose were covered with tape, then with what seemed like a surgical mask. They placed a dark hood over his head, and it became difficult to breathe. They tied his legs and feet with a chain and attached this chain to another chain around his waist. Finally they marched him onto an airplane and chained him to the floor. "After that," he says, "I do not remember anything."
"I was sleepwalking when we came to Guantanamo," he tells us. "I did not understand where I was." He was unloaded from the airplane, but he does not recall how. "When my consciousness appeared," he says, "I found myself in the sandy desert. And I thought I would be executed there, in the desert." His wrists, legs, and face were bleeding from the shackles and mask. Soldiers loosened the cuffs and straps, changed the tape on his mouth, and removed the thing that blocked his ears. They took him to the showers and gave him a clean uniform—this time in orange—and a new number. Then Prisoner 729 went for an immediate medical checkup and interrogation.
At first, he was interrogated every week. "There were new investigators every time," he says. "There was a new room every time. But the questions were always the same"—an endless repetition of the conversation about Pakistan and Tajikistan and his life in both. Occasionally, he became so angry that he wouldn't answer their questions, preferring to sit in silence. Other times, he challenged his interrogators: "Why was I taken here if I have not committed any crimes?"
They told him they were suspicious because he had traveled many places, many times, by many routes. He had been to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran. "I answered that they could find many people like me," he says. "Why was it that it had to be me?" They said that the routes he'd taken were famous, and used mostly by terrorists; he might have seen the terrorists on the roads. They asked if he'd known any of his fellow passengers on his flight to Iran. "The people on the plane were mostly American journalists," he responded. "Why not arrest them?"
At Guantanamo, the showers lasted five minutes. At first he had three showers a week, then he had four, and soon he had showers almost daily. The frequency of showers went up and the frequency of interrogations went down. They began calling him in only once a month, then once every two months. Eventually, they stopped interrogating him altogether.
"The hygiene was good in Cuba," he admits, "and we were allowed to pray and fast." Each cell had a Koran and a real bed, and, through a mesh fence, Umarov could talk freely with his neighbors. (Like other detainees, Umarov believes that staring through the mesh has permanently affected his vision.) He did not wear handcuffs in his cell. Those were used only during biweekly exercise sessions, when the guards chained his hands to his feet and led him shuffling around a fenced yard. After his walks, they always returned him to a different cell, and to different neighbors. He ended up near Mazharuddin once. He met his formerly silent cellmates from Bagram and a principal from Pakistan and a farmer from Afghanistan and an English-speaking Kuwaiti who liked to talk to the soldiers.
"Some men were moved constantly," he says. "They would wake them up, put them in chains, and take them to a new cell or to an interrogation room." Prisoners were left shackled in a standing position until the investigators arrived. "They sometimes had to stand for 24 hours, moving only when they were brought to the toilet," he says. "How could anyone be normal after that?" Yet Umarov never heard Bagram-like yells at Guantanamo, and few of his neighbors told him they had been tortured. What they talked about was injustice. "We did not know why we were there or when we would leave," he says. "At Guantanamo, the torture wasn't physical—it was psychological."
Some prisoners went insane. Abdughaffor was one of them. He would throw himself against the door and scream. He tried to hang himself. He wouldn't eat. He became somebody Umarov did not know. Others took off their clothes and sat naked in their cells. "These people became like children," he says. "They did not understand their reality."
"During the first five or six months," Umarov says, "I believed they would find the terrorists among us, take them away, and let the rest of us go home." But his detention continued. He lost hope. "I started to believe that America was against Islam," he says.
He did not see the soldier write slurs in the prisoner's Koran, but he believes that it happened—an Arab told him about it. "People did not mind when translators or those who believed in God touched the holy book," he says, "but they were angry with the faithless and godless soldiers who wrote ugly words inside it. Kafirs—godless people—are not allowed to touch the Koran." Rumors of a desecration swept through the prison. The next day, 10 prisoners attempted suicide; by week's end, there were 23 "hanging or strangulation attempts," according to the U.S. Army's Southern Command, which oversees Guantanamo.
Around Umarov, men tried to hang themselves using prison sheets, twisting there until soldiers came to cut them down. "I thought about it, too," he admits. "But from the Islamic point of view, suicide is a sin. We advised our neighbors not to do it." He witnessed one or two attempts a day. In response, the guards removed the sheets from the cells, turned off the water, and stripped every prisoner to a T-shirt and underpants.
Other prisoners, Umarov included, went on a hunger strike. Umarov joined this strike and two others, going days without food and water, not changing his clothes. "I wanted to either be sent back or die there," he says. The military eventually issued an apology over the loudspeakers. "They publicly apologized to us in different languages," he says. "It meant that we could stop." Soldiers came to haul them off to the camp hospital. In extreme cases, doctors came to the cells and stuck tubes into their arms.
"The American soldiers were like us in a way," he tells us. "They did whatever was ordered from the top—and they are not guilty for that." He watched as fellow prisoners told their stories to guards, and he watched as guards cried after hearing them. "We told them about Islam and how beautiful it is," he says. "Had they not been soldiers, I am sure they would have converted into one of us without questions."
Yet it is the soldiers whom Umarov blames for the worst of his days at Guantanamo. It was the first day of Ramadan, he recalls, when he decided to go above them and ask an investigator about his status. After his meeting with the investigator, the soldiers punished him for his insolence. They threw him into isolation for 10 days.
"I was taken to the dark room," he says. "The soldiers took all my clothes and left me there." The room was made of iron; it measured three feet by five feet. At night, frigid air was pumped through a hole in its ceiling, and its small window was covered by Plexiglas so the air couldn't leave. Two electric coils provided dim light, and during the day, they were turned up to heat the cell to a very high temperature. But night was worse. "Some prisoners wouldn't last the night and had to be taken to the doctor," he says. "They kept me there for 10 days—and for no reason."
He later spent another 15 days in isolation, but for that, he says, there was a reason. I ask him what it was. "I was standing in the cell block, leading a prayer for 48 people, and a female soldier came up and stood right next to me. I asked her to move, but she would not. She was doing psychological pressure. So I spit on her."
It is late in the evening now, after eight hours of interviews, and Umarov, Kubad, and I pause for dinner. Ahliddin brings in a meal of bread, boiled potatoes, and tomatoes. We eat with our hands.
I ask Umarov to demonstrate how he was chained during interrogations, and he rocks forward, crossing his ankles and tucking his arms underneath his knees. He does it automatically, almost unconsciously, then stares at me with a sickly smile. I press him for more information about the suicides, more about his time in the air-conditioned box. His smile fades.
"What I've already said should be enough for those who want to know about this prison," he says softly. "It was like being in a zoo, with people coming to stare and laugh at you." I keep pressing. His voice rises. "There is no point in telling more of these stories. Such a prison has never existed in the history of mankind. No one has ever written about such a prison. Why did they keep a man for two years with no reason? Why? They caught me and kept me as a prisoner of war. What war, may I ask? When was I involved? I was sleeping when they came and dragged me out of my bed. People who understand the laws will have already made up their minds about who is who."
Ahliddin tries to change the subject. "In Pakistan," he says, "I met a family that had lived in America. They'd worked as dog washers." He tries to say the words in En-glish: "dog wah sir." We keep eating, pondering the absurdity that, somewhere in the world, it could be a man's job to wash a dog. "That's what's wrong with America," Kubad announces. "When a dog is dirty, you think it's a problem. When a real problem comes, you don't know what to do."
In February 2004, Umarov played soccer again. He and dozens of others were moved to a new, lower-security prison camp within Guantanamo called Camp 4. The cells were bigger there and the food had taste, and they had meals together in a special room for eating. "We could walk and talk freely," he says. "If we didn't finish our food, we could keep it with us." He was reunited with Mazharuddin and Abdughaffor, who was now better. Better…though never again himself. No longer did they have to wear orange uniforms. This was an important thing. In Camp 4, the uniforms were white, almost like normal clothing. The prisoners were watched via closed-circuit cameras; they could spend six hours a day outside in the fresh air.
Umarov wasn't good at soccer anymore, but he was stronger than many of the others. Some had become too weak to run. "We were like two teams of old men," he says. "Worse than old men." They played every day.
In March, Umarov, Abdughaffor, Mazharuddin, and 13 others from Camp 4 were issued uniforms in yet another color: brown. They noticed a change in the way the soldiers treated them, and they started getting called in for interrogations again. Umarov had four in quick succession.
The last investigator he met was an old man, and he was brought to him free of chains. The investigator was tall, with gray hair and a belly, and he sat at a table that held candies, tea, and cans of Pepsi Cola. Umarov had never been offered Pepsi Cola during an interrogation before. He sat down at the table, and the investigator made a speech. "He told me that the main reason America had been fighting and bombing in Afghanistan was to get rid of terrorists and those who create chaos," Umarov says. "He said that in a war situation, there are always people who are affected who were not guilty. He felt sad that two years had been taken from my life, and that I'd been kept away from my family." Now Umarov would be freed.
The investigator advised Umarov to think of his future. If people approached him to fight against America, he should not join them. He should have a family and be a good father to his children. "He shared the story of his own life with me," Umarov says. "He was left without a father at a young age—that's why he was suggesting that I think about family." They spoke for nearly an hour. At the end, the investigator stood up and hugged him. Umarov imagined his mud room with the Soviet map, his parents, his orchard, his apples. He was not mad at this speech. He was happy.
At 2 a.m. on March 31, 2004, Muhibullo Abdulkarim Umarov, along with his two Tajik friends and a dozen others, walked without chains through a gauntlet of soldiers at the Guantanamo airfield. Journalists' flashes popped and cameras rolled as the procession of detainees passed, and two guards—a man and a woman—carefully helped Umarov board an airplane. Inside its belly, away from the journalists, they then handcuffed him and chained him down, and they covered his eyes with the same plastic glasses. They covered his ears with the headphones. They covered his mouth with tape. "But this time we were not chained to the floor," he says. "We were chained to the benches."