Friday, March 16, 2007

The Road to Guantánamo

In this docudrama, the 'Tipton Three' narrate their own experiences in the hands of the US-backed Afghanistan National Alliance at the Shebargan prison in Afghanistan before being handed over to the U.S. Military and transferred to Camp Delta at Guantánamo, Cuba - described by Amnesty International as 'the gulag of our time', and which still holds 470 men never convicted of any crime.

Directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross
IMDB 95 mins, 2006
s p o i l e r

"Rasul, 26, Ahmed, 22, and Iqbal, 22, were boyhood friends from the Midlands town of Tipton. In Septem ber 2001 they travelled to Pakistan ahead of the marriage Iqbal's parents had arranged for him to a woman in Faisalabad. Ahmed was to be best man; Rasul hoped to do a computer course after the wedding.

The three were in no sense fundamentalists: their brand of Islam, they say, was never that of the Taliban. But like many young Muslims in Pakistan they crossed the border into Afghanistan in October 2001, as it became clear that, in the wake of the 11 September attacks on America, one of the poorest countries in the world was about to be attacked. They had no intention of joining the fighting, they insist, but only of giving humanitarian aid. In England, none of them was rich, but in Asia, the little money they had could go a long way. For a short time they used the savings accumulated for their trip to buy food and medical supplies for Afghan villagers.

But in Taliban-led Afghanistan one aspect of their appearance made them dangerously visible - they had no beards. Travelling through a bombed landscape, they tried to escape in a taxi. But instead of reaching safety they were driven further into danger - to the city of Kunduz, which was promptly surrounded and bombarded by Dostum's troops. Aware that a bloodbath was imminent, they tried to leave on a convoy of trucks but their own vehicle was shelled, killing almost everyone on board. 'We were trapped,' says Iqbal. 'There was nothing we could do but give ourselves up. They took our money, our shoes, all our warm clothes, and put us in lines.'

They were part of a vast column of prisoners, around 35,000, says Rasul: 'You'd look down the slope and there were lines and lines of people, as far as the eye could see. We went through the mountains and the open desert. There were these massive ditches full of bodies. We thought this was the end. We thought they were going to kill us all.' Many of the prisoners were wounded and died by the wayside.

After two days they ended up outside Shebargan prison and crammed into the containers - it was night, says Iqbal, and the massacre began under the glare of spotlights which the three men claim were operated by American special forces. 'The last thing I remember is that it got really hot, and everyone started screaming and banging. It was like someone had lit a fire beneath the containers. You could feel the moisture running off your body, and people were ripping off their clothes.'

When he came to, Iqbal had not drunk for more than two days. Maddened by thirst, he wiped the streaming walls with a cloth, and sucked out the moisture, until he realised he was drinking the bodily fluids of the massacred prisoners. 'We were like zombies,' Iqbal says. 'We stank, we were covered in blood and the smell of death.'

Freed from the trucks which had become mass graves, they were taken into Shebargan prison, where they were held in appalling conditions for the next month. Much was open to the elements, and to make room inside its bare communal cells the prisoners lay down in four-hour shifts. They were fed a quarter of a naan bread a day, with a small cup of water: sometimes, says Rasul, there were fights over the rations. Often snow blew into the buildings.

Rasul says: 'There were people with horrific injuries - limbs that had been shot off and nothing was done. I'll never forget one Arab who was missing half his jaw. For 10 days until his death he was screaming and crying continuously, begging to be killed.'

A few days earlier Taliban prisoners had organised the uprising against their captors at Qala-i-Jhangi Fort at Mazar-e-Sharif, and western reporters paid a visit to Shebargan. They seemed blind to the misery there, Rasul says. 'All they seemed to be interested in was if any of us knew the American Taliban John Walker Lindh.'

After 10 days the Red Cross arrived, bringing some improvement and an increase in the water supply. But by now all three were malnourished and suffering from amoebic dysentery. Ahmed says: 'We were covered with lice. All day long you were scratching, scratching. I was bleeding from my chest, my head.' Iqbal adds: 'We lost so much weight that if I stood up I could carry water in the gap between my collar bones and my flesh.'

Prisoners died daily: of the 35,000 originally marched through the desert, only 4,500 were still alive, the three men estimate. All this time they could see American troops 50 metres from their prison wing on the other side of the gates."

Read remainder of How we survived Jail Hell: Part one
Read Part two here

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