August issue 2006
A Tale of Torment
A number of prisoners at the notorious US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay have been released in recent years after being found innocent, but no one until now has told his story the way Mulla Abdul Salam Zaeef has done it. The former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan has recorded the humilitation and torture that he underwent during his almost four years in captivity by writing a readable Pashto book titled, Da Guantanamo Anzoor (A Picture of Guantanamo).
Zaeef was released in September 2005 and returned to Afghanistan, where he now lives in Kabul under maximum security. He hasn’t uttered a word against the Taliban or in support of the US-backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai. It is obvious that he is still loyal to the Taliban leader, Mulla Mohammad Omar. Though a free man, it appears that he cannot or is not allowed to leave Kabul. In any case, he might not want to come back to Pakistan, where his family has been living for the past several years, due to the fact that the Pakistan government arrested and delivered him to the US in violation of diplomatic norms. The Pakistan government is also unlikely to offer him refuge again.
Following the US invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, Zaeef became the most visible face of the Taliban. On a daily basis, he would hold press conferences at Afghanistan’s embassy in Islamabad to tell the Taliban side of the story. He would defend the Taliban regime, refute American claims about their battlefield successes, and defiantly pledge to resist foreign occupiers of his homeland. Fluent in Pashto, Persian, Urdu, Arabic and English, he was a one-man Taliban propaganda machine fighting a losing battle against the vastly resourceful and generally biased western media. Every reporter, even those who didn’t want to, were compelled to attend his news conferences because the Taliban were refusing visas to journalists for Afghanistan and Zaeef was one of the few sources through which they could get a sense of what was happening in the war-ravaged country. No doubt his version of events was one-sided, but one got to know the Taliban’s take on the day’s happenings by listening to his daily briefings.
All this was unacceptable to the Americans. The Pakistan government, forever the pliant state when it came to the US, succumbed to the pressure from Washington and stopped Zaeef from holding his news conferences. By early December, the Taliban regime had collapsed in the face of relentless US bombing and on account of the ground attack by the Northern Alliances forces, armed and equipped by a unique set of sponsors ranging from the US and UK to Iran, Russia, Turkey, India and France. Around this time, Pakistani authorities arrested Zaeef, who had not been formally stripped of his diplomatic status, and handed him to US soldiers on Pakistani territory.
Writing about his handing over to the Americans by Pakistani officials, Zaeef describes how he was abused and beaten up. He alleges that US soldiers pounced on him shouting, “Here is the big one,” as Pakistani officers looked on. In a recent interview, Zaeef said: “The so-called guardians of Islam and honour stood dumb and watched the ceremony in utter disregard of human rights and Islamic brotherhood.” In the book, this is how he describes his last encounter with a Pakistan government official before his arrest in Islamabad and delivery to the US authorities: “Your Excellency! You are no more Excellency. You know America is [a] superpower; none can combat it. None can be rude to the Americans. They are in need of you for investigation. We want to hand you over to America, just to get its favour and to save Pakistan from threat.”
Zaeef is not the first Afghan, or for that matter Arab, to have blamed Pakistan for his troubles. Many common Afghans and Arabs, apprehended in Pakistan and delivered to the US have spoken bitterly against Islamabad after their release. Their grouse is that they were handed over to the US without actually determining whether or not they were members of Al-Qaeda or Taliban. Some of them even accused Pakistani officials of “selling” them to the Americans.
In his 156-page book, Zaeef narrates how he was first detained by US forces in Afghanistan and then flown to an American warship in the Gulf. Subsequently, he was kept at the US airbases in Bagram and Kandahar. Finally, he was sent to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. His detention was spread over three years and 10 months.
Zaeef argues that it was wrong to arrest him because he was a diplomat and not a fighter. Maintaining that he never fought with the Americans, he recalled that he condemned the 9/11 attacks against the US. Zaeef says he would have preferred to be put on trial instead of being left to rot in his caged cell in Guantanamo Bay.
According to Zaeef, he was physically and mentally abused. The book is full of stories how he was being forced to sit naked outdoors, in the cold winters of Afghanistan, deprived of sleep for up to a month at a stretch and humiliated by arrogant jailers. He also narrates instances of desecration of the Holy Quran by US soldiers. The mistreatment has left deep scars on the mind of the soft-spoken Zaeef, who says he is now suffering from depression and anxiety. Other prisoners, who have been released, have also complained of contracting physical and mental diseases.
Zaeef’s book, which was published only recently in Kabul, is already the talk of the town. Booksellers have reported brisk sales, even though only the Pashto edition has been published. A total of 5,000 copies were published but it seems reprints would be ordered in view of the demand for the book in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Zaeef is also planning to get his book translated into Urdu, Arabic and English. He has been receiving phone calls from all over the world after the launch of the book and has been widely interviewed by Afghan and international media organisations at his Kabul residence.
Incidentally, neither the US nor the Afghan government authorities have bothered him for writing the book, until now, says Zaeef. This is creditable, because the concept of a free press is a relatively new phenomenon in Afghanistan and needs to be encouraged.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.