Young Afghan struggles to adapt after Guantanamo

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At family gatherings, the young Afghan with the scraggly beard instinctively sits with the children, before others remind him that he is a man now.

Old friends he last saw when they were flying kites are now in college, married with children, enjoying their careers. He’s happy for them, but he feels like he’s watching life flash by and he’s not a part of it.

These are the shadows of the lost youth of Mohammed Jawad, the Afghan who many believe was Guantanamo’s youngest prisoner.


“There are such huge changes I need to catch up with,” he says. “I’ve missed a lot.”

Six inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than when he left his country nearly seven years ago, Jawad alternately smiles shyly, tenses with anger, then smiles again, the mood swings of someone trying to figure out how he lost a third of his life.

The odyssey that would send Jawad, who says he’s 19, to a forbidding facility half a world away started on a chilly day in mid-December 2002, shortly after he and his mother moved to Kabul from a Pakistani refugee camp.

He was about 12, he says, and had spent the day helping his uncle dig a well before heading out to buy some tea.

He says he was grabbed by police who beat him and threatened to kill his family unless he put his thumbprint to paper and admitted he’d tried to kill two U.S. soldiers. The Pashto speaker, largely illiterate, didn’t understand their Persian and had little idea what he’d agreed to, he says. A U.S. judge would later agree.

That day, a grenade had been thrown at a U.S. Army vehicle, injuring the two soldiers and an interpreter. Jawad was charged with attempted murder based on the confession, held at Kabul’s Bagram air base, then moved to the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in early February 2003.

His attorneys and human rights groups maintain he was the youngest to enter the notorious prison. The Pentagon insists he was close to adulthood at the time, citing a bone scan done when he arrived at Guantanamo that suggested he was closer to 17. Jawad says his father died fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which, if true, would make him older than 12 when he was arrested. Like many Afghans, he has no birth certificate.


Many in the Justice and Defense departments still maintain Jawad is guilty.

His relatives initially didn’t tell his mother that her only son had disappeared, pretending for two months that he was with family. After nine months, a letter from Jawad arrived via the Red Cross, blacked out by censors except for one sentence: “I’m in prison.”

Over the years they managed an occasional letter and a few calls, which mostly consisted of Jawad crying.

Eventually, military and civilian judges threw out most of the Pentagon’s evidence against Jawad, with U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle describing the case as an outrage “riddled with holes.” In August, Jawad was set free.

U.S. soldiers kept him shackled during the long flight back. On arrival, Afghan officials removed his handcuffs, whisking him by car and helicopter to meet President Hamid Karzai, who gave Jawad clothes to replace his prison uniform and promised him a house and some money.

Late that night, Jawad finally saw his mother, who didn’t recognize him. She made him show her a special mark on his head, then promptly fainted. He hardly slept his first two days back, his family says, talking nonstop as if making up for the lost years.


In the family’s 30-by-10-foot greeting hall, decorated with an inexpensive red carpet, he welcomes a stream of well-wishers.


These days, the shy young man from the Kuchi nomadic tribe -- traditional migrants in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- can’t walk down the street without strangers coming up to him, kissing his forehead in a traditional show of respect.

But he suffers from frequent headaches, he says, and often rests during the day. Prison memories haunt him, something doctors warn may never end. He worries about those left behind, his de facto family. He’s out and they’re not, and that’s a source of guilt. Though the Obama administration has said it will close Guantanamo, hundreds of detainees remain there and at Bagram.

He asks a reporter to tell President Obama, the United Nations, someone, to help them. “People there are sick,” he says. “They should be treated. They should be freed.”

As his anger rises, his uncle tells him not to think about the lost years.

But it spills out. He talks about having his hands bound behind his back and being forced to eat like a dog, being kicked, beaten and pepper-sprayed and subjected to excessive heat, loud noise, solitary confinement.

After a year, Guantanamo records show, Jawad tried to commit suicide by banging his head against his cell wall repeatedly.

“I was tortured and faced many problems,” he says. “They also play with your mind.”

His jailers refused to put him with other Afghans, he said, only with Arabs whose language he didn’t understand. He says officials hung heartwarming pictures of families in the interrogation room, then asked about his family. They repeatedly denied his requests for school books or a Pashto dictionary.


Guantanamo military officials did not immediately respond to questions about his alleged mistreatment.

As with many things at Guantanamo, it’s difficult to verify exactly what happened to Jawad there. A Defense Department official, speaking on background given the sensitivity of the issue, says Jawad was older than he claims, that a lot of people still think he threw the grenade, and that it’s always been U.S. policy to treat prisoners humanely.

A Justice Department official who asked not to be identified says the case was dropped when conditions changed.

“He was held so long with evidence based on torture,” the official says. “The president decided, one, that we won’t torture and, two, that we won’t rely on statements based on torture. It’s not really lessons learned. It was the result of a policy choice the president made.”

Jawad says only faith and a Koran prevented him from going insane.

Isolated, he forgot basic words in his own language. He learned a little English, but consciously avoided learning everything. “The guards used many bad words that I didn’t want to pick up,” he says.

Family members say he’s slowly coming out of his shell. In recent weeks, he’s become less angry and irritable, sleeps better and has fewer headaches.


“Afghanistan society’s emphasis on community and family could be very helpful,” says Katherine Porterfield, clinical co-director at the Bellevue/NYU Program for Survivors of Torture, who examined him. “But honestly, he’s still very frightened.”


After Jawad returned home, one of the first things he did was wolf down a huge plate of mutton and rice after years of tasteless prison food. He’s enjoying his freedom, shopping and trying to make sense of cultural references, TV programs, Kabul society.

He wants to resume his education, he says, even if it means sitting with 13-year-olds at tiny desks. He’s started thinking about longer-term plans -- a good sign, says a child care expert working with him who asked not to be identified to protect Jawad and herself. He even is starting to show a sense of humor.

UNICEF, his lawyers and other civic groups are trying to get him psychological care, education and job training, as well as money for some basic living expenses. The financial help promised by Karzai -- now embroiled in election controversy -- has not yet materialized.

Critics question why the U.S. government has done so little to help him and other longtime Guantanamo and secret-site prisoners adjust after they’re released, much like halfway houses ease the transition for regular prisoners.

“We need to do more than just dump him on the corner with a bus ticket after seven years and say, ‘Have a nice day,’ ” says Jawad’s lawyer, Eric Montalvo, who left the U.S. military in August. “If you’re trying to win the hearts and minds of Afghanis, I can’t think of a better investment.”


The Defense Department official says such a program would be too costly, and given officials’ worries about alleged terrorist links, “we don’t want to give them money to buy equipment that could come back to hurt us.”

Jawad’s family is now mulling a lawsuit, which his lawyer says could be filed within the next month.

Out in the family’s small enclosed courtyard in a modest Kabul neighborhood, two chickens fight and a child plays with a pump handle as Jawad contemplated his future.

He wants to be a doctor, he says, so he can do something good for people.

“That’s my dream,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s possible. But that’s my dream.”