HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

December 22, 2008
Review of My Guantánamo Diary:
The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me
by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan

John R. Guthrie
Mahvish Khan’s parents, both physicians and immigrants from Afghanistan, were insistent that their daughter be, “a very good Eastern girl:” That encompassed, “no MTV, no short skirts, no tight jeans, no drinking.  No prom and definitely no boyfriends.” They further demanded that she, “take the good from this culture and leave the bad,” all challenging concepts as any parent who has raised a teenager knows. Mahvis learned Pashto, one of the two official languages of Afghanistan, also at her parents’ insistence.

Her father is a cardiologist and her mother a neonatologist. They met while medical students in Peshawar, a Pakistani city on the Afghan border. They continued their training as medical residents in the U.S. at Johns Hopkins, where Mahvish was born.  The family then resided in West Bloomfield, Michigan. Both parents were devoted to their new homeland. Her mother expressed her fondness for her new nation by becoming politically active, enough so that she found time to sponsor fundraisers for congressmen in the family’s home.

Mahvish’s attitude toward the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 and subsequent events is well summarized by the following: “As an American, I felt the pain of Sept. 11, and I understood the need to invade Afghanistan and destroy the Taliban and al-Qaeda. But I also felt the suffering of the Afghans as their country was bombed. And when hundreds of men were rounded up and thrust into a black hole of detention, many with seemingly no proof that they had any terrorist connections, I felt that my own country had taken a wrong turn.”

The detainees are held in metal mesh cages approximately 7 X 8 feet, an area, one of the attorneys noted, that is roughly the size of a king size mattress. They had no opportunity to either prove their innocence or to be found guilty. This, the author noted, is a violation of the concept of Habeas Corpus, a cornerstone of Anglo-American law that dates from the Magna Carta of 1215. It states that a person cannot be imprisoned unless the government produces evidence to justify it. This document further mandated that the king, as well as his subjects, is bound by law.

Finally, encouraged by her fiancé (evidently the “no boyfriend” rule included a statute of limitations), she began a letter writing campaign offering to work as a translator with the Dechert Law Firm of Philadelphia. The Dechert firm had volunteered to represent a portion of the Guantánamo detainees pro bono, as had other firms, some great expense and difficulty to work with the offshore prisoners. After an exhaustive investigation by the FBI to get the necessary secret clearance, her offer was accepted.

Khan wrote an article on Gitmo for the Washington Post, using material that had been cleared by the authorities. She was banned from the base for this, though she eventually regained her credentials.

Her first detainee was prisoner # 1154, a 46-year-old pediatrician, Dr. Ali Shah Mousovi. Kahn entered the consultation room not knowing what to expect, but instead of a rabid fundamentalist terrorist, she encountered a soft spoken pediatrician, his leg chained to the floor. He “looked much older than his forty-six years — closer to sixty or seventy.”

Dr. Mousovi, from a prominent Afghan family, explained that he had returned to Afghanistan from temporary residence abroad to establish a medical clinic there. The second night after his return, American soldiers broke down the door of his house and he was taken away. He reports that during his initial confinement, he was repeatedly beaten, kicked, and doused with ice water. He was made to stand without respite, in one instance for two weeks. Inevitably, he would collapse but was forced to his feet again.  High volume recordings of sirens placed beside his ears. He was able to obtain statements from reputable people in his country of origin concerning the truth of his statements, but was told he was, “held because of evidence that he was a terrorist.”  The evidence to that effect was “classified” and he couldn’t see it.

Among the reading material banned for prisoners was: the Bible, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Cinderella. In the other worldly atmosphere of the camp, bizarre accusations were made; one attorney in the Habeas group was accused of orchestrating prisoners’ suicides.

Kahn notes as significant problem the paucity of anyone who could understand the native language of the detainees. She attributes the beatings and mistreatment detainees reported as being due to excessive zeal and understandable post 9/11 fears on the part of U.S. troops rather than innate viciousness.

After another year or so of imprisonment, Dr.Mousovi was again blindfolded and shackled, then flown back to his home country. Once there, he was released without comment, explanation or restriction. When he was confined, bounties of $5,000 to $25,000 were being offered to anyone who turned in a Taliban or Al Qaeda member, no questions asked. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated on TV that leaflets were falling on Afghanistan, “like snowflakes.” This followed statements by the Department of Defense that they were “unaware’ of any bounty program. The financial incentives created an extensive black market for prisoners.

Kahn states that when the U.S. bombing began in 2001, many Afghans fled to Pakistan. They were captured, no battlefield in sight, and sold at the border by Pakistani border guards and others. The author notes that “According to Amnesty International reports, others who landed in Guantánamo were picked up in Pakistan where  they were ‘groomed’ in local jails, required to grow out their beards out so as to look more like Taliban before being sold to the U.S. military.” In this manner the several Chinese Muslim Uighurs detainees were arrested and sent from Afghanistan to Guantánamo. They have been subsequently released after years of confinement.

In 2006 the Associated Press brought suit under the Freedom of information Act that forced the Pentagon to declassify related documents. The official records showed that half of the detainees were captured by Afghan warlords and Pakistani police at the time when the U.S. was offering cash payments. Only 5 percent were captured as a result of U.S. intelligence work. Kahn writes that she has no doubt that there are terrorists confined within Guantánamo, in particular fifteen ”high value” detainees. Khaled Sheik Mohammed, held to be the mastermind of the 9.11 attacks and other terrorist assaults is one example.

Kahn’s narrative continues: Detainee # 1009, Haji Nusrat was among the “Worst of the worst.” Nasrat has a long beard, quite white, and soft brown eyes. He is illiterate, and the father of 10 children. He had a stroke 15 years previously, but Kahn states that “yet his swollen legs and feet are tightly cuffed and shackled to the floor.” This 80-year- old paraplegic is from a small mountain village. He was arrested in 2003 after going to the authorities and complaining about the arrest of his son. He reports being humiliated and beaten at Baghram Air Force Base in northern Afghanistan. He was brought to Guantánamo on a stretcher. He demanded that he be allowed to face his accusers, “but their names were classified and could not be revealed.” After more years of imprisonment, he too, was sent home.

Mahvish’s skill as a writer is such that she transforms detainees known to their captors as merely a number into human beings; men with names, homes, vocations and families.

Rules for interviewing prisoners changed frequently and often without apparent rhyme or reason. For example, the author wore open toe shoes for eight months, then was told one day they were forbidden.

If prisoners received mail, it was heavily redacted. In the case of Dr. Mousovi, he was able to eventually ask family members what words lay beneath the censors heavy black marks that covered words in letters from his 10-year-old daughter. The forbidden words were anything from the child that expressed love or affection for her father. This was done in the hope that this would be helpful in gaining his cooperation.

Though Kahn recounts chilling tales of prisoner mistreatment, she also quotes the detainee al-Dossary who, following alleged severe mistreatment at the hands of guards, “noted that on one occasion a black soldier brought him cookies and hot chocolate and adds that another young soldier’s eyes welled with tears after he heard what al-Dossay had endured.” Al-Dosar later wrote that “there are some soldiers who have humanity, irrespective of their race, gender or faith.”

As intriguing as Kahn’s stories of prisoners and their treatment are, there is much more to her book. Much against her parents and grandparents wishes, Kahn eventually traveled to Afghanistan. The story of her solitary journey to Khabul is one of adventure and courage in itself. There she gathered substantial evidence indicating certain clients’ innocence.  Following their release, she returned once more, and met some of the prisoners again, returned by then to the bosom of their families. This second trip is a poignant, bitter sweet moment in a nightmarish tale.

In My Guantánamo Diary, Mahvish Khan provides an intriguing tour through the United States’ best known offshore prison. The book is remarkable for the dedication and resourcefulness with which the author approached her self-appointed goal of helping to restore the rule of law for Gitmo detainees. My Guantánamo Diary is well written. It is also a work that is highly accessible, and with enough substance that it is likely to stick with the reader long after the final page is read and the book set aside.

Kahn describes Guantánamo as follows: “The U.S. Prison camp at Guantánamo Bay stands as a challenge to our nation. It challenges our readiness to do the right thing in times of crisis, the times when it’s most important and most difficult, to adhere to our founding principles and to adhere to the rule of law.”


My Guantánamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me
Khan, Mahvish Rukhsana
ISBN: 1586484982
Publisher: Public Affairs
Published: 2008: 302 Pages
Hardcover: $25.95


John R. Guthrie is a former Marine infantry rifleman. He then garnered a formal education to include medical school and became the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy Reserve Shock Surgical Group before going into private practice in the Smoky Mountain foothills of Appalachia. He is the editor and publisher of the monthly webzine The Chickasaw Plum: Politics and the Arts Online. (Link)


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