Three British youths formerly detained at the U.S. military prison in Guantanamo Bay and now the subjects of a new film about their experiences say they were driven to desperation knowing others had tried to kill themselves at the camp.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Shafiq Rasul and his two friends — Ruhal Ahmed and Asif Iqbal — describe how they were held at Guantanamo for more than two years without charge. Many of the some 460 detainees accused of links to Afghanistan’s Taliban regime or the al-Qaida terror network have been held for more than four years without charge.
“There is no hope in Guantanamo. The only thing that goes through your mind day after day is how to get justice or how to kill yourself,” Rasul, 29, who waged a hunger strike at the camp to protest alleged beatings, said Saturday. “It is the despair — not the thought of martyrdom — that consumes you there.”
Two Saudis and one Yemeni who had been held at the camp since it opened in 2002 killed themselves Saturday by using their sheets and clothes to hang themselves.
Possible turning point?
The deaths could prove a turning point for the camp, which has become a legal conundrum for the U.S., with rights groups and leaders like British Prime Minister Tony Blair calling for its closure. The U.S. military has been accused of prisoner abuses and heavy-handed interrogations that have led to a string of hunger strikes and suicide attempts among detainees.
In “Road to Guantanamo,” which premieres in New York on June 23, filmmakers Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitescross retrace the footsteps of the three British men as their trip to Pakistan for Iqbal’s wedding ends at the desolate military outpost in Cuba.
The film begins as the men set out from their parents’ houses in the predominantly white town of Tipton, England, and land in Pakistan in the fall of 2001. They rush to explore the country, marveling at the sights, buying sunglasses on the streets and heading to an amusement park where they’re seen laughing as they spin on a ride.
The mood changes when news spreads of intensifying airstrikes in neighboring Afghanistan. A preacher at a mosque calls on people to help people in Afghanistan with food and medical supplies — a plea the three men say they felt compelled to answer.
On their way from Kandahar to Kabul, they became trapped in fighting between the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance and the Taliban, a scene in the film that shows them running through the night in a panic as missiles fall around them. As day breaks, bloodied dead bodies dot the moonscaped terrain. Villagers begin to dig graves.
The trio was captured in November 2001, herded into truck containers and jailed in northern Afghanistan by forces loyal to warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. They were held for a month before being turned over to U.S. forces. They were first held in Kandahar, and then flown to Guantanamo Bay.
Claims of abuse, desacration
At the camp, the men say they were beaten and saw troops throw Qurans in the toilet. They also say they were forced to watch videotapes of prisoners who had allegedly been ordered to sodomize each other and were chained to a hook in the floor while strobe lights flashed and heavy metal music blared. The allegations, some of which are dramatized in the film, are part of a lawsuit against the United States seeking $10 million each in damages.
Other scenes in the film show moments of levity, including one in which Rasul teaches his fellow detainees how to rap. Another shows a guard sneaking into one of the men’s cells at night and squashing a tarantula nearing his leg.
There are no scenes of attempted suicides but the men say they knew of several.
“A Saudi detainee in the cell in front of us had had enough,” said Ahmed, 24, whose family is Bangladeshi. “We could hear him rip up his sheets and tie it to the wire mesh roof of the cell. He jumped off his sink and tried to hang himself. We shouted to the military police and they came and saved him.”
Until Saturday’s deaths, Guantanamo officials said there had been 41 suicide attempts by 25 detainees since the U.S. began taking prisoners to the base in January 2002. Defense lawyers contend the number of attempts is higher.
Arrested for attending rally
The U.S. government accused the British men of attending a rally in Afghanistan where Osama bin Laden was addressing a crowd. The men deny the claim, saying the rally was held before they entered the country. Still, they said they eventually lied and agreed, thinking that it may set them free.
They were released in March 2004. After receiving death threats, all three moved away from Tipton. Iqbal returned to Pakistan last year to marry his intended bride.
Since they started promoting their film across Europe, they say they are also questioned or searched when they land in Britain. After returning from Spain recently, armed police in Birmingham boarded the plane and searched their seats. Even two actors who play the men in the film were stopped in February and held for questioning under the anti-terror laws.
“It’s weird because when we left we weren’t even that religious,” Rasul said.
“We were young — average British lads,” Ahmed added. “Obviously if we knew what we were getting ourselves into we would have never gone.”