Twenty-three bearded Taliban and suspected Taliban walked into freedom in Afghanistan on Tuesday in new denim jackets and gleaming white sneakers, marking one of the largest single returns from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba after months or years in U.S. military custody.
“Brothers, you are welcome to your country,” Jamil Khan, a criminal investigations director for Kabul province, told the men after their final night in Afghan custody following their flight back Monday from the U.S. Navy prison at Cuba.
“You are going back safe to your home. ... Go, see your family.”
The Pentagon announced the releases on Monday, making 119 one-time terror suspects now freed from Guantanamo, with about 610 still in detention there. It gave no explanation for the releases other than that each case was evaluated separately for the prisoner’s intelligence value and risk.
Prisoners freed Tuesday included hard-line Taliban who had fought to the end as the fundamentalist regime fell in late 2001 under attack from U.S. forces and their Afghan allies.
Journalists spoke to the men as they gathered in a mosque at Kabul’s prison, before being handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross for help returning to distant villages.
The U.S. military provided the denim jackets, and the Red Cross gave each man a traditional long tunic and baggy pants.
ICRC spokeswoman Jessica Barry said it was believed to be the largest single release of prisoners from Guantanamo.
'Jail is jail'
None of the men interviewed by The Associated Press spoke of physical ill-treatment at the hands of their U.S. captors, although one complained of deprivation of sleep for weeks at a time.
Many spoke of the humiliations of captivity at Guantanamo, and of the wrenching separation from home.
“They didn’t beat me, but jail is jail,” said Barak, 50, who like all the men interviewed refused to give their last names.
A resident of Afghanistan’s Paktia province, Barak said he was arrested after authorities found a weapons cache in his village. He spent 17 months at the U.S. Bagram air base in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo.
Barak looked forward to seeing home and family. “I have one child — I will be happy to see my child, because the child is so sweet.”
Other men spoke of the horrors of their capture, and their bitterness at the United States.
“Many times,” in Guantanamo, “I say, ’God help me, you have forgotten me, God,” said Mohammed, a 27-year-old held more than two years.
Mohammed, wearing crisp black curls, and, like all the other prisoners, black beards, said he had been captured in what was one of the most savage segments of the U.S.-led Afghan war, when holdout cities in the north — Kunduz and Mazar-e-Sharif — fell to the United States’ Afghan allies.
Mohammed was caught by fighters of warlords Atta Mohammed and Dostum, he said.
Under Atta Mohammed’s custody, he said, he saw eight of his friends, wounded in fighting, buried alive.
Witness to brutality
Transferred to a prison outlying Mazar-e-Sharif, he said, he saw what rights groups have identified as one of the greatest rights violations of the 2001 military campaign — suffocation of hundreds of captured Taliban fighters and others in metal containers in November 2001.
“In mine, in one container, we had 100 people, and no oxygen,” he said.
Mohammed said he was one of only eight in that container to survive, for transfer to American detention.
At Guantanamo, he charged, Americans deprived their prisoners of sleep for up to 45 days at a time. “I am shaking still as I remember this time,” he said.
Mohammed claimed U.S. warders challenged his Muslim faith, and that a top officer offended some prisoners by referring to Afghan women as beautiful. He also alleged that Americans at Kandahar air base, a temporary holding point before his flight to Guantanamo, mutilated an Islamic holy book, the Quran.
None of his claims could be independently verified. The U.S. military has barred most access to prisoners at Guantanamo and Afghanistan, including by their lawyers, but says the prisoners are being treated well.