Back home, but still imprisoned: The shadow of Guantanamo

In an exclusive interview with the Tipton Three, held at Camp X-Ray after their arrest in Afghanistan, Danae Brook finds them struggling to rebuild their lives back in the west Midlands town
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The Independent Online

After 29 months at Guantanamo Bay, caged, chained to floors and bound tightly in the crouching "interrogation stress" position, the three men who were freed to return to their homes in Tipton, West Midlands, two years ago, ought to have found it a paradise. But the faces of Asif Iqbal, Ruhel Ahmed, and Shafiq Rasul tell a different story as they gather in Ahmed's cramped flat for their first interview since their release.

If Ahmed's plans had worked out, he would have been hard at work on a wind-blasted Monday afternoon like this; bringing in a salary to support the childhood sweetheart who became his wife last year.

But no one will employ the Tipton Three and few will trust them, so he stays at home and does the cooking while she makes a living in Wolverhampton.

"My friends call me 'Desperate Housewife," he said. "I'd do anything to find a job."

Beside him sit Iqbal and Rasul - men who, like him, have also lost the gaunt faces and hollow eyes which they brought home to Tipton, only to find frustration, despair and a sense of hopelessness in their place.

"I sometimes even think I want to go back [to Guantanamo Bay] because everything is decided for you," said Rasul, who still bears the indentation marks on his legs from where the iron shackles cut into them. "Going after jobs and not getting them is depressing. It brings you down."

It was in October 2001 that the three set out on what was to have been a week's jaunt to celebrate Iqbal's wedding, but ended up coinciding with the US attack on the Taliban regime and the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.

They were captured in Kandahar by the Afghan warlord General Rashid Dostum and, when the Americans arrived, they were eventually removed to Guantanamo. The furore which has surrounded their imprisonment and release shows no sign of abating just yet.

After premiering to critical acclaim at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won a Silver Bear award for direction last month, Michael Winterbottom's partly dramatised feature film Road to Guantanamo is screened at 9pm on Channel 4 tonight, ahead of its release in cinemas and on DVD tomorrow.

There have been a few negative consequences in Tipton, where some misguided locals suspect the men of making a fortune.

After depicting how the trio's chaotic bachelor party trip to Pakistan and Afghanistan descended into the horror of Guantanamo, Winterbottom winds up his film on a positive note with footage from Iqbal's return to Pakistan, last summer, when he married the girl he had planned to wed before his capture in 2001. She had waited for him during his long months in detention and when he finally made it back there were garlands, fireworks and dashing ceremonial robes.

But despite the empathy which resulted in Winterbottom, his co-director Matt Whitecross and four actors (one played a friend of the three who was lost in Afghainstan and has never been seen since) staying in Ahmed's flat before filming, Road to Guantanamo only hints at the aftermath of incarceration for the Tipton Three.

Hints of it are provided on a tour of Tipton's Park Estate, provided ahead of the interview by Ahmed - the only of the three to possess a car. The houses are sometimes dilapidated, the streets strewn with litter and on Tipton High Street, he points out the place where racists strung up an effigy, dressed in orange and hung from a tree, after the three were released.

"The banner read 'Tipton Taliban' will die," said Ahmed. "When we passed [the perpetrators] in the street, they'd say 'If the Americans didn't get you, we will'."

It is also the street where Ahmed's father was accosted by a white man after climbing out of his car to visit the bank when he was approached.

"He said dad was a Paki; that he'd sent me to [Afghanistan] to Jihad and that it was all his fault. He told him to go back to where he came from and spat in his face." There have also been death threats, obscenities shouted through the letter box, plus warnings and worse directed at them and their families. "This area is ruled by the BNP," said Ahmed.

The spectre of 'Gitmo' - as the three call Guantanamo - lingers in the tiny living room of the Ahmeds' council flat, with its walls completely bereft of pictures, even photographs.

"I didn't know how to feel when I was first taken there," he said. " I felt scared and really missed everybody back home. But soon there was no point in feeling scared, isolated and homesick, because if I gave in to these feelings I'd have gone mad. I went into survival mode and for two and a half years cut myself off from day-to-day feelings and thoughts.

"When I got back I'd forgotten what it was like to be close to someone, to laugh, to be happy or excited. No-one else could understand it except my friends who were in there with me."

The shared comprehension of what they have been through has created a tight bond between the three of them. They now spend most of their time together - watching television, going to the cinema, occasional football. There is no smoking and no drinking according to strict Muslim code which they developed whilst at Guantanamo.

They are a curious trio. Ahmed is the most loquacious of the three and the self-styled spokesman, though behind the gregarious exterior is a man utterly changed, according to his wife. "He used to be jolly with it but he is not any more," she said. (Ahmed, like the other two men, does not want his wife to be named in fear for her safety.) Shafiq Rasul, a huge, brooding individual is quiet to the point of introspection. Asif Iqbal, who is training to be an engineer, conveys a sense of suppressed anger. He is a man who seems about to explode.

All three have married; Iqbal to the woman who waited for him in an initially arranged relationship which he now considers to be a "marriage of love" and Ahmed to his childhood sweetheart, a British-born Pakistani, whom he met when they were 13.

Rasul, who aspires to return to the University of West Midlands, where he was studying computer engineering when Guantanamo interrupted his studies, finally embarked on an arranged marriage after three attempts to do so failed because of suspicions about him. "The families [of all three] were afraid I'd get hassled all the time," he said.

"They were right. Every time I go in and out of the country, I do." (Tellingly, his wife remains in Pakistan).

Picking up the threads of a relationship has not always been easy, said Ahmed. "My wife is always telling me I don't talk to her enough," he said. "Sometimes I spend hours alone in my room in the dark. In Gitmo we had so many months in silence, not allowed to talk, or to touch. She doesn't understand that she can't help. No one can. People might say I'm having a breakdown, but I know I'm not. It's just who I am now.

"The first morning back in the UK I found myself sitting up in bed and waiting for the prison guards and then I realized. I was no longer there.

"But in my mind I was there. Somebody could say something as simple as 'do you want to watch telly?' and it was like 'what the hell are they saying to me, do I want to watch telly? I couldn't watch telly. I'm a detainee'.

"Our hands and legs were chained every time we left our cell. Learning to walk freely took a long time.

"I used to go to the supermarket and bump into people and want to run away. At times I felt as though I was going mad. I didn't know how to cope with my freedom.

"I used to dread meal times, when I would have to sit with everyone. For months after coming back my schoolfriends would come to knock for me, but I would get my parents to send them away. I mean friends, what were they? If I couldn't relate or understand the family unit anymore how could I have friends?

"It's like when a caged animal is set out in the wild, it doesn't know the wild anymore, it only knows its cage," Ahmed said. "When I was sitting in my mum's front room when I first came home and the family chatted to me I found I'd forgotten how to have a conversation. Towards the end of my time in Gitmo I didn't think that I would ever come out and you just forget. I felt claustrophobic. Even sitting having a meal with my family I wanted to be by myself all the time." Iqbal recalls how long it took him to start playing football again.

"When I got back I was so scared of how people would react it took me three months to get up the courage to play," he said. "But when I did everyone shook my hand and it felt as though I was back to normal - although I don't feel normal."

With increasing global pressure on the US to close Guantanamo, Road to Guantanamo may go some way to challenging the suspicions which have stalked the three.

In interviews at Berlin, Winterbottom underlined the fact that MI5 has produced no evidence to support assertions that the three were al-Qaeda operatives who joined a last-ditch firefight with the Taliban in a network of caves in 2001.

The three insist they went to Pakistan for Iqbal's wedding celebrations and, on the dates they were accused of being with bin Laden, that they were all in Tipton and Rasul was working in a local shop.

"Things were chaotic in Lahore at the time we got there," said Ahmed. "We didn't speak the language and weren't sure what was going on. But we wanted to see Afghanistan. We planned to go for a week and see what was happening for ourselves.

"We've never been more shocked in our lives than when we found ourselves a few days later in Kunduz with bombs dropping all round us. That's the most frightening memory of all. When we were grabbed by the Americans we thought we were saved."

They also insist they were not radicalised in this country. "We've never been to those North London mosques, or any meetings. And there's nothing happening here in Tipton. Look at it - you can see for yourself.

"But when we did come back to our own community they didn't want us. They were frightened. The Muslim community feel we have given them a bad name; they don't care whether we are guilty or innocent as long as they are not associated to us. They are frightened that people will say they support terrorists."

Solicitors for the three are attempting to sue the US government, though on February 6 the case was dismissed by the Washington courts because of sovereign immunity which protects the US Government'.

"We'll take it to a higher court of appeal, and we'll take it through the British courts because at least there's a justice system," said human rights lawyer Clive Stafford Smith. "We'll ask for a lot of money, pick a figure - $20 million (£11.5m).

"But it isn't the money, it's preventing it ever happening again. These guys were locked up in one of the worst prisons in the world and they will never ever get over it."

In the meantime, the three will continue their struggle to convince those around them about the debilitating, long-term effects of Guantanamo. "We were in metal cells, and the metal would get incredibly hot in the days - over 100 degrees, and freezing at night, Rasul concluded.

"Now all my joints are arthritic and when it gets cold, like it has been in the last few weeks, I can hardly move. I went to a doctor because I was in such pain and she said it was just my imagination, that it was only in my mind, because of what I had gone through.

"I was sitting there with this incredible back pain and she's telling me it's all in my mind. That's the last time I went to a doctor."

Additional reporting by Ian Herbert

Copyright: Danae Brook

The Road to Guantanamo, channel 4, 9pm tonight: Director Michael Winterbottom's drama won the Silver Bear for Direction at the 56th Berlin International Film Festival last month

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