We sit on a floor heaped with red carpets and pillows in a room four times the size of Mohammad’s jail cell at Guantánamo.
“Are you fine?” he asks.
Mohammad opens two windows and a breeze draws through the room. I wipe dust from my face — grimy with sweat — and nod. He offers me water and I sip from the tin cup, then pass it to my Afghan colleague Aziz. A mule brays outside and the house rumbles from a low-flying aircraft. Mohammad waits until it passes, then accepts the cup from Aziz.
“I don’t like the airplane,” says the thirty-eight-year-old who declines to give his last name or have his photograph taken. He has a pleasant, almost boyish tan face with a close-shaved, grey-speckled beard that does little to age him. Grease stains his clothes and he wears a light green jacket faded from the sun.
Mohammad lives in Logar Province, about an hour south of Kabul. Under the Taliban, Mohammad grew his beard and wore a turban as all men did because it was required as part of the government’s skewed fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. When the Taliban collapsed following the invasion of the US-led military coalition, he ditched the turban, trimmed his beard, and tried to resume a life not dictated by ideology. But living in Logar made Mohammad and everyone else there suspicious to the US.
The province was once a stronghold of Hezb-i-Islami, or Party of Islam, which was allied with the US against the Soviet during the occupation in the 1980s but has since opposed the US presence in Afghanistan. Its leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyr, offers bounties as high as $25,000 for westerners. Taliban soldiers still frequent the area, blocking roads at night, intimidating drivers, and hindering commerce.
“We are not all Taliban,” Mohammad says, “but the Americans think we are all criminals.”
He had been leery about meeting with me. Was I really a journalist or was I a spy for the US Army? He finally agreed to see me because he and a nephew of Aziz are friends.
Aziz and I drove from Kabul to the outskirts of Logar and called Mohammad on a mobile phone as he had suggested. While we waited, I noticed women still wearing blue burqas, the body-length veils the Taliban had required. A group of men sat under a distant tree. They wore long beards and black turbans and I wondered if they were Taliban. I realized coalition troops must have the same thoughts when they see men like this.
Mohammad soon met us. He told me to sit behind him on his motorcycle. Aziz’s nephew had instructed me to wear the traditional Afghan smock qamis-shalwar to blend in, but Mohammad was not satisfied. Close scrutiny, he said, would likely reveal my nationality—putting us both at risk to Taliban sympathizers. It would be harder for people to get a close look at my face on the back of his bike. Unlike Aziz in his car, Mohammad would be able to drive fast and get around stalled traffic without stopping, veering down side streets if necessary, the blur of movement concealing my identity.
I pointed my head down between his shoulders. Mohammad gave directions to Aziz. Minutes later, after jostling over a rock road, we met at a mud brick compound. A metal gate opened into a small courtyard and we made our way around some chickens to the house. I took off my sandals and he led us into the room where I now sit.
“Tea?” he asks us.
American forces searched houses here dozens of times once the war started. In a July 2003 search, they found a pistol Mohammad said he used for protection. He was designated an enemy combatant, arrested, blindfolded, and handcuffed. He heard his wife and children crying. With four other men from Logar, Mohammad said he was taken to an American Army base in Kabul. About thirty minutes later, he was driven “somewhere else” and heard a deafening sound of engines. He was escorted into a plane.
“I’m thinking about my pistol. Why it is a problem? I was very sad. The blood in my head pounded so scared was I. No one spoke to us. We flew for too long. When we landed, still blindfolded, we were taken by helicopter and landed somewhere else. We were taken to a room. I can’t see but I can hear doors. It was not just me. I heard walking behind me, crying. I never knew until I left where I was.”
A young boy walks into our room with a tray of tea. He sets it on the floor and leaves. Mohammad pours a little tea, swirls it around to clean the cup, and dumps it into an ashtray. Then he fills the cup with more tea and hands it to me.
“There was one American, very fat. He was not a good man. I didn’t like him. He shouted, ‘What is your name? Who is your family?’ Another bad man with a very red face said, ‘You are a terrorist. You are al Qaeda. Do you know Osama bin Laden?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you know Mullah Omar.’ ‘Yes, they are very famous men. But I never met them.’ The first man asked me again, ‘What is your name?’ I said, ‘I told you.’ ‘Fuck off.’ It was three weeks of this, two to three hours a day.”
He scoops sugar into his tea. A plane flies overhead and he looks up and waits for it to pass. His interrogators, he says, hit him the first three days they questioned him. He was standing and they punched him in the back and chest and slapped his face. He turned his face with each slap and then he fell and they kicked him and kept punching him. On the fourth day, they stopped hitting him but the interrogations continued for three weeks.
Every morning, he woke at seven o’clock. The sun shone through his cell window too high for him to see out. When the light faded, he sat on his bed and thought about his wife and two children. Soldiers, he says, cursed him. He was not allowed to talk to other prisoners, but one afternoon when he was escorted to his routine interrogation, Mohammad saw the body of an Arab with a badly bruised face. He believed then he would die.
In September 2003, an American soldier told Mohammad he would be taken to another place. He did not say where. Mohammad was led outside without a blindfold. He saw high walls with barbed wire and guard towers. For the first time, he fully understood he was in a jail. Far off, a body of “big water” reflected the sun. He turned and saw a helicopter. Two other Afghan men joined him. They stood about a foot apart. Soldiers walked them to the helicopter.
They flew to another landing field and boarded a plane. The soldiers there offered them food and water. They were given new white tennis shoes. Mohammad asked where he was. “Cuba,” a soldier said.
No one told him the plane’s destination, but after many hours, Mohammad looked out the window and saw the mountains of Afghanistan. He felt weak and his heart raced. They landed in Bagram Airbase and were led to a car. In his excitement, Mohammad had trouble walking.
“Are you Afghan?” he asked the driver.
“Where are we going?”
“Kabul. You are fine. No problem.”
They were driven to the Ministry of the Interior and told they were free. Mohammad had to sign an oath that he would never join the insurgency or take up arms against the government or the US-led military coalition. He was fingerprinted. He was asked where he lived and to name members of his family. Then he was released. He walked to a bus station for the ride home to Logar but had to beg until he had enough money for the ride home.
Now, all this time later, he stays close to his farm. US troops have searched homes in Logar since his release but not his. Afghan police stop by his house and ask about his family but nothing more. Mohammad no longer owns a weapon. The Taliban watch the roads at night, the Americans by day. But he reserves his anger for the Americans. The Taliban never took him from his family, he says.
“The Taliban are just stupid. Personally, I despise the Americans because I was in the jail two-and-a-half months without guilt.”
He says he still dreams of being in a small room with just a cot, sink, toilet, and no sunlight. He sees barbed wire and wonders how can he escape. Then he wakes up at one in the morning and feels his body in his bed. He goes back to sleep only to awaken hours later to watch the sun rise. He stands in the light as it shines through his windows and into his house.
“That is my story,” Mohammad says. “That is all of me.”
Outside, a dog barks and the noise of a bus fades beneath the grumble of another airplane. Mohammad turns his head and listens.
He nods and stands up and Aziz and I follow him out the door. I sit behind him on the motorcycle and grip his waist. He asks if I am “secure.” I don’t answer. Instead, I look over his shoulder at the flat desert land, the mud huts and the men, women, and children who, like him, the US has lost—loyalty oath or no loyalty oath.
“Buro?” Mohammad says. Ready? He starts the engine, drowning out the noise of yet another plane. I say, “Let’s go.”