Mecca, Asharq Al-Awsat- Four months after returning to Saudi Arabia, Guantanamo’s former detainees are leading a normal life given that the Saudi Interior Ministry issued a decree that during Ramadan and until the 8th of Shawwal, former detainees will be allowed to spend their evenings with their families and friends.
28-year-old Abdullah Hamid al Qahtani has been more fortunate than his ex-inmates as he returned to Saudi three weeks before the holy month of Ramadan began following his request to Saudi authorities to be released from prison early so that he could prepare for his wedding on the second day of Eid-ul-Fitr.
Al Qahtani arrived at an apartment block in one of Mecca’s suburbs after five years in the Guantanamo detainment camp. Surrounded by his family and friends, his mind is often taken over by memories of his experience in Guantanamo, whilst he re-adjusts to freedom.
Al Qahtani, who refused to be photographed due to religious beliefs, described to Asharq Al Awsat the experience of Ramadan in Guantanamo. Each cell, he said, measures 2 meters long and 1.7 meters wide. “We hoped that the Americans would not know the significance of Ramadan for Muslims so that they would not use emotional and psychological abuse against us. The soldiers would bring us food an hour before Maghreb (sunset when the fast ends) and would give us half-an-hour before they would come back to take the food away. Some of us had to break the fast and others had to hide the food. The call to prayer and collective prayers were not allowed.
Al Qahtani, who referred to Osama Bin Laden as “Sheikh”, went to Afghanistan a year before the 9/11 attacks to take part in Jihad that he described as skirmishes with the Russians and allies such as Ahmed Masoud. He says, “We fought with the Islamic Afghan state at the time but I had not heard of Al Qaeda until recently.” He adds that he did not know of or hear about a militia of Arab fighters in Afghanistan.
Al Qahtani grew up in Mecca after his family moved there from Tathleeth in southern Saudi Arabia when he was two-years-old. He considered returning to his homeland after the 9/11 attacks but found that “the way back was too difficult. I had no choice but to stay and fight.” When the US war in Afghanistan began, al Qahtani was in Kabul. He explained the situation in Afghanistan, “the intensity of the American bombardment penetrated the allied forces and occupied the cities leading to the evacuation and dispersion of the Taliban and the Mujahideen who hid in the mountains.”
As for Al Qahtani and a number of Arab combatants, they set up base near to Kabul and negotiated with the Northen Alliance on giving up their weapons in return for deportation. Al Qahtani and the fighters were happy with the deal and put down their weapons and were by surprised at the way that they were being treated by the Afghan soldiers. He said “the Northern Alliance held the group before handing us over to the Americans who transported us by helicopter to Bagram where we were held for twenty days and were transported again to Qandahar. We remained in Qandahar for two months and the Americans told us that they would send us to our native countries. After two months in Qandahar, we boarded a military airplane and were going to an unknown destination, Guantanamo.”
Al Qahtani states that he did not believe the American soldiers when they told him that he was leaving Guantanamo and going home, as he had lost hope. He says, “I was moved to a private quarter for released prisoners and had medical tests carried out and my finger prints were taken. I was surprised to see the prisoner release procedures taking place as I had lost hope completely. After we arrived in our native country, we were transferred to al Haer prison where I spent one month before going to another prison and was finally released.”