“Guantánamo is like a tomb”: the Syrian trying to rebuild his life in Uruguay after spending 12 years in the most controversial prison in the US


When Ahmed Adnan Ahjam is told about Guantánamo, his first regret is that there are still prisoners there. “I was lucky I got out,” he says.

It refers to the 39 detainees who remain in that military prison established by the United States 20 years ago for suspected terrorists, about which abuses and torture have been denounced.

Ahjam, of Syrian origin, was sent to Guantanamo in June 2002 after being arrested by security forces Pakistan and delivered to USA

He spent 12 years and six months locked up there, until he was transferred to Uruguay with the approval of an intergovernmental commission in Washington that reviewed his case.

He arrived in the South American country along with five other former Guantanamo inmates in December 2014, after a bilateral agreement.

But today at 44 years of age, Ahjam is still trying to rebuild his life in Montevideo and measures his words in Spanish to refer to the most controversial prison in the US.

“If we are going to talk, we do not stop for days, because it is a life there. But I can tell you: Guantánamo is like a tomb. The one who is lucky, goes out again to walk on Earth, ”says Ahjam in an interview with BBC Mundo.

“Symbol of injustice”

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In 20 years, 780 detainees have passed through the Guantanamo prison

Some 780 detainees have passed through this prison located in a US naval base in the southeast of Cuba in these two decades.

The first 20 arrived on a military plane on January 11, 2002. The controversy arose immediately when a photo of them kneeling, masked and handcuffed, wearing orange uniforms, spread.

Four months had passed since the attacks of September 11, 2001 in the US, and the government of George W. Bush chose that site to send prisoners from its “war on terrorism” without being governed by protections of domestic law or the Geneva Convention.

Most of the detainees who passed through Guantánamo were never formally charged or brought to trial.

Five of the 12 prisoners who have been charged are accused of involvement in planning the September 11, 2001 attacks, including their alleged mastermind Khalid Sheik Mohammed.

But his trial has not started either.

One of only two sentenced so far in Guantanamo, Majid Kahn, reported various abuses, from enemas to chains for days or threats from their interrogators.

“The more I cooperated and told them, the more they tortured me,” Khan told a military jury in October, pleading guilty to aiding the Islamic fundamentalist group al Qaeda.

Seven of the high-ranking officers who made up that jury criticized the alleged torture he received, calling it “a stain on the moral fiber of the United States.”

Guantanamo “has become a symbol of injustice, racism, Islamophobia, serious human rights violations that include torture and indefinite detention,” says Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International. to BBC World.

“What I have clear”

Ahjam was described in US documents as having traveled to Afghanistan, linked with fundamentalists and was captured crossing from the Tora Bora region into Pakistan in 2001 during attacks by the Washington-led coalition.

But some of these documents indicated that the detainee himself denied having met members of al-Qaeda in Tora Bora, or having participated in training and combat in Afghanistan as the US suspected.

Detainees in Guantanamo

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39 people are still detained in Guantanamo

Instead, Ahjam argued that was sold by Pakistani forces for a bounty paid by the Americans.

By transferring him and five other former Guantánamo inmates to Uruguay, the US government ruled out that they were dangerous.

Ahjam says he suffered abuse during “the first four or five months” he was in that jail, such as being deprived of bathrooms or clean clothes.

He also described mistreatment by Guantánamo soldiers, for example for leaving a towel in a prohibited place in his cell.

“They take you out (of the cell), they search your whole body, they leave you on the floor, your foot above your head as well as five minutes and then they return you to the cell, ”he says.

When asked if he thinks Guantánamo will one day close, he replies that he at least hopes for a change.

“Nothing goes on forever,” he says. “That is what I am clear about. It was clear to me in prison: everything has a beginning and an end point”.

“Mixed messages”

Of the last four presidents that the US has had, three expressed their willingness to close Guantánamo: Bush, Barack Obama and the current president Joe Biden.

But upon arriving at the White House in 2017, Donald Trump put a cold shoulder on Obama’s plan to move the remaining inmates, and Biden did not forcefully revive it in his first year in office.

“President Biden continues to send mixed messages: He promises to close Guantánamo, but recently announced that new courtrooms would be built so that the military commissions could resume trials”, says Guevara-Rosas, of Amnesty International, who calls for the closure of the prison and accountability for the abuses committed.

About half of the 39 current prisoners have their transfer approved by a government commission, five of them announced this week.

Protest in front of the White House

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The situation of the prisoners in Guantánamo has generated protests all over the world.

However, there are a number of obstacles to achieving such transfers.

On the one hand, it became difficult for the US. find countries willing to receive ex-prisoners, keep them under control or monitor their activities.

Biden asked Congress in December to eliminate the restrictions that exist to transfer Guantánamo prisoners to other countries or even within the United States.

But eight Republican senators warned in a letter to the president in May that they want the prison to stay open, citing security concerns.

While there were reasonable arguments under his predecessors to transfer and repatriate some low-risk detainees, we all agreed that relocating the remaining 40 or closing the facility would pose an unnecessary risk.

“The stigma of Guantánamo”

Two of the six former inmates sent to Uruguay in 2014 later went to Turkey, says Christian Mirza, who served as a link between the group and the government of then-president José Mujica.

The other four barely achieved a precarious job placement.

“The stigma of Guantánamo has marked them and will mark them for the rest of their lives, not only to them but to all those who come out of (that) prison, ”Mirza assures BBC Mundo.

Ahjam even opened a stall selling Arab sweets in a Montevideo market in 2018, something he described as a “dream” come true.

Ahmed Adnan Ahjam

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In 2018 Ahjam fulfilled his dream of having a candy sale, but had to close it due to the pandemic.

But the business closed during the pandemic and the aid it initially received from the Uruguayan government expired.

Ahjam now keep looking for your new life after Guantanamo.

“You don’t know if you’re living or not living, because you don’t have anything to live for,” he says. “You have to do everything, fight, start everything in life from scratch.”

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