“I Live in Slovakia but Am Still in Guantanamo”

March 12, 2015
Guest Post

by Peter Jan Honigsberg, professor of law at the University of San Francisco and founder and director of the Witness to Guantanamo project

Most Americans pay scant attention to Guantanamo.  In fact, many Americans believe it is closed or only houses convicted terrorists.  However, Guantanamo is still open, holding 122 men, 55 of whom have been cleared for release.

As little as Americans know about Guantanamo, they know even less about the lives of detainees after they have been transferred out of Guantanamo.  The more fortunate detainees are resettled to their home country, where they can reunite with and be supported by their families.

However, a number of the detainees cannot return home because of the instability of their home country, their home country does not want them, or they may be tortured or executed on their return.  These men must wait for other nations to accept them.  Initially, nations wanted to help President Obama close Guantanamo and agreed to accept prisoners.  However, as confidence in Obama’s initial pledge to close the detention center has waned, fewer nations are willing to reach out and receive former detainees.

Nevertheless, because of the tenacity of Special Envoy Cliff Sloan – the State Department official tasked with resettling detainees from July 2013 to December 2014 – several countries have accepted detainees in the past 18 months.  In November 2014, Slovakia resettled two detainees.  One was Hussein Al-marfadi, originally from Yemen.

In February 2015, the Witness to Guantanamo project interviewed Al-marfadi in a town in central Slovakia.  Although physically and psychologically scarred from 14 years of torture and brutal treatment at Guantanamo, he is an engaging, even-tempered and thoughtful man.  He was never charged with a crime and had been cleared for release years ago.

Al-marfadi is a born storyteller with an amazing aptitude for details.  Unlike many detainees the project has interviewed, Al-marfadi provided a day-by-day description of his experiences, including comprehensive accounts of the torture and unspeakable treatment he suffered.  Interviews with detainees generally last for two hours.  His interview covered six-plus hours over two days.  Al-marfadi told W2G that it was important for him to tell his complete story.  He explained that his story was not only for history but also for the men still in Guantanamo.

However, when I asked Al-marfadi about his life today, his composed and even-tempered tone changed to one of anger.  His attitude reflected that of many detainees resettled in countries foreign to them.  As he saw it, he was “still living in Guantanamo.”  He saw his resettlement in a rural community with only a handful of Muslims as another form of imprisonment, an alternate arrangement to keep him in isolation.

Because the United States will not accept any detainees into its territory, human rights organizations are very grateful when other nations reach out and agree to resettle detainees.  The hope is that once resettled, the men will have opportunities to improve their lives.  However, in urgently trying to find nations that will accept the detainees, the U.S. is not always particularly mindful in finding the best fit or even a suitable environment for the men as they re-enter the world.

Other than the other four former Guantanamo detainees who live in his building and a Turkish café owner whose shop is about 10 minutes away from Al-marfadi’s home, there are few Muslims in this town of less than 50,000 people.  There is no mosque.  In fact, Slovakia is the only country in Europe currently without a mosque.  There are plans to construct a mosque in the capital city of Bratislava later this year.  Al-marfadi and his colleagues pray in vacant storefronts and rooms.

Al-marfadi receives a government stipend of 15 euros or approximately $17 a day (350 euros or roughly $390 a month) for food, clothing and other necessities.  He can only afford two meals a day.  Given his limited budget for food, he believes that he is essentially buying and eating “garbage.”  He lives in government housing.  At the present time, he cannot find work.  He goes to classes to learn the language.  He learned spoken English while in Guantanamo.

It is unclear how much the U.S. contributes to the costs of living of the former detainees in Slovakia.  From my understanding of two other resettlements, the U.S. paid both countries several millions of dollars in assistance for accepting detainees.  However, I am not familiar with the terms that were negotiated in Al-marfadi’s resettlement.  It is possible that Slovakia needs to supplement the U.S. support.

Like nearly all of the former Guantanamo prisoners who have been resettled in other countries, Al-marfadi does not hold a passport.  Although he is living in the European Union, he cannot realistically travel to other countries.  He has no traveling papers.  Slovakia has said that Al-marfadi could be granted citizenship in eight years.  However, Al-marfadi believes that whether he receives citizenship or not is ultimately an “American decision.”

Al-marfadi said words similar to what many former detainees have told W2G: The U.S. denied him the best years of his life – his prime years – when he was a young man between the ages of 20 and 30.  He is now 34 and has no prospects of finding a Muslim wife in Slovakia.  He cannot have a girlfriend; it is not part of his religion.  He wants a wife.

Al-marfadi wants to visit his family in Yemen but cannot afford to go.  He would also like to to go on a religious pilgrimage, a Hajj, but cannot afford that either.  He said to W2G that if he cannot go to Yemen, the U.S. should pay for his family to visit him in Slovakia.  However, America has given no indication that it will ever compensate the men it incarcerated in Guantanamo or even pay for their families to visit them once they are released.  And this U.S. policy stands in spite of the fact that nearly all the men in Guantanamo, including Al-marfadi, were never charged with a crime.  In contrast to the U.S. policy and to avoid an embarrassing lawsuit, Great Britain settled on a payment of 16 million dollars to the 12 British detainees delivered to Guantanamo.

In expressing his anger at the U.S. and its treatment of him, Al-marfadi pronounced, “you squeezed me into the ground for 14 years, and I am still flat on the ground.”  He sees himself as psychologically damaged and believes that visiting with his family would make a difference in his healing.  “Americans stole my life,” he told W2G.  “Who is going to compensate for that?”

I also asked Al-marfadi why America is not doing anything for former detainees.  He answered: “This question should be addressed to the American people and to American officials.”