â€¨â€¨By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
KARACHI, Pakistan — Tariq Khan walked in the front door of the hotel and gave everyone a big hug. A real estate agent, he's a large man with broad shoulders, and he was wearing a dark blue ball cap that said, in large English letters, "I Feel Good," and blue jeans with designs embroidered down the side.
Tea was ordered, and Khan continued to grin, saying elaborate hellos and welcoming a foreigner to Pakistan.
How did he end up in Guantanamo? He told a tale about going off to Afghanistan that seemed in parts too tall to believe.
It began, Khan said, in November 2001. Low on money, he said, he went to Quetta, near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, to buy black-market cigarettes to take back and sell in his hometown of Hyderabad, Pakistan.
It was two days before Ramadan, he said, so when he got to Quetta he went to a mosque to pray. There, he said, he encountered a group of men who said they were missionaries. Khan said they invited him to accompany them for a few days as they traveled and spread the word of God on the eve of the holy month.
"When we reached the Afghan border I knew, in my heart, that we were going too far," Khan said.
At this point in his story, Khan's expression shifted slightly. He seemed nervous. "Most Americans don't know the difference between missionary work and going on jihad," he said.
Khan never appeared before a tribunal at Guantanamo, so there's no transcript laying out the U.S. case against him. For this reason, it isn't clear whether the U.S. military bought his story that he was on a missionary trip, a cover frequently used by jihadist fighters. Pakistani officials wouldn't comment on Khan or other former Guantanamo detainees, and the U.S. has released no substantive information on detainees who were sent home before the tribunals began.
The men who were with him, Khan said, went into Afghan mosques in groups of four or five while he stayed outside to watch the cars.
On the eighth or ninth day of the trip, they were in Mazar-e-Sharif, which after the U.S. invaded Afghanistan was a gathering place for fighters loyal to the Taliban or al Qaida.
People were running in the streets screaming, he said. A large stream of cars was heading out of town. The Americans and their Afghan allies were coming.
"One of the missionaries said it had been a mistake to bring me," said Khan. "He advised me to try to go back to Pakistan. There were a lot of cars going in one direction, toward Kunduz; I jumped in one of them."
He spent the night in a hospital courtyard in Kunduz, he said, with American bombs booming in the distance.
Early the next morning, the convoy got back on the road, heading for the Pakistan border, but a few hours later U.S.-backed northern alliance troops surrounded it, he said.
Khan stopped telling his story again. He looked around the room, rolled his shoulders a little, sucked in his breath and resumed talking.
"Before putting us into the containers they stripped us naked," Khan said. "I begged for a pair of underwear." Like some of the other men, he was allowed to keep his undergarments on.
Khan was one of the men stuffed into metal shipping containers by men working for U.S.-backed Afghan warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. Hundreds, if not thousands, died in the most infamous example of an anti-Taliban faction taking revenge after the U.S.-led invasion.
"We were all stacked on each other. . . . I don't want to remember it. I don't want to talk about it," Khan said, his voice breaking.
There wasn't much oxygen inside the metal box, so Khan slipped in and out of consciousness. At one point — he thinks two days might have passed — Dostum's troops began shooting at the containers, presumably to make breathing holes.
The bullets killed many of the men who were still breathing, Khan said.
"It was random. Some people were shot in the eye; some were shot in the neck," Khan said, pausing between the words. "The only thing running through my mind was that I wasn't going to survive."
He said that when Dostum's men opened the container, "they began pulling the bodies out and checking the bodies with clothes still on them to see if they had money. . . . . Then they threw the bodies into a ravine."
Of the 200 to 250 men in the container, Khan said, he was one of three who survived.
He said he spent about 33 days at Dostum's jail at Sherberghan, where he and 80 other men lived in a 10-foot by 12-foot room. There was no food for the first six or seven days, Khan said, and the men had to sit down in shifts to avoid trampling one another.
Khan had hidden 60 or 70 Pakistani rupees in his underwear. When Dostum's men found it during a cell search, he said, one of them stabbed Khan in the head and hand. At a meeting with a reporter, he held out his left palm and lowered his head to show the wounds.
"I don't like remembering these things," he said.
On his last day at Sherberghan, he said, a group of American soldiers came.
He said he was taken in for questioning by one of them, who asked, in English, what Khan was doing in Afghanistan.
Khan told him, in broken English, "I preaching Islam."
An American soldier shackled his legs, cuffed his wrists and threw a sack over his head, he said. Then a U.S. helicopter flew him to the prison camp at Kandahar Airfield, where he was held for six months, he said.
He said he was interrogated every two or three days for the first two months, then every two or three weeks, then once a month.
"They asked me why I was in Afghanistan," Khan said. "I told them I was there doing missionary work. . . . They accused me all the time, saying I was a dangerous man, saying that I went to Afghanistan for jihad. I told them I wasn't so afraid of them that I would lie. I told them that if I went to jihad I would tell them."
When Khan was asked whether he ever saw U.S. troops mishandle the Quran at Kandahar, he fell quiet.
The confidence and charm were gone. Khan said Pakistani intelligence officers had questioned him many times since he got back home, and he was worried about being sent to jail for talking with a Western reporter.
"I have to check with (Pakistani) security officers every day," Khan said. "It's not possible for me to speak about that."
Khan said he was through talking about Kandahar. He asked whether the interview was over.
What about Guantanamo?
Khan stared at the ceiling for a few moments, then said, yes, he was in Guantanamo for two and a half to three years.
How was he treated there?
"I don't want to talk about it," he said.
How did the guards at Guantanamo behave?
"Some guards would for no reason tease people, and other times detainees did this to the guards, and they would react," Khan said. "The soldiers would scream, the detainees would scream, but no one could understand what anyone was saying."
Khan's grin was gone. He was ready to go home.