â€¨â€¨By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
â€¨â€¨KABUL, Afghanistan — Jan Mohammed's problem is that he's poor. He says that he's lived most of his life in houses without electricity, without a radio, without any connection to the world outside.
When the Taliban came to his house in Helmand province in 2001, demanding that Mohammed give them a soldier to fight the U.S.-backed northern alliance, he didn't have the money to bribe the young men with AK-47s into leaving him alone, Mohammed said. His only son was 7 at the time.
Conscription was rampant in the southern Taliban heartland in those final days of the militant Islamic group's brutal rule, and Mohammed said he had no choice. If he didn't go, he would have been killed or beaten to the point of being crippled.
His story illustrates a rarely discussed class of Guantanamo prisoners: those who were fighting for the Taliban but had no choice in the matter. While the battlefields of Afghanistan were awash in Taliban loyalists and foreign fighters in late 2001, there also were untold numbers of men such as Mohammed who'd been grabbed from their homes and shipped north to the front lines.
Shir Mohammed, the first governor of Helmand under the U.S.-backed Afghan government, said that while he knew the names of many Taliban fighters in the area, he'd never heard of Jan Mohammed, another suggestion that he was just a Taliban conscript.
Upon Jan Mohammed's return from Guantanamo, then-Afghan Interior Minister Taj Mohammed Wardak told wire services that while he didn't know whether Mohammed was guilty or innocent, "maybe it was a misunderstanding."
After troops loyal to warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a U.S. ally at the time, captured Mohammed in Kunduz in late 2001, he was sent to the jail in Sherberghan.
"Some died because of lack of food; others were killed by Dostum's soldiers" at Sherberghan, Mohammed said. "When one of his soldiers thought that someone looked like they were with the Taliban, they would take him outside and beat him with big pieces of wood until he died."
He was interrogated only a handful of times, and after he explained that he was a conscript, Mohammed said, the sessions ended quickly.
American troops transferred him to Kandahar Airfield, where he spent five days. He was asked whether he knew Taliban commander Mullah Omar. No, Mohammed said, Mullah Omar didn't spend time with illiterate wheat farmers in rural Helmand.
Mohammed was imprisoned at Guantanamo for less than a year, a very short amount of time compared with most of the other former detainees whom McClatchy interviewed.
He said he wasn't interrogated for his first 20 days there. When he finally was, he said that he hadn't known what al Qaida was before he was captured.
He lived in a small house without a radio, he said, and he spent his days thinking about how to irrigate his land better. The interrogators looked through their notes, smiled at him and said he'd probably be released soon, Mohammed said.
After that, he was taken for questioning once a month or every two months.
"When I told them, look, the Taliban made me fight, they forced me to, the interrogators seemed to believe me," he said.
He didn't mind being in his cell: There was clean water, something that wasn't a given at home.
"When the American guards took the Taliban to interrogation, the Taliban would fight them. They would scream, 'Allahu Akbar,' " or God is great, Mohammed said. "I told the Taliban, look, we have food, we have water; there's no need to make trouble."
He was flown back to Afghanistan in October 2002.
At first, Mohammed said, it was great to be home. But as the Taliban began to re-emerge in southern Afghanistan — Helmand became a stronghold for their insurgency against the new, U.S.-backed Afghan government — he began to receive death threats.
He'd been released from Guantanamo so quickly that some people whispered that he was a spy for the Americans or that he'd given them information about Taliban fighters imprisoned at Guantanamo.
In 2006, a group of Taliban fighters came to his house and said that anyone seen working on Mohammed's farmland would be shot on sight.
He moved to another town in Helmand, where the Taliban weren't as prevalent, and hoped that no one tortured his family members to find out where he was.
Because he didn't have enough money to pay for a cab to meet a reporter outside Helmand, and because Helmand is too dangerous for Westerners to visit, he told his story by phone.
When he finished, he said goodbye. The phone clicked. After all those days and nights in Guantanamo, Jan Mohammed was, once again, a poor farmer in Helmand hoping to avoid the Taliban.