By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers
KHOST, Afghanistan — Sarajuddin appeared to be a pitiful figure. He's about 65 years old in a country where the life expectancy for a man is 43.6 years.
Despite dying his hair and beard brown, he looked old and tired. He said that he had mental problems, and that his body ached.
During his hearing in front of a military review board at Guantanamo, he told the three officers who heard his case that he'd been trying to help recruit local men to fight against the Taliban in the months before an American airstrike demolished his home and killed 12 of his relatives.
Among the jumble of bodies, he said, were his wife and five of his granddaughters.
Shortly after the airstrike, U.S. forces returned in January 2002 to arrest Sarajuddin, his brother and his son, and all of them were sent to Guantanamo.
Sarajuddin, who like many Afghans has only one name, was accused of harboring Jalaluddin Haqqani, an anti-American insurgent leader. It was a lie, he said.
"I do not know him," Sarajuddin said during his review hearing. "I am a poor man."
He later told a reporter that his detention was the result of tribal rivalries, of informants from another tribe who were trying to get him killed or arrested by telling the Americans that he was close to Haqqani.
His story resembles those told by several other Afghans who said they were mistakenly detained, but Afghan officials said that Sarajuddin was what the Americans said he was, an ally of Haqqani.
Ismail Khosti, who heads the local office of the Afghan commission for peace and reconciliation in Khost, said that Sarajuddin's links with Haqqani were widely known in the area, a fact that Mohammed Mustafa, a former Interior Ministry security chief for Khost, backed up.
In the weeks after Sarajuddin's capture, family members told a New York Times reporter that Haqqani was staying at Sarajuddin's house the night the Americans bombed it. The paper said that Sarajuddin had allowed Haqqani to stay only because Pashtun tribal traditions demand that guests be treated well.
Haqqani, whom the Central Intelligence Agency supported during the fight to push the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan during the 1980s, has become a key Taliban commander in the campaign against the U.S. military and its allies in Afghanistan.
During the late 1980s, he facilitated the formation of al Qaida, which was operating in his territory along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and he's now thought to be a key link between the organizations.
When the U.S. released Sarajuddin in 2006, it gave no reason for freeing a man who apparently had links to an international terrorist.
The list of reasons for his release simply repeated his story: He denied that he knew Haqqani, he said he'd tried recruiting men to fight the Taliban and he told the Americans that he was glad the United States had come to Afghanistan.
So, like most other Guantanamo detainees, Sarajuddin was put on a plane and shipped home.
Sitting at a small table and talking to a reporter last September, Sarajuddin's voice frequently rose with rage when he spoke about the experience, then dropped to a murmur as he sank back in his chair.
For instance, as he talked about his arrival at Guantanamo: "When we got off the plane, we had hoods on. The soldiers took us like someone would load a box; they threw us on the truck. The soldiers were screaming in a language we did not understand. We were very, very angry that they had brought us there."
Finally, he slammed a fist on the table and said: "The Americans should grab the neck of the bastard who gave them the information that made them bomb my house and then send him to Guantanamo."
Shortly after that, he put his head on the edge of the table, and said he couldn't talk anymore. He walked outside and lay down on a cot in the shade of a tree.