By Matthew Schofield | McClatchy Newspapers
TIPTON, England — Ruhal Ahmed swept into his new living room full of energy. He tucked a blanket around a piece of inflatable plastic furniture to make his temporary life look more permanent, held up a hand to pause a conversation and stabbed at a cell phone.
"Yes, mate, I understand, but I can't go to the bank and say, 'I'll just pay you later,' can I?" he said. "I need the rent now."
He hung up and murmured: "Dealing with our tenants," looked around the room and added: "You hungry? I'm starving. Let me cook something. You eat bhatura?"
Six years ago, Ahmed worked anonymously in a British post office. Today, he's famous, one of the so-called "Tipton Three," three longtime friends who were featured in a widely viewed documentary film, "The Road to Guantanamo."
It's a story that begins as an outing and turns into three years of captivity, including an account of being stuffed into a truck trailer that Afghan fighters shot full of air holes and where many prisoners died.
These days, Ahmed's energy is unnerving; he's a tiger trapped in a too-small cage. The world is watching, and he's pacing back and forth with nothing else to do. He's an oddity, this famous former Guantanamo detainee.
In his living room, a Silver Bear award statuette from the Berlin Film Festival, a reminder of the film, rested on an otherwise empty bookshelf as he retold the story of how he and two friends ended up as prisoners in Cuba.
Fame hasn't made his life easier, although it's brought him some income and a new television and satellite television setup that he flips through excitedly, "Newest stuff, man, newest. Amazing."
When he returned to Britain in 2004 after two years in Guantanamo, he was greeted on the main street of this old mill town by an effigy in Guantanamo orange — the color of its prisoners' garb — hanging from a lamppost. A pinned-on note warned, "Tipton Taliban will die."
Since he's returned, he thinks that people shun him. His wife, Shaeda — his high school sweetheart, who waited for him while he was jailed — was disowned by her parents after she married him.
She supports him. "He's not much of a cook," she joked, "but in time, it will all be all right."
"When I apply for jobs, people see the gap, 2001 to 2004, in my experience," he said. "They ask about it. Am I supposed to lie? They'll find out, sooner or later. So I tell the truth, which is when they say, 'We've got your information. We'll be in touch.' Sometimes they are, to tell me no."
Ahmed's story began with a pre-wedding adventure with his friends Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal. They arrived in Pakistan in 2001, three weeks before Rasul's wedding date.
Just before the U.S. began bombing Afghanistan, a cleric in Pakistan called for people to help deliver food, medicine and clothes to Afghanistan.
The three friends thought it sounded like a great trip. One week away, seeing a new country on the edge of war, experiencing life under a Muslim government, then back with a story to tell and in plenty of time for the wedding.
"We were bored, and it sounded exciting," Ahmed said.
He knows that to an outsider and with the benefit of hindsight, the reasons for going seem weak and suspicious. "Come on, man, if we knew how it was going to turn out, of course we wouldn't have done it," he said. "Back then it seemed like a good idea."
The United States began its invasion of Afghanistan, and one week turned into many weeks. The group from the mosque boarded buses and crossed into Afghanistan, where it switched to vans.
After days with little to do, the three Britons asked to return to Pakistan. Instead, they were driven to Kunduz, near a Taliban camp that soon was surrounded by Afghan northern alliance fighters allied with the U.S. While he was there, he said, he learned how to use an AK-47. He and his friends then joined hundreds of fighters in a mass surrender, thinking that this would be their best chance of getting into Western hands.
Instead, they were held for two months in horrific conditions, then handed — they think they were sold — to Americans.
They were held for a few months in Kandahar, during which, Ahmed said, he was struck, kicked and accused of belonging to al Qaida. Then they were taken to Guantanamo.
There, he said, interrogations were almost constant. Guards struck him, kicked him, pushed him around and forced him to remain in a painful crouch for hours.
He said that no one wanted to hear his version of the little adventure. Interrogators, he said, told him that he'd been seen in a video standing beside 9-11 terrorist pilot Mohamed Atta and Osama bin Laden, and that security officials considered him among the world's most dangerous terrorists. They showed him a video in which he supposedly appeared.
He noted the date on the film, and said they could check his work records in Tipton and see that he'd been working half a world away from where the video was made. Their response, he said, was that he'd probably faked the work records.
Then, as suddenly as his ordeal had started, guards took him out of his cell, marched him to a waiting British military plane and sent him home. They gave no explanation and no apology.
He said that he was told to sign a confession and acknowledge that U.S. security forces might take him again at any moment, but he refused. British anti-terrorism forces have shown little interest in him, which he thinks illustrates that there never was any proof of the accusations against him.
British officials and security experts said they didn't know why Ahmed visited Pakistan and Afghanistan. But they said he's not under suspicion in the United Kingdom.
Asked to look back on his lost years, Ahmed said that he'd rather look forward.
"Listen, it was two years of my life, and it was horrible, but I lived through it, and all I want to do is get on with the rest of my life," he said. "I'll never be able to forget, but maybe I will move away from Guantanamo."