By Matthew Schofield | McClatchy Newspapers
TIRANA, Albania — On the night the soldiers came for him, Algerian-born Abu Mohammed said, he was resting at home with his pregnant wife and five children.
The soldiers knocked on the door of the apartment of the schoolteacher and former doctor, he said, and showed him a list of the men they were looking for. The address for his building was on the list, but his name was not. As they turned to leave, he asked the soldiers what they needed, but was told it was none of his concern, he said.
Fifteen minutes later, he said, they returned. This time, he said, they asked whether they could look through his apartment. He remembers thinking he had nothing to hide, so he stepped aside. The soldiers handcuffed him, saying it was procedure, and looked through the house, searching for documents.
When they were finished, he said, they uncuffed him, apologized for the inconvenience and departed. It wasn't until the third time they came that night that they asked him to accompany them to a nearby office, to answer questions.
"I did not like to leave my family at night, but knew in my heart I had done nothing wrong, and I was not on their list — they showed it to me — so I knew I had nothing to fear," Mohammed said.
That was May 26, 2002, in Peshawar, Pakistan. To this day, he hasn't seen his wife and six children again. To this day, he said, he has no idea why he was taken away that night or why he then was told he was being taken home but instead was shackled, then flown to a U.S. prison in Bagram, Afghanistan. Or why, after two months there, he was told that he was being taken home to his family but instead was flown to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, half a world away, where he was kept locked up for four more years, including 18 months after he was told that he was, in effect, innocent of charges that he says were never fully articulated.
So why was he arrested? At a tribunal in Guantanamo, he was charged with being a member of the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, of leaving Yemen for Afghanistan at the request of al Qaida. They said that once he was in the area, he helped recruit fighters to defend Islam in Afghanistan. Beyond simply dismissing such charges as laughable, Abu Mohammed said he doubted that these could really be the reasons he was picked up.
The Islamic Salvation Front formed after he left Algeria in 1989, and in any case he said he was never a member. He said that he'd worked as a doctor for a nongovernmental organization in Afghanistan until 1992. It would have been easy to find out that he hadn't been back since, he said, and that he'd been working for and with the United Nations and Red Crescent, the Islamic-nations version of the Red Cross, from that point on.
From 1996 to 2002, Mohammed's medical license and passport needed to be renewed, but he said he'd refused to return to Algeria and instead lived in a United Nations refugee camp in Pakistan. There, he taught math and Arabic in a Red Crescent-sponsored school. In both situations, there were multiple witnesses to his presence and many sign-in documents, none of which was brought before the tribunal, according to the official record. In fact, Mohammed claims that although United Nations workers could have vouched for his presence in Pakistan — and, according to his attorney, spent years working for his release — U.S. officials refused to listen to them. In the end, Mohammed boycotted his own hearing because he thought it was a sham.
During four and a half years of detention — both in Afghanistan, where he was made to stand for hours with his hands cuffed high above him, and in Cuba, where the punishment was far more psychologically than physically challenging, he said — he was asked questions about Algeria, the country of his birth, he said.
"I told them, 'I have not been in Algeria for 15 years,' " he said. "They would ask about political movements there, and I had to say, honestly, that I had no idea what they were talking about." The questions were related to radical Islamist groups, and Mohammed said these groups all formed after he'd left Algeria.
He said he was jailed in Cuba with two men he used to commute to work with in Pakistan, men with whom he was seen every day teaching at school and who, like him, were subjected to occasional home searches as refugees.
The interrogators asked him what he was doing in Pakistan, and he said he'd responded that he'd become a refugee there because he didn't want to return to Algeria. The fact that he'd abandoned Algeria, he thinks, raised suspicions. He said he had "personal security" fears in Algeria, fears that he said had nothing to do with international terrorism and that he refused to discuss. They involve death threats in a personal feud. His fear is great enough that he won't return even today, and he uses only Abu Mohammed as his name to protect the safety of his wife and children.
He originally fled because of war, he said, and he can't imagine why people think that he fled a war at home to search out other wars abroad.
He now lives in Albania, a country he'd never dreamed of visiting before the U.S. packed him off there in November 2006.
He said that Guantanamo officials had promised him a home, a place where he could bring his family and start a new life in Europe's poorest nation.
Instead, he said, he's in a land where there's no work and where he isn't allowed to work. He has no hopes of ever being able to provide a home and education for his children. There's an Arabic-language school in Tirana, but being able to pay the $65 monthly tuition per child is more than he can hope for here, he said.
"My life here? I wake in time to go to breakfast at the refugee center," he said. "That's my life. There is nothing more."