Above: Guantanamo widow, Ahmed Rabbani’s wife, 25-year-old Fawzia and their 11-year-old son, Jawad, look at his letters. — Photo by author, Zofeen T. Ebrahim.
“I was 14 & pregnant when my husband was taken from Karachi to Gitmo for being a taxi driver to Arab mujahideen”
KARACHI: Oblivious to the aftershocks of the Sept 11 attacks that left the world reeling from it, Fawzia, the 14-year-old bride of Mohammed Ahmad Ghulam Rabbani, was leading a blissful marital life. Little did she know it was soon going to end when on the night of Sept 10, 2002, just a month into their marriage, her husband was whisked away from their home in Bahadurabad by authorities.
This Sept 10, he will have gone 11 years.
It was six years later that she found that he was among the 779 incarcerated in Cuba’s Guantanamo Bay detention camp. “I had no idea what or where Cuba was; I had never even heard of it,” says Fawzia, whose life has since been on hold.
“It was midnight when the police raided our home, asked him questions in between kicks and punches and then took Ahmad away,” she recalls. “My life has not been the same since that night,” her voice a mere whisper, recalling the horror. “I was just 14 and pregnant. They slapped me in the face; I had never felt so humiliated and utterly violated!”
“All I knew was that he was a taxi driver; he went in search of work in the morning and came home in the evening like most men do!” she told Dawn. “The way he led his life, in the one month I was with him, gave me no indication whatsoever that he had any criminal intent. They can say anything about him, but I know one thing, my husband is not a terrorist!” she adds resolutely.
According to his file made public by the US Department of Defence, Ahmad Rabbani, trained in combat, is of Burmese decent. He was born in Saudi Arabia and lived there for 23 years before coming to Pakistan in 1991.
And this is all Fawzia knows about her husband. She denies any knowledge of him being trained in 1994 in a militant camp in Khost for seven months and then to the Khaldan Training camp for two months, or that he had been imprisoned in Pakistan for two years — 1995-96 — or that in 1997, he met Osama bin Laden and became a travel facilitator for Al Qaeda. According to his file, he worked directly for Al Qaeda operational planner, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.
The Pakistani government has insisted that of the over 600 people arrested on Pakistani soil and handed over to American authorities over the years, none is of Pakistani origin.
However, Reprieve, a legal assistance and advocacy group that is representing more than a dozen of the Guantanamo prisoners, rejects US assertions. “They say the same about scores of prisoners. There’s no evidence that he ever met Bin Laden, and no evidence that he was ever a terrorist. In 10 years, the US has never seen fit to charge him with any crime… they just make up what is simply defamation. And most of the time, the basis even for this malicious gossip is either something tortured out of the prisoner, or false statements made by others who have been promised a reward for their lies,” says Sultana Noon of Reprieve.
According to Reprieve, Ahmad Rabbani told his lawyers in 2009 that he was a taxi driver and because he knew the Arabic language, he would pick and drop many Arab passengers to and from the airport and through word of mouth, he managed to find many Arab passengers. He was never more than a taxi driver and occasional cook, and if he ever drove members of the Arab mujahedeen for the most part he was unaware of it. Regardless, neither he nor most others thought there was anything wrong with giving them a ride, as Pakistan supported them and there were organizations, schools and even newspapers promoting the mujahedeen cause. He said during all this time he never committed any violation of Pakistani law. While Fawzia’s brave demeanour reflects her resilience, it was the quiver in her voice that gave away her anguish. “Does anyone even care what it is like to have your home fall apart in a blink?” she asks and then says: “My father-in-law died waiting for his sons’ return [a brother of Ahmad Rabbani, Abdul Rabbani, is also in Guantanamo]; he was in so much grief, he suffered a heart attack on the prayer mat and died!” she adds.
His lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, who is also the director of Reprieve, says unfortunately, the people of Pakistan have “not protested enough” on behalf of the prisoners in Guantanamo. With the result, he says, the “Pakistan government has not seen it as sufficiently important an issue to take up forcefully with the US.”
Fawzia and her 11-year-old son, Jawad, who was born later and has never been held by his father, are a living testimony of what the consequences of the US policy of indefinite detention can be.
Today, of the 164 men captive in Guantanamo, six are Pakistanis, including him and his brother Abdul Rabbani, Saifullah Paracha, Ammar al Baloch, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and Majid Khan (who recently entered a plea deal). Of all those still languishing, 84 have been cleared for release, but remain held in the prison because Barack Obama has still not kept his promise to close the Guantanamo Bay prison that he signed on his first full day in office.
Had it not been for her brothers’ and her mother’s untiring support, Fawzia, who has since been living with her widowed mother in a one-room apartment in Korangi, says her life would have been shattered.
Over the years, her husband suggested her to remarry. But she cannot even think about that. “I don’t think I can find another husband like Ahmad,” she says, adding, “Jawad is a carbon copy of his father”.
According to her, Ahmad craves for things we take for granted — sky, sunlight and fresh air. “What keeps him from going insane is religion,” she says. “During his incarceration, he memorised the Quran and knows its meaning. At 43, Ahmad Rabbani, who has never been on trial or charged, is among the 35 men who continue to be on hunger strike that started in February this year. He is also among the 31 who are being force-fed according to official data.
“I am 118lbs now; I can do more. In 2005, I struck and got down to 103 lbs. I was never force-fed back then, though, as I broke the strike in Ramadan. I am not doing it this time. There’s not much left of me.” These words, shared with Dawn by Reprieve, clearly reflect what it feels to remain in a legal limbo for so many years.“The actual number is higher than what the officials declare,” says Sultana Noon, of Reprieve. “At its peak in July, the number had soared to 106,” she adds.
“Bleeding”, “vomiting”, “a quarter or even a third” of bodyweight lost, “torture” is how many have described their experience of being force-fed at the hands of the US officials, says a report published by Reprieve in July, based on testimonies of the inmates.
Mr Smith considers force feeding a “terrible abuse” not just of the prisoners but of medical professionals’ ethics. He explains that under the 1975 Tokyo Declaration a competent peaceful protester must be permitted to make a rational decision to go without food.
Fighting against hope, Fawzia, and her son’s story are a reminder of the cruel consequences of denying the detainees normal legal recourse.