Book review: My Guantanamo Diary by Mahvish Rukhsana Khan


Since the first detainees were transferred there from Afghanistan on January 11 2002, Guantanamo Bay has become the most notorious prison on earth.

Held indefinitely as "enemy combatants" with no recourse to the Geneva Conventions, prisoners face torture, either no trial at all or an unfair trial, no family visits, harsh conditions and often years of solitary confinement.  As the Amnesty International director has said, the US prison on the eastern tip of Cuba – which, at its peak, held approximately 750 detainees – is "a travesty of justice."

In My Guantanamo Diary, 30-year-old Mahvish Rukhsana Khan tells the stories of some of the men held at what is known as Gitmo – "the worst of the worst" according to ex-US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld.  Born in the US to Afghan parents, law student Khan’s fluency in Pashtu enables her to work as an interpreter between Afghan detainees and the pro bono lawyers acting on their behalf, visiting the prison over 36 times.

Khan quickly established close relationships with several prisoners, including paediatrician Ali Shah Mousovi, 80-year-old Haji Nusrat Khan and cheeky 27-year-old goat herder Taj Mohammad.  "Though they were systematically dehumanised, to me they became like friends or brothers, or fathers and uncles," Khan writes.

But isn’t she talking about terrorists? It seems unlikely when you consider that the US military dropped thousands of leaflets in Afghanistan promising bounties of up to 25,000 US dollars to anyone who would turn in members of al-Qaida or the Taliban. The average annual wage in Afghanistan is equivalent to 300 US dollars.  Furthermore, an analysis of declassified Pentagon documents has found that 86 per cent of prisoners were not captured by US forces, but handed over, probably for money, by either the trusty Pakistani police or virtuous Afghan warlords.

Travelling to Afghanistan for the first time in 2006 to gather evidence to help the prisoners cases, Khan explores her own heritage and, interestingly, describes the effects on the civilian population of the depleted uranium used by NATO forces since 2001, something that I have not seen mentioned anywhere else.

A surprisingly easy and accessible book, My Guantanamo Diary is a fantastic introduction to the criminal and morally reprehensible nature of the "war on terror."  Khan has many amusing anecdotes to tell, but her stomach-churning account of the force-feeding of al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj is deadly serious and, along with the many descriptions of torture, will anger everyone who reads it.

That both US presidential candidates have pledged to close Guantanamo if they are elected is good news, but only half the story.  It is likely detainees will simply be moved to other US detention facilities around the world – including Bagram airbase in Afghanistan, consistently described by inmates as far worse than Guantanamo. Plus ca change…

Ian Sinclair is a freelance journalist based in London, England.  [email protected]

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