Zinnira Aamer sat on the sofa in her parents’ flat, talking so softly it was hard to hear her, in words so sad it was difficult to listen to them. She talked about her dreams, and voices in her head that told her sometimes that her husband had divorced her while he was in Guantánamo, or that he was dead; messages that were her deepest fears. When all her efforts to block out the voices out failed, she was deeply depressed. Medication made her sleepy and days slipped away in sleep and half sleep. Some days she asked for reassurance that the voices’ words were untrue, and sometimes the reassurance worked for a moment, and she gave a shy smile. Her mother sat across the room, a small warm presence in a white sari, reading the Qur’an. Sometimes Zinnira had to be in hospital, but home with her parents was more comforting, though stressful for an elderly couple in poor health.
There was another Zinnira, who learned to drive, ran her small house, took her four children to school, cooked and cleaned, taught extra classes, and spent hours in hospital beside her mother after a serious operation. Zinnira learned Arabic on the net so that when her Saudi husband returned, he would be proud. She made plans to learn sewing with her sister-in-law, and looked after other children in the family. She sent her husband letters, and photos of the children, through the Red Cross.
Zinnira’s father had come from India to be the imam at a South London mosque where he had been the guest preacher during Ramadan, and Zinnira was brought up in London — the baby in a family of 11. Going on the Hajj to Mecca with her father when she was 21 was her romantic dream come true; she prayed that Allah would let her marry a man in white robes like those she saw during that intense experience. She never doubted that her prayer would be answered.
Back home in London, a young man from Medina came to her father’s mosque, and spoke to her mother about wanting to get married. Shaker Aamer visited the family, talked to Zinnira’s parents and brothers about his plans to stay in Britain and his current work as an interpreter for lawyers. He was an attractive, confident, outgoing man, and everyone liked him. Zinnira liked him, but was overwhelmed by him. He was very different from anyone in her own community circle: he seemed “just too big”.
But Shaker’s kindness made her love him, and they were soon married. They were opposites: he was worldly, educated in the US as well as Saudi Arabia, she was a shy, sheltered South London girl with India as her hinterland; he was outgoing, talkative, always making friends with everyone. At their wedding he was chatting to the registrar so busily that she thought they must be friends. “He’s big and strong … people always love him.”
Dreams of an Islamic state
The couple had had three small children when Shaker, like several of his friends, began to think about moving to Afghanistan, to be part of building a pure Islamic state, leaving Britain and western culture behind for ever. In the aftermath of the defeat and retreat of the Soviet army in 1989, then the apparent ousting of warlords by the Taliban, they saw Afghanistan as a chance to make Islamic dreams come true. Shaker discussed his plan with his father-in-law, who advised him to go ahead and see what he could organise. There were no anxieties, just practical questions. His father-in-law had made a life-changing move for his family, uprooting from India to Britain.
Zinnira soon went, with the children. She adored her husband, never doubted his judgment, and settled down in Kabul looking after her babies in a house shared with another young couple they knew from Birmingham, Moazzam Begg, his wife Zeynab, and their children. While her husband plunged into a new life of school construction and well-digging, Zinnira felt very far away from her family. Her husband looked after her; he bought her a washing machine, which pleased her very much, and they were happy together, with their two boys and a girl.
Zeynab remembered how lovely the house had been: “My husband found the best house, a big, big house and I was downstairs and she was upstairs. She was very, very happy there, and Shaker was so pleased she did come with the family — he made a big effort to make it nice for her, always having guests, he was such a generous person.” That life, and their happiness, ended after 9/11 and the US bombing of Afghanistan.
Zinnira’s darknesses usually come towards the end of the year, as she remembers the trauma of late 2001 and the departure from Afghanistan. She blamed herself for Shaker ending up in Guantánamo. He had sent her and the children for safety to Pakistan when the US bombing of Kabul began, and she had written to him saying that she was all right there, and he shouldn’t worry about her or rush back from Kabul, where he was looking after their house. She was not all right, she was terrified for him, frightened how her life with the children had slipped into unfamiliar territory which she could not negotiate without Shaker. But she wanted to be reassuring, to be a good wife.
This preoccupation was at the centre of Zinnira’s life for 10 years after her husband’s disappearance in Afghanistan. After eight years she had been away from him longer than with him. People suggested she should divorce him, as other women in limbo did, sometimes at their husband’s initiative. But life without Shaker was unthinkable. Even absent, he was her life, as much in times of sickness as in her optimistic moments when she prepared for a future life with him. Would they live in London or in Saudi Arabia? Everything would be Shaker’s choice.
Unbeknown to her, Shaker had been captured by bounty hunters in 2001; they earned the $5,000 for every Arab or other foreigner promised in US leaflets scattered in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They bartered him with two armed groups that roamed the country in the chaos after the US bombing. Shaker was finally handed over to the Americans and ended in Guantánamo, after humiliation, interrogation and torture in Kandahar and Bagram. It was a long time before Zinnira knew any of this, and the trauma of separation, when she had been pregnant and especially vulnerable, scarred her. She returned to London in 2002 and the birth of her third son, Faris, in February 2002, was the beginning of her hard London years as a single mother with the responsibility for four children, including one who had never seen his father.
Today, there are 166 men in the legal black hole of Guantánamo Bay prison; 157 have no charges against them and 87 of those, including Shaker Aamer, were cleared for release years ago. The US Congress has, with no resistance from President Barack Obama, brought in laws that make it impossible to release them. Their women and children live with the knowledge of the prolonged isolation and physical torture their men have suffered, the hunger strikes, and the official indifference to their ordeal. They are symbols of the war on terror’s devastation of individual lives, and of the West’s lost human values.