Searching For Ghosts

They are ghosts, and I have spent nearly two months trying to find a trace of them. They are the 33 Pakistani men who remain imprisoned, without charge or evidence, by the Americans at the Bagram airbase in Afghanistan. Many have not been see or heard by anyone other than their immediate families – they are periodically granted carefully censored telephone and internet video call access, for over 11 years. The prisoners are off limits to the public, the press and the legal community. These men have been silenced, their faces have been erased, the details of their incarceration beyond the eyes, ears and interest of a now compliant and cowed American and Pakistani media. Until 2012 their own government refused to recognize most of them as citizens of Pakistan.

They are the ghosts, and I have spent two months traveling across Pakistan trying to learn something, anything, about them.

And I have found traces of the personalities and lives of these imprisoned men in the words and testimonies of their families – the children, wives, sisters, brothers and parents they left behind, often in a state of deep distress if not outright social and emotional devastation. I have found their homes in the deepest corners of the slums of Pakistan’s urban centers, in small farming communities on the edges of small towns, and in remote settlements near the border with Afghanistan. I have sat down with what can only be described as some of the most economically marginal and desperate people I have ever met, most of whom welcomed me graciously, grateful that someone had at least come to ask about their sons, fathers and brothers. And what I have felt as I have sat in their tenement rooms, or mud homes, is a terrible shame and anger at the realization that my nation – one that brags about its global economic might and unmatched military power, has chosen to torture, humiliate, and indefinitely incarcerate some of the poorest, and the most economically weak people I have ever met.

Sitting inside an oven hot room deep within the bowels of Karachi’s Orangi slum, it is impossible to imagine how a man who could not even manage to feed a family of three brothers and an ailing mother, was transformed by a paranoid, vengeful and delirious nation into a ‘terrorist’ master-mind. And that this nation continues – out of what can only be described as institutional avarice, brutality and stupidity, to hold this man without any evidence, and without even a pretense of a serious and just trial. Reading the Detainee Review Board (DRB) files of some of the men has been an experience in the comic, and the banal. It has been evidence of the US military’s and the US bureaucracy’s institutional stupidity.

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Each family I have visited greeted me graciously, and cared for me unconditionally. Those who could not afford to eat, offered me food. Those who barely had a roof over their heads, offered me a bed, and those with their emotions emptied after years of waiting, offered me compassion and deep care. And they did this despite economic conditions that leave little room for entertaining guests. And most all the families have members who have suffered deep emotional scars because of the men’s imprisonment, and in particular the women. A wife who has lost her husband, has lost her place in her village. Children who cannot remember their father and who wander and wonder what the future holds for them. Mothers who have developed serious health problems because of their depression. Brothers who weep at the slightest prompt when speaking about the elder one who raised and played with them.

I will never forget the sound of Mohammad Islam’s gentle weeping as his brother’s children sat around me in a small mud dwelling telling me about what they remember of their father, Paizoo Khan, who has been in Bagram for the last three years. A truck driver moving goods between Pakistan and Afghanistan, he sought shelter in a home one night when his vehicle broke down, only to find himself in the midst of a NATO / ISF night raid, and eventually in Bagram. Paizoo’s brother, Mohammad Islam, had driven me 6 hours from Muslimbagh, Baluchistan to his small family settlement at the border with Afghanistan and introduced me to the entire family. As we sat with the children that evening, Mohammad Islam’s heart just gave way, and the children’s sadness at the absence of their father, became his. He has cared for his brothers children and his two wives, and it has taken a terrible toll on the situation in the family. But it is their way, and it is his responsibility. To watch him play and tease the children as if they are his own, is to watch the meaning and idea of a family, and the gestures and actions that make it the pivot of life that it can be.

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The intense scrutiny and criticism of the conditions of imprisonment at Guantanamo resulted in the prisoners there being granted a semblance of a legal process – access to a lawyer, trials in domestic courts, occasional but carefully censored visits by the press, and the periodic statement by the authorities desperate to show that the prisoners were being treated ‘well’ and in accordance ‘of the law. Of course, all this is a lie. The series of hunger strikes, and suicides, has offered a shameful and shocking reality check, revealing the lies that the US military has been feeding the servile American press corp about the situation in the prison. The men, aware that there is no hope for a fair trial, and worse, of them being released, are desperate to kill themselves to end their suffering, humiliation and sense of hopelessness. Death is their only release.

All this is taking place in a prison that has come degree of visibility and over-sight. We can only surmise what is happening inside a prison like Bagram where there is absolutely no over-sight or evidence of the treatment, physical and mental condition of the prisoners. No journalists are allowed to go there, and none of the lawyers representing or fighting cases on behalf of the prisoners are allowed to meet with or communicate with the prisoners. The families are given limited, carefully monitored telephone and video access every few months. During these conversations – which can last up to about an hour, each word and statement is carefully monitored and the connection can be immediately severed if anything related to the prisoners health, state of incarceration or reasons for it are discussed.

Bagram is a true ‘black hole’ of American justice and sense of the law. It is a living evidence of the collapse of morality, humanity, and civilized discourse that has become so much of the post 9/11 United States of America. It is also an evidence of the deep racism and bigotry that underpins so much of America’s judicial policies in the wake of the ‘War Against Terror’. The continued imprisonment of these innocent men is evidence of the venality, cowardice and irresponsibility of the Pakistani government that has been an open and overt collaborator in the American war in Afghanistan and the frontiers of Pakistan, and whose intelligence agencies and military establishment sold Pakistani nationals to the Americans claiming they were ‘terror’ suspects.

I am now putting the final touches of an exhibition and new website that will feature the stories and experiences of the families of some of the men trapped in Bagram. In the two months that I have been on the road I was able to track down and met 11 families. Some refused to meet with me, others refused to let me record their testimonies. It wasn’t fear that led to their refusal, but hopelessness. They refused to believe that anything I, or the lawyers that I am working with, could do the get their sons out of the clutches of the Americans. And I don’t blame them.

Those who met me, left me with the difficult responsibility to take their message to whomever I can. And I am now trying to do that. An exhibition opens in Islamabad on the 24th of July, along with the release of a major report written by the lawyers at the Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), and in collaboration with the Open Society Justice Initiative. We will also launch the website that will feature individual family member testimonies, readings of prisoner letters, digital versions of key court and military trial documents, and other materials. All this in the hope that we will be able to excavate some semblance of the humanity and person of the men who most of the world seems to have forgotten, and who wait, through hopelessness and despair, for justice and rightful freedom.


Standing one evening at a hill top that overlooked Paizoo Khan’s small mud house located close to the Afghan border, I was struck by incredible contrast between the dreams and aspirations of a man eking out a life at the periphery of society, and the grand, righteous, arrogant rhetoric of an imperial power and its judgement of him. As I looked across the plain I saw his wife washing clothes in a small stream, and the children attempting a game of cricket in the courtyard of their mud house. All around us were barren plains, and a few fields with enough crops to feed the household, and the mountains of Afghanistan in the far distance. The previous day it had taken us nearly 6 hours of driving across dirt tracks and sand dunes to arrive at this small gathering of mud houses that Paizoo Khan and his brothers had inherited from their fathers, who in turn had inherited from their grandfathers. America was very far from here. It was impossible to even imagine reading about it, let alone think about coming into contact with it.

And yet America had arrived here – vengeful, angry, blind and lost, and had exacted its revenge on a family too weak to withstand its might, too confused to answer its demands, too lost to respond to its logic. And it has continued to brutalize them with a righteousness that has no logic, a series of thoughts that has not rationality. And yet despite all the sorrows and suffering it has wrought on this family, they refused to speak ill of it. I will never forget what Mohammad Islam said to me when I asked how he feels about the Americans, and those who are holding his brother in prison. He looked at me calmly and said:

I have nothing against the Americans. But those who have tortured and humiliated my brother, from them I will seek revenge.

This small, generous, caring and helpless man sitting in mud home in the middle of a desert-like plain in remote Baluchistan, was able to speak about America and Americans without resorting to generalizations, and cliches. He spoke in specifics. Of course, he knows that he will never meet those who are holding his brother. He will never have his revenge. So when I asked what message he wants to send to the Americans, he only said:

Just let my brother go. I will forget everything, but just let my brother go

In a few weeks I hope, along with JPP, to bring this man’s plea personally to as many people in Pakistan as will listen. In August I hope to bring this to the United States, and remind the citizens, and the policymakers – as many as will listen, that there are lives, dreams and loves that are being torn apart each and every day we keep these men illegally behind bars. And I will do so knowing in my heart that I, and my work, may not have any effect at all. But I took the chance to go meet the families of these men, and they took a chance and bestowed to me their trust that I will complete this task, and that I will speak to those who will be willing to listen. The lawyers at JPP have led this fight, and their commitment and drive has been an inspiration. For the men in Bagram – ignored, erased, silenced, and abandoned, the work of the lawyers is the only thing that stands between hope and death.

As I listen to the pleas of the prisoners at Guantanamo – pleas that should shame the entire American nation, the current administration and this hideous President who has fooled us with this sweet sounding words and suave postures while indulging in war, and supporting institutions of torture, detention, preemptive killings, renditions, surveillance and more, I can only wonder what the gagged, blinded, and chained lives in Bagram are going through. The Bagram prison was officially handed over to the Afghan prison authorities earlier this year, but the Americans held on to the Pakistanis, and the Arabs. And prior to the hand over, they fought the Afghanis – who insisted that their constitution does not allow them to hold prisoners without charge, (and the Iraqis by the way) tooth-and-nail to prevent them from offering the prisoners due process and right to a defense.  So much for our love of justice, law and freedom.

There is a sense of urgency about this work, but no sense of pride. I complete it now with a cloud of shame hanging over me – a shame that emerges out of the realization that the suffering of these men is a result of the venal calculations of weak men too afraid to question the narratives fed to them by a handful of powerful politicians. Their suffering is perpetuated by intellectuals, pundits, and political hacks too lost in their calculations of personal gain and power to ever wonder about the horrors that they are inflicting on others. It is a sense of shame that comes from realizing that this once great nation of ours – now in paroxysms of hate and petty revenge as its reach weakens, its rational falters, its sense of place increasingly questioned, has picked on the weak, the frail, and the helpless and is gloating about it.


But the ghosts speak otherwise, and their memories and experiences speak of a nation that holds no ideals, and that is as petty, brutal, depraved, and infantile as any imperial nation masking its horrors behind rhetoric pleasant and sweet.

The ghosts do speak. And others will remember.

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