The headlines keep telling us that America’s longest war, the war fought in Afghanistan after 9/11, is over.
But the United States is still holding prisoners from that war, in an aging detention facility on the United States military base in Guantanamo Bay Cuba.
Over 700 men and some teenage boys were held in Guantanamo at its peak. Just under forty remain. At least nine have died at the prison. The vast majority of those who were held and released were never charged with any crime.
Mansoor Adayfi is one of those men. The former Guantanamo detainee from Yemen was sold to the U.S. by Afghan warlords, and spent 14 years in Guantanamo before the State Department under President Obama cleared him for release, flying him to Serbia for resettlement.
Ordinarily, that would be enough to set up the Q&A we recorded about Mansoor’s new book, Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantanamo.
But Mansoor and I have a complicated relationship.
In 2016 I was working on a documentary about Guantanamo for the GBH program Frontline, in collaboration with NPR. We spent some time with time with Mansoor in his new home in Belgrade. To keep an already long and complicated story short, Mansoor ended up getting roughed up and eventually detained for a time by secret police for talking with us. Mansoor became the focus of our documentary for Frontline, a case study in the difficulties faced by former prisoners as they try to reintegrate into an unfriendly world after a long stay in Gitmo.
We got deeply involved in his case. We got Mansoor a room to hide in after he was assaulted because of us. I ended up taking him to the hospital when he collapsed from his hunger strike, sitting by his bedside.
After we got back to the states, Mansoor called me when he found cameras and listening devices hidden throughout his government apartment, and began ripping them out of the walls. I was still on a video call with him when secret police armed with machine guns showed up and took him away (you can see this in the Frontline doc).
I disclose this not just because it’s interesting, but because I am a journalist hosting All Things Considered for GBH, but I can no longer interview Mansoor as a journalist. I am far too personally involved at this point, and Mansoor Adayfi is my friend.
What follows is an edited transcription of the broadcast conversation, which you can listen to here.
Arun Rath: The book has extraordinary stories of relationships between you and the fellow, your fellow detainees there, but I think people will be more surprised to to read about the relationships you developed with the military prison guards. And you write about how Guantanamo hurt everyone, even the guards.
Mansoor Adayfi: I thought that if I could capture some of the small moments of joy and beauty, of friendship and brotherhood, of hardship and struggle to survive, of the moment that united us and bonded us, [I thought] that I could really change the way people thought about Guantanamo prisoners. And I wanted to write about, everyone, we're like brothers: guards, camps, even animals, lawyers… [to write] about Guantanamo itself, how it started, how it goes. Both, you know, the relationship between guards and detainees. So as I explained, we were not just the victims of Guantanamo; even guards, they were also victims. You know, that hardship, you know, brought us together and proves that we, we all are human.
Rath: The title of your book is Don't Forget Us Here. Because a lot of people have frankly forgotten about Guantanamo in America.
President Biden now is a total 180 from Donald Trump: [Biden] said that he wants to close the prison in Guantanamo. But it doesn't seem like we're seeing a lot of movement for that at the moment. How do you have any optimism about the prison being closed?
Adayfi: Start from 2008 when Obama you know, if you're that 16, when he said he will close it, we had hope. Personally, I didn't want to get my hopes up because something told me, this is not going to happen, and I told my brother— it was it was a huge topic of debate among us at that time. And we wished that he would win the election. So when 2010 came, we found out it's not going to be closed. So they relaxed the rules, and we tried to make the best of it, because we [were] so tired of being in solitary confinement, [of] hunger strikes and abuses for years and years. Again in 2013 we went on hunger strike, protesting our detention.
Again, Obama said in 2013 he's going to close it, but he didn't do it…
I have heard presidents since 2007 said they will close it, but they didn't. Also the Congress passed legislation that made it impossible to close or prevented the prisoners from being released. They perpetuated the myth of Guantanamo, [that the prisoners were] the ‘worst of the worst.’ They perpetuated the myth that Guantanamo, the worst of the worst terrorists. Despite the overwhelming documentation of court cases, reports and personal testimonials from former guards, interrogators, military leadership and prisoners that prove otherwise. You know, the same myth that was used again by six Republican senators when they sent a letter to Biden asking them to close it Again, “Guantanamo holds the worst of the worst.”
When you look at Guantanamo still, always going to it was a mess, and it's still a mess. Seven hundred and seventy nine men end up at Guantanamo Bay: they were farmers, doctors, engineers, journalists, scholars, teachers, boys, fathers, brothers, husbands, all kinds of people. That's what I wrote my book about. It's about the people, about the life there. I'm trying to make people look at Guantanamo.
I hope that Biden will fulfill his promise and will close the place because, the real danger in closing Guantanamo is not an increased threat of terrorism. It is facing the political reality that Guantanamo was a mistake all along. And those responsible for building it and keeping it open will have to reckon with history. [Closing] Guantanamo is both morally right and is in the best interest of American security. Simple as that.
Don't forget us here and please don't forget the people at Guantanamo.
Mansoor Aldayfi is a writer, a former Guantanamo detainee and currently an advocate for the prisoners who were in and those who still are in the military prison in Guantanamo Bay. His new book is Don’t Forget Us Here: Lost and Found at Guantanamo.