My last day in Yemen — escaping from kidnappers

Gregory D. Johnsen writes: [E]arlier this spring I decided to go back one more time. I pitched it to my editors as a three-story trip. But in my mind, it was a final farewell. I was getting married in a few months, and I wanted to move on and write about other things. I’d quit smoking years earlier and my twenties had slipped into my thirties. I was ready for a change. On March 6, I boarded the plane for my last trip to Yemen.

Sixteen days later I was done. I had my three stories, or at least the notes and interviews to write them. But I didn’t want to leave, not yet. Something was still missing. Instead of flying home early, I compromised: One more story.

I already knew the one I’d do. The ghost story every writer has, the one they obsess over and worry about; always researching, never writing. Mine was a tragedy that started with a Guantanamo interrogation.

Detainee: I am from Urday City in Yemen, not a city in al-Qaeda… My city is very far from the city of al-Qaeda… That is not my name and I am not from that city…

Tribunal President: al-Qaeda is not a city. It is the name of an organization.

Detainee: Whether it is a city or an organization, I am not from al-Qaeda. I am from Urday City.

Tribunal President: Are you from Yemen?

Detainee: Yes, I am from Urday.

Tribunal President: Did you travel from Yemen to Afghanistan?

Detainee: I went from Yemen to Afghanistan.

Tribunal President: Did you do that in the year 2000?

Detainee: I don’t know the time.

Tribunal President: Was it the year 1421?

Detainee: I am from a village, I cannot tell time.

The detainee, Adnan Abd al-Latif, was a mentally unstable man who had suffered severe brain damage as a result of a car crash in 1994. Twice he had been cleared for release, but each time something went wrong and he remained locked in his cell, counting the days until there was nothing left to count. On Sept. 10, 2012, he committed suicide. He had been in Guantanamo Bay for more than a decade.

Latif’s case seemed to get at all the horrors of that lost decade: a handicapped man who confused al-Qaeda with a Yemeni village of the same name, locked up as the worst of the worst. For 10 years, while Latif befriended the iguanas and banana rats that wandered into his cell, the U.S. and Yemen fought for custody. Neither side would give in. The U.S. had him but wouldn’t let him go; Yemen wanted him but couldn’t get him.

Then Latif killed himself with a fistful of pills and positions changed. Now neither country wanted him. The U.S. needed him gone, but Yemen wouldn’t take him. In death, just as in life, he was in legal limbo — neither here nor there. Instead of Guantanamo, Latif was sent to Germany, where his body was frozen and stored at Ramstein Air Base while the two countries argued over who had to take the corpse.

Latif’s story was sad, but mostly it was just human. He wasn’t nameless or faceless, an abstract stand-in for our fears. He was a man with a history and a family, and I wanted to write about them, to tell his story. In my mind it was less about Guantanamo Bay than it was about the withering of hope and how a single man had been ground down to nothing by a pair of bureaucracies. But no one else seemed to see it this way. Obama had already ordered the prison closed. He just hadn’t succeeded. Guantanamo was still open, and indefinite detention was still the law of the land. But the country had moved on; a collective forgetting that let us pretend everything had changed when nothing had. [Continue reading…]

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