A handful of walnuts, a prison full of mistakes
Perhaps the most memorable thing ever said about Guantánamo was former US Vice President Dick Cheney telling us that the prisoners were the ‘worst of the worst’ – men so dangerous that we needed an offshore facility to keep them locked up, that US law was not for them, that the Geneva Conventions shouldn’t apply.
When Reprieve’s Clive Stafford Smith first visited Ahmed Errachidi in Guantánamo, he was told that he was about to see a ‘bitter terrorist’. Ahmed turned out to be anything but. He was gentle, dignified and humble, and had been working as a chef in London at the time the US said he was training terrorists in Afghanistan – information uncovered by Reprieve investigators that that led to his release.
From the moment we gained access to Guantanamo, we started representing the prisoners held there and investigating their cases. Time and time again stories just like Ahmed’s came out, and, like him, they were released. As it turns out, Guantánamo is not a prison full of the ‘worst of the worst’ – it’s a prison full of mistakes.
“I want to thank everyone at Reprieve for working so tirelessly for me, and for everyone else in Guantanamo Bay. I want to thank all the people who supported me from Britain. I received 283 letters from people in Britain, 283 beautiful letters that gave me so much hope. I am very sorry not to have written back to each and every person, but I was treated very, very badly in Guantanamo, they held me in isolation for months on end, and I did not even have a pen”
Ahmed’s case is an exhibit of everything that is wrong with Guantánamo. He was seized, rendered to Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan and tortured, then held in Guantánamo Bay for five years.
The US military relied on false intelligence, saying Ahmed was the ‘General’ of al Qaeda when he was only a chef from London. A false confession was extracted from him during a severe psychotic episode.
After Reprieve exposed the absurd allegations made against him, Ahmed was released on 24 April 2007.
Since his release, Ahmed has written a memoir ‘A Handful of Walnuts’ – the following is an extract:
Steel surrounded and captivated me. There was no horizon, no life and nothing to see. So I began to fly out of the cell with my thoughts and my imagination into the vast world of existence. I would put myself on the horizon, imagining that I was looking at this sun and its rays; I would travel to see birds and trees, imagine bees collecting nectar from flowers, and long for their honey.
I would imagine the colours and scents of roses so that I wouldn’t forget them. I travelled into the scenery of clouds as they moved through the sky, as if they were ships sailing in the still blue sky, before breaking up and dispersing. I travelled to the moon, enjoying its quiet beautiful light, which did not disturb those who wanted to sleep. I imagined the stars sailing through the darkness of night, and felt their beauty and presence.
I remembered every beautiful thing that I had known or experienced in the universe. I imagined the sunrise, a ray of light drawing a line on the horizon, slowly expelling the dark of the long night.
I imagined newborn plants splitting the ground, fruits emerging from their skins. I imagined leaves falling to the ground, the sea and the fish, the rocks and corals. I imagined cattle and sheep as they grazed, and wondered how their milk could be such a brilliant white even though the grass they ate was green.
Thoughts were not restricted, even though hands and feet were shackled.