A conversation with Mahvish Khan, author of My Guantanamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me
You were in law school in 2006
when you decided that you wanted to do something about the illegal detainment of
prisoners in Guantánamo Bay. When most people decide to volunteer, they usually
serve at soup kitchens or walk dogs at animal shelters. However did you end up
at Guantánamo translating for detainees?
I was studying Gitmo at the time and found myself constantly ranting about how criminal the situation was. Eventually I googled the cases I had read so much about. My internet search revealed who the attorneys on those cases were and I quickly got in touch with them. I wanted to be involved as a journalist and a lawyer. When I learned that there was no one with security clearance who spoke Pashto (a predominant Afghan language) I applied for security clearance and got my foot in the door as an interpreter for habeas lawyers representing detainees. My role eventually grew, but that's how it all started.
Specifically, my desire to bring awareness and get involved was triggered by how appalled I was while studying Gitmo and the Federal torture statutes in my international law class. I realized the detention center was created just to weasel around cornerstone constitutional principles that America was founded upon and that this Gitmo charade was really nothing more than a lawless black hole where prisoners were being caged, abused and hidden away from the worldwithout a voice, without being charged, without an impartial hearing. I was also baffled that Washington policy makers were debating the legality of medieval torture techniques. Once upon a time, they called it Chinese water torture; today in America, it's water boarding. I didn't know if the men at Gitmo were good or badsimply that they shouldn't be stripped of basic civil and human rights. Only a fair trial could separate the good from bad.
How many times have you been there? What's Guantánamo Bay like?
I've lost count of the number of times I've been to the base. Several dozen, at least. Despite all those trips, I still get uncomfortable every time I arrive. It's a strange unsettling feeling I get in my stomach. I never eat much and never sleep well. Objectively speaking, Guantánamo is always sunny, the water is blue-green, the weather is perfect. What makes it unsettling is the knowledge that innocent men's lives have been destroyed there. No doubt, there are terrorists at Gitmo too, but I haven't met them. Instead I've listened to an 80-year-old paraplegic white-bearded grandfather speak of being beaten by American soldiers at Bagram. He clung to me before we left him there. I've watched a 43-year-old pediatrician (who worked with the United Nations to increase Afghan electoral support) tear up as he recalled the last time he saw his daughter. I've arm wrestled and told jokes and forged friendships and cried with men who are like my brothers and uncles now. Guantánamo is a surreal place. It's hard to go there and just as hard to leave those men behind.
As a lawyer, did you have more freedom in Guantánamo, or more access to the detainees than a journalist might?
Yes. Journalists do not have any access to the detainees (apart from taking photographs from a distance). Habeas lawyers and their interpreters are the only non-military people who can sit down with and speak with detainees. Journalists, on the other hand, are given a sanitized tour of the detention center. The only reason they are allowed on the base at all is so the military can claim that their activities are transparent. But in truth, not a single journalist has ever sat down with a detainee or interviewed a detainee. The military forbids it. Journalists are however allowed to attend Combatant Status Review Tribunalswhich are really dog and pony shows that admit hearsay, statements collected under torture and forbid attorney access.
Journalists aren't even housed close to lawyers to prevent any communication between the two, and the Department of Defense responds strongly when lawyers act as journalists and give information to the press. I was banned for 2 months following my Washington Post article on my Gitmo experiences. Several law firms have faced similar challenges.
Originally you went only to translate for Afghan detainees, but now you represent your own client under supervision from lawyers at Dechert. How has your role at Guantánamo evolved?
I got involved at Gitmo with the intent of eventually getting involved with the legal representation of a Gitmo client. After going through all of the background checks to get security clearance, I started off interpreting Pashto for habeas lawyers who represented Afghan detainees. Over the course of multiple trips to the base, my relationship with the attorneys and the detainees grew and I got involved on the legal end too. I traveled to Afghanistan twice to collect affidavits for detainees, locate witnesses, find employment records, exonerating photographic evidence or anything else that could help corroborate their stories. This information was then submitted to the military to review in hopes that it would influence a release. Eventually, I asked for a case of my own. I was assigned to represent Afghan detainee Hamid al-Razak, a Kabul real estate developer. My case is supervised by Dechert's Peter Ryan since I'm not yet barred.
How would you describe attorneys' relationships with their clients? What about yours?
The entire Guantánamo experience is very intense. Emotions run on overdrive. Whether its anger, suspicion, comfort, desperation or love, it's hard to hide much of anything. Everyone's true colors and feelings quickly come out in such a charged environment.
The relationships between lawyers and detainees vary a lot and sometimes vacillate. It all usually boils down to trust. Some detainees never believe that their American lawyer is anything other than an interrogator in disguise. Other detainees fire their lawyers believing they are unable to influence a release. Some lawyers feel they have been reduced to glorified social workers and waiters. But there are also many attorneys who forge very close friendships with their clients. They grow to care deeply for the detainees who depend on them.
I always try to break the ice by having ice cream socialscomplete with sprinkles and chocolate syrupor chocolate covered strawberries, which are usually a hit. When I met my Afghan client, Hamid al-Razak, he was obviously happy to be in the company of a woman. During our first meeting, he complimented my "sweet" American-accented Pashto and told me that if the U.S. military "threw him in the ocean with a lady like me" he would still be happy. I've visited his family in Kabul, brought him photographs of children he hadn't seen in 5 years and collected as much exonerating evidence as I could to back up his story.
In addition to my client, I've met most of the Afghans detained at Gitmo. In short periods, I've come to develop family-like relationships with these men. I originally got involved to combat the erosion of legal principles, but am so passionate about it today because I feel like my brothers and friends are inside that prison. It's hard to turn away from that. I always feel guilty leaving them behind. However, the most rewarding part of this experience has been continuing those relationships post-release and visiting the former detainees in Afghanistan.
In 2006 you went to Afghanistan in order to do research on behalf of certain detainees. What was that experience like, as a young American woman traveling there alone?
I was definitely nervous before I got there, but any anxiety I had about the trip was gone once I set foot across the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan. There was simply too much around me to absorb and I immediately fell in love with Afghanistan and its countrymen. The history of this land is so loaded and I remember thinking that it was peculiarly etched on all of the faces around me. They emanated a rugged, wary pride and seemed somehow hardened by all that their country had endured. Even the younger faces looked older than they were.
I was initially cautious about letting people hear my American-accented Pashto, but relaxed as I found Afghans to be incredibly hospitable. Of course, Afghanistan is a very male-dominated society and I usually traveled with local menlocal journalists or aid workers, who were an invaluable resource. I'm very grateful their hospitality and the time they took to help me.
Donald Rumsfeld famously called the men at Guantánamo the "worst of the worst." Do you agree?
If I had kids, I would allow many of those men at Gitmo to watch them. I think some of the men I've met there are in fact, the best of the best. They are some of the most hospitable and gracious individuals I've come across. I continue to be in awe of their generosity and how dignified they remain under the most trying circumstances.
No doubt, some of the men at Gitmo are evileven deserving to be called "worst of the worst." Terrorists like 9-11 mastermind Khaled Sheikh Mohammad come to mind. However, none of the guys I've met fit that bill and only a fair trial will separate the good from evil.
Some of the detainees you worked with in Guantánamo have since been released. How are they coping with their return to Afghanistan?
It's hard to gauge how these men are coping psychologically. Afghanistan is a very poor country and there is no mental health care system. Many of the detainees I have met feel violated, some are angry, others say they have forgiven. Some are hopeless. Most have kept their Guantánamo prison uniforms and ID bracelets. Some want to be compensated for what they have endured. I met one former Gitmo detainee at the Kabul offices of Afghanistan Human Rights Organization (AHRO) who spoke of a destroyed life. Other former prisoners have become vocal, written poetry and published books about their experiences.
As the daughter of Afghan immigrants who grew up with American influence in Michigan, you have a foot firmly planted in two different cultures. You are in a unique position: it is only because of your parents' commitment to raise you with knowledge of your Afghan heritage that you now speak Pashto fluently, but only in the US could you have gotten yourself to Guantánamo to help in the first place. How has this chapter of your life specifically affected your personal sense of yourself as an Afghan? As an American? And your opinion of the US today?
As a daughter of immigrants, I do have my feet planted firmly in both the East and West. Along my personal journey to balance the sometimes conflicting Afghan and American influences, I have come to appreciate two things: I am not a comfortable, plain, macaroni-and-cheese American, and, more importantly, being American doesn't require me to abandon my Pashtun influences. America is uniquely generous: it finds room for all heritages and traditions, many more complicated than mine. In a sense, I've found a new part of myself. The trips to Guantánamo have brought me closer to who I am, to my heritage and what it means to me. In that sense, the camp and the relationships I've forged there will always be a part of me.
America is my home. I was born here and love my country. However, part of being a patriot is speaking up against injustice committed by individuals entrusted to represent your country and its global image. Today, I am ashamed and saddened by my country's actions. Arbitrary detention, codified torture and suspension of habeas corpus are not the things that made America great. It is my hope that raising awareness of issues like Guantánamo will help correct our mistakes. I would like nothing more than to see my country's tarnished image rectified and once again be a beacon of global justice, a positive model for developing nations.
So you've graduated from law school and are now studying for the bar. What's next for you?
I've always been drawn toward helping the oppressed. I hope to continue applying myself as both a lawyer and journalist in the field of human rights. Combined, the law and press is a powerful advocacy tool to promote change and bring awareness. I'm inspired by the words of an old pharmacist who was detained at Gitmo: "If you free just one [man], it will be like bringing someone back from the dead."
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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