Three survivors of the “Convoy of Death”
The first of the three “Convoy of Death” survivors, Tariq Aziz Khan, who was released from Guantánamo in July 2003, was 23 years old when he was seized, and now works as real estate agent in Karachi. A “large man with broad shoulders,” who “gave everyone a big hug” when he arrived for the interview, he wore a baseball cap that said, “I Feel Good,” but as his story unfolded a far grimmer story emerged.
According to Khan, in November 2001 he had traveled to Quetta, near the Afghan border, “to buy black-market cigarettes to take back and sell in his hometown of Hyderabad,” but, on impulse, when he met a group of missionaries who invited him to come and help them spread the word of God at the start of Ramadan, he decided to travel with them. “When we reached the Afghan border I knew, in my heart, that we were going too far,” he said, adding, “Most Americans don’t know the difference between missionary work and going on jihad.”
Eight or nine days into the trip, Khan said, he and his group were in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, when people began fleeing, shouting that the Northern Alliance and the Americans were coming. “One of the missionaries said it had been a mistake to bring me,” he explained. “He advised me to try to go back to Pakistan. There were a lot of cars going in one direction, toward Kunduz; I jumped in one of them.” He said that he then spent the night in a hospital courtyard in Kunduz, “with American bombs booming in the distance,” but that the next day, as the convoy of vehicles headed for the Pakistani border, they were stopped and seized by Northern Alliance soldiers. It was then that his nightmare began.
“Before putting us into the containers they stripped us naked,” he said. “We were all stacked on each other.” He added, “I don’t want to remember it. I don’t want to talk about it.” Like other survivors of the convoy, he recalled how Alliance soldiers shot at the containers, ostensibly to make holes so that the suffocating prisoners could breathe, but often aiming low so that they killed those inside. “It was random,” he said. “Some people were shot in the eye; some were shot in the neck. The only thing running through my mind was that I wasn’t going to survive.” When the container arrived at Sheberghan, he said that Dostum’s men “began pulling the bodies out and checking the bodies with clothes still on them to see if they had money … Then they threw the bodies into a ravine.” Out of 200 to 250 men in the container, he added, he was one of only three survivors.
He then explained that he had spent 33 days in Sheberghan, and that there was “no food for the first six or seven days.” He also said that he had hidden a small amount of money in his clothes, but that when one of the guards found it, he stabbed him in the head and hand. One day, he said, US forces arrived to pick out prisoners they regarded as significant, and when one of the soldiers asked what he was doing in Afghanistan, and he replied, “I preaching Islam,” he was hooded and shackled and flown to Kandahar, where he stayed for six months. “They accused me all the time,” he said, “saying I was a dangerous man, saying that I went to Afghanistan for jihad. I told them I wasn’t so afraid of them that I would lie. I told them that if I went to jihad I would tell them.”
When the reporter asked Khan if he ever saw US soldiers abusing the Koran, he fell silent. He explained that Pakistani intelligence officers “had questioned him many times since he got back home, and he was worried about being sent to jail for talking with a Western reporter.” “I have to check with (Pakistani) security officers every day,” he said. “It’s not possible for me to speak about that.” And with that, the interview effectively came to a close. Asked about Guantánamo, he said only, “Some guards would for no reason tease people, and other times detainees did this to the guards, and they would react. The soldiers would scream, the detainees would scream, but no one could understand what anyone was saying.”
The second survivor, Ijaz Khan (identified by the Pentagon as Ejaz Ahmad Khan), who was released in November 2003, was 26 years old when he was seized. Interviewed in Islamabad, he admitted that he had traveled to Afghanistan as a fighter, and explained that he had ended up in the “Convoy of Death” after surrendering to General Dostum’s men at Kunduz. “They threatened to kill us,” he said. “They pointed their guns like they were going to shoot us, then they made us get in the containers. When I woke in the morning, there were piles of bodies lying around me; I don’t know if they were dead or alive.” On arrival at Sheberghan, after he had “stumbled over the mounds of bodies and out into the daylight,” Dostum’s men, he said, “herded the prisoners” through the gates “by hitting them with sticks and iron rods.”
He added, “The commanders were treated differently than the common Taliban. They were taken away for three days, and when they came back they were unable to lie down, they were urinating on themselves … they had injuries all over them, they had bruises on every part of their skin. The normal fighters like me were hit with sticks and punched and kicked. They would take me out of the cell to beat me; it was too crowded to do it in the cell. They beat me unconscious many times.”
After a month, he said, he was taken to Kandahar, where he was stripped naked, thrown to the ground, so that “gravel tore into his skin,” and subjected to an anal probe. He also explained how the prisoners had tried to resist the everyday brutality of the guards. “We protested,” he said, “we made a lot of noise. We were shaking the fence walls of our cells. It gave us some kind of release. I’m not a human? Why did they keep me in this cage? I’m not an animal. I don’t keep my pets in a cage in my house. But the Americans caged us.” He added, “Luckily I have not lost my mental balance, because it was nothing short of madness.”
Although he declined to talk about Guantánamo, he made it clear that his experiences in Kandahar had tainted the rest of his life. He said that he “frequently lost his temper and that he was very angry about how the Americans had treated him,” and added, as an example of his lingering fury, that “he once saw a guard at Kandahar toss a Koran into a bucket that detainees used as a toilet. The Koran, he said, is at the very center of his life; it is the reason he lives.” He told the reporter, “You can imagine what I felt when I saw this.”
The third survivor, Bashir Ahmad, released in September 2004, was 25 years old when he was seized. Like Ijaz Khan, he admitted that he “was fighting for the Taliban,” but as Tom Lasseter noted, although he had “little training and no concept of the structure or detail of al-Qaeda or the Taliban,” and seems, therefore, “to have known nothing of much value to US interrogators,” his story indicates that “American military officials had a hard time distinguishing between foot soldiers and jihadist leaders.”
Speaking of the “Convoy of Death,” Ahmad said that ten to 15 men survived in his container. “There was a mini-revolt in the container” he explained, “which caused Dostum’s men to fire. Many died of bullet wounds; many suffocated. When the door opened, suddenly there was light. All the bodies fell out. They sprinkled water on the bodies and felt their pulse to see if they were alive.” Held for 16 to 17 months at Sheberghan, he recalled some examples of extraordinary brutality. “The Northern Alliance soldiers were very cruel,” he said. “They asked a Taliban commander to shave his beard. He refused. They took him off and chopped off one arm, and then another, and then they killed him.”
When he was finally picked out from the dwindling population of Sheberghan, he was taken to the US prison at Bagram airbase, where he was held for 40 days. “When I was taken to interrogation and then taken back to our area, they (guards) would kick me and slap me,” he said. “Sometimes three guards would come take me to a separate room and tie my hands to a chain that was hanging from the ceiling. They would pull the chain tightly so that I rose up in the air. Sometimes they did it the other way, pulling me up by my feet. And then they would punch me or hit me with a wood rod they used to carry.”
His life did not improve in Guantánamo, where he was subjected to regular assaults by the team of five armored guards responsible for quelling the most minor infringements of the rules. “Five soldiers would come with bulletproof jackets and weapons to my cell, to my cage,” he said. “One of them would spray me in the face. My eyes would burn and water. They would come in and punch and kick me until they were satisfied.”
Unable to endure “the beatings, the fear, the loneliness, the hunger strikes, the anger,” he said that he tried to commit suicide by hanging himself. When he awoke in the prison hospital, a psychologist asked him why he had tried to kill himself. “I had lost all hope in life,” he said. “I decided to die instead of living in that hell.” He added, “What can I say about my mental health? My friends say I am half-mad.”
Al-Nasir (ISN 437): CSRT Set 44, pp. 121-3; ARB 2 Factors Set 6, pp. 54-7; al-Hizani (ISN 370): CSRT Set 44, pp. 124-7; ARB 2 Factors Set 6, pp. 38-40; al-Usaymi (ISN 436): ARB Factors Set 1, pp. 3-5; al-Khalif (ISN 438): ARB Factors Set 2, pp. 87-89; al-Ghatani (ISN 439): ARB 2 Factors Set 6, pp. 62-4; al-Zahri (ISN 441): ARB 2 Set 3, pp. 74-82; Salehove (ISN 208): CSRT Set 4, pp. 39-46; Mokit (ISN 90): CSRT Set 3, pp. 31-44; Wali (ISN 444); Usman (ISN 12); Ansar (ISN 304); Maula (ISN 442); Safeezi (ISN 11); Ayubi (ISN 138); Hanif (ISN 305); Fazaldad (ISN 142): CSRT Set 41, p. 61; Manzoor (ISN 139); Hamoodullah Khan (ISN 145); Irfan (ISN 1006); bin Naseer (ISN 85); Murtaza Abdul Rahman (ISN 361); Ahmed (ISN 1003): ARB Set 10, pp. 203-16; Yacoub (ISN 1004): CSRT Set 2, 51-64; ARB Set 1, 164-73; Tariq Khan (ISN 97); Ejaz Khan (ISN 135); Ahmad (ISN 1005).
The following released prisoners are those about whom nothing is known:
Pakistanis: Zafar Iqbal (ISN 14); Jamal Muhammad al-Deen (ISN 16); Mohammed Sayed (ISN 18); Mohammed Ishaq (ISN 20); Salah Hudin (ISN 21); Ghaser Zaban Safollah (ISN 134); Tarik Mohammad (ISN 136); Mohammed Tariq (ISN 137); Said Saim Ali (ISN 140); Haseeb Ayub (ISN 141); Muhammed Kashif Khan (ISN 146); Mohammed Arshad Raza (ISN 147); Zahid Sultan (ISN 300); Mohammed Ijaz (ISN 302); and Ali Ahmed (ISN 303).
Afghans: Ezat Khan (ISN 314); Yarass Ali Must (ISN 315); Ghuladkhan (ISN 316); Mohammadullah (ISN 347); Abdullah Ghofoor (ISN 351); Abdul Hadi Sayed (ISN 352); Abdul Waheed (ISN 353); Nabu Abdul Ghani (ISN 354), who was 50 years old at the time of his capture; Nassir Malang (ISN 355); Abdullah Edmondada (ISN 360); Shaibjan Torjan (ISN 362); Shai Jahn Ghafoor (ISN 363); Mohammed Kakar (ISN 364); Sabit Layar (ISN 365); Hazrat Sangin Khan (ISN 366); and Juma Khan (ISN 443).
Abbreviations used in the Notes (amended April 2012)
“CSRT” and “ARB” refer to the Combatant Status Review Tribunals, which were held at Guantánamo from July 2004 to March 2005, and the first round of Administrative Review Boards, annual reviews held from December 2004 onwards. The transcripts of these hearings, released by the Pentagon in March and April 2006, can be found here. In addition to the transcripts of the CSRT and ARB hearings, this page also provides access to the Unclassified Summaries of Evidence for over a hundred ARB hearings.
“CSRB” refers to the Combatant Status Review Boards. These documents, which comprise the Unclassified Summaries of Evidence for 517 of the 558 CSRT hearings, were released by the Pentagon in 2005 under Freedom of Information legislation, although they are no longer online. For these transcripts, I have chosen a numbering system similar to that used for the CSRT and ARB hearings, so that, for example, “March 2005 Release” becomes “CSRB Set 3.”
“ARB 2” refers to the second round of Administrative Review Boards. The transcripts of these hearings, released by the Pentagon in September 2007 (after I completed The Guantánamo Files) can be found on the same Pentagon page as linked to above, under the heading “Administrative Review Board (ARB) Documents –- Round Two” and the sub-heading “Transcripts and Certain Documents from Administrative Review Boards (ARB) Round Two (held at Guantánamo in 2006).” Also included are the Unclassified Summaries for all the second round ARB hearings, under the sub-heading “Summaries of Detention-Release Factors for Administrative Review Boards (ARB) Round Two (held at Guantánamo),” which are referred to in the Notes as “ARB 2 Factors,” and below these are heavily redacted documents explaining decisions relating to the release or transfer of detainees. Also included are links to detailed and very useful indexes.
The documents released in September 2007 also augmented the information contained in previously released documents. This release has now been incorporated into the Pentagon page linked to above, but in the Notes above there are references to all the Unclassified Summaries from the CSRT process (with names and ISN numbers) — only 517 of which had been previously issued without names or numbers (see “CSRB” above) — which were included in this release of documents, and references to these documents are labeled as “CSRT Factors.” This release also included all the Unclassified Summaries from the first round ARBs, instead of the limited number released in 2006 (see “ARB Factors” above), and references to these documents in the Notes are labeled “ARB Factors Sep 07.” Also included are heavily redacted documents explaining decisions relating to the release or transfer of detainees.
“ISN” refers to “Internment Serial Numbers,” the unique number assigned to each prisoner in Guantánamo. A list of the 558 prisoners (identified by name, nationality and ISN) who went through the CSRT process can be found here. A list of 759 prisoners, including the 201 released or transferred before the CSRT process began (identified by name, nationality, date and place of birth and ISN), can be found here.
Some of the references in the Notes will not correspond to the files on the Pentagon’s current CSRT/ARB page, and if this is the case, then readers are directed to the New York Times‘ excellent project, The Guantánamo Docket, where all the CSRT and ARB documents can be searched for using the prisoners’ names or ISN numbers.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.