“No parent should have to bury their child.” That was the first thought that crossed my mind when I met Talal al-Zaharani - father of one of the young men who died in Guantanamo in 2006 - last week in Oslo at the screening of the film Death in Guantanamo by Norwegian filmmaker Erling Borgen.
I first spoke to Talal in 2006 after it was reported that his son Yasser, just 17-years old when he was taken into US custody in Afghanistan and then onto to Guantanamo, had allegedly committed suicide along with two other prisoners. In response to my words of condolence I still remember Talal’s reply:
“May Allah reward you with the best for your words of kindness my dear brother, but I am not unhappy nor do I need condolences. My son and his companions were the victims of abuse and they died for their beliefs. Therefore they are martyrs and are in Paradise in sha Allah.”
How does one respond to these words, I thought?
Until meeting him I didn’t know the details of what Talal, as a father, had had to endure upon the return of his son’s body from Guantanamo.
Talal al-Zahrani is a kindly, pious and warm individual from the city of Madinah who spent the best part of the last three decades as a colonel in the Saudi police force, responsible for regions including the holy city of Makkah. When we met him, in the typical tradition of Arabian hospitality he brought bags of gifts for us all: Britons, Americans, Norwegians, Sudanese – Muslims and non-Muslims. He is not a vengeful man, quite the opposite in fact, but he does want justice for what America did to his son and he holds former US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld personally responsible. To that end he has issued legal proceeding in the US courts against Rumsfeld for the false imprisonment, torture and death of his son.
Meeting Talal would have been enough of a reason to attend the film-screening but those present included notable human rights figures like Michael Ratner, President of the US Center for Constitutional Rights who spoke about representing Guantanamo prisoners at a time when hardly anyone would dare do so; Professor Mark Denbaux director of the Seton Hall Law School Center for Policy and Research who has been conducting vital research that has produced a counter-narrative to the official standard US version regarding US allegations against Guantanamo prisoners; Sami al-Hajj who spoke about his work post-release pertaining to the plight of the released prisoners in the Middle East and his role as head of Al Jazeera’s human rights branch and Walid Hajj, survivor of the Qala-i-Jangi massacre whose book in Arabic and series of ten hour-long interviews on Al-Jazeera describe the ordeal in vivid detail and made Walid into a household name in the Arabic-speaking world. Both he and Sami related the story of what they knew about Yasser al-Zahrani.
Like many Muslims from around the world Yasser had gone to help victims of the war in Afghanistan during the winter of 2001 before the US-led invasion. Shortly after that he ended up with a group of over 600 men who were handed over to the infamous Afghan warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum. Yasser’s worst ordeal however, was not in Guantanamo per se. Alongside US citizens Yasir Hamdi and John Walker Lindh Yasser al-Zaharani, aged sixteen at the time, and only 83 others, miraculously survived the notorious slaughter of over 500 unarmed prisoners, including many whose hands had been tied behind their backs, at the hands of American, British and Afghan Northern Alliance forces at Qala-i-Jangi in December 2001.
By the time Yasser got to Guantanamo’s Camp X-ray he’d already endured shrapnel and bullet wounds, starvation, torture, attempted electrocution, drowning and being set on fire.
Despite all he’d gone through, from Guantanamo he wrote his family praising God and telling them that he was well and in good spirits in order, his father said, that they do not worry too much. That is why Talal describes his son in the film as a ‘batal’ (hero).
The film is interspersed with gripping eye-witness testimony from former Sudanese prisoners Walid Hajj and Sami al-Hajj; Omar Deghayes and legal representatives of Guantanamo prisoners.
Despite the official version of US that on June 10, 2006 Yasser al-Zahrani (Saudi Arabia), Mani al-Utaybi (Saudi Arabia) and Ali Abdullah Ahmed (Yemen) committed suicide as an act of “asymmetric warfare” waged against the USA and a "good PR move" it is testimony from soldiers present on the night of the deaths that is most disturbing – and damning for US authorities. Scott Horton who wrote for Harpers Magazine presents evidence in the film that cites Army Staff Sergeant Joseph Hickman’s testimony of what happened that night. Without going into detail of the case, that is available on the magazine website, the most resonant words for me came from this highly decorated US soldier of more than 17 years in service: “There were no suicides in Guantanamo that night.”
The films also shows an interview with a senior Swiss forensic pathologist who carried out an autopsy on Ali Abdullah Ahmed which throws doubt on the US version of events after experiencing the lack of cooperation from US authorities in helping to answer some key questions, such why pieces of Yasser's upper airways, including the larynx – key elements in an autopsy on a hanging victim – were all missing.
However, it was the father’s calm and lucid yet heartbreakingly sad testimony about how he saw his son for the last time that finally broke the dam. In describing his son’s battered and bruised body, with body parts visibly missing each person in the theatre audience, surely, could not help but feel this man’s loss. And, although Saudi Arabia is a key ally of the US in the war on terror - albeit with its own idiosyncrasies - it is clear from the video footage of the funeral prayer of the men that the thousands in attendance with their chants of “Allahu Akbar” will never forget what Guantanamo did to their sons.
At the end of the film there was pin-drop silence in the theatre followed by a rapturous standing ovation for the filmmakers, the former prisoners and Talal - the man around whom the film is centred. People came up to us, Talal in particular, visibly moved and openly crying. In all honesty I was almost unable to control my own emotions too knowing what this man seated next to me had endured.
Since the 2006 deaths there have been two more reported ‘suicides’ in Guantanamo that no one other than US officials believes. In total there have been nine deaths there, each of the causes of death determined by US military officials with no independent verification. Each death, each individual is a life that needs to be accounted for properly. Death in Guantanamo is a documentary film which tells more than the story of Guantanamo. It accounts for one of those lives.
Although this is a story from Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Cuba – places that many ordinary westerners know very little and care even less about what will touch most people though is the fact that this father will never see this son again in this life but his fight for justice and truth will continue despite the odds stacked against him. And that’s what makes the film so memorable.