Afghan Prison Tales
In between stories of torture and the Taliban, the young man sitting opposite me had covered how to stage a dirty protest, Spanish chat-up lines, and how toothpaste can help you escape from prison.
Pakistani Jan Sher Khan was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan when he was 16 years old and accused of being a suicide bomber. He said he was innocent, a runaway from home seeking work after his strict father beat him for having friends who drank and smoked. Either way, he was held for six years in Bagram, a top-security U.S. prison in Afghanistan. And he had plenty to say about it.
Bagram, along with the prison at Guantanamo Bay, has played a central part in the debate over the legality of U.S. detention policies. The government says wartime detentions are legal and have a long precedent – look at the POW camps of World War Two – and they have to put prisoners somewhere. Activists object for many reasons, including allegations of torture made by prisoners and the view that prisoners have insufficient means to challenge their detention.
But beyond a few well-known facts, little is known of prisoners’ daily life – what they eat, how they amuse themselves, or what they think of their jailers. Often troubling, sometimes funny, and occasionally poignant, Jan Sher Khan’s memories provide an incomplete but insightful record of what it was like inside.
In repeated conversations with Reuters, the 24-year-old described how small improvements – like getting a wooden box so the Koran did not sit on the floor – helped improve relations between the prisoners and the American soldiers guarding them. Relations mostly veered between outright hostility and a reluctant détente, he said, but on long afternoons, when both soldiers and prisoners were bored, sometimes the two sides would talk.
Mostly they talked about women. American soldiers told him that marrying your cousin – a common practice in Pakistan – was “weird”. So was getting married at 16 or 18, they said, something most of Khan’s friends planned on doing. Khan worried he would be too old to get married by the time he got out. He said the soldiers told him about internet dating, something he’d never heard of before, and taught him to swear in English and Spanish. Now Americanisms like “just chillin” and “cute” pepper his speech. He still remembers his Spanish.
Khan said he used to incite his fellow prisoners to chant “bootylicious” at a female American soldier they considered overly strict, sending her into a rage. For some of the prisoners – men accused of being members of the Taliban – it was one of the few English words they knew.
“She would scream at us and say, I’m putting this on your DR (disciplinary reports),” he said with a chuckle.
Prisoners constantly looked for small advantages to press home, Khan said. One common tactic was to try to find out guards’ names – he said they were supposed to remove any identifying tags before entering the prison, but sometimes they forgot.
“We’d say, give me some snuff or I’ll tell your officer you told me your name,” he said. “They’d say, ok, ok man. Just shut up.”
The U.S. military said service members operating inside the prison wear military insignia that show their rank and last name.
Prisoners always complained that the American snuff was too weak, Khan said, and once he convinced a soldier to ask an Afghan National Army soldier for some “green snuff.” The man didn’t realize it had opium in it until he told the prisoners he’d tried it and it had made him ill. The prisoners all burst out laughing, he said.
Of course, said Khan, tensions in the prison were usually high. Detainees were angry at being kept in prison for years, and many alleged they’d been beaten by Americans during the initial interrogations. The American soldiers were guarding men accused of killing or trying to kill their comrades. Khan said some of the prisoners were innocent, but others were hard-core Taliban fighters. Many promised to go back to hunting American soldiers when they got out.
Sometimes the anger broke out into the open. Soldiers would shove shackled detainees as they walked between cells, making them fall. Detainees watched for opportunities to attack soldiers when they were being moved around the facility. The U.S. military has recently tried to solve these problems by moving prisoners in wheelchairs, Khan said. The military declined to comment but said the Red Cross made regular inspections to ensure prisoner welfare.
One prisoner, Fazal Karim, was notorious for fighting, said Khan. Karim made several failed escape attempts at the old prison. His most daring attempt came when guards didn’t lock one of his doors properly. He asked for nail clippers so he could come into an “airlock”- the space between two doors to a prison cell – and waited for guards to go before he covered his orange overalls with a brown blanket and his orange shoes with toothpaste. He hoped to pass as a construction worker on the CCTV cameras. It almost worked, said Khan, but Karim was caught because he didn’t know which way to go once he got out of his corridor. The military said they had no record of such an incident.
Karim’s brother Fazal Rehman, interviewed by Reuters in Karachi, said that his brother had had a problem controlling his temper since he was a child, something the family attributed to a blow to the head. For months, they had resisted telling Karim about his father’s death while he was in detention because they feared it might provoke him to more violence, Rehman said. According to documents filed in a Pakistani court, Karim is accused of planning attacks on NATO convoys.
Sometimes prisoners would go on strike to demand better food or treatment, Khan said. One technique they used was to bite the tops off water bottles and fill them with excrement and urine. When soldiers got close enough, they’d throw the mixture at them or flick it using a “spork” – a combination of a spoon and a fork that came with the prepackaged meals, he said. Mostly it made the guards angry, said Khan, but occasionally soldiers encouraged the prisoners to throw the excrement because it gave them an excuse to leave their station and go take a shower, said Khan.
“They’d come over and say, hey man, throw some **** on me,” he said.
A military spokesman confirmed that prisoners had mounted such protests and said guards took “appropriate protective measures”.
Minor infractions, like talking, would be punished by being cuffed to the wall of a cell, Khan said. Prisoners got three such warnings, he said.
“Then you go to the isolation cell and they turn up the AC and take your blankets,” he said.
Over the six years Khan was in prison, conditions gradually improved, he said. Some were small, but counted for a lot in the daily life of a prisoner. They got more water to drink and wash with, he said. Boxes were given to prisoners so they would not have to place their Korans on the floor. American soldiers let Afghan translators search the Korans in front of them instead of doing it themselves. Prisoners got a cookie for the Muslim festival of Eid, something that Khan said he incited them to protest over in a demand for more.
A U.S. military spokesman confirmed that detainees were given boxes for their Korans and a shelf to place them on.
Other changes were big. In late 2009, prisoners were moved to a new U.S.-built facility. Unlike the other prison, it had windows and teleconference facilities for prisoners to talk to their families, a privilege the Red Cross helped arrange. Conversations were mostly limited to generalities and inquiries after family members’ health; if detainees mentioned conditions in the prison or what led to their arrest, the lines were cut.
“You can just say Salaam, I’m in prison, I’m praying for you guys,” Khan said.
Access to prisoners, previously tightly controlled, was slightly loosened as part of a U.S. effort to be more transparent following repeated accusations of abuse. Journalists were permitted to take photos and film of parts of the new prison. An Afghan human rights commission was allowed to talk to prisoners. Detainee Review Boards were put into place, giving prisoners the possibility that they might be released before the end of the war.
Jan Sher Khan is still angry at being imprisoned for 6 years, but much of his anger is directed at the Pakistani government, who he said did little to help him or his family. His complaints are echoed by the families of other prisoners still inside. They say although their relatives have been inside for years, they still have not been informed why they are being kept or what the requirements are for their release.
The Pakistani government says it has written to the families, but when Reuters looked over the file of the letters, one had been sent to a hospital where the prisoner’s father had died years ago. The three families contacted by Reuters said they had received no communication from the government at all although they were easily reached through lawyers pursuing a case against the Pakistani government on their behalf.
“We don’t know when he’s coming home or what he’s done. The government has told us nothing,” said Haroon Shah, the uncle of Abdul Halim Saifullah. “He says this is like living in a graveyard.”
Saifullah was captured in Zabul, Afghanistan and is accused of being a member of the Taliban, according to a memo filed in a Pakistani court. It was his father who died in hospital, shortly after he was captured.
Those families’ complaints highlight one of the many challenges facing the Americans in Afghanistan: even if they try to improve, there’s no guarantee anyone else will. The prison at Bagram is supposed to be taken over by Afghans by September. It’s not clear where the foreign detainees will go. Most American troops are supposed to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014.
Reports of brutal torture by Afghan forces in other prisons are already detailed and widespread.
They have been holding one U.S. prisoner, Bowe Bergdahl, since 2009.
He has had no phone calls home. His family have posted a video to him on YouTube.
(Reuters file photo: A U.S. soldier talks to reporters at the new detention centre at Bagram, November 15, 2009)