Dressed in a thick jacket and wool hat on a cool winter evening, counting the coins for his bus fare, Hedi Hammami looks like any other Tunisian on his way to work.
But he walks with a limp and sometimes pauses mid-speech and screws up his face in pain. “That’s Guantánamo,” he explained. After eight years as a detainee in the U.S. detention facility in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, he said he still suffers from headaches, depression, and anxiety attacks from the torture and other mistreatment he says he suffered there, even six years after his release.
Married with two children now and employed as an ambulance driver, Hammami, 47, seems to have rebuilt his life. Yet the pressures of living in Tunisia’s faltering democracy, under harassment and enduring repeated raids by the police, have driven him to make an extreme request.
“It would be better for me to go back to that single cell and to be left alone,” he said recently. “Two or three weeks ago I went to the Red Cross and asked them to connect me to the U.S. foreign ministry to ask to go back to Guantánamo.”
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The Red Cross refused to take his request, he said, but he insists nevertheless that at this point, that would be best for him.
“I have lost my hope,” he said. “There is no future in this country for me.”
When he was first released from Guantánamo in 2010, Tunisia was still a dictatorship under the rule of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and notorious for torturing prisoners, in particular Islamists. Deemed no longer a threat to the United States, Hammami was sent to the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
After the popular uprising in 2011 that overthrew Ben Ali and set off the Arab Spring, Hammami negotiated his return to Tunisia. He timed it well, benefiting from a national amnesty for political prisoners and a program of compensation that gave him a job in the Ministry of Health.
“I hoped very much that after the revolution everything would get better,” he said in one of several interviews in his rented home in a working-class suburb of Tunis.
Yet, soon after he began work in 2013, police raided his apartment with dogs at 3 a.m., breaking the door, and hauling him down to the police station. “They made me crawl on all fours down the stairs,” he recounted.
At the police station they said they just wanted to get to know him, and let him go after 15 minutes. “That was just the beginning.”
Since then, Hammami has lived under a constant regimen of police surveillance, raids, and harassment. His cellphone and computer were confiscated. When he moved to a new house, police followed him, turning up at all hours to question him.
In December 2015, he was placed under house arrest, told he no longer had the right to work, and ordered to sign in at the police station morning and evening for six weeks.
He remains under “administrative control,” and police enforce the order at will. He cannot travel outside Tunis. Every so often, like on Sept. 11, the police order him to sign in with them. “I feel someone is doing it for revenge,” he says.
The police have also scared landlords from renting to him, forcing him to move six times in three years. His Algerian wife’s residency card was confiscated, preventing her from working to supplement his meager salary. The family is barely managing, she said, asking not to be named for fear of further police harassment.
Stress and tension from the police actions have intensified the psychological problems Hammami brought with him from Guantánamo. “I feel too much pressure,” he said, rubbing his temples. “All that blackness comes back.”
Rim Ben Ismail, a psychologist working for the World Organization Against Torture in Tunisia, who has counseled 12 Tunisians who were detained in Guantánamo, said Hammadi’s wish to return to his cell is fairly typical of the Guantánamo detainees.
“They lived with suffering, physical suffering,” she said in an interview. “But now there is a psychic suffering, and often they say ‘Take me back there.’ ”
“Because of their past they are all presumed guilty and it is unlivable for all of them and their families,” she added. “The families are being threatened and harassed.” Parents in particular fear the Tunisian security forces and say they think their sons would be safer in Guantánamo, she added.
Raids have often been needlessly violent, she said; police officials break down doors and wake a suspect with a gun to his head, often in front of his wife and children. “Everything is being done to create aggression in a person,” she said. “They do not need to raid the house at 2 a.m.”
One of her former Guantánamo patients was harassed so relentlessly by police that he became suicidal and ran off to Syria, where he was killed. “He was such a gentle person,” she said sadly. “By treating these people like this you create a climate of revenge and the sense that they have no place at home.”
There is no doubt that Tunisia has a terrorism problem. It has been grappling with attacks from al Qaida-linked groups since 2013. The violence escalated to spectacular attacks in 2015 and 2016 that killed more than 70 people, many of them foreign tourists at a national museum and at a beach resort hotel.
Moreover, Tunisians reportedly make up the largest number of foreign fighters to have joined the Islamic State and other extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, and some have been encouraged to conduct attacks when they return home.
After an attack killed 12 members of the presidential guard in November 2015, the government imposed a state of emergency. At least 139 Tunisians have been placed under house arrest since, according to Human Rights Watch, which documented the cases in a report released in September. The sanctions have been justified in the context of countering terrorism but have “left people facing stigmatization and unable to pursue studies and work,” it stated.
International human rights officials have voiced growing concerns of abuses resurfacing in Tunisia. In a report released this week, Amnesty International accused the Tunisian police and security forces of employing repressive measures used by past dictatorships, including torture, deaths in custody, arbitrary house raids and often unlawful harassment of suspects, their families and communities.
Ben Emmerson, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights while countering terrorism, said during a recent visit to Tunisia that human rights should be central to counterterrorism operations, noting that torture and other repressive measures fuel radicalism.
Hammami said he feels the police are pushing him that way. The son of a farmer from Tunisia’s poor northwest, he says he originally left for Italy in 1986 in search of work. There he fell in with an Islamic missionary group, Tablighi Jamaat, and later traveled to Pakistan, where he obtained refugee status.
He was arrested in Pakistan and handed over to the U.S. military in 2002 and transferred to Guantánamo, where he was accused of training in al-Qaida camps in Afghanistan. The Americans also say they found his identification papers in Tora Bora, the last redoubt of Osama bin Laden in the country, according to papers released by WikiLeaks.
Hammami, who denies going to Afghanistan or having any links to al-Qaida or terrorism, was eventually released without charge.
Whatever his past, he says after nearly 20 years away, he just wants to live quietly. “I never committed a crime,” he said. “I don’t have a record, no theft, no ethics problems, nothing.”
“My only demand is to be stable, but they don’t let me live my life in stability,” he said. “They are pushing you towards death.”