Every day during the 12 1/2 years he was imprisoned at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, as a suspected al-Qaida operative, Adel bin Muhammad El Ouerghi dreamed of freedom.
But since his release along with five other detainees in December, the 50-year-old Tunisian has struggled to cope with freedom as he never dreamed. Resettled in a foreign land, surrounded by a language he doesn’t understand, he finds the challenges of everyday life to be daunting.
“In Guantánamo, we only thought about leaving,” Ouerghi said in Arabic. “Here we have to think about food, clothes, all kinds of things.”
Ouerghi and Syrian Omar Abdelahdi Faraj, 34, spoke with The Associated Press at the four-bedroom, one-bathroom house they share with the other former detainees in a middle-class neighborhood of Montevideo — their first interviews since their release. They declined to talk about their time at Guantánamo or to provide details about how they ended up there, citing reasons that ranged from fear of reprisal to a desire to leave the past behind.
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The six men — four Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian — all were detained in 2002 for suspected ties to al-Qaida. Leaked U.S. military documents describe hardened militants.
Like hundreds of others at Guantánamo, the men were held without charge. The U.S. released them because officials determined that they should no longer be considered a threat.
One of the men, 44-year-old Syrian Abu Wa’el Dhiab, was at the center of a legal battle at Guantánamo because of his repeated hunger strikes to protest his indefinite detention. He was considered so dangerous, having assaulted guards and thrown feces and vomit at them, that he was shackled when examined by medical experts hired by his legal team, according to court documents.
Those descriptions strike a sharp contrast to the men as they appeared in Montevideo.
Dressed in shorts, a collared shirt and sandals, the neatly bearded Ouerghi was quick to offer coffee. Faraj, also with a trimmed beard and glasses, was soft-spoken and shy, often carrying prayer beads in his right hand. Dhiab, who gets around on crutches because he is still weak, was welcoming and chatty, though he did not want to be quoted.
The men are among hundreds who have been released from Guantánamo since it opened in 2002. In recent months, many detainees have been resettled to countries such as Estonia, Oman, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Slovakia and Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama vowed to close the prison when he took office in 2009, but Congress has prevented him from doing so. Another 55 detainees have been cleared for release, and it is not clear what will happen to the 67 detainees still facing indefinite detention.
The men in Uruguay actually were approved for release in 2009, but the government could not find countries willing to take them. The U.S. determined they could not be returned to their homelands and that they needed to be resettled elsewhere. Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, who was jailed for 13 years during the country’s military dictatorship, invited them to resettle here as a humanitarian gesture, offering financial and social services support.
Their landing has been anything but smooth. Last month, Dhiab held a press conference, where he said he felt like he had been transferred from one prison to another and complained that Uruguay needed a better resettlement plan. Then a few weeks ago, another controversy erupted when Uruguayans learned that the men didn’t take jobs they had been offered.
The jobs ranged from construction to cooking, said Fernando Gambera, secretary of international relations in the PIT-CNT union, which has overseen many several aspects of the resettlement.
“When the offers arrived, (the men) went to the interviews, and visited the places they would be working, but later fear set in” and they did not show up to work, said Gambera.
Mujica visited the men at their house, and later on his radio program said they were not as hardy as the ancestors of Uruguayans, who he said were gritty, hard-working immigrants.
Ouerghi said that during the meeting, Mujica encouraged the men to begin working, but also said he understood they needed to learn Spanish and had to forget about Guantánamo to move on with their lives.
“The president never said we were lazy,” said Ouerghi, who like others in the house spoke fondly about the eccentric leader who drives a Volkswagen Beetle. “If all the world’s presidents were like Mujica, there would be no problems.”
Ouerghi and Faraj said they want to work, but first they needed to address nagging health problems, from anxiety and an inability to concentrate to physical ailments like stomach bacterial problems and blurred vision.
The men said they appreciated the hospitality they had received, and hoped to bring their families, at least for visits. However, they worry about the future.
Ouerghi and Faraj said each man receives 15,000 pesos ($600) a month from the Uruguayan government, which they must use for food, clothing and everything else except lodging, which is currently paid for by the union.
“Buying a house here is impossible,” said Faraj, who spent most of his adult life in Guantánamo and expressed shock at the prices in Montevideo. “How could I ever marry?”
Faraj said he had worked as a butcher in his hometown of Hama, Syria, and in Uruguay hoped to open a shop selling halal meat. Similarly, Ouerghi said he wanted to open an Arab restaurant that would serve shwarma, kabobs and other traditional Middle Eastern foods, which he had not found in Montevideo.
Ouerghi and Faraj also lamented the lost time, particularly the years since the United States cleared them for release.
“Why can’t the United States help me?” Ouerghi said, arguing the U.S. had a moral obligation to do so.
The men spend most of the day in the house, which has crumbling plaster on walls adorned with paintings of flowers. Two of the bedrooms have two sets of bunk-beds each, where the men sleep on the bottom and put their clothes and a few personal items on the top bunk.
Just inside the front door, a large wooden desk holds a widescreen television connected to a computer, where the men do online Spanish programs and use Skype to communicate with their families, some on a daily basis.
Because there is no mosque in Montevideo, the devout Muslims sometimes pray together in the living room, or pray separately in their rooms.
Ouerghi said he had lived in Italy for seven years, where he worked as a cook and learned to speak Italian fluently, and then in Afghanistan, where he said he was married to a Pakistani woman and had a house but declined to provide more details about his life there. Ouerghi said his wife divorced him while he was at Guantánamo, but that had not dampened his desire to have a family.
“I have one sister and three brothers,” he said. “They are all married and have children.”
As difficult as their transition has been, there are signs of integration.
Neighbor Patricia Pequena said she sees a big change in the men after three months in Uruguay. When they celebrated New Year’s together, communication was all but impossible and they were afraid of the barking of her white poodle, Candy. Now they speak basic Spanish and pick up the dog, which they affectionately call “Candy loca,” or “crazy Candy,” she said.
All of the men have spent time, from a few nights to a few weeks, at a small hotel about 10 blocks from the house. Like the house, the rooms don’t have air conditioning, noticeable in the humid, heat of the Southern Hemisphere summer, and most have shared bathrooms.
Hotel owner Francisco Rodriguez said union officials told him they wanted to find a modest place that would periodically allow the men to have more personal space than at the house. Rodriguez said the men get on well with the staff, but that communication was difficult.
“One asked me if we had Al-Jazeera here,” said Rodriguez, chuckling as he referred to the Qatar-based, Arabic language news channel. “I doubt you could find that anywhere in Montevideo.”
Associated Press writer Leonardo Haberkorn contributed to this report.