Captive who wouldn’t leave Guantánamo decided at door of Europe-bound plane

Mohammed Bwazir, a Yemeni, from his 2008 U.S. military profile provided to McClatchy Newspapers by WikiLeaks.
Mohammed Bwazir, a Yemeni, from his 2008 U.S. military profile provided to McClatchy Newspapers by WikiLeaks.

Detainee Mohammed Bwazir’s fateful decision to stay in a cell at Guantánamo rather than start anew in Europe came down to a calm, 10-minute standoff when the warden of the war-on-terror prison urged him to board a C-17 cargo plane carrying two other captives to new lives.

Bwazir, 35, feared going to the country that offered him sanctuary — it has not been publicly identified — and waffled in the weeks ahead of what was to be departure from 15 years of U.S. military detention without charge. He’d gone through out-processing and about a week’s segregation with two other captives and was shackled at the ankles, wrists and waist at “the bottom of the ramp of the aircraft,” Army Col. David Heath said Tuesday.

The Yemeni captive “made it clear that, ‘I do not want to leave. I want to go back to my cell.’ So that’s what we did,” the still surprised colonel said of the Jan. 20 episode. “It was disappointing.”

As of today, Bwazir is one of 91 prisoners at the sprawling detention center that President Barack Obama wants closed. In years past others among Guantánamo’s almost 800 captives have rejected certain offers of third-country sanctuary, and subsequently left voluntarily. But none have been known to make it that far — through health checks, would-be host country and International Red Cross exit interviews — all the way to the steel-gray ramp of a U.S. Air Force cargo plane.

All the other ones that we transferred have walked willingly on the plane. Some smiling. Some not. But I have never had anyone refuse to go.

Army Col. David Heath, Guantánamo’s warden

“He wasn’t angry. He wasn’t acting out. He was very calm,” said Heath, who commands the detention center guard force. In keeping with prison camp policy of anonymity, his description of the strange event never once named the captive. But Bwazir’s lawyer, John Chandler of Atlanta, did the day it happened, saying the Yemeni feared going to a country where he had no family, knew no one — in remarks echoed by prison staff in interviews this week.

Chandler, himself still disappointed three weeks later, was one of a series of Americans who tried to persuade the Yemeni to start anew in southern Europe. But the lawyer said he understood that Bwazir only wanted to go to family in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates or Indonesia. There, he has a mother, brothers and uncles and aunts.

To which the State Department’s special envoy for the closure of Guantánamo said that episodes like Bwazir’s would not impede his efforts to empty the detention center. In fact, Lee Wolosky said he foresaw scenarios where a captive could be forced onto a plane and sent to another country.

“We’re not a travel agency. We’re not here to fulfill every wish and desire of a resettlee,” Wolosky told the Miami Herald on Wednesday.

“They do not get to pick and choose where they go. In certain circumstances, a detainee would be forced on to an aircraft in order to complete a resettlement that has been negotiated by the Department of State and run through the and fully vetted by the inter agency and notified to the Congress by the Secretary of Defense.”

The senior State Department official responsible for such transfers said in the future a captive could be forced on a plane

Since such transfers are considered sensitive diplomacy, it was unclear whether countries offering sanctuary to willing captives would be asked whether they’d take an unwilling former captive for resettlement before putting him on the plane.

In the weeks ahead of one of the most astonishing choices in the history of the detention center, Chandler urged Bwazir by phone and sent a sympathetic lawyer already at the base to counsel him. The prison’s Muslim cultural adviser, who blamed “negative influence around” Bwazir, had a Navy doctor give him Arabic-language information off the Internet about the would-be host country. U.S. diplomats also got him a letter of assurance from the country that family members could meet him there.

“He had concerns along the way and vacillated back and forth,” said the Navy doctor, a captain who specializes in family medicine. Departing detainees can experience “anxiety of the unknown, not knowing whether they’ll see family members or not” after what he termed “a very stable, very steady, very consistent” detention center setting where the captors make life decisions for the captives.

Experts consulted by the Herald described it more like a sense of helplessness after years of institutionalization. Two noted that Bwazir would have been 20 or so at capture and spent nearly half his life in detention, without charge.

“You may feel safer in the bad situation you are in than in an unknown,” said JoAnne Page, president and CEO of New York’s Fortune Society, which helps U.S. prisoners transition back into society. “It takes tremendous courage and a leap of faith to go to a country you don’t know. There are still people at Gitmo he knows.”

Plus, the Navy doctor theorized, “they see what happened in Europe a month or two ago and it makes them wonder what the reception is going to be like.”

No prison official or U.S. diplomat would name the would-be host country. Nor would Chandler, who described his client’s decision as lamentable. It wasn’t a place to fear, he said Wednesday. “It’s a country that would be a good place for you or me or a person from Yemen to go to.”

It’s a country that would be a good place for you or me or a person from Yemen to go to.

Attorney John Chandler, on the place that offered him sanctuary

Heath, who commands about 1,300 troops from guards to military escorts to an emergency reaction force, said he began to hear “rumblings” that Bwazir might resist resettlement and, unusually, “spent two or three weeks talking to him” and got him information “to educate him more about where he was going.”

Heath described Bwazir’s “angst” as two-fold: He didn’t know the country and “he didn’t have any family there.”

Up until the last 10 minutes at the open ramp at the rear of the plane, “he wasn’t definitively saying no. He wasn’t definitively saying yes.”

In one early exchange, the captive asked: “So you are telling me to go?”

The colonel: “I’m saying, ‘Yes, you need to go. This is the fastest way for you to get back to your family.’ ”

Heath also said he told him: “You don’t have any family here and you can bet they’re not going to come here.”

The coaxing “got him all the way to the airplane,” Heath said, “and ultimately he refused.”

Guantánamo prison has no formal rehabilitation program but does offer a class that lets detainees prepare a resume, learn interpersonal skills.

Heath has handled 58 transfers in his 20 months at Guantánamo, and such a thing had never happened on his watch. “All the other ones that we transferred have walked willingly on the plane. Some smiling. Some not. But I have never had anyone refuse to go.”

Prison leadership and spokesmen in the aftermath of the episode have offered no new ideas on how to prepare a detainee for life after Guantánamo. They remind that the detention center is meant to hold detainees and has had no explicit rehabilitation program in the prison’s 14 years in Cuba.

Detainees do attend English, Spanish and art lessons as well as a “life skills” class taught by an Arabic-speaking contractor. The closest thing to a re-entry program, it covers “interpersonal communication skills,” résumé writing, business and personal finance and computer use.

But experts contacted by the Herald suggested several ideas for how to ease the transition, starting with a buddy system of sorts. Have the host country send someone to the base who will be assisting in resettlement, ideally to accompany a captive on the military plane or at least be a familiar face when he gets there, suggested Page.

Retired Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, who has worked with both Guantánamo detainees and U.S. soldiers, suggests detainees get a deep dive in the country that’s offering them sanctuary at a specific transition site on the base that separates them from detainees not selected to go.

Let them start living more independently.

Retired Army Brig. Gen. Stephen Xenakis, a psychiatrist

He cited the military’s earlier use of Camp Iguana, a fence and barbed-wire ringed detention site of wooden huts where the military segregated some Uighurs, Muslims from China in shared quarters, washrooms, a mosque and other common areas. They’re gone now, some having refused their first offer of third-country sanctuary in the Pacific island nation of Palau, and were sent elsewhere.

“Let them start living more independently,” said Xenakis, a former Army doctor. “There are so many habits that get embedded in your lifestyle after you’ve been detained under those kind of circumstances, making that transition is hard.”

But Guantánamo staff have been reluctant to allow access to outsiders.

Guantánamo staff gave Mohammed Bwazir Arabic-language information about the country offering him resettlement. Diplomats got him a letter from the host nation assuring that family members could visit him there.

In that case, said Page, let the captive have a Skype chat with someone in the receiving party — to meet the people and see the place awaiting him.

Chandler warmed to the idea. He said it might have made the difference if Bwazir saw and met someone saying, “I’ll be here when you get here.” Still Chandler was confounded. “Every other man down there who I know says, ‘Send me anywhere. Get me out of Guantánamo.’ ”

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg

About Mohammed Bwazir

Even before the Barack Obama administration, leaked documents show, the detention center recommended the release of Mohammed Bwazir — five years after he was brought to Guantánamo from Afghanistan, in May 2002. U.S. military intelligence analysts at one point believed he surrendered to the Northern Alliance in November 2001, in northern Afghanistan, and somehow ended up in the custody of Pakistani security forces, which turned him over to U.S. forces in late December 2001. He would spend the next four months in Afghanistan before being airlifted to Guantánamo for interrogation.

By Oct. 27, 2008, the military profiled him as an al-Qaida training camp drop-out, active hunger striker and one-time volunteer to become a “suicide operative,” apparently at Guantánamo, which at that time considered committing suicide in the prison camp an act of asymmetric warfare. In that profile, the detention center recommended that he could leave U.S. custody to a rehabilitation program “to successfully reintegrate into his society as a law-abiding citizen.”

Bwazir’s attorney, John Chandler, has described him as a frequent, committed hunger striker who left his native Yemen for Afghanistan to do charity work at age 19 or 20 and arrived at the prison in May 2002 as “a very young fellow” who was “pretty emotional.” The day he got there, according to a medical record, he stood nearly 5 feet 8 inches and weighed 126 pounds.

Has it happened before?

Not on Col. David Heath’s watch. But in 2009 U.S.-friendly Palau agreed to take 17 Guantánamo captives, Uighur Muslims. Some declined, apparently fearful that the remote Pacific island nation was too close to China. But they did that long before their transportation was arranged, and subsequently agreed to resettlement in several other nations.