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behind the bars: guantanamo bay

Growing Up Guantánamo

International juvenile justice standards identify child soldiers first and foremost as victims in need of representation and rehabilitation. Still, a number of adolescents have been held as prisoners at Guantánamo Bay.
November 11, 2014, 5:00am

Mohammed el Gharani, a citizen of Chad raised in Saudi Arabia, had just turned 15 when he arrived at Guantánamo Bay in February 2002, shepherded off a military cargo plane wearing shackles and blackout goggles. He weighed 126 pounds, was too young to shave, and for months didn't know where he was. "Some brothers said Europe," he later recalled in an in​terview with the London Review of Books. Others thought the unsparing winter sun suggested Brazil. When an interrogator finally told him he was in Cuba, Mohammed didn't recognize the name. "An island in the middle of the ocean," the interrogator said. "Nobody can run away from here, and you'll be here forever."

Omar Khadr, born in Toronto, was also shipped to the offshore prison as a juvenile. The 16-year-old made an early impression on the Army chaplain on base, who, walking by his cell, found Omar curled up asleep, arms wrapped tightly around a Disney book with drawings of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Goofy. "He definitely seemed out of place," the chaplain told reporter Michelle Shephard, who wrote about Omar in her book Guantánamo's Child.​

Fahd Ghazy at around age 17. Photo courtesy the Center for Constitutional Rights

Fahd Ghazy, who grew up in a Yemeni farming village, was seized when he was 17. He had recently graduated at the top of his high school class. One of Guantánamo's earliest detainees, he was initially housed in the jerry-built, open-air cages of Camp X-Ray. Around the time he was transferred to a permanent cellblock, Fahd learned he'd won a university scholarship to study in Yemen's capital, Sana'a. Nearly 13 years later, he's still at the naval base—still without charge.

Swept up as juveniles, Mohammed, Omar, and Fahd were among some 15 to 20 detainees whose adolescence and early adulthood unfolded within the desolate confines of the prison camp, marked by isolation, abusive treatment, and the chronic stress of indefinite detention. For years, the Pentagon misreported how many children had been seized. "They don't come with birth certificates,"  a Guantánamo public affairs officer ​told the New York Times in 2005. To this day, the government considers Fahd to be older than he is, explains his lawyer, Omar Farah of the Center for Constitutional Rights. While visiting Fahd's relatives in rural Yemen last year, Farah confirmed the birth date Fahd has consistently maintained, recorded in his family's Qur'an.


"Because they're developing, they're more vulnerable to being traumatized," says Dr. Stephen Xenakis, a retired brigadier general and child psychiatrist who's served as a medical expert in several cases at Guantánamo. "They're detached from their families, they don't have schooling, and they're thrown in with adults in this adversarial climate."

International juvenile justice standards identify child soldiers first and foremost as victims in need of representation and rehabilitation.

The first prisoner Xenakis evaluated was Omar—deemed high profile because his father had ties to Osama bin Laden—who'd been accused of lobbing a grenade that killed an American medic during a firefight in Afghanistan. Gravely injured in the confrontation, Omar was found under a pile of debris with two bullet holes in his back and shrapnel in his eyes. International juvenile justice standards identify child soldiers first and foremost as victims in need of representation and rehabilitation. But Omar was air-evacuated to Bagram and interrogated almost immediately—pain relief for his injuries withheld during questioning.

Years later, in an interrogation room that doubled as an office for doctor-patient interviews, Omar would say to Xenakis, "I'll tell you what happened in this room." He described being used as a "human mop": After painful stress positions caused him to urinate on the floor, he said, military police poured pine oil on his body and dragged him through the liquid. "These were kids," says Xenakis. "They're threatened and harshly interrogated; they're frightened. I just didn't think it was consistent with our values as a country."


Dennis Edney, Omar's longtime civilian lawyer, recalls his client's bearing during their first meeting in 2004. "I went into one of those cold, windowless cells," Edney says, "and saw a young boy chained to the floor, trying to keep himself warm. He was blind in one eye, with paralysis in his right arm. He reminded me of a little broken bird. I recall the absolute shock I felt witnessing this lonely, abject figure."

Plagued by procedural snarls and an ever-changing rulebook, Omar's military commissions case dragged on for years. Had he gone to trial as scheduled in 2010, he would have been the first child soldier to be prosecuted for war crimes since World War II, "a terrible precedent," according to Human Rights Watch. Instead, after a military judge ruled admissible his statements obtained under torture, Omar pleaded guilty to all charges, avoiding further entanglement with a system he'd described before the court as "constructed to convict detainees, not find the truth."

Now 28 and serving an eight-year sentence in Canada, Omar remains close to Xenakis, who provides ongoing support. "He's going to have some real challenges when he's out," Xenakis says. "How does he recover the skills to communicate and socialize outside the prison setting? How does he act in an environment where he can make his own choices? He's very conscientious and diligent, but he's got a lot of ground to make up."


According to Polly Rossdale, who directs the Life After Guantánamo project for the human rights group Reprieve, the most ordinary tasks and desires often strike former detainees as insurmountable and unachievable. "When they get out," she says, "the main things that men call me up about are, 'How am I going to find a wife?' Or they want to go to computer class and get computer skills."  Some have been consumed by panic in the shampoo aisle, while others can't remember how to put on a seatbelt.

At age 23, after seven years in the prison camp, Mohammed was transferred to Chad. Although his parents' status meant he was a citizen, Mohammed had never visited the country. Some of his family lived in Saudi Arabia, and he didn't speak French or the local Arabic dialect, according to Rossdale. "You can imagine how challenging it would be to end up in what is one of the poorest countries on Earth," she says. Initially denied a passport by the Chadian authorities, he was forced to start over largely on his own.

His break had come in 2009, when a judge determined that the government's allegations against him—that he'd fought at the battle of Tora Bora, and belonged as an 11-year-old to a London-based al Qaeda cell—were based on non-credible testimony from other detainees. Instead, Mohammed said he'd traveled to Karachi for classes in computers and English, which racism in Saudi Arabia had rendered otherwise inaccessible. Pakistani police raided a mosque he attended in 2001 and sold him to the US military for a bounty. At first, Mohammed was untroubled. "I was kind of happy," he revealed in the LRB interview, conducted by Jérôme Tubiana in 2011. "I loved to watch old cowboy movies and believed that Americans were good people… Maybe they'd allow me to study in the US."

Breaking down an individual's personality had terrible effects on making him feel powerless and confused, shattering his sense of self. And of course if you do that to a child, it's just multiplied a hundred fold.

But at Guantánamo, American guards flung racist taunts at him. Mohammed was hung by his wrists, deprived of sleep, and subjected to loud music and brightly colored strobe lights that permanently impaired his vision. "I think what was so insidious and damaging was the psychological torture," Rossdale says, commenting on the use of medical professionals to identify and exploit detainees' vulnerabilities. "Breaking down an individual's personality had terrible effects on making him feel powerless and confused, shattering his sense of self.  And of course if you do that to a child, it's just multiplied a hundred fold." Mohammed attempted suicide on more than one occasion, cutting his wrists on a metal doorframe, and tying his clothes together to create a noose.

But speaking to Tubiana, he also reflected on small systems for survival: learning English by writing on the walls with soap; regaining a modicum of control by taunting guards with their real names, which detainees weren't supposed to know; and deriving pleasure from fleeting, keyhole glimpses of cars outside or the sky. "It's important to understand the sort of sustenance that detainees drew from each other," Rossdale adds. Mohammed, who finally made it out of Chad in 2011 (we've withheld his current location at his request), is married now, his second child born earlier this year. He named the baby Shaker, after Shaker Aamer, a mentor and friend still imprisoned at Guantánamo. "Shaker was one of the men who really looked after Mohammed because he was a young boy," Rossdale explains. "This is his way of saying thank you."


Of the 779 men imprisoned at Guantánamo, roughly 600 were eventually released without charge. Nevertheless, heavy stigma has burdened former detainees looking for work or community acceptance. "We have folks saying, 'These are retired terrorists,' like they're drawing some pension from al Qaeda," says Rossdale. "It comes from the government, the public, the Muslim community. People are worried they're going to be tarred by this brush." Without charge and thus their day in court, most former prisoners are left with administrative clearance, not innocence.

Some of Guantánamo's unluckiest are those like Fahd, who was cleared for release in 2007 under Bush, again in 2009 under Obama, yet remains unfathomably in legal limbo. One of the last former juveniles still imprisoned, Fahd turned 30 in May. "They told me they had the power to make me hungrier and sicker than I'd ever been in my life," he told Farah, describing an early interrogation in 2003. He's since been interrogated more times than he can remember.

Fahd was married as a teenager in Yemen, and his wife gave birth to a daughter, Hafsa, just two months before he was apprehended. He had traveled to Afghanistan in August 2001 following his final high school exams and was detained in Pakistan after fleeing the US bomb attacks in the wake of September 11. Allegations that he was a member of Bin Laden's security detail were eventually assessed as unfounded, according to government documents released by Wikileaks.

Fahd Ghazy's family gathers for a meal at the Ghazy home. Photo courtesy the Center for Constitutional Rights.

Farah describes Fahd as "intelligent and family-oriented," still wracked by guilt at having lost his university scholarship. "His family sacrificed tremendously to educate him," Farah explains. "The goal was to catapult him forward so he could get the kind of job that would help the others achieve a better lifestyle."

In 2007, when Fahd was first informed he'd been approved for transfer pending "appropriate diplomatic arrangements," he vested so much faith in his imminent exit that he began to fret about his lack of practical parenting skills. "You can imagine the joy he must have experienced thinking he'd soon be reunited with his wife and young daughter," Farah says. "He spent time meeting with older prisoners to get a sense of how to go about instructing and raising a child. Then, to have his hopes dashed. It's impossible to conceive of what a roller coaster of emotions that must be like." After the second approval in 2009 failed to effect change, Farah goes on, "day after day collapses, coming to that slow realization that it's all really a cruel joke."

Eighty-seven of Guantánamo's remaining 148 detainees are from Yemen, 58 of whom have been cleared for transfer. Time ticks away not because they represent an enduring threat but because "appropriate diplomatic arrangements" with the unstable country remain elusive. Last year, Fahd participated in the collective hunger strikes provoked by claims that guards disrespectfully handled prisoners' Qur'ans. "We're saying to the government, the men you've cleared, just leave them alone," he told his lawyer. "Don't make life hell for us. We want to live peacefully here until we can get out of this black hole."

In 2010, the International Committee of the Red Cross made available periodic video calls to Yemen, enabling Fahd to speak face-to-face with relatives for the first time in eight years. "It's such a limited window of time," Farah explains, "that it ends up being a really bittersweet experience, where he gets flashes of familiar faces before the next person has to come in." So Fahd often conjures what it might be like to see his family reunited. "I have imagined myself in my mother's embrace," he told Farah. "She is crying. I am crying. Can I ever finish greeting her? Who should I go to first? My mother has the most right, but wouldn't Hafsa feel the same? So if I hug my mother, will Hafsa slip in between us? When will that moment come? I will be suffocated by my family."