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'Send Us Back': Former Guantanamo Detainees Are Camping Out at the US Embassy in Uruguay

Five months after landing to freedom in Uruguay, the six refugees have failed to adapt. The US said it has "no obligation" to them, while Uruguay said it will no longer receive prisoners released from Guantanamo.

by Christian Müller
May 5 2015, 7:20pm

Imagen por Nicolas Garrido/AP

Former Guantanamo Bay prisoners who were accepted with much fanfare as refugees in Uruguay are now openly rejecting their host and camping out in front of the US Embassy.

They've set up the camp in the capital of Montevideo and say that if Uruguay and the US can't improve their living conditions, they should be returned to "Guantanamo, Syria, or anywhere else," one of the refugees said.

The statement may have been an exaggeration, yet it displayed the frustrations of the six men who have been unable to adapt to life in Uruguay since their arrival in December.

On April 24, four of the six former Guantanamo prisoners set up the encampment on a strip of grass before the US Embassy.

The strained relations with the former detainees has become a headache for Uruguay's government. This Wednesday, the men are scheduled to meet with Uruguayan officials and the refugee solidarity group charged with caring for them, in order to negotiate an end to the protest.

The six refugees are demanding better housing and the ability to bring their families to live with them from elsewhere, in order to lead "normal lives."

A local news site called the scheduled meeting "D Day."

Meanwhile, the United States, which negotiated the detainees' transfer from Guantanamo, is reportedly considering new security measures at the embassy as long as the encampment remains.

Related: Ex-Guantanamo Prisoner, Convicted of Killing a US Soldier, Granted Bail in Canada.

It wasn't always this uncomfortable.

The refugees arrived to Uruguay after former President José Mujica and the administration of US President Barack Obama reached an agreement to relocate them. The refugees, who were never tried, had been cleared for release since 2010.

'Their hands, something in their faces [...] leads me to think these are middle class men.'

In the pre-dawn hours of December 7, 2014, the six men arrived — Syrians Jihad Diyab, 43; Ahmed Ahjam, who is 37 or 38; Ali Shaaban, 33; Abd al Hadi Omar Faraj, who is 33 or 34; Tunisian Adel bin Muhammad El Ouerghi, 49; and Palestinian Mohammed Tahamuttan, 35.

The men were flown into the country handcuffed and with their faces covered. After three days of medical examinations, they were set up in a house near Montevideo's coast that was donated by a major national trade union.

During their first week in Montevideo, they received documentation, gave media interviews, took tours around town, ate plenty of Uruguay's famous meat, and took Spanish lessons. They also began receiving a monthly stipend from the Uruguayan government.

Related: New Uruguay President Postpones a Key Step in Mujica's Marijuana Legalization Law.

The refugees pray on the lawn outside the US Embassy in Montevideo. (Photo by Nicolas Garrido/AP)

But by February, the situation turned sour. None of the prisoners had acquired a job, although they had received various offers — one from the meat industry association, one from a jeweler. The offers of work were ignored or turned down, though it's not clear why.

Press reports later said the men were having trouble living together. Two of them moved into a hotel, while Diyab traveled to Argentina, where he gave interviews and threatened to start a hunger strike.

Before leaving office, Mujica wondered bluntly whether the social status the men enjoyed before they were imprisoned had somehow hindered their ability to adapt.

"Had they belonged to the desert, or to the poorest classes, they would be hardier, stronger. But they are not. [...] Their hands, something in their faces, their small family stories, leads me to think these are middle-class men," Mujica said after a visit with the refugees in February.

'If we can't bring our families or have a home, then they better return us to Guantanamo, Syria, or anywhere else.'

Then, on April 24, four of the refugees started a demonstration in front of the US embassy in Montevideo. VICE News watched the men set up camp. They didn't give many interviews, but did start a blog.

"For 13 years, we were unjustly detained by the US government, and now they should make sure that we have a normal life," the refugees wrote on the site they launched. "They cannot ignore their responsibilities, they should help us with housing, and financial support."

The men claimed that they had stopped receiving their allowance, due to their rejection of an agreement offered to them by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, who offered to look out for them.

The embassy said in a statement that diplomats "are aware of their demands, but every interview has to be requested through the appropriate channels, and during this mission's working hours."

Abd al Hadi Omar Faraj, speaking through a Spanish interpreter, floated the unusual idea of returning to the horrifying conditions at the US base in Cuba. "If we can't bring our families or have a home, then they better return us to Guantanamo, Syria, or anywhere else," Faraj said.

The refugees pray several times a day on the lawn. Neighbors give them food and tents, and a policeman watches over them.

Rodolfo Nin Novoa, Uruguay's secretary of foreign relations, said on April 27 that the UN would take care of the men until February 2016, just over a year in total.

The former prisoners have to sign an agreement where they commit themselves to learn Spanish and take care of their health in exchange of receiving financial support and housing. In addition, the Red Cross would reunite them with some of their relatives.

Related: US Senator: 'Guantanamo Detainees Can Rot in Hell.'

(Photo by Christian Müller)

According to the government, the refugees have refused to sign the one-year agreement because they thought Uruguay would be hosting them for three years. Just one of them has accepted it.

"They are trying to be more aggressive with their demands. But this is a civil problem that has to be solved by them, and by the government that detained them," Novoa said.

In response, Marie Harf, spokeswoman for the US State Department, said in a briefing on April 30 that the US "has no obligation of providing a compensation" to the former detainees.

VICE News visited the former Guantánamo detainees at their house in the coastal Palermo neighborhood of Montevideo, a place where the door is always open. El Ouerghi and Faraj said they didn't want to make any statements. Apart from Shaaban, all of them have trouble speaking English, and they barely speak any Spanish.

A few days later, in front of the embassy, the refugees gathered and met with Mauricio Pígola, a lawyer who is advising them.

"While [the US embassy] is a reference point, it does not imply that they are requesting anything directly from the US," Pígola told VICE News.

In the meantime, Uruguay looks to avoid this sort of situation in the future. Foreign secretary Novoa said in March the Uruguayan government will not be receiving any more former Guantanamo prisoners as refugees.

Related: Uruguay's Marijuana Cultivator Are Coming Out of their Grow Closets.

Follow Christian Müller on Twitter at @cmuller17.