My name is Sabri Muhammad Al Qurashi and my background is Yemeni. I was born in Saudi Arabia in 1973, where I grew up in Hafar Al Batin- a city on the border of Kuwait and Iraq. We had a normal family life and growing up, we enjoyed a stable upbringing and didn’t lack anything. After finishing up high school and starting out in a private sector job, I began working in trade. I had set up a business to import perfume scents from Pakistan for the local Saudi market. In 2001, I left Saudi on a business trip to visit factories and negotiate agreements with suppliers.
While in Karachi on the trip, the events of 9/11 took place. In the month of chaos that followed , I got word that many foreigners were being picked up and sold to the American army as Al Qaeda terrorists. There were leaflets being dropped from American aircrafts offering $5000 for each foreigner or Arab that could be handed over to the military. I took the advice to stay put because air travel was not safe, and reports were coming to us of many other foreigners who were being arrested as they tried to return to their home countries. I stayed in the apartment in Karachi I had been sharing with other foreign visitors.
I was shocked one day when a large group of officers from Pakistani intelligence services (ISI) and Americans stormed into the apartment and began arresting everybody there. I was taken away along with 8 others. At the time, we were told we were just being taken for some routine questioning as they are investigating some claims and we would be freed again in no time.
From here, we were taken straight to an intelligence building for interrogation, and I was surprised to see it filled with Pakistani and American interrogators. I was shocked and confused to hear American soldiers shouting accusations of being involved in terrorism, and that they would kill me if I didn’t admit we were part of Al Qaeda.
While in Pakistan, I was held in custody for one month and interrogated twice a day by Americans. The interrogations always involved being beaten while hooded and shackled and I was told nothing would stop until I admitted to being part of Al Qaeda. One day, an American came in and told me via a translator that I was going to be sent back home to Saudi Arabia and I was being put on a flight. My relief was huge, I assumed they had finally realised their error. Only when we were taken off the plane, did I realise they had lied to me, I was now in Kandahar prison in Afghanistan. I remained here for two and a half months, and the treatment was worse than any place I have ever been. I was beaten regularly and left without food and water until I fell unconscious. We weren’t given proper clothing in the extreme Winter cold and beaten even worse when on hunger strike. One day after they told me I was going to be executed in Kandahar, an American told me I was going to go to Cuba. I always thought I would end up there because one by one other prisoners were being taken there too.
I knew a little bit about Guantanamo from the media, since news programmes after 9/11 showed the orange jumpsuits, hooding and shackling, and the cages. I wasn’t given the chance to speak to a lawyer or to contact my family. There was no representation at all for us because Guantanamo was working outside of the law. I had no rights, and we were treated worse than animals.
The flight from Kandahar to Guantanamo was the worst day of my life. I was chained to the floor and shackled so tight with cuffs, wires and ropes that cut into my wrists. I still have the scars of this today. I lost feeling in my hands and legs because of the loss of circulation. We were kept in stress positions with officers standing between each of our kneeling bodies. They watched if you tried to loosen the ropes and beat you if you did. I was beaten all the way and fell unconscious 2-3 times on the journey. It was one of the worst feelings in the world. I wished to die because the journey was 40 hours of pain, abuse, freezing cold, and being blindfolded. Nobody was allowed to speak or communicate on the flight; we just heard beating and screaming. It sounded like Hell.
The health problems I had before being taken to Guantanamo got much worse after that brutal journey. I was taken straight from the flight into a tent that they called a “field hospital” when we arrived. I stayed here for a month in medical isolation, and I felt like the Americans were hoping for me to die here so they could be rid of me. I have respiratory problems and at many points I was left alone in the tent unable to breathe with the Americans ignoring my cries for help. I also temporarily lost my memory here and would go through stages of being confused, delusional and spaced out. It took weeks for me to recover my memory and understand who I was again.
Without any rights, lawyers or contact with my family I was taken straight into a cell block since I was too unwell to be interrogated straight away. I was expecting to die, and they were expecting it too, they were probably hoping for it. When I lived, they decided to take me to my first interrogation so they could begin their torture programme on me like they had already done on the others.
In total I spent over 12 years there from 2002-2014. I was never charged with any crime, never shown any evidence for their false accusations against me. I can’t tell you much more about Guantanamo except that it was hell. It ruined my life. There was torture, so many hunger strikes, medical neglect, isolation from the world and no word from my family for the first 8 years. We didn’t know why we were there, what to expect and what would happen to us. Our life was just interrogation, beating, torture and isolation from the outside world. They took 12 years of my life, giving no answers for what they have done.
In 2010, I got the news that I was “cleared for release”. It took 4 years for me to actually leave. I waited and waited. In 2014, I was visited by a delegation from Kazakhstan who told me they would like to take me back to their country. They told me I would be a free man there and have all the same rights as Kazakh citizens. They said I would get support to study, work and live in freedom. They said they would help me integrate into society and call it home. I was so happy at the idea of rebuilding my life and starting fresh with people who were willing to support me. I agreed to go and cautiously looked forward to this new chapter in my life.
The reality was the total opposite, and I found out the second I was handed over to the Kazakh government.
As soon as I arrived on Kazakh soil, each of us were locked in a small studio for three weeks with very little food. There was a soldier who checked on us twice a day, then 10 days were locked up in a dirty room at a hospital for 10 more days. I was kept without any reason. I was taken to hospital as they told me I had to do a medical exam. They wouldn’t tell me exactly what I was being tested for, so I went on hunger strike in protest. This made the Kazakh police officer furious. He came into my room and said, “You’re not in America anymore, you’re in Russia. If you don’t stop this, we will kill you and break your bones. And nobody will even ask after you.”
Here in Kazakhstan, I have no official status, no ID card, no right to work or education and probably worse of all, no right to see my family. I have been married for 8 years but my wife is not allowed to come and live with me. I am not allowed to earn my own income. In Kazakhstan, it is the Red Crescent who have arranged the accommodation I live in and any healthcare I can access, the government themselves have done nothing for my case.
Almost on a weekly basis, I am harassed by Kazakh police and officials. When they see me walking in the street, they approach me asking for my ID, and when I explain my situation (that they are already fully aware of) they take me to the police station and leave me in the prison cell until someone from the Red Crescent comes to have me released. I have no basic dignity or freedom to move even in the streets around my apartment. The government harasses anyone I get in contact with which makes it impossible to socialise. The government deter people from associating with me by telling us that we are terrorists and dangerous. Because of not wanting to put anybody in harm, I have stopped attempting to integrate with locals.
Here, I feel like I live like a dead person, or even a ghost. But even a ghost has more freedom and can easily travel around. On the streets of Kazakh, a man in civilian clothes approached and attacked me so badly that I still have permanent nerve damage in my face and suffered a broken nose. When I told the police that I wanted to sue the person who beat me, I was told “You’re in Kazakhstan now, you have no rights here, go home.”
Truly, my life now is just as bad as when I was in Guantanamo, and in many aspects even worse. At least there I knew I was in prison and that I would get out one day. Now I’m living as if I’m dead and being told I am free when I am not.
I also fear I will die here, and nobody will care. One of the other brothers who arrived here with me in 2015 died 4 months after he arrived. Asim Thabit Abdullah Al Khaliqi was very sick and was not given any medical attention. When he died, they refused to take his body home to his family and refused to allow us to pray the funeral prayer over him. We believe they removed his organs. He was buried in a generic cemetery that we don’t know the location of. I think the same thing could happen to me too.
I have been treated like a terrorist since the day I stepped on the plane here.
I struggle every single day. I can’t even contemplate the future: what does that even mean for somebody in my position? In Guantanamo I had hope I would be free one day. I thought of being reunited with my family and living my life again- instead now I live without basic human dignity and am treated like trash.
For years I was advised not to talk to the media or draw attention to my situation, but I have no choice anymore. Nobody is helping my case- not the governments of Kazakhstan, America, or Yemen. I have been trying to bring attention to my case for the last 8 years and am struggling to find support.
As a believer, my faith is what gives me sanity otherwise I would have lost my mind. But on the other hand, I have PTSD, severe health problems, psychological issues, and depression. I want to live my life with dignity, meet my wife and have freedom. Now I feel like I’m frozen in time. I feel dead. I only pray now to keep hold of my sanity.
I need to move from this country and raise awareness around the conditions we are living in here. I need to spread my story and let the world know that this is what is happening to the former detainees of Guantanamo. We are people who have already had our lives ruined for decades, now we are forced to live a fresh kind of hell. All I want is to live like a normal human being, with legal status and the basic rights of a citizen. I want people to know I am a human, a victim of torture and now living like a dead man. My health is declining, and I am getting older, I need help and solidarity to relieve me of a life like this.
Confined to my room, one of the main ways I have maintained my sanity is through painting. This was something I started- with difficulty- in Guantanamo and try to continue here. This is the only thing that now connects me to myself. I am not allowed to have a community or human relationships, instead my paintings have become my friends, my family, my children, my community, and my people.
One day I hope I can do more than paint a world where freedom might exist for me.
Image courtesy of Sabri Muhammad Al Qurashi
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)