One year on from the US withdrawal and defeat in Afghanistan, CAGE presents this exclusive interview of Ghulam Mustafa conducted in Afghanistan by Arnaud Mafille. CAGE visited the country in early 2022 as part ofongoing investigations into NATO-associated war crimes.
Ghulam Mustafa gives us a unique insight into his rendition from Pakistan to Afghanistan, life in the infamous Bagram prison and his hopes for the future of his country.
After Afghanistan’s liberation, Ghulam Mustafa located his most cruel torturer, and visited him as a free man. While the former guard naturally feared reprisals, Mustafa informed him he had forgiven him in application of the amnesty order issued by the leadership of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
As we mark 21 years since September 11th, Mustafa’s story is one of countless examples of the human cost of invasion, war and injustice wreaked upon Muslim countries. For each living survivor like Mustafa, there are uncountable lives lost in the ‘hot’ wars of the War of Terror and global rights stripped in the ‘cold wars’ since. For Muslims around the world, the ongoing suffering 9/11 brought remains as present today as it did two decades ago.
In Mustafa’s own words…
Thank you for speaking with us. Can you introduce yourself, your name and background?
My name is Ghulam Mustafa. I am from Paghman in Kabul and I studied in school until 12th grade.
Why were you imprisoned for, how long for, who did it?
I have been imprisoned twice- one in Pakistan and once in Afghanistan. We were captured in Pakistan, and imprisoned there for 6 months in the first days of the new Karzai government which was roughly the end of 2013. My phone was monitored and at night I was taken by the ISI and locked in a secret prison there for 6 months.
There were 40 other prisoners there, some I saw were from the leaders of the Taliban. We were all brought to Afghanistan.
The second time I was imprisoned was in Afghanistan for two and half years by the Afghan intelligence agencies. During this arrest, there were a flood of government agents who came to the house and shocked my entire family. They tied my hands and legs and blindfolded me before taking me to prison. It was hell there, I was beaten and attacked repeatedly immediately upon arriving.
Which places were you taken when you were being arrested first?
In Pakistan, the ISI have hidden prisons and we don’t know their locations because we are blindfolded. We were first arrested in Mardan and taken to a prison in Nawqar. There were small rooms for 4 people, and we spent 6 months there. After this, we were blindfolded, had our hands and feet tied together again and were taken to Peshawar. There is a big prison there right next to the Gora Cemetery. We spent one night there. It was Ramadan and they took 14 of us after Suhoor to a plane flying to Kabul.
In Kabul, I spent 9 months in another prison. Here, we saw the same people from Peshawar and the ISI agents who turned us over to them. There was extreme hardship there. We were asking for information on why we were imprisoned, however they couldn’t tell us what we were there for. Even the guards themselves only had very basic papers with only a photo of us and our name underneath, that’s it.
We knew the Americans didn’t pass on any information to them in Peshawar and now here they had no information on us either. We were taken to Pulih Charkhi prison, there they took our details and eventually released us.
In Afghanistan, once you arrived, who took you?
Afghan guards were waiting in vehicles to transport us to prison as soon as we arrived.
First they were trying to establish who is who, what the charges were and what to do with the prisoners, it was chaos. They were receiving messages from the Americans and information on different prisoners, but there was still confusion. They didn’t have any evidence on me and eventually released me after 4 months at Pulih Charkhi. After being released, I was rearrested and taken to spend a further two years in Bagram prison.
In what conditions did they keep you there in Bagram?
There was a lot of suffering there for everybody. Those holding us were Pakistanis working under the instructions of the Americans. There was so much chaos, they trashed the cells, and they didn’t communicate with us. For 20 days I wasn’t allowed to sleep at all and was left to sit with my hands and feet tied against a wall. I would close my eyes when they weren’t looking and hope they didn’t see me. Their routine was to begin beatings from Maghrib (sunset) time until the morning. This continued in Ramadan, we would break our fast and then the attacks would begin.
They would serve food and every so often send a doctor to give painkillers for prisoner injuries. My legs were badly injured from the beatings. They were swollen, wounded, and had to be bandaged up. The doctors would look at my legs, give me tablets and then the guards would come to begin their fresh beatings again afterwards. This went on for almost a month.
When you went to Bagram, whose control were you under?
The entire facility was under the control under Zahiri, the Americans would come in groups every 6 months to take biometric information. The practical day to day operations were run by Zahir. The Americans kept themselves away from the Afghan prisoners. I remember one Afghan prisoner I saw who got too close to them, he was beaten and thrown out of his cell by the Americans.
They divided the prisoners and kept them under different types of control depending on information they received. Some of them were treated like animals. They didn’t get food, medicine, were not allowed to speak- it was so hard and I can say the things I saw was completely outside of the basic human conduct.
Do you remember any specific people you spent time with there?
There were actually all types of people held there, and many of them we didn’t know the background of. There was one I remember who was called ‘Mudhir’ and we got from this name that he was a leader (raees) of some sort. He seemed to have some power over the guards. He was medium height, quite overweight and had a very round face. The guards gave him a lot of respect and I would see people taking papers and waiting for him to sign them.
I remember another man who was tall, thin and had glasses and a moustache. He was a teacher at university before he was arrested. He felt that he didn’t have any teaching opportunities left anymore and gave up his job when he was arrested. I told him he should have stayed as a teacher and at least benefited from the prayers of all the students he helped.
Another older man of medium build with long straight hair and a short beard was kept with us and said he was a former Communist. It was a mixed bag of all kinds of men there.
Their routine there was that they begin their torture of us from the Maghrib (sunset) prayer. They wouldn’t even wait for us to complete our sunnah prayers before they started. They would turn one TV set on very loud, lock the door and begin their beatings throughout the night.
While you were held in the different prisons- what were some of your thoughts and feelings at the time?
When we were first arrested, I thought whatever Allah has written will come to pass for us. Secondly when they took us, I knew they were not going to follow through on anything they said, even when they sentenced me to 20 years. I knew nothing was certain. We prayed together when prayer time came and couldn’t do much else.
In Bagram, what did you learn from the experiences? Were there any lessons?
During the torture, I learnt- these people had such contempt- they didn’t stop with their beatings and torture even during Ramadan. They had a severe enmity for Islam and Muslims. Even on fasting prisoners once sunset came, they would begin their attacks whether you were old, disabled, or sick. They would exhaust themselves trying to get a confession from you, knowing that whatever we say is not the truth anyway because it’s from torture. They were so sincere to their evil and so dedicated to the Americans as their masters. They would do anything possible to get a signed paper of false confessions from you.
They also called themselves Muslims by name. They would say “We are just Afghans like you”, but they were stronger in their evil than even their American masters.
The whole court system was a total farce too. When you would go for your case, a judge would appear half asleep as if he had been drinking all night and was hung over and lethargic. The other court “staff” would just be fumbling around like children. Then they would casually issue 20-30 year sentences to people who had come from being tortured all night while they were sleepy and could barely keep their eyes open. It was all a joke for them.
I could see it was already decided what was going to happen before you went in. They would sit you down and read a general statement to you, then sentence you according to what they were told. Some people were given 5 year sentences, other 10, 20 up to 50 year sentences.
How were you released?
I was given a 20-year sentence and the day I was released I didn’t even realise what was happening. A man came in with a letter and called out my prison number since nobody was addressed by their name. I remember it was Maghrib (sunset) time and they showed me a paper saying I was to be released.
What effect did your imprisonment have on your family, during your time in Bagram?
Everybody in the household suffered. When my children came to visit, they would see me through a small window where you could barely even hear or communicate. My young daughter came once to see me and when I stood up at the end, she began panicking and crying saying, “Where are you going again daddy?” I told her “I’m coming back inshaAllah.”
When I got back to our home in Pakistan- the children’s education was all messed up, and their trauma was clear on all their faces. Their schools were messed up, they wouldn’t accept them in the classes of the new schools they had to go to. The entire way they think, and mentality has been harmed hugely.
When someone in your home is imprisoned, you don’t have enough peace in the home to do anything, even basic things. Even during the rare visits, your family would wait all day just to be able to see you for a few minutes and the children would leave more upset than when they came.
How were the people in Bagram- the fellow prisoners?
There were a mixture of people in the courts and prison. There were normal people, as well as Taliban, Daesh, and criminals. The guards gave enough food just for you to just stay alive. There were prisoners who were sick, one had eyes that were constantly leaking tears and nothing would stop it. There were sick and ill people who died from their illnesses while handcuffed. There were prisoners who died painfully from their cancer while there.
What would you like to tell the people who held you?
I want them to understand everything in Bagram was torture. There were ceiling lights so bright you couldn’t look at it. There were 7 of us in a room 5 metres wide. Our eyes were strained constantly. The Americans would come every now and then to oversee, but it was the Afghans who were doing the daily work. Our ‘own people’ did this.
With the new government now in Afghanistan, would you like the international community to hear from you?
The people of Afghanistan need to stand on their own two feet- they chose the Taliban. They need support to establish stability. People have the right to choose their own government. Whatever the kind of law they have chosen, you have to abide by it now, they are the ones in power.
How do you feel other countries should be like with Afghanistan now?
Now the world is like a small village- everyone is connected. If there’s problems in one home, it disturbs everyone. Afghanistan’s problems are clear to the world. The decisions they’ve made must be respected by the world, this is their right. The country has been under much pressure and hardship. We are humans just like you, this is our land, this is our soil, this is what we want for ourselves.
What is your message for Americans who have been here for 20 years?
You brought the world to our door, showed your power and might and did not bring a single bit of benefit to the country. Now leave us alone to build our own lives, experience peace and live according to what we believe. If you want to help support the country, then you’re welcome to help with no conditions. If you don’t, then at least stop harming us.
What is your message to Muslims in other countries?
We must live and respect by the law of Islam, no matter which country we are in. With the media so widespread, try to understand that the way things are presented on the news isn’t Afghanistan. We don’t want or need anything but to live in self-sufficiency and dignity, nothing more or less. My Muslim brothers and sisters in other countries need to petition their own leaders and media to challenge them on Afghanistan’s right to live on our own terms.
Whatever the situation was, the Taliban now want to bring peace and closure to what has passed before and work from there.
Do you have any other thoughts to share?
I’ve been in prison and know first-hand what a hard, challenging life it is. There are still brothers of ours who are imprisoned in Guantanamo and other prisons around the world. They have been left there for years without access to fair courts or due process.
I ask our brothers and sisters to stand up for them and come together to help them achieve the justice they deserve, for their sakes, and to be reunited with their family like we all deserve to be. I pray Allah gives us the tawfique to work for this cause.
Image courtesy of ResoluteSupportMedia on Flikr
(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.)