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In a Jail in Cuba Beat the Heart of a Poet

Afghan, Now Freed by U.S., Scribbled on Paper Cups but Never Stopped Writing

By N.C. Aizenmann
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page A19

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Among the old leather volumes in the library of Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost is a black plastic binder full of rumpled letters he wrote, sent from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

At the bottom of each form is a perfunctory salutation. The rest is taken up with the poems that helped Dost keep his sanity during nearly three years of confinement.

Afghan men arrived at the Supreme Court in the Afghan capital, Kabul, after their release from a U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Tuesday. More than 500 detainees continue to be held at Guantanamo Bay. (Ahmad Masood -- Reuters)

"Bangle bracelets befit a pretty young woman," begins one of the poems. "Handcuffs befit a brave young man."

The letters were one in a series of measures the Afghan-born author said he took to record the torrent of imagery and insights that flooded his brain nearly every day of his captivity.

At first, deprived of paper and pen, Dost memorized his best lines or scribbled them secretly on paper cups. Later, he was supplied with writing materials and made up for lost time by producing reams of poems and essays -- only to have all but a few of the documents confiscated by the U.S. government upon his release.

"Why did they give me a pen and paper if they were planning to do that?" Dost asked last week with evident anguish. "Each word was like a child to me -- irreplaceable."

The slight, soft-spoken man of 44 was back in his library Friday in this city near the Pakistani-Afghan border, surrounded by stacks of Islamic texts. It was just two days after the U.S. government had delivered him and 15 other former prisoners to Afghan authorities.

As soon as he was freed, Dost headed east to Peshawar, his home since the 1980s, where several hundred well-wishers and eight shy children waited to greet him in a large carpeted parlor.

Dost said he was arrested by Pakistani police in November 2001, along with his younger brother, Badr. The two were kept in solitary confinement for two months, then transferred to U.S. military detention in Afghanistan, where prisoners were kept in larger groups but forbidden to speak to one another.

The brothers, both gemstone dealers, said they had been falsely accused by enemies linked to the Pakistani government and detained in the frenzied hunt for terrorists that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. They said they had no links to either Afghanistan's Taliban regime or al Qaeda.

But their American captors, they said, seemed to believe otherwise. In Afghanistan, they said, Americans sheared off their beards, forbade them to wash, shoved their faces into the dirt and screamed curses in their ears during frequent interrogations.

The accounts could not be independently verified. The procedures are secret, and U.S. officials in Afghanistan refused to comment on the 16 detainees released last week.

Badr, who was released six months ago, said he volunteered to clean out the metal drums used by prisoners for bathing, hoping to get close enough to Dost to quietly compare notes on the accounts they were giving interrogators.

Dost had other priorities.

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