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In a Jail in Cuba Beat the Heart of a Poet

"What kind of spring is this," he whispered in verse as Badr approached, "where there are no flowers and the air is filled with a miserable smell?"

Badr said he gaped in disbelief. Even in prison, his brother was composing poems.


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)

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But Badr said he gained new appreciation for Dost's talent after they were shipped to Guantanamo in May 2002. The two were kept in separate wire pens, and could only glimpse each other from a distance. The U.S. government had declared all such prisoners "enemy combatants," subject to indefinite detention and ineligible for many rights accorded prisoners of war.

Badr said he grew increasingly depressed, until one day someone handed him a tiny note written on a flattened paper cup.

"It was just a short poem," Badr recalled. "Something about how in life everything is possible and we should be patient because freedom is close at hand." But it was enough to swell his heart with hope. "I was suddenly so happy," he said.

Dost had smuggled the note to Badr through an ingenious ruse. Every few days, representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross arrived with forms so prisoners could write brief letters home. They were given only 10 minutes, but that was enough to dash off other notes on hidden scraps of paper cups. Prisoners then passed the messages between wire pens on pulleys made of threads from their prayer caps.

Dost said he also began adding poems to the Red Cross forms. When they reached Peshawar, his oldest son carefully stowed each new missive in the black plastic binder.

In his first months of confinement, Dost's poetry had been full of despair. But now, having at last found a way to record his compositions, Dost said he felt his spirits lift. The heat and mosquitoes in the camp were as bothersome as ever, but his sense of hopelessness gave way to optimism and defiance.

"Just as the heart beats inside the darkness of the body, so I, although in a cage, continue to beat with life," began one letter-poem. "Those who have no courage or honor think themselves free, but are slaves. I am flying on the wings of thought, and so, even in this cage, I am more free than they."

Meanwhile, about a year after Dost's arrival in Cuba, he learned that U.S. authorities had agreed to allow the prisoners pens and paper.

The rules were strict. To prevent detainees from using pens as weapons, the guards gave out a flexible, rubber variety that made writing awkward. Each man was limited to one sheet of paper per shift, but Dost said fellow inmates donated their paper to him, then eagerly read his poems. One of his most popular was a satire criticizing the U.S. military for sending people to Cuba on thin evidence.

"That poem was on everybody's lips," he recalled with a proud smile.

Dost's satirical penchant had gotten him into trouble before. After he wrote a poem lampooning an Islamic cleric in Peshawar, he said, the man bore him such a grudge that he fingered him to Pakistani intelligence agents, leading to his arrest.

At Guantanamo, he said, he had to spend hours explaining to interrogators a satirical essay he had published in 1998, after President Bill Clinton offered a $5 million reward for Osama bin Laden. Dost's essay offered a reward of 5 million afghanis -- then the equivalent of about $113, he said -- for Clinton.


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