MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — A megaphone-blaring salesman rattled past the house, and the man the U.S. military once called a “high threat” member of al-Qaeda’s global terror network put his fingers in his ears and grimaced.
“What is that noise?” he asked. “It happens all the time.”
It’s been three months since Jihad Ahmed Mustafa Dhiab and five other former Guantanamo Bay prisoners moved into a four-bedroom house in Uruguay’s seaside capital, and the surroundings are still bewildering.
Dhiab is a Syrian, and he spent 12 years in Guantanamo. Now he lives in Montevideo with three other Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian, all former prisoners at the U.S. detention facility in Cuba. In a week’s worth of long and candid conversations, he acknowledged that the transition to life in a Latin American capital has not been easy.
The first days of feel-good images — the spruced-up men waving from their balcony, welcoming neighbors bringing gifts of yerba mate — have given way to a more uncomfortable limbo. It’s been hardest on Dhiab. The marks of a dozen years in a cell and the hunger strikes he held there show in his gaunt 43-year-old frame, his beard flecked with gray. He hobbles around on crutches, still wearing the Army green T-shirt and sweat pants given to him in Guantanamo. The infamous orange uniform — a Bob Barker brand 65-35 poly-cotton blend made in El Salvador — hangs in his closet for safekeeping.
While free — in theory — to leave Uruguay, the men do not yet have passports. Dhiab hardly ever goes outside now. He feels the promises made to him have been betrayed. He wants his own house, his family brought from Syria, enough money to live with dignity and start a business. He demands that the United States own up to its responsibility for having imprisoned him without charge for more than a decade, finally releasing him with a letter from the State Department saying there was no information he or any of the other men had any role in “conducting or facilitating terrorist activities.”
And so, Dhiab has returned to exercising the one right he had in Guantanamo: to refuse. He no longer accepts the $600-per-month stipend from the Uruguayan government. He has stopped having regular hospital visits despite a long list of health troubles. He has no income, phone or job prospects. He predicts the tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes he nibbles might last a couple more weeks, and when they’re gone, he has a plan.
“When it’s finished, I’ll start the hunger strike,” he said. “I’ll go sit down in front of the U.S. Embassy.”
Jihad Dhiab may be out of prison. But he is not yet free.
They were all detained in 2002 and accused of being hardened al-Qaeda militants, people who allegedly forged documents, trained as suicide bombers, fought at Tora Bora. Some knew each other before their capture and others met in Guantanamo. In 2009, they were cleared for release, but congressional opposition to transferring detainees, let alone closing the penal colony, stalled the process.
In December 2013, Julissa Reynoso, the U.S. ambassador to Uruguay, approached President Jose Mujica about the possibility of taking in a group of detainees. As of today, 645 prisoners have been transferred out of Guantanamo, with 101 going to third countries from Bermuda to Bulgaria to Palau. (There still are 122 prisoners in the facility.) Uruguay is known as the “Switzerland of South America” for its history of embracing immigrants and providing refuge. As a younger man, Mujica had been a guerrilla fighter with the Tupamaro movement and spent more than a dozen years imprisoned by Uruguay’s military dictatorship.
Mujica was “very open” to the idea, said Reynoso, who is now a partner at a New York law firm, Chadbourne & Parke. “Frankly, he’s a very compassionate person.”
Uruguayan delegations visited Guantanamo twice and reached a deal by March 2014, but Pentagon opposition to the transfers delayed the plan into the summer. By then, the Uruguayan presidential election was looming and Mujica didn’t want a media spectacle to disrupt the race. When the men finally flew out of Cuba in December, there was a scramble to get ready for their arrival.
“All this delay created a situation where we waited until the last minute to deal with the details,” said a former U.S. official involved at the time.
Uruguay arranged for a workers’ union to take care of their daily provisions. The union moved them into a two-story building in a working-class Montevideo neighborhood across from a bakery and a bicycle repair shop, a few blocks from the Atlantic. Their building abuts an overgrown vacant lot ringed in barbed wire. Graffitied across the wall is a man’s screaming face, a cluster of skyscrapers growing out of his head. On hot days, a dead-fish tang wafts up from the sea.
Their place, which used to be a home for battered women, has the feeling of a convalescent ward. The men pad around the hardwood floors in flip-flops and sweat pants. Their thoughts seem elsewhere, on the Arabic news streaming over the Internet, in the hours of long-distance calls and laptop Skype chats to relatives in the Middle East. Five times a day, they go to their rooms and face northeast, toward the bakery and beyond to Mecca, and pray.
The men were invariably gracious and welcoming — offering tea and small talk — but most did not want to discuss their situation on the record. Some want to forget about Guantanamo. One would talk only if paid.
For Dhiab, the anger has not subsided. His discussions invariably returned to what he sees as the ultimate culprit, the United States, which he blames for an unjust war against Islam, for the theft of 12 years of his life, for the death of his son (one of four children) in Syria, who may have been killed in a chemical attack by the Damascus government. As he sees it, he is guilty of one thing: being a Muslim. He is grateful to Uruguay for accepting him but feels the United States needs to provide for his well-being. “Who is to blame for my wife and I living in hell?” he asked. “America.”
“You know where James Bond is from?” Dhiab asked me one morning.
He shook his head. I tried England, Britain, but he grew more frustrated. He picked up my iPhone off the coffee table and waved it at me. “James Bond.”
“Yes. Yes. Steve.”
“California?” I said.
“No, he’s from Syria.” He smiled. “Homs.” (Jobs’s father was Syrian.)
Dhiab had a fascination with technology before his imprisonment — the military documents allege he used his computer skills as an al-Qaeda document-forger — but the developments of the past decade confound him. His last computer before his capture ran a Pentium III microprocessor. Now, he wants to understand the differences between the Samsung Galaxy S5 and the Apple iPhone 6. He wants to know which Canon camera is good for video, how to install Viber on the house computer.
But in front of the union-provided Lenovo desktop, on a table in the foyer for the men to share, Dhiab is mostly frozen. He doesn’t know how to copy and paste. He said he has opened several e-mail accounts, but keeps forgetting the passwords.
“I forgot everything in Guantanamo,” he said.
After growing up on the eastern outskirts of Damascus, Dhiab served three years of compulsory military service in the Syrian air force in the early 1990s. He worked for years in his father’s restaurant, which had more than 100 tables amid gardens and fountains. His 2008 Guantanamo profile described him as a member of the Syrian Group, a dismantled terrorist cell that fled to Afghanistan, and said that he was sentenced to death in absentia, “probably for terrorist activities in Syria.” Before Sept. 11, he said, he sold honey in Kabul. The documents claim he once hosted Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian terrorist, and received training at an al-Qaeda camp in Kandahar. He was captured in Lahore during a Pakistani police raid in 2002 and later taken to Guantanamo.
The details of his experience there, and his time before capture, he did not want to discuss in detail, but he has begun writing a book about his life that he insists will reveal all he endured. He alluded to beatings by the prison guards over the years — boot kicks in the back, punches to his neck. During his months of hunger strikes, he was strapped in a restraining chair and force-fed through tubing inserted into his nose, a procedure that U.S. District Judge Gladys Kessler described as causing “unnecessary pain” and “agony.” Whether to make the videos of that process public is now the subject of a lawsuit brought on behalf of Dhiab and several media organizations, including The Washington Post.
The men also recounted smaller daily indignities. How the guards allowed them to go to prison classes but escorted them there so late they routinely missed most of the instruction. How the large sizes of the orange jumpsuits would go to the short detainees and the smalls to taller men. On their flight to Montevideo, five years after they were cleared for release, they were still shackled hand and foot and forced to wear blackout goggles and ear coverings. One of them said he urinated on himself twice during the flight because they were not allowed to use the toilet.
Dhiab’s military documents describe him as a “non-compliant and hostile” detainee, with dozens of disciplinary infractions, including punching a guard.
One afternoon, Dhiab watched “Blacked Out Bay,” a Vice documentary about Guantanamo, on the computer.
He was surprised by images of the prison’s exterior, something he’d never seen. When Rear Adm. Richard Butler, then the commander of Guantanamo, appeared on the screen, Dhiab laughed ruefully.
“Butler,” he said. “He always come to me. Speak to me. He coward man. I don’t know how they give him a general’s rank.”
Near the end, there is footage of Obama at a podium saying, “As president, I have tried to close Gitmo.”
“Liar,” Dhiab muttered.
Last Sunday afternoon, Uruguayans convened in droves as usual along the sunny seaside boardwalk, riding bicycles, chatting with their friends. Squealing kids sledded down a grassy hill on slabs of cardboard.
Inside the house on Maldonado Street, the only sound was the former prisoners’ quiet voices repeating Spanish phrases from an online course.
“Juan es de Londres.” Juan is from London.
“Yo escribo una carta.” I write a letter.
“Nosotros tenemos que hablar con la gente.” We have to speak to the people.
Adapting has come easier for some. After morning doctors’ appointments, some exercise at a gym. They have walked among crowds in parades and street festivals. They’ve saved from their stipends and bought cellphones. Some want to learn the language and make a life here.
But several of the men feel they are not yet equipped to do so. They don’t all get along well and chafe at living together in bunk beds. One of the men, Adel bin Muhammad El Ouerghi, a 50-year-old Tunisian, now sleeps in a nearby hotel. They complain the money is insufficient. Ali Husain Shabaan, a 33-year-old Syrian, said in a televised interview that he would not be able to provide for his family if they came to Montevideo.
“Give or take, almost half of my age has been spent in a prison,” he said. “To ask me to support myself and to be independent from the first week or the first month or two months, that’s quite unreasonable.”
Money has become a sore subject with their hosts. A couple of weeks ago, the union sponsors cut off the long-distance phone line to the house after they saw the bill. They stopped buying the men the kosher meat they had requested, because it was too expensive. Although they were given some laptops, the men each wanted their own headset for Skype calls, while the union wanted them to share one.
“They’re like 5-year-old kids,” said Gabriel Melgarejo, the union’s executive secretary. “These people have to learn to live with their liberty.”
After a visit to their house, former president Mujica added to the tensions by saying the men, who turned down the initial jobs offered by the union, lacked a work ethic.
“If these people were humble people of the desert, poor people, they’d surely be stronger and more primitive, but they’re not,” he said. “Through their hands, features and family histories, it seems to me that they’re middle-class.”
But many of them still struggle from the effects of chronic ailments such as tuberculosis and hepatitis B. Shabaan has impaired vision that he attributes to his time in Guantanamo. Ahmed Adnan Ahjam, a 37-year-old Syrian, has intestinal trouble and a perforated eardrum. Dhiab can’t drink coffee or tea because of kidney problems. The right side of his body frequently goes numb. He says his constant pain keeps him from sleeping more than two hours a night. His lawyer says Dhiab is plagued with post-traumatic stress and mental illness.
“They didn’t arrive here in good health,” said Leonardo Duarte, a union official who regularly visits the house and ferries the men on their errands. “They’re not ready to work; that’s the reality.”
Dhiab’s London-based lawyer, Cori Crider, praised Uruguay for its goodwill. “It shouldn’t surprise anyone that after over a dozen years in Gitmo, years of brutal force-feedings, a son’s death and a homeland laid waste, both Dhiab’s body and his mind are going to need time to recover,” she said.
Dhiab doesn’t know what he will do. He cannot go home; his village of Otaybah has been devastated by the war, his family scattered to refugee camps. He wants to be elsewhere — Qatar, Malaysia, Brunei — somewhere he can speak Arabic and be among Muslims.
“In 13 years, I’ve not seen my family,” he said. “I miss my family. I need my family. Nobody helps me like my family.”
For now, he waits and imagines a better future.
“We are broken,” he said. “And we need to heal.”
Julie Tate in Washington and Gabriela Martinez in Mexico City contributed to this report.
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