After over 14 years of detention in Guantánamo without charge, Zahir Hamdoun today earned his freedom, transferred along with 14 other men from US custody to the United Arab Emirates. Zahir, a Yemeni national, was detained in 2002 after fleeing Afghanistan, where he had been teaching Islam while awaiting a college scholarship, shortly after the onset of the US war. The US relied on statements made under duress to justify his decade-plus detention, but during that time never charged him with a crime, even cleared him for release. This day is long overdue.
Despite the many hours I have spent with Zahir over the last year as one of his attorneys, I cannot fathom how he must feel today. I have never spent a night in prison—much less the majority of my adult life. Even more than the dreadful conditions, vicious force-feedings and invasive genital searches, Zahir told us that indefinite detention without charge or process, and not knowing when or if he’d ever take a breath as a free man, tormented him the most.
In letters and meetings with his attorneys in Guantánamo, Zahir vividly described how his lengthy detention rendered him into “a body without a soul,” “broken and desperate” with a “crushed spirit.” For years, he told he us that nothing he “ate or drank had any taste or flavor.”
Yet, instead of despair, Zahir chose hope and never lost his humanity. He came to meetings eager and attentive, full of positivity and energy. He always thought of and prioritized the welfare of others, even at his own expense. He used every opportunity at his disposal to improve himself, taking classes in Life Skills, Art, English, Spanish and Mathematics. And he imagined a future life outside of Guantánamo.
The hope of one day being reunited with his family sustained Zahir for all those years. His infrequent communications with them from Guantánamo were the fuel he told us he needed to survive. More than anything else, Zahir yearned to hug his ailing mother and be surrounded by his siblings. Now a 36-year-old man deprived of the best years of his youth, Zahir passed the days reliving all the moments he could remember of his childhood. His life felt frozen in time, awaiting the chance to start anew.
Even from Guantánamo, Zahir did his best to play an active role in his family’s life. He pleaded with his elder brother to get married, but the brother would always retort that he was waiting for Zahir to get married first. On my last visit to see Zahir in May, he shared with me that his brother had finally gotten engaged and jokingly asked me to remind him of his pledge to wait until Zahir himself got married. Now a free man, Zahir could still beat him to the altar.
“Will there be a day when I will live like others live? Like a person who has freedom, dignity, a home, a family, a job, a wife and children?” Zahir once asked.
We hope that day has finally come.