One evening, standing on a hill overlooking Paizoo Khan's small mud house located close to the Afghan border, I was struck by the incredible contrast between the dreams and aspirations of a man eking out a life at the periphery of society, and the grand, righteous, and arrogant rhetoric of an imperial power and its judgment of him. Down below I could see his wife washing clothes in a small stream, and the children attempting a game of cricket in the courtyard of their mud home. Barren plains and a few fields with barely enough crops to feed the household surrounded us, while the mountains of Afghanistan stood ominously in the far distance. The previous day it had taken me and Fazal Mohammed, Paizoo's Khan's younger brother, nearly six hours of driving across dirt tracks and sand dunes to arrive at this small gathering of mud houses that Paizoo Khan and his brothers had inherited from their fathers, who in turn had inherited them from their grandfathers. America was very far away from here. It was impossible to even imagine reading about it, let alone think about coming into contact with it. And yet, America had arrived here–vengeful, angry, blind and lost, and had exacted its revenge on a family too weak to withstand its might, too confused to answer its demands, and too lost to respond to its logic.
Paizoo Khan, prisoner #20621 at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan,was a truck driver moving goods between Pakistan and Afghanistan. On one such trip, on a rainy night, his truck broke down on the road to Jalalabad and he sought shelter in a house nearby. Little did he know that the home he had chosen to stay in would be raided by NATO/ISAF forces in the middle of the night. The raid landed him in Afghanistan’s Bagram Detention Center three years ago and he, along with 39 other Pakistan men, was lost to the exigencies of the Global War on Terror.
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They are ghosts, and I have spent nearly two months trying to find any evidence of them. They are the 40 Pakistani men who remain imprisoned, without charge or evidence, by the Americans at the Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. They have not been see or heard by anyone other than their immediate families who are granted carefully monitored and heavily censored telephone and internet video call access. Some of the men have been in Bagram, often called one of America's most notorious prisons, for over 11 years. Denied access to the press, human rights organizations, and legal representation, these men have been silenced and erased, the evidence and rationale for their incarceration beyond the eyes, ears and focus of the public and the media. This is intentional and part of a process of systemic dehumanization that enables the unjust detention and cruel prison conditions the men face. Until 2012, their own government refused to recognize them as citizens of Pakistan. I have spent two months traveling across Pakistan trying to discover something, anything, about them.
And I have found the traces of these imprisoned men in the testimonies and stories told by their families–the children, wives, parents, and siblings they left behind, who anxiously wait for their return, and determinedly fight for their release. Sitting in homes located in the deepest depths of the slums of Pakistan's mega-cities, in small farming communities, and in remote settlements near the border with Afghanistan, I have heard tales of the men's lives, childhood, dreams and hopes, and, of the emotional and economic consequences inflicted on the lives of entire households. My journey has brought me in touch with some of the most economically marginal and desperate people I have ever met. And what I have felt as I have sat in their tenement rooms and mud homes is a terrible shame and anger at the realization that not only has their own government failed to live up to its responsibility, but that another nation–one that brags about its global economic might and unmatched military power, has chosen to torture, humiliate, and indefinitely incarcerate some of the poorest, and the most economically weak people I have ever met.
The intense scrutiny and criticism of the conditions of imprisonment at Guantanamo have resulted in some changes there. The prisoners have being granted a semblance of a legal process and limited access to lawyers. Some have even had their cases heard in federal courts, allowed carefully censored visits by the press. The increased scrutiny has meant that the military authorities and the Justice Department have had to justify their practices, and argue that the prisoners are treated 'well' and in accordance with international law. Of course, all this has been mere propaganda. The hunger strikes and suicides have offered a shameful and shocking reality check, revealing the lies that the US military and Justice Department has been feeding the world about the situation in the prison. The men in Guantanamo, aware that there is no hope for a fair trial, and worse, of them being released, are desperate to kill themselves to end their suffering, humiliation and sense of hopelessness: Death is their only release.
These suicides and hunger strikes are taking place in a prison that has come degree of visibility and oversight. We can only surmise then what is happening inside a prison like Bagram where there is absolutely no oversight or evidence of how the prisoners are treated, nor the status of their physical and mental condition. Bagram is a true 'black hole' in the American justice system. It is living evidence of the collapse of morality, humanity, and civilized discourse that has become so entrenched in the post 9/11 United States of America. It is also an evidence of the deep racism and bigotry that underpins so much of America's judicial policies in the wake of the Global War on Terror. Furthermore, the continued imprisonment of these men is evidence of the mendacity and irresponsibility of the Pakistani government that has been an open and overt collaborator in the American war in Afghanistan and on Pakistani frontier, and whose intelligence agencies and military establishment has sold Pakistani nationals to the Americans claiming that they are terror suspects.
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I will never forget the sound of Fazal Mohammad's gentle weeping as his brother Paizoo Khan’s children sat around me telling me their memories of their father whom they have not laid eyes on in over three years. As we heard their stories Fazal Mohammad's heart just gave way, and the children's sadness at the absence of their father, became his. He has cared for his brother’s children and his two wives, and it has taken a terrible toll on his family. But it is their way, he tells me, and it is his responsibility. To watch him play and tease the children as if they are his own is to watch the meaning and idea of a family, and what makes it the central part of so many lives. The American decision to keep Paizoo Khan imprisoned affects not just his own life, but the lives of everyone who is connected to him.
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The images shown here are part of a campaign launched with Justice Project Pakistan (JPP) – a legal organization representing the families of the men as they attempt to use the court of law to pressure the Pakistani government to secure their release. These stories and more details about the legal, political and personal aspects of the cases can be found at www.jpp.og.pk/bagram. The campaign highlights the injustice inflicted on the men, and the devastation that has engulfed the lives of their families. Their purpose is to pressure the American and Pakistani government to resolve the situation of the ghosts of Bagram, or rather, the very real flesh and blood lives that are imprisoned there. Today, few raise their voices in support of the rights of these forgotten men, but the ghosts do speak. And others do remember.
This article was originally published in Tanqeed, a magazine of Politics and Culture.
Asim Rafiqui is a photojournalist whose work has appeared in National Geographic, Newsweek, Time, Stern, and many other publications. Rafiqui has reported from Haiti, Japan, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, and Ukraine, among many other places. All photos ©Asim Rafiqui.