From Guantanamo to Freedom in Saudi Arabia
- From a cage in Cuba to freedom in Dammam
Molouk Y. Ba-Isa
Sat Jul 5, 2008
Marriages don't usually generate much media attention, but when Juma
Mohammed A.W. Al-Dossari was married in the spring, even Western
journalists attended the celebration. Just months earlier, it had
been impossible for the groom to pray at the mosque, make a phone
call or even choose what to eat for dinner.
Al-Dossari's wedding seems like an improbable outcome because until
last year he was a prisoner at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.
Seized in Pakistan in late 2001, Al-Dossari was turned over to the
US, transferred first to Kandahar Airbase in Afghanistan and then in
January 2002 sent to the offshore US detention facility in Cuba
where he lived in a concrete cell, denied even the basic rights
afforded a common criminal by the US Constitution. He was released
in July 2007 to the Saudi authorities along with 15 other prisoners.
No charges were ever filed against him.
Today, Al-Dossari's lot has improved. He lives with his wife in a
small apartment in Dammam, furnished in modern Western style.
Meeting Arab News in the evening, wearing khakis, he relaxed on a
sofa and tucked into a meal of shepherd's pie and salad, while
telling hilarious tales of his struggles with local construction
workers. The couple's current living situation is temporary as they
hurry to complete renovations on their permanent home, an apartment
in a nearby building owned by his mother. They hope to move there
before Ramadan. Recently, Al-Dossari's daughter from his first
marriage came to live with them.
"We are all very happy," Al-Dossari said. "We are busy trying to
finish all the construction work and get all our furniture and
belongings packed and moved before the holy month. This is so much
more than I could have hoped for last year."
Arab News visited Al-Dossari and his family at home on two occasions
once they'd settled in after their wedding. The April 24 wedding was
a major event, held at Alkhobar's Al-Gosaibi Hotel, with more than
400 women and 350 men in attendance.
"I am the fourth or fifth from the group released last July to get
married," Al-Dossari said. "It was very expensive to rent and furnish
an apartment and pay for all the wedding costs. I don't regret the
expenses because my wife is worth it. She is a very good woman. But
without help from the government, I wouldn't have been able to afford
it and I am so grateful."
Al-Dossari explained that the Saudi government has provided generous
assistance to Guantanamo detainees. In his case, this included more
than SR100,000 to cover expenses associated with marriage, a new
car, medical coverage and psychological support.
"I would like to publicly thank (Deputy Minister of the Interior for
Security Affairs) Prince Mohammed ibn Naif for all the personal
attention he has shown to me and to my family," said Al-
Dossari. "When I was released, he personally called my mom to tell
her that I was safe. Everything I needed he made sure I received.
This gave me the chance to start a new life."
The Guantanamo detainees were brought home on a Saudi plane and
received at the Royal Terminal at the King Khalid International
Airport in Riyadh. They were transferred to Al-Hayer Prison in
Riyadh where the group of 16 was divided in half.
"We were all in shock when we came back to the Kingdom," explained
Al-Dossari. "For me, it was like I'd come from the cemetery, buried
underground, and then I had been sent to paradise. I had been held
in solitary confinement, locked in a room, one and a half by two
meters, for three-and-a-half years. Just being allowed to eat
whatever I wanted and to have a telephone to use was overwhelming. I
was so happy to be out of Guantanamo but after being deprived of
everything for so long I couldn't cope. In 12 days I slept maybe 10
hours. After my release I had refused to take any of the drugs that
the Americans had been giving me but that had frightening results. I
was under terrible strain and I needed a lot of doctors to get me
through that time."
Numerous media accounts spoke of the torture Al-Dossari suffered at
Guantanamo. He repeatedly tried to harm himself in the extreme
conditions. He said that during his time at Guantanamo he was given
multiple psychotropic drugs combined with solitary confinement,
which drove him to madness. It took several months for doctors in
the Kingdom to slowly help Al-Dossari withdraw from the combination
of antidepressants, tranquillizers and other drugs that had been
administered to him at Guantanamo. He is now free from all
"The first month after my release I kept waking up terrified and I
had to get up and make sure that I wasn't locked up in Guantanamo
any more. I have fewer nightmares now, so my sleep is better. I stay
busy so I avoid depressive thoughts. I do think about Guantanamo
every day. I can't help it, but at least I am not alone. My wife has
been wonderful to me. I have told her everything that happened to me
there, everything. She listens to me and I think she now knows me
better than I know myself."
While Al-Dossari was imprisoned at Guantanamo his father died of
cancer. This made meeting his family for the first time after his
release a bittersweet experience.
"We arrived in the Kingdom at 3 a.m. and at 10 a.m. my family was
brought to me. Prince Mohammed ibn Naif's office had arranged
transportation and five-star accommodation for them. My heart was
breaking when I kissed my mother's head and feet. My mom had become
very old because of my father's death and my imprisonment. I hugged
and kissed everyone in turn and then there was this young lady who I
didn't recognize. My mother told me that this is my daughter. She
was in first grade the last time I'd seen her."
Readjustment to society took time and enormous resources. Al-Dossari
spent 50 days in Al-Hayer Prison and then two-and-a-half months in a
special care center set up to reintegrate Guantanamo returnees to
society. This included everything from classes on world events and
Islam, to art and small business administration. He also had access
to recreation facilities such as a swimming pool and football field
and he continued his sessions with psychiatrists and counselors.
"In Islam, I try for the middle ground. I don't want to be extreme.
I was stricter before," Al-Dossari said. "At the care center,
sheikhs taught us the right ideas about jihad, Islamic law and
Islamic government. On two occasions I was allowed to leave the care
center for 10 days each time and spend long visits with my family.
At the care center I enjoyed the classes on setting up a small
business and I want to take more English and IT courses so I can be
successful in running my own business someday."
At 35 and with only a high school diploma, Al-Dossari is aware that
to create a successful future for his family he needs to work hard.
He is looking forward to having more children, but his wife insists
that if a baby is not on the way by the New Year, she will return to
her job. A very private person, she asked not to be identified. Mrs.
Al-Dossari is in her late 20s and had been working in the
administration at a local hospital before her marriage.
The two are distant relatives but they were unaware of each other
before their engagement. Juma disclosed his entire background at the
first meeting between the families. Their marriage was arranged
traditionally. However, Mrs. Al-Dossari emphasized that it was her
choice alone to select him as her husband, although her father
advised her that he believed Juma to be an honorable man.
Al-Dossari talks about his time in Guantanamo quite casually, with
his wife adding a point from time to time. He is well aware of
people's interest and does not shy away from answering questions. He
doesn't want to be known forever though as the "Gitmo Guy." His goal
now is to allow the experience to fade away and let go of his
animosity toward the guards at Guantanamo.
"I cannot hate them," he said. "If I do I will torture myself
forever. I will be on fire inside. I don't want that. I want to make
my heart clean and easy, and live my life."
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