A world watched amazed at the unfolding horror and audacity of the September 11 attacks on the one remaining superpower. Moved by the human story that unfolded people collectively held their breath in awful anticipation of it’s consequences. The backlash soon came on October 2001 as Afghanistan was heavily bombed then invaded by America to oust al-Qaeda; an attack by the world’s mightiest military machine on one of the most impoverished regions of the earth. Thousands of Afghan men, women and children lost their lives while the demonised Taliban were disposed of in favour of the warlords who had previously helped destroyed the country.
Several Britons were caught up in this inferno; the film The Road to Guantanamo is a harrowing recreation of the story of the Tipton Four; a bunch of naïve but ordinary British Muslim youth. The film begins with the four friends Ruhel Ahmed, Asif Iqbal, Shafiq Rasul and Monir Ali arriving in Pakistan for the wedding of one of their party Asif Iqbal. Prior to the celebrations on an impulse they set off for Afghanistan on the 12th October 2001. They claim to want to help deliver humanitarian assistance to it’s people and to eat the big naans and head for Kabul in high spirits.
After crossing the border into Afghanistan and languishing for several days in the South of the country with nothing to do they attempt to head back to Pakistan only to find themselves being taken further towards the frontline. They eventually arrive in Kunduz the last Northern strong hold of the beleaguered Taliban. Whilst attempting to leave Kunduz as the Northern Alliance captures the town they are separated from Monir, he is never seen again and is presumed to have been killed by the subsequent bombing of the convoy.
Caught up in the maelstrom of shock and awe, the remaining Tipton Three experience first hand the heart stopping, blindingly, mind-blowing, bombing unleashed on the fleeing Afghans as they are pounded throughout the night, they face the abyss of death. Daylight reveals the fallen…it is a turning point, as Asif recalls “When you could hear people screaming and every person you come across basically either his legs are blown off or his stomach is popping out or his arm has come off…when someone’s in agony…and you just can’t do nothing for ‘em…it affects you in a big way.”
The night of shelling leads to the largest single surrender of Afghan Taliban fighters into the hands of the Northern Alliance. The Tipton three are herded along with survivors in trucks headed for Mazar-e-Sharif. The journey is medieval, starved of oxygen and shot at many die before arriving at their destination; their bodies are unceremoniously looted then thrown into mass graves. From hereon in another nightmare unfolds; imprisoned for several months in the overcrowded Sheberghan prison they are selected by the Americans to go to Kandahar airbase where they are stripped, shaved, photographed, dressed in jumpsuits, their heads bagged with tape across their eyes, these ‘evilest of men’ are flown out of the country on a two day flight to Camp X-ray, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba on 13 Jan 2002.
Uncertainty, torture, deprivation, humiliation and maltreatment are the order of the day, so much so that any glimpse of humanity is a balm. The human heart remains the only occasional beacon of light in the dark void of state sanctioned inhumanity. In Camp X-ray for instance an American soldier requests one of Shafiq’s raps and another kills a tarantula in Ruhel’s cell. Asif and Shafiq are here for three months and Ruhel for six weeks until being moved on to the purpose built dog kennel like Camp Delta.
Referring to those held here George W. Bush declares “Well the only thing I know for certain is that these are bad people…and we look forward to working with the Blair government to deal with the issue…They’re killers…they don’t share the same values that we share”.
Donald Rumsfeld’s astute assessment is “There is no doubt in my mind that the treatment is humane and appropriate, consistent with the Geneva Convention for the most part.”
For one year they endure repetitive, aggressive interrogation shot through with a lack of intelligence. Asif however muses “It either destroys you, or it makes you stronger, I think it made me stronger. It destroyed me for a few weeks then after that I was alright.” His sincere smile convinces you of his words.
Things take a turn for the worse when the three are accused of attending a training camp with Usama bin Ladin on the basis of a grainy video dated 01/08/2000. Simple checks within the UK would have revealed that for the whole year Shafiq was working at Currys electrical retail store, whilst Asif and Ruhel were on probation (the police are their alibis as they reported to court for violent disorder and fraud and deception offences) over this period. For being ‘belligerent’ by not confessing to this ‘video evidence,’ they are kept in solitary confinement for three and a half months.
Several hours at a time their leg irons are attached to a hook on the ground and their hands chained between their ankles whilst they are knocked senseless with violently loud heavy metal music and strobe lighting. The stress position is excruciating, they cannot move and have to urinate and even defecate as they are. The idea is to break them into admitting they are fighters, then al Qaeda members, in order to build a case against them. The eventual announcement that they had ‘been cleared’ of that particular allegation leads to the torture easing as treatment improves.
The interrogators display incongruency, arrogance and desperation in their futile attempts to secure confessions. These ‘evil’ men are eventually released without apology or charge after two and a half years of incarceration on 9 March 2004. They are flown to Britain and taken to Paddington Station, London before being quickly released.
The wedding they set off to attend all those years ago finally takes place on 1 July 2005 in Pakistan (Ruhel and Shafiq still manage to get lost on the way to the village) but things are different, innocence has been lost, in the words of Asif “It’s changed my life, my life’s completely different, the way I look at things, the way I look at what’s happening in the world…the worlds not a nice place.”
The spirit of these young men is an eye opener, throughout their incarceration they remain indignant of their truth. Most astonishingly though Shafiq states “Looking back it was an experience really and it has changed my life…for the better for me, so I don’t regret it”
Ruhel testifies “I haven’t changed a great deal just that I practise my religion more than I did before, you know I didn’t practise at all.”
Questions remain of Britain’s lethargic input - why did it take persistent lobbying from human rights groups and lawyers to make simple truths known? This film is as much an indictment of the British government and it’s inability or unwillingness to secure justice or reparation for it’s citizens in the face of American belligerence, as it is an insight into man’s capacity for cruelty and doublespeak.
The Tipton Three were imprisoned for two and a half years, deprived of any contact with family or lawyers and released without charge. To date Guantanamo Bay has had 750 inmates, 500 men remain in Camp Delta, only ten have ever been charged, no-one has ever been found guilty of any crime.
The Road to Guantanamo was aired on Channel 4 on 9 March 2006 and seen by 1.6 million people. This docudrama is essential viewing as it exposes the incomprehensible irony of Guantanamo Bay. A place that epitomises terror and an absolute lack of freedom…that has been unleashed in a war against ‘terror’ and in the name of ‘freedom.’
Review by Tahmina Saleem
The Road to Guantanamo is available on DVD and to download from:
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