6 March 2011

Sami El-Haj is a cameraman of Sudanese origin who was working for Al Jazeera in late 2001 when he was captured and handed over to the American Forces. He spent nearly seven and a half years in American prisons, six of which were in Guantanamo. 


Since his return he has become a well-known face on the Arabic Al-Jazeera television channel as a result of his tireless efforts – particualry in the Arab world – in trying to draw attention to the plight of the remaining prisoners in Guantanamo and helping in resettlement efforts for those released.

Cageprisoners Director Moazzam Begg met up with him in Paris to mark the ninth anniversary since the opening of the Guantanamo prison and conducted the following interview:


Moazzam Begg: In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful. May the Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon you.


Sami El-Haj:May the Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon you, too.


MB: If you would please introduce yourself to our readers.


SH:Sami Mohy El-Din Muhammad El-Haj. Born in 1969 in Khartoum, Sudan. Married, with two sons. I work for Al Jazeera satellite television. I was tasked to work as a cameraman during the American war, or rather the American invasion, of Afghanistan. We had travelled from Qatar after the bombing had begun to cover the war in Afghanistan on 11 October 2001. I was captured by Pakistani security forces on the Pakistani-Afghan border on 15 December 2001. I was then handed over to the Americans on 7 January 2002. I was sent to Bagram, where I spent about 13 days… no, 17 days! On 23 January, I was then sent to Kandahar, where I spent around five months. On 12 May 2002, I was sent to Guantanamo, where I continued to stay until 1 May 2008, whereupon I was released and returned to the Sudan.


MB: Brother Sami El-Haj, we are pleased to have you with us. Your story is well-known from what was publicised on Al Jazeera before your release from Guantanamo. We then saw how you were received by the Sudanese government and how, by the grace of Allah, people were made aware via Al Jazeera of what happened to your case and how you have advanced since then. What is your current responsibility at Al Jazeera?


SH:After my return from imprisonment, Al Jazeera established the General Freedoms and Human Rights Division as part of the Al Jazeera network. This division is responsible for following issues pertaining to human rights and general freedoms the world over, and documenting them via the Al Jazeera network.


MB: What was the first thing you did upon your return from Guantanamo to Sudanese soil?


SH:When I returned to the Sudan, naturally, I met with my family, and it was a meeting after a separation the continued for more than seven years. After that, as I had been on hunger strike, I underwent medical treatment at hospitals in the Sudan, and then continued receiving treatment when I returned to Doha. I then went on a trip with my family to Malaysia to relax and recuperate after all the events of the previous years. I then returned to Al Jazeera and begun my work within this newly established division. These are the first things I did on the family front.

On the work front, relaying the facts and events that took place in Guantanamo that they may reach the world, I conducted a visit, my first, to Geneva in June 2008. There, I met with many special rapporteurs at the Human Rights Council in Geneva. I relayed to them the truth of the events and the injustice and wrongs to which the prisoners in Guantanamo are subjected. I also organised forums and took part in many conferences to bring light to the dark picture of what was happening in Guantanamo.


MB: There are many former Guantanamo prisoners who have been released, some of whom have not become involved with the media or with issues of human rights. Why have you chosen to go down this path?


SH:Naturally, I see this to be an obligation. Also, I believe that all the brothers who have been detained in Guantanamo carry the same sentiment and know that it is incumbent upon them to support their brothers and to expose the reality to the world. However, there may have been some factors that have aided me in carrying out this work, the first of which was that the Sudan did not place any restrictions upon my movement. Also, I found a great degree of help from the Qatari government, which welcomed me, housed me, offered me its citizenship, returned me to my job and dealt with me with all respect and esteem. Another thing which gave me a push was the fact that I found no trouble in travel, obtaining visas and entry to different countries, in light of my work within the fields of media and journalism. Additionally, my case was clear: it was an issue of settling scored with Al Jazeera satellite channel, as part of an attempt on part of the US administration to cover up the criminal acts it was perpetrating against nations and against individuals. All this helped in providing me the opportunity to move freely. However, I am certain that every person who lived through Guantanamo knows deep down inside that it is an obligation upon him to inform the world of the truth of what is taking place in Guantanamo.


MB: Naturally, considering your position as a journalist and your background in the media, have any doors been opened to you across the world to talk about the issue of Guantanamo?


SH:Of course, as a journalist, it was sure that my fellow journalists felt that I was one of them, so they felt the extent of the injustice to which I was subjected. They were certain beyond any doubt that I had gone to Afghanistan on journalistic and professional duty. Therefore, every journalist who listened to my story and heard the facts put himself in my shoes and said: “What happened to Sami may happen to me,” and so he worked untiringly to deliver the message and make the facts clear. I found very great sympathy from journalists…


MB: …around the world…


SH:…almost… in many different countries across the globe.


MB: Praise be to Allah. After getting out of Guantanamo, you visited many different countries, in Europe, Africa and Asia. From your experience, can you say that any one country in particular is more concerned about the issue of Guantanamo than others, or did you find the level of concern to be equal among countries?


SH:Honestly, I found that those countries whose people suffer the most from being subjected to injustice are the people most understanding of what happened to us. When I visited Gaza, I found the Palestinians to be the most sympathetic, as they too are wronged and they know the feeling of the person who has been wronged. Therefore, I found from them a very deep sympathy to our story. Also, in many Western European countries, on the level of individuals, despite differing with them language, belief, colour and indeed everything, I found in them humanity, support for those who have been wronged, interaction, as well as a burning desire for this issue to end and for this injustice to change. Therefore, I do not limit the question to Muslims or to a particular race, rather one finds many people to have a deeper understanding of injustice and therefore a greater propensity to get involved and act.


MB: On one hand, you have spoken to people about what took place in Guantanamo and informed them of that. However, you have also been in contact with many brothers who have returned from Guantanamo, particularly those from Arab countries, as well as in
Europe and elsewhere. Could you talk about some examples which you have seen of those who got out of Guantanamo, focusing on the worst cases?


SH:Honestly, brother, I can tell you that the suffering did not end with their release from the prison in Guantanamo, rather it continued even more for many prisoners after release. Most former prisoners were subjected to judicial trials and they were subjected to detention, on the level of the Arab governments and others. Those who were not imprisoned by the governments were imprisoned by the public, i.e. society did not accept them. Society may be convinced that this man is wronged in what happened to him, but everyone remains a victim of their deep seated fear. Many would say to you: “I sympathise with you and I know that you are wronged, but I fear for myself, as I, too, may be accused of terrorism (or what is called terrorism) and may go to a worse place than that from which you came!” Therefore, we can say that most former prisoners, especially those in North Africa, have been subjected to reincarceration. For example, in Tunisia, they were sentenced to many long years; in Libya, they disappeared completely, and until now no one knows anything about their whereabouts, or whether they are alive or dead; in Morocco, they were sentenced; in Algeria, some of them were sentenced… and the list goes on.

Secondly, and on the other hand, these people, after they returned, did not find anyone to help them reacclimatise to society. A person who has been absent from his family, and many of them have wives and children… for example, our brother Abu Abdullah the Algerian has not seen his wife until this moment, despite having been released over three years ago and spending more than five years in Guantanamo. Now, his daughter may have got married, and his children still live in Pakistan while he is in Algeria. He cannot go to them in Pakistan and cannot bring them over from Pakistan to Algeria because he cannot afford the cost of their plane tickets. He does not have the money to even build for them a home and he cannot issue for them a visa. This situation is oft repeated and is nearly identical to the case of Sheikh Alaa’ in Albania: his wife is in Sudan, his daughter got married, and he has not seen his children in more than ten years, and he is unable to bring them over or get them together.

Others are ill. Some suffer from psychological conditions and others from illnesses as a result of poor nutrition, and they have been unable to seek treatment up to this moment. Others are severely ill, such as our brother, uncle Salih in Yemen, who suffers from heart conditions and requires a catheter. Even worse, many former detainees, in fact most of them, are unemployed; no one is willing to offer them any work. So, you can see how a person who was released from this injustice and gained his freedom, but in reality he is imprisoned in a large world, as he found no one to help him and stand with him. Others were charged and subjected to huge financial penalties. Others have children whom they cannot meet or bring up. Imagine a person who has been deprived of his family for more than seven years, then after he returns he is unable to purchase some medicine for his son. He looks at himself and feels paralysed, as he cannot even fulfil his son’s dues; unable to buy his son a chocolate bar or medicine or anything else. This puts him in a very bad psychological state, which may be more difficult than his prison days, because in prison he was incarcerated and in isolation, but now he is before his child who is crying from thirst, hunger, the cold or for whatever reason, yet is unable to offer him anything. He is a man and he is capable of work, but there are no job opportunities; everyone is afraid of him, whether governments or individuals. Even those who sympathise with you and are convinced that you have been done injustice and are in need of help cannot help you out of fear of being held accountable for that.

Islamic organisations all over the Islamic world are being chased by America. America demands Kuwait to shut down the Society of the Revival of Islamic Heritage; America demands Saudi Arabia to shut down the Al-Haramain Foundation and to imprison its Sheikh and those working in it. In the meanwhile, we find that Doctors Without Borders’ has a budget of 15 billion Euros from charitable donors, and no one would hold them to account or demand to know the sources of this wealth. Bill Gates in America donates a billion to the organisation, while the Zakat, which is specified by the Shari’ah as an obligation upon you, you are afraid to pay to help these people who really are in need of help.

There is real suffering. Therefore, I can say that former Guantanamo inmates are now suffering from more psychological problems that what they used to suffer in Guantanamo.


MB: We are now approaching the ninth anniversary since Guantanamo was opened and, as it was said yesterday, Obama deceived everyone when he said that Guantanamo would be shut within a year. Many people now believe that the prison in Guantanamo no longer exists, whereas 173 prisoners remain imprisoned in Guantanamo, most of whom are Yemenis. What can we now do, in your opinion, to offer something to those who are still in Guantanamo?


SH:I say we must work and work and work. We need to struggle and make the effort. Those who have been released from Guantanamo were not released due to an American pardon or an American admission of error, rather they were released after the application of pressures. They were released due to the efforts of good people, the efforts of humanitarian and rights organisations and the efforts of the honest media. This was what forced President Bush and his administration to release the prisoners from Guantanamo. Bush was releasing the prisoners while he continued to say “these people are the worst of the worst.” He released them when he was faced with pressure from the media and from organisations and he found a loud, global voice calling for their release and for the closure of Guantanamo.

However, what happened was that people made the effort, then when Obama came, they thought that Obama would change everything; indeed he promised he would! He said “within a year,” and it was a sedative promise with which he numbed everyone. Even we, as former prisoners who had had the intention to work on this matter when we were released, felt that the issue was over. Perhaps now we could work in another field, i.e. the field of rehabilitating former prisoners, so we came terribly short in in the area of applying pressure to America and informing the world of the plight of the prisoners. I believe people must return to square one: the first job is in making the effort to focus on the conditions in Guantanamo. I believe the world requires people to remind it of these issues, because now there are many events and tragedies taking place in the world, so if your voice is not loud enough, no one hears you. I believe we can repeat the same effort that was undertaken in the early period during the Bush administration again now with regard to Obama. We have given Obama enough time; he has spent more than two years in power and he has done nothing, indeed he backtracked on everything. Perhaps with our effort and continuous work, we can compel Obama to keep to his promise to which he committed when he came into power.


MB: With Allah’s grace, you have visited many countries. You went to Malaysia, different Arab countries, Europe and Britain and have seen people’s responses there, and this work of yours is continuous and constant. As a former Guantanamo prisoner, how can you continue in this line of work and with so much energy?


SH:Because I know that real suffering exists in Guantanamo. From my contact with the prisoners being released from Guantanamo, I know that
matters have become worse. The emotional state in which the prisoners now live is no doubt much worse than when I left them, and the conditions of their families outside are much worse now than the suffering they once endured due to economic and social problems. At this moment in time, the prisoners in Guantanamo are living in a state of… I would not say despair, but they are living in a very bad emotional state. This is due to the fact that as we were hopeful when Obama came, they too were hopeful, and they said “We will be released within the year… we will be patient for this year.” The first year passed, and another has come, and their destiny has become unknown.


MB: As you mentioned, you have paid visits to some of the prisoners’ families. Could you please describe the conditions of some of these families?


SH:In all honesty it is a tragedy… a very big tragedy! I can tell you that Massoud the Algerian is still wearing the clothes in which he returned from Guantanamo. He is incapable of purchasing new clothes. In this day and age, a person is wearing the same clothes for one, two and three years… this is completely unreasonable! I have witnessed this with my own eyes, yet I feel I should belie my eyesight! Also, Massoud himself requires operations because he suffers from problems in his stomach; he underwent one operation, but the second and third remain unperformed… he could not afford them. Thamer Laythi in Egypt fractured his spine and up until now cannot find a wheelchair, and now he is partially paralysed! Our brothers in Morocco are in need of surgical operations. Others are young and want to get married; they want to live their natural lives. 90% of former Guantanamo inmates are now unemployed, even though they want to work and are searching for jobs. If their countries are unable to provide for them, they should at least issue them passports with which they can travel elsewhere to find work!

Most of the former prisoners now suffer in terms of their health and they require treatment, whether it may be physical or psychological treatment, and they do not find it. The vast majority of former inmates now suffer from not finding jobs with which they may support their families. Many former detainees still remain in prison, such as our brothers in Tunisia; in fact our brothers in Libya are completely missing; our brothers in Algeria are now standing trial; our brothers in Morocco are locked up in prisons; Saudi Arabia has returned more than 70% of former Guantanamo prisoners to prison without any trials. As for their families, many of their wives have now asked to be divorced from them, saying this is not a life to live: “We wait for you five years… six years… seven years… then they take you and put you back in prison again? All the patience we had left has been exhausted.” This is a tragedy in every sense of the word, as though they have deemed the released prisoners to indeed be terrorists. And as the Arab proverb goes:

The injustice dealt by those who are close is harder on the soul than the blows of gleaming swords.

When I find my government and my own people dealing me injustice, the taste of that injustice is far more bitter than when I suffer injustice at the hands of others.


MB: Praise be to Allah, we are now in Europe, in France, and are talking about what happened to former inmates who returned to Arab and Muslim countries, but you have also witnessed some things that happened to the brothers who were returned to European countries, which accepted them despite their not being citizens of those countries. How have you seen the conditions of some of them?


SH:In general, I can say that Europe received the prisoners well, provided them with housing and welcomed them when their countries abandoned them. Regrettably, however, this does not mean that their cases have been resolved, for many of them have been displaced placed in isolation. A human does not want to get out of one prison only to be placed in another, rather they must be allowed to live in an environment in which other people can speak to them, and if he is married they should bring him his wife. What is the use of being free when my wife is in one country and I am in another, with nothing between us but telephone calls? You have never seen your family and your children do not know you. Many prisoners who returned to Europe now suffer in terms of their integration into society.


MB: Have you witnessed anyone, whether individuals or organisations, other that the former prisoners themselves, concerned with the issue of the suffering of former Guantanamo inmates?


SH:I ask Allah to grant all that is good to the people behind Cageprisoners for standing up for this issue. Also, there are some people, as individuals, who ask about these people and who offer us ideas, but in practical terms, there is no tangible help. For example Ms Louise-Anna and Dr.Haytham Manna, these are people who seek to help.


MB: Whenever you hear of one of the brothers’ problems and he asks your help, what do you do and how do you go about assisting him in solving his problem?


SH:If his problem falls within the remit of my capability, I strive to solve it, because this is my brother and it is incumbent upon me to do so. If I am incapable, I speak to those closest around me; and if we still unable, I speak to my brothers the former prisoners, because I consider them to be the closest people to me and the ones most understanding of their own predicament. If they too are unable to help, I try, through my journalistic work and in meeting with organisations, to talk about their case, seizing every available media opportunity to highlight their case. I speak with everyone I meet who I feel is capable of offering something to their case. Some actively work to help this person, and others simply make promises but in the end their actions do not live up to their words.


MB: More than 600 brothers have returned from Guantanamo, while over 170 still remain. The job of working to release prisoners is a very big one; greater than the work of a single individual, an assembly of people, a group, or indeed a consortium of groups; it is something on which you may work your entire life and still it may not end. How do you maintain your drive and intention to always remain on this path of aiding the oppressed?


SH:Consider this, brother… when I feel I have offered something to my brothers, I find that the happiness that results is something I can feel even in my family. When I take care of a child, I find my son successful in school; when I fulfill the need of a family, I find that my wife is joyful. On the other hand, when I become preoccupied with other things, problems begin for me in my family which I can really feel, so I say that this is because I came short in fulfilling the rights of my brothers. I believe if this feeling is present in my brothers, it will give them the drive to continue with this work. As you have said, the needs of this huge number of brothers will not stop in a day or two, therefore people must always sit and think of how they may act. There may be something, such as a project or an idea, in which Allah has not granted me success, but He may grant success in it to another brother, and this idea may hold within it the beginnings of a great blessing
for others. I therefore believe that continuous interaction and cooperation between the brothers in solving their brothers’ problems will, God willing, be fruitful in bettering the situation of these brothers.


MB: By Allah’s grace, we have sat with brothers formerly imprisoned in Guantanamo in Britain and in Sudan and now in France. What is your feeling when you sit in such gatherings?


SH:I honestly feel that I am among my family and among my brothers, because I have known these men in the toughest of situations. I have lived with them in prison cells; I lived with them the hard life, and it was there that they demonstrated their love for me: when I was ill and the nurse would not come, I saw them go on hunger strike and stand up for me until I am taken away for treatment; when I was oppressed and beaten, I found in their eyes compassion. This period, and these feelings, deepened the connection between them and I. I swear, when I meet one of my brothers, and Allah is witness to what I say, I may find more happiness than that which I find when I meet my blood brother, as Allah Most High has indeed struck love into all of our hearts. And I am of no doubt whatsoever that the brothers, when I was with them in Guantanamo, and now outside Guantanamo, want nothing for me but all that is good, and for that I find happiness. Even when our meetings are not for anything to do with work, our coming together brings the joy that we constantly miss into our hearts.


MB: As for the media, I wanted to ask, there are some brothers who have returned from Guantanamo who interacted with the media and spoke, there are others who have been unable to do so for multiple reasons, and there are some who performed such work for a while then retreated from it. After you returned, a series of interviews were conducted with you on Al Jazeera satellite channel, and after you, they conducted interviews withour brother Waleed al-Haj. What have you seen as a result of these interviews?


SH:I believe that when these interviews continue, the issue continues to remain in peoples minds and the issue is not forgotten; is ensures that no one forgets what took place, and what continues to take place now, in Guantanamo. The media is the means through which we are able to address the world, and it is the only window through which to communicate with people around the globe, therefore we must make use of this method. Wisdom is the like of the believer's lost property: wheresoever he finds it, he claims it. We have a cause and we must make use of all available means which allow our cause to be introduced to people. The media is very very very important.


MB: There are some brothers who have a desire to speak, but they are unable to do so because they have been prevented from speaking to the media as part of the conditions placed upon them after their return. What is it that you have to say to them?


SH:I say, we have the best example in our experience at Guantanamo. When we were in Guantanamo, organisations and media outlets which spoke of our case did us a great favour. Those others who were unable to speak in the media or work in organisations, at the very least they used to pray for us, and we felt the effects of their prayers in that place. In my opinion, the brother who is unable to speak to the media can help his brothers by coming up with ideas, by interacting with them, by enquiring about the conditions of families and by following the cases of the brothers via the Internet – this is from one angle. If he is unable to help from this angle, then at the very least he should not forget them in his prayers and supplications, so he prays for them.


MB: If we were to look at the English speaking world and to the Arab world, in how they have dealt with the issue of Guantanamo, we find that in the West we only hear of the cases of the brothers who live in the West, whereas most of the brothers who were in Guantanamo are from Arab countries. What difference have you noticed in the meetings conducted in this regard in the English speaking world and in the Arab world?


SH:Honestly, there is a greater humanitarian dimension in the Western world, i.e. they stand on the Guantanamo issue from this perspective, and you therefore find them more prominent on this side of things than the Arab world. On the flip side, we find that the Arab world approaches the matter from the point of view that these are their brothers in faith, i.e. from the Islamic perspective, and therefore one finds them deeper than the Western side. The Arab side sees that this is his brother and that it is his obligation as a Muslim to support him. The Westerner sees that this is a human and I should stand with him in his case, for if I do not stand with him, then what has happened to him may happen to me. Just as America has incarcerated these youth today, tomorrow they will come and capture some youth from Europe and South America and say to them: “you are against American ideals,” and will place them in prisons, in cages just as those in which we were placed. Therefore, I believe both sides approach the issue from two different perspectives.


MB: Among all the things that you saw from the brothers who returned from Guantanamo, what is the most difficult thing for them in their lives?


SH:As I mentioned to you, the most difficult thing in their lives is when they find themselves feeling paralysed, incapable of offering anything to his family, whether it be his wife, children, mother, father, or siblings; or even incapable of offering himself anything! Say I am a young man, or say someone who is married, when I see that my son and my wife have been deprived from me for years and they need much… they are in need of tenderness; my son needs me to help him with his studies; he needs from me some basics – he may not have purchased clothes for more than a year; he has not gone out with me for an outing, and other things he needs which I am unable to provide for many different reasons, the first of which is my psychological unpreparedness. No doubt, we spent years in a jail cell, and these cells may be in isolated places, where you rarely have the chance to speak to anyone. Your wife wants you to talk to her, whereas you have grown to love solitude. This is a psychological problem. Your son wants to joke around and shout, and you dislike shouting as you have grown accustomed to a certain situation in prison, so something like that now gets to you and gets you worked up. These are all psychological problems. My son wants me to buy him a bicycle; wants me to drive him to school, and I am financially incapable of providing these things for him. My wife wants a yearly holiday to go and visit her parents and family, and I do not have the money to provide that for her. I cannot travel with them because I do not possess a passport, or, if I do, no one is willing to issue me a visa, because I am described as a terrorist. This is a real problem.

And the person who does not have a wife or children cannot work so that he may get married: until when shall I remain without a wife, without a family and without children? I have become very late! I spent seven or eight years in prison. All my friends in my age are now married with children; they
have a job, a car and a home, while I still remain the same, I need to begin from point zero. I want to launch, but there is no one there to push or help me. And then consider if this person who was released is also in need of treatment, if he suffers from an injury or a long-term illness; he requires treatment but finds no one to treat him. He has become dependent on his family and both his mother and father are incapable of helping him.


MB: In 2009, you participated with the brothers in the UK in opening the Guantanamo Justice Centre. What was the main goal of founding this establishment?


SH:It had three goals. The first goal is to release the prisoners who still remain in Guantanamo. The second goal is to release those who have returned from Guantanamo but have been reincarcerated, and at the same time rehabilitating the former prisoners and facilitating their integration into society by helping them; so that whoever of them wants to learn can learn, whoever wants to work can work, whoever requires treatment can be treated, and to generally rehabilitate them psychologically and materially. The third goal is to achieve legal justice for the prisoners and to compensate them accordingly, because they were wronged and it is upon the oppressor to pay the price for this injustice and not to escape penalty.

However, unfortunately, despite the great effort we have seen that our brothers, especially in the UK, have put into pushing this effort forward and all the help they have provided, we have not found any outside help to support this centre, for the same reasons we have already mentioned: everyone is too afraid to cooperate with former Guantanamo prisoners.


MB: However, whoever is listening to or reading this interview now and wants to help the brothers who were in Guantanamo, they can help through Cageprisoners or through the Guantanamo Justice Centre.


SH:No doubt.


MB: A final word with which you would like to address our readers.


SH:My final word is this: I say that everyone passes through circumstances. These circumstances may be joyous or they may be sad. Every human needs help from his brother in humanity, regardless of their religion, their country of origin or their language. No one can live on their own; every person needs one another. The same way I find someone to help me when I am in a tight spot, I must help those who are now in difficulty. I call upon every human who carries within them any trace of humanity to stand with our imprisoned brothers, whether those who are currently in Guantanamo, or those who have been released and are now in need of help.


MB: Sami El-Haj, may Allah bless you and grant you all that is good.


SH:May Allah bless you and grant you all that is good.


(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)