By Iftikhar Firdous
“Who is it?” asks 12-year-old Khadijah as she unlocks the door to her home. Her accent differs from that of a Khyber Pakhtunkhwa native’s — and after she pulls open the door, her unique features further pique my curiosity. Where are Khadijah and her family really from?
Khadijah is one of the thousands of people in Pakistan whose lives have been influenced by the war in neighbouring Afghanistan, a country that has seen nothing but confliuct for three decades. Khadijah is actually the granddaughter of Sufi Hameed Gul, who is famous in this small town of Regi, situated some 12 kilometres from the provincial capital of Peshawar. Although he is a respectable religious cleric, Sufi Hameed Gul’s fame stems from the fact that he is the father in-law of two former Guantanamo detainees.
Gul married three of his daughters, Mahdia, Murshida and Aisha, to men of Arab descent after the Russian-Afghan War.
“A number of Arabs came to our village” he says. “They were mujahideen, and it was my duty to help them in every possible way,” he says, suggesting that there can be no further argument on this point. Three suspected Al Qaeda operatives, Adil Hadi al Jazairi bin Hamlili, Mustafa Hamlili and Abdul Karim, lived in this village for more than 15 years.
Even at the age of eighty, Gul’s eyes light up as he talks about his war-ravaged past. “It was the worst of times. I had to escape from Afghanistan some 60 years ago.” Clasping the hands of his grandchildren, he reveals that he was a student at a madrassah in Swabi which followed the Panj Pir school of thought. After completing his studies, he travelled to Khewa, a village in the Dara-e-Noor district of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province.
“I delivered a fiery sermon in the mosque,” he says. “I warned the locals that their religious creed was polluted and they should mend their ways! But it was Zahir Shah’s era and I was labelled a Pakistani agent.” Gul managed to escape from his village on the very same night that intelligence officials raided it, but three of his close friends and followers were taken into custody, and were never heard from again.
“Then I came to this village, where I served as an imam in the mosque. The elders of the village wanted me to get married and stay here. At first I resisted.” He pauses, but then continues with a mischievous smile and octogenarian innocence. “I knew I could not go back so I took the offer. But I had five daughters and no son. My wife died during childbirth so I remarried in the hope of having a male child, but it never worked out — my second wife went through a surgery which left her sterile.”
“I couldn’t have much of what I wanted with five daughters,” he says.
Perhaps it was his desire to have a son that compelled Sufi Hamid Gul to marry his daughters off to relatively unknown individuals. One night, when someone knocked on his door asking if he could speak Arabic, Gul did not hesitate to show his proficiency in the language. “I was taken to a madrassah called Jamaa-e-Asria near the boundary of the tribal areas, where I met a couple of young men who spoke nothing but Arabic.”
Gul resolved their problems and went back home. After almost a week the men came searching for him to his native village. “They were not impressed with my linguistic skills,” he laughs, “but they wanted to get married!”
He immediately married off two of his daughters, Murshida and Aisha, to Abdul Kareem and Adil Hadi al Jazairi bin Hamlili. Mahdia was married to Mustafa seven years later. Although Gul does not say much about the economic benefits that came along with the marriages, the locals of the area do. When asked what the Arabs’ occupation was and how they earned a living, an elderly villager said: “They were very well connected; they just made a few phone calls and got whatever they needed.”
As it happens, Adil al Jazairi and Mustafa Hamlili were arrested by security forces in Pakistan as a result of the policies put in place in the aftermath of 9/11, in June 2003. Adil was accused of arranging money transfers and travel documents for the Al Qaeda and was arrested from Peshawar’s Hayatabad area. Mustafa and another friend, whose name the family cannot recall, were taken into custody when around 3,000 security and intelligence personnel went on a rampage in the villages near Regi. “There were four Americans along with the armed men,” recalls Gul. “They identified the two boys and took them while we were left unharmed.
The night before the raid, Gul received a call from an unknown number. The caller did not identify himself but told him to move “his guest” to a safer location. “I gathered the boys and told them about the call but they refused to go. However, I told them not to resort to violence as it was the trust of the people of the village that was at stake,” he explains. The men ended up in the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. “Since then I have been interrogated thrice by the Americans, once by a woman and twice by men who did not provide any information about themselves,” he adds.
“Abdul Karim, the eldest amongst the Arabs, went missing around 18 years ago,” continues Gul. “He went away to Mauritania and never returned. We tried to contact him several times,” says a tearful Gul, as he sits with his daughters and their children.
Gul’s daughter, Mahdia, is in her early 30s and says she travelled extensively to Yemen and Afghanistan with her husband Mustafa. She speaks in a stifled tone about her travels. “We stayed in Yemen, in some place which I cannot recall, but it was beautiful in its own way,” she says. It was when the Taliban took over in Afghanistan that Mahdia shifted to Kandahar. “I did not know what my husband was doing, but whatever he did gave him a lot of respect amongst the ranks of the Taliban,” recalls a frightened Mahdia. At the same time, her sister Aisha lived with Adil in Kabul and recalls that they never lacked any facilities since “we were immensely respected amongst the women because we were the wives of the people who basically funded all the activity around us.”
But the situation has changed since they were the wives of suspected — and respected — Al Qaeda operatives. Now, their home speaks volumes about the state of poverty they live in. Gul cannot afford to send any of his 13 grandchildren to school. His daughters are now the breadwinners of the family, ever since the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) gave them a sewing machine to stitch and sell clothes. Alienated from their fellow villagers, they live in near seclusion. Their only connection with their husbands was through letters sent to them from Guantanamo Bay via the ICRC, who also arranged a video conference call for them to finally see each other after years.
According to a 2006 report by Mark Denbeaux, a professor at Seton Hall University Law School and counsel to two Guantanamo detainees, and his son Joshua Denbeaux, at least 36 per cent of detainees at Guantanamo Bay were captured by Pakistani authorities or in Pakistan. Over 170 detainees still remain at the facility. Freed detainees have returned to their home countries as well as to others, including Germany and Switzerland. But resettling detainees has been a sore issue for many governments.
“The ICRC said they would help us meet our husbands,” Aisha says. “They mentioned that we could meet them in a different country, like Canada.” Nothing has materialised so far.
So Aisha, Mahdia and Murshida remain forgotten and forsaken, yet another family split apart as a result of the war on terror which shows no signs of abating just yet.
After the family was interviewed, this correspondent was contacted by Adil al Jazairi. Under constant surveillance in Algeria, he says: “I long to meet my family, but all my travel documents have been taken away by the government”. Al Jazairi said he was living a life of extreme poverty. Despite several attempts to contact him after that one phone call, he could not be reached again. Thousands of miles from Algeria, his family waits for a man who may never come home.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, May 1st, 2011.