Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan - At family gatherings, the young Afghan with the scraggly beard instinctively sits with the children, before others remind him that he is a man now.
Old friends he last saw when they were flying
kites are now in college, married with children, enjoying their
careers. He's happy for them, but he feels like he's watching life
flash by and he's not a part of it.
These are the shadows of the lost youth of Mohammed Jawad, the Afghan
who many believe was Guantanamo's youngest prisoner.
"There are such huge changes I need to catch up with," he says. "I've
missed a lot."
inches taller and 40 pounds heavier than when he left his country
nearly seven years ago, Jawad alternately smiles shyly, tenses with
anger, then smiles again, the mood swings of someone trying to figure
out how he lost a third of his life.
The odyssey that would send
Jawad, who says he's 19, to a forbidding facility half a world away
started on a chilly day in mid-December 2002, shortly after he and his
mother moved to Kabul from a Pakistani refugee camp.
He was about 12, he says, and had spent the day helping his uncle dig a
well before heading out to buy some tea.
says he was grabbed by police who beat him and threatened to kill his
family unless he put his thumbprint to paper and admitted he'd tried to
kill two U.S. soldiers. The Pashto speaker, largely illiterate, didn't
understand their Persian and had little idea what he'd agreed to, he
says. A U.S. judge would later agree.
That day, a grenade had
been thrown at a U.S. Army vehicle, injuring the two soldiers and an
interpreter. Jawad was charged with attempted murder based on the
confession, held at Kabul's Bagram air base, then moved to the military
prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in early February 2003.
attorneys and human rights groups maintain he was the youngest to enter
the notorious prison. The Pentagon insists he was close to adulthood at
the time, citing a bone scan done when he arrived at Guantanamo that
suggested he was closer to 17. Jawad says his father died fighting the
Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which, if true, would make him
older than 12 when he was arrested. Like many Afghans, he has no birth
Many in the Justice and Defense departments still maintain Jawad is
relatives initially didn't tell his mother that her only son had
disappeared, pretending for two months that he was with family. After
nine months, a letter from Jawad arrived via the Red Cross, blacked out
by censors except for one sentence: "I'm in prison."
Over the years they managed an occasional letter and a few calls, which
mostly consisted of Jawad crying.
military and civilian judges threw out most of the Pentagon's evidence
against Jawad, with U.S. District Judge Ellen Huvelle describing the
case as an outrage "riddled with holes." In August, Jawad was set free.
soldiers kept him shackled during the long flight back. On arrival,
Afghan officials removed his handcuffs, whisking him by car and
helicopter to meet President Hamid Karzai, who gave Jawad clothes to
replace his prison uniform and promised him a house and some money.
that night, Jawad finally saw his mother, who didn't recognize him. She
made him show her a special mark on his head, then promptly fainted. He
hardly slept his first two days back, his family says, talking nonstop
as if making up for the lost years.
In the family's 30-by-10-foot greeting hall, decorated with an
inexpensive red carpet, he welcomes a stream of well-wishers.
days, the shy young man from the Kuchi nomadic tribe -- traditional
migrants in Afghanistan and Pakistan -- can't walk down the street
without strangers coming up to him, kissing his forehead in a
traditional show of respect.
But he suffers from frequent
headaches, he says, and often rests during the day. Prison memories
haunt him, something doctors warn may never end. He worries about those
left behind, his de facto family. He's out and they're not, and that's
a source of guilt. Though the Obama administration has said it will
close Guantanamo, hundreds of detainees remain there and at Bagram.
asks a reporter to tell President Obama, the United Nations, someone,
to help them. "People there are sick," he says. "They should be
treated. They should be freed."
As his anger rises, his uncle tells him not to think about the lost
it spills out. He talks about having his hands bound behind his back
and being forced to eat like a dog, being kicked, beaten and
pepper-sprayed and subjected to excessive heat, loud noise, solitary
After a year, Guantanamo records show, Jawad tried to commit suicide by
banging his head against his cell wall repeatedly.
"I was tortured and faced many problems," he says. "They also play with
jailers refused to put him with other Afghans, he said, only with Arabs
whose language he didn't understand. He says officials hung
heartwarming pictures of families in the interrogation room, then asked
about his family. They repeatedly denied his requests for school books
or a Pashto dictionary.
Guantanamo military officials did not immediately respond to questions
about his alleged mistreatment.
with many things at Guantanamo, it's difficult to verify exactly what
happened to Jawad there. A Defense Department official, speaking on
background given the sensitivity of the issue, says Jawad was older
than he claims, that a lot of people still think he threw the grenade,
and that it's always been U.S. policy to treat prisoners humanely.
A Justice Department official who asked not to be identified says the
case was dropped when conditions changed.
"He was held so long with evidence based on torture," the official
says. "The president decided, one, that we won't torture and, two, that
we won't rely on statements based on torture. It's not really lessons
learned. It was the result of a policy choice the president made."
Jawad says only faith and a Koran prevented him from going insane.
he forgot basic words in his own language. He learned a little English,
but consciously avoided learning everything. "The guards used many bad
words that I didn't want to pick up," he says.
say he's slowly coming out of his shell. In recent weeks, he's become
less angry and irritable, sleeps better and has fewer headaches.
society's emphasis on community and family could be very helpful," says
Katherine Porterfield, clinical co-director at the Bellevue/NYU Program
for Survivors of Torture, who examined him. "But honestly, he's still
After Jawad returned home, one of the first
things he did was wolf down a huge plate of mutton and rice after years
of tasteless prison food. He's enjoying his freedom, shopping and
trying to make sense of cultural references, TV programs, Kabul
He wants to resume his education, he says, even if it
means sitting with 13-year-olds at tiny desks. He's started thinking
about longer-term plans -- a good sign, says a child care expert
working with him who asked not to be identified to protect Jawad and
herself. He even is starting to show a sense of humor.
his lawyers and other civic groups are trying to get him psychological
care, education and job training, as well as money for some basic
living expenses. The financial help promised by Karzai -- now embroiled
in election controversy -- has not yet materialized.
question why the U.S. government has done so little to help him and
other longtime Guantanamo and secret-site prisoners adjust after
they're released, much like halfway houses ease the transition for
"We need to do more than just dump him on
the corner with a bus ticket after seven years and say, 'Have a nice
day,' " says Jawad's lawyer, Eric Montalvo, who left the U.S. military
in August. "If you're trying to win the hearts and minds of Afghanis, I
can't think of a better investment."
The Defense Department
official says such a program would be too costly, and given officials'
worries about alleged terrorist links, "we don't want to give them
money to buy equipment that could come back to hurt us."
Jawad's family is now mulling a lawsuit, which his lawyer says could be
filed within the next month.
in the family's small enclosed courtyard in a modest Kabul
neighborhood, two chickens fight and a child plays with a pump handle
as Jawad contemplated his future.
He wants to be a doctor, he says, so he can do something good for
"That's my dream," he says. "I don't know if it's possible. But that's