After three years in military captivity, Rhuhel Ahmed and Asif Iqbal are touring the globe to present Michael Winterbottom’s documentary film, The Road to Guantánamo. It tells the story of these young men’s terrifying and unlikely journey from England to Pakistan, Afghanistan, and U.S. detention sites in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. As guests of the Reykjavík International Film Festival, where the film is being screened, Ahmed and Iqbal were able to sit down with the Grapevine – barely – before being shuttled to another event, dinner, a panel discussion, another film screening and yet another Q & A.
/// We’ll start with the obvious – what’s your current take on America?
Rhuhel – We don’t hate the American people. [They] have nothing to do with Guantánamo. They were not the ones who decided to open Guantánamo and lock people away indefinitely. It was the government. So, we don’t like Bush and we don’t like the administration either, or the U.S. army.
/// You chose to leave certain elements of your experience out of the film. Why?
Rhuhel – That was because our parents were going to watch the film. Our family – sisters, brothers – we didn’t want them to know what exactly happened to us and other detainees. For that reason we didn’t think it was appropriate to have those kinds of scenes in the film.
/// What impact do you think these decisions had on the film as a whole?
Asif – The film’s still powerful. It just doesn’t have what we didn’t want in there.
/// There are some funny moments in the film that arise from the absurdity of situations you faced. How did you maintain your sense of humour?
Rhuhel – It’s just the way we are. Since we were younger we’ve always had a great sense of humour. Even if we were badly treated, anything we found funny we just laughed. It was easier to get through if you laugh about some things, rather than be serious and take everything to heart. If you make a joke out of something you move on.
/// Is this common among prisoners?
Rhuhel – No, I wouldn’t say it’s common among prisoners. There were three of us and we were childhood friends. If something happened to him I would laugh, [and vice versa]. But not everybody’s the same. We were young. We have family, but we don’t have wives or sons or daughters, so we didn’t have that worry. We didn’t have anyone else to care for. That’s why we had a bit of a laugh in prison. For those people who were fathers and husbands it was a totally different story. They wouldn’t laugh about things. They would be serious.
/// You’ve said that it is necessary to ‘forget your family’ and accept the reality of your imprisonment to stay sane. How was it to be suddenly reunited?
Rhuhel – It was difficult. You were back at home, in your own bedroom now. And you’ve got other relatives with you. You have to share [space] again. In prison it’s just you in your cell in your bed. There’s no Mom, no Dad, no sisters, no brothers. You have no responsibilities. You don’t need to go out and buy bread, buy the milk, or pay the bills. You’re in prison – that’s it.
Asif – No contact with anyone.
Rhuhel – You can’t touch anybody. And all the sudden you’re back home and your mom’s talking to you and your dad’s talking you and they want to touch you. They want to hug you. It’s odd. It felt abnormal. To get back and reintegrate into society again – it’s really difficult.
/// The English government essentially abandoned you in Guantánamo; is it difficult to feel at home there?
Rhuhel – No, that’s our home. We were born there, grew up there, went to school there. Everything we know is back in England. What the government did, that’s just politics. We were just pawns.
/// Are you pursuing legal action against England, as is pending against America?
Rhuhel – We can’t pursue any in England because Guantánamo was opened by Americans. It has nothing to do with England. They might have had a part to play behind the scenes. But up front it was all American-run. It was the American army, George Bush and his administration. The British just went to interrogate detainees and you can’t really take them to court for that.
/// Besides the film, what are you currently doing on behalf of human rights?
Asif – We’ve been working with Amnesty in different countries [and] back home. We’re trying to get Camp X-Ray closed and stop torture, because torture doesn’t work.
/// What should people be doing to stop situations like Guantánamo?
Asif – Campaigning against what’s happening. Everyone looks at America [to] give freedom to the rest of the world, [as] the main democratic state, but what they’re doing is completely against human rights. If they’re doing it, [then] it’s open season for everyone else to do it. We know China tortures people, but America is always telling everyone else off [for torture]. They’re basically hypocrites… There’s an Amnesty postcard campaign, if people would just sign them and send them to Mr. Bush.
At that point, a tall man came in and barked that the time was up. They have a rigorous schedule to keep, and free time is limited.