Nabil Hadjarab

Algerian Man Sold For Bounty in Afghanistan and Sent to Guantánamo, Wants to Return to France, Where He Was Raised

Nabil Hadjarab, now 31 years old, was “captured” in Afghanistan when he was barely 22. Captured, though, is the wrong word; he was sold to US forces for a bounty of $5,000, a fortune in that country. He had been wounded trying to flee the war; he was taken from his hospital bed in Kandahar to a US military prison. Although he was told – repeatedly – by his interrogators that his was a case of mistaken identity, he was flown to Guantánamo in early 2002. And although he was cleared for release in 2007, he remains there, in some sort of legal limbo, because France refuses to take him back.

He was born in Algeria, though his father had lived in France since 1954, and had served over two years in the French armed forces fighting for France in its brutal war in Algeria. His family brought Nabil to France when he was still a baby, but were unable to care for him, so his childhood was with a foster family in Savigny where he went to primary school and where his father came to visit him on weekends. He recalls this is the happiest time of his life. He has seven half-brothers and sisters from his father’s first marriage; all are French citizens but Nabil never became a citizen. When he was nine, his father took him back with him to Algeria, where he continued his schooling but also returned to France for two months each summer to spend the vacation with his uncle Ahmad’s family. When Nabil was 15, his father died of cancer, and he was taken in by an aunt.

When Nabil turned twenty-one, in 2000, he returned to France to be reunited with his siblings, his uncle and his foster family. Later that year Nabil sought legal advice and attempted to obtain French residency but was told the review of his case could take half a year. Worried about trying to live in France without papers, he went to Britain, where he had heard it was easier. It was not, but there he heard that it was possible to live undocumented in Afghanistan; he decided to go there to pursue religious studies, hoping to find new meaning in his life.

He arrived in March 2001; less than eight months later, the US invaded the country. Reports began to circulate that the Northern Alliance was rounding up and killing Arabs. In fear, Nabil and his housemates fled to Jalalabad, then to the mountains outside the city. The US was bombing all the main roads leading toward safety in Pakistan, so Nabil stayed in the mountains for a few weeks, hoping the danger would ease. It didn’t. Feeling he could wait no longer, Nabil attempted to reach the border. However, he was wounded by a bomb and ended up in that hospital in Jalalabad.

Nabil had never attended a training camp and had nothing at all to do with terrorism or the Taliban, but the US high command, in spite of his interrogators’ reports that his incarceration was a mistake, insisted that every Arab who ended up in US custody should be sent to Guantánamo Bay, regardless of the quality of evidence against them. Shackled, bound and hooded, Nabil was flown to Cuba in early 2002, where he has been ever since. There, though he has been described by the very men charged with “guarding” this dangerous man, as a “brilliant artist, keen footballer, sweet kid,” he has been subjected to all kinds of torture and inhuman treatment: sleep and sensory deprivation, temperature extremes and prolonged isolation. He has never been permitted a family visit, and has spoken with them on the phone only three times.

Nabil wishes not to be sent to Algeria, but to return to France, where he has a loving uncle and aunt, so that he can quietly rebuild his life and be reunited with his family. He dreams of finding work as an interpreter or translator, using his excellent linguistic skills; he speaks fluent English, French and Arabic.

He has written to French President Nicolas Sarkozy: “I have spent over eight years in this prison without any charges being brought against me. … Having spent so long in such an isolating place, I do not want to find myself alone again, in a position where I must beg for charity. The most important thing to me is dignity. My dignity has been taken away from me during the eight years that I have been imprisoned, suffering so many abuses that I do not even wish to discuss. Today I need your help to get it back.”