This began as a story of compassion and renewal. Before dawn one warm Sunday last December, six inmates from the U.S. military jail in Guantanamo Bay landed at an airstrip here in the Uruguayan capital. The U.S. flew them from Guantanamo shackled and hooded, but Uruguayan officials insisted they be unbound before they left the plane, and walk as free men into their new lives.
These six – four Syrians, a Tunisian and a Palestinian – were all identified as former al-Qaeda fighters, and theirs was a significant resettlement from the prison that bedevils the Obama administration.
They moved into a house in a slightly down-at-heel neighbourhood in the centre of Montevideo. In the first days, the six – who had spent years in solitary confinement and on hunger strikes – took wide-eyed trips to the grocery store and walks on the beachfront. Uruguayans waved and approached to welcome them and wish them well. They were to begin Spanish classes, and a construction company and other businesses promised them jobs.
The euphoria, however, was fleeting. Six months in, the men are adrift and struggling – baffled by Uruguay in the best case, enraged and bitter, in the worst. As the U.S. government seeks somewhere, anywhere, to resettle the other Guantanamo inmates, Uruguay's story of transcultural empathy stands as a cautionary tale.
They wound up here, in a tiny nation tucked between Argentina and Brazil, because the former president, Jose Mujica, saw something of himself in them. Mr. Mujica, who left office in March, was a political prisoner and survivor of torture. He spent 14 years in jail when he was a leftist fighter and welcomed the detainees personally to Uruguay when they landed.
Mr. Mujica is a strong critic of U.S. foreign policy, so the agreement to accept the men served as implicit repudiation. Uruguay, population 3.3 million and a byword for obscurity, has a tradition of trying to punch above its weight in international affairs. There are also rumours that Mr. Mujica was angling for a Nobel Peace Prize nomination and thought that doing the U.S. government such a sizable favour might induce support for his cause.
He agreed to take them – but did not, it now appears, do much to prepare his tiny country, with a total Muslim population of about 300, to support and resettle six men with murky pasts who endured years of brutal interrogation and isolation.
Good intentions, poor planning
There was no plan in place to provide the men with psychological care, according to a former government official who was closely involved in the file from before they arrived in Uruguay. And language was an enormous barrier – only a handful of people speak Arabic in Montevideo, and three of the men had no English. "The spirit was good," the official said grimly. "The execution was poor."
Christian Mirza, a professor of social work who acts as the government-appointed liaison to the men, said it was unrealistic to think they would plunge into Spanish lessons and jobs. They were used to the highly regimented lives of prisoners and to trusting no one, he said; autonomy, and everything else about their new life, was almost paralyzing.
By April, the situation had deteriorated. Two of the men had moved out of the cramped house and into a cheap hotel, but couldn't pay for it. The others were anxious about money, with no fixed support program, while there was a growing chorus of discontent from Uruguayans asking why they were sitting around expecting handouts.
The nadir came when four of them set up a tent camp on the grassy avenue outside the U.S. embassy and demanded that the American government compensate them financially.
"It drove the Americans crazy, of course – you can imagine," said Alejandra Costa, the director of humanitarian and human-rights issues for Uruguay's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who now manages the detainee issue.
The Ministry of the Interior had negotiated the actual handover with the U.S. State Department, but didn't think much past the men's arrival in the country, Ms. Costa said. And homogeneous Uruguay, with its limited tradition of immigration or refugees, had few institutions in a position to predict or assist with what came next.
"A lot of people approached them and started covering their basic needs but they all wound up fighting with each other over how they would be treated, who would take them to the doctor: It was all a mess."
After three weeks of protesting, the Foreign Ministry persuaded the men to sign an agreement: An NGO with experience in refugee issues would support them, administering rent payments for two years, paying for medical care and Spanish classes. They in turn would accept the help, try to learn the language and work toward employment.
When then-president Mr. Mujica announced that Uruguay would be accepting six detainees, public-opinion polls showed the majority of people opposed the idea. There were concerns about security. The U.S. military's own intelligence files on the men allege four of the Syrians were part of a Kabul-based al-Qaeda cell. They allege that the Tunisian, Adel bin Muhammad El Ouerghi, was an al-Qaeda explosives trainer with prior knowledge of Sept. 11, 2001, and the Palestinian, Mohammed Abdullah Taha Mattan, left the West Bank to join the Afghan Taliban.
But when the U.S. sent them to Uruguay, it was with a brief letter stating there was "no information to indicate that they were involved in terrorist activities against the United States of America."
Benjamin Farley, adviser to the U.S. State Department's Special Envoy for Guantanamo Closure, said the United States transfers a detainee after conversations about the "potential threat a detainee may pose after transfer and the measures the receiving country will take in order to sufficiently mitigate that threat, and to ensure humane treatment."
Ms. Costa noted that the men have refugee status, and thus are eligible for laissez-passer travel documents. In a few years, they can apply for citizenship and passports; Uruguay can in no way restrict their travel. A U.S. Defence Department official, who was not authorized to speak on the record, said that Uruguay has committed to making sure they will not leave the country for at least two years.
The men are entitled to family reunification under Uruguayan law. Two applied and were approved to have their families brought there, but have since opted not to do so, apparently concluding that the transition to life in Uruguay is too difficult. They could, in theory, return home, but civil war makes return to Syria impossible, while Mr. El Ouerghi has said he does not believe Tunisia will remain stable or safe
Adapting to a new country
Mr. Taha Mattan appears to have made the most progress in acclimatizing. He has rented an apartment, is engaged to marry a Uruguayan psychologist and is living with a fair degree of anonymity.
Mr. El Ouerghi, 50, married in June, also to a Uruguayan convert to Islam whom he met through the Islamic Centre, a room above an auto shop. Abdelahdi Faraj is also engaged with plans to marry soon. Two of the Syrians spoke briefly with The Globe and Mail in their tidy but dilapidated house, but did not wish to have details of their lives made public. They were affable and at ease, but seemed somewhat lost, still living in a strange sort of limbo. A third said he would only speak to a reporter if he were paid, while Mr. El Ouerghi declined to be interviewed.
And then there is Abu Wa'el Dhiab who also goes by the name Jihad Diyab. He is, in the delicate words of Ms. Costa of the Foreign Ministry, "the challenging case."
Mr. Diyab, 43, is physically debilitated by his years on hunger strike and under interrogation. He walks with crutches, is still rail thin and has not signed the agreement with the Uruguayan government. He can be gracious, hospitable and wry. He can also, in a matter of seconds, be truculent, hostile, aggressive and accusatory. Anyone in Uruguay who deals with him routinely will say, first, that he is difficult and evidently mental unstable; and, second, that this is totally understandable.
Indeed, the most remarkable aspect of the men's lives in Uruguay may be the degree of compassion they evoke in some quarters of society. Mr. Diyab has attracted a circle of older women with leftist politics who provide a stream of food, electronic gadgets, chauffeur services, cash loans and other help. He expresses gratitude for none of it. They seem unperturbed.
In a wide-ranging conversation with The Globe, Mr. Diyab discussed his personal campaign to try to arrange the release of other prisoners (he keeps a range of aerial photos of Guantanamo on his phone); his concerns for Canadian ex-detainee Omar Khadr, whom he referred to as "my son"; his rage at the Americans and scorn for Uruguay; and his burning desire to be reunited with his wife and three children, who are in Syria. "My human rights are being violated by this," he said, of the fact that Uruguay has not arranged for him to travel to the Middle East to meet with them.
Ms. Costa said the former detainees are an emotional issue for a certain group of Uruguayans, many of whom were themselves detained or had family detained in the dictatorship era. "It's as if we are somehow fighting the injustices of the U.S.," she said. "But [they came from the war] in Afghanistan – it's a new reality in the world. Of course, we have to help these people – we have some refugees here who have been through some trauma and we need to help them get a good new horizon."