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Mar 2, 2015 11:39 AM

AP EXCLUSIVE: Ex-Guantanamo detainees struggle in Uruguay

The Associated Press

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay (AP) Every day during the 12 years he was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay as a suspected al-Qaida operative, Adel bin Muhammad El Ouerghi dreamed of freedom.

But since his release along with five other detainees in December, the 50-year-old Tunisian has struggled to cope with freedom as he never dreamed. Resettled in a foreign land, surrounded by a language he doesn't understand, he finds the challenges of everyday life to be daunting.

"In Guantanamo, we only thought about leaving," El Ouerghi said in rapid-fire Arabic. "Here we have to think about food, clothes, all kinds of things."

El Ouerghi and 34-year old Omar Abdelahdi Faraj of Syria spoke with The Associated Press at the four-bedroom, one-bathroom house they share with the other former detainees in a middle-class neighborhood of Montevideo the first such interviews since their release. They declined to talk about their time at Guantanamo or to provide details about how they ended up there, citing reasons that ranged from fear of reprisal to a desire to leave the past behind.

The six men four Syrians, a Palestinian and a Tunisian all were detained in 2002 for suspected ties to al-Qaida. Leaked U.S. military documents describe hardened militants.

El Ouerghi allegedly was a senior explosives trainer for al-Qaida, knew Osama bin Laden, and even had prior knowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, according to a Department of Defense assessment dated June 2007. Faraj was allegedly part of a dismantled Syrian terrorist cell, and to avoid arrest fled to Afghanistan, where he fought against U.S. forces in Tora Bora, according to a Department of Defense assessment dated March 2008. Like hundreds of others at Guantanamo, the men were held without charge. The U.S. released them because officials determined that they should no longer be considered a threat.

One of the men, 44-year-old Syrian Abu Wa'el Dhiab, for years was at the center of a legal battle at Guantanamo because of repeated hunger strikes to protest indefinite detainment. He was considered so dangerous, having assaulted guards and thrown feces and vomit at them, that he was shackled when examined by medical experts hired by his legal team, according to court documents.

Those descriptions strike a sharp contrast to the men as they appeared in Montevideo. Dressed in shorts, a collared shirt and sandals, the neatly bearded El Ouerghi was quick to offer coffee. Faraj, also with a trimmed beard and glasses, was soft-spoken and shy, often carrying prayer beads in his right hand. Dhiab, who gets around on crutches because he is still weak, was welcoming and chatty, though he did not want to be quoted.

The men are among hundreds who have been released from Guantanamo since it opened in 2002. In recent months, many detainees have been resettled to countries such as Estonia, Oman, Kazakhstan, Georgia, Slovakia and Afghanistan. The men in Uruguay are the only released detainees still in Latin America. In 2009, two were released to El Salvador but subsequently left.

President Barack Obama vowed to close the prison when he took office in 2009, but Congress has prevented him from doing so. Another 55 detainees have been cleared for release, and it is not clear what will happen to the 67 detainees still facing indefinite detention.

U.S. authorities decided by 2009 that they no longer needed to be held at Guantanamo. Finding a place where they could be resettled and securing the approvals required by Congress to actually get them to the South American country stalled their release until December. Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, who was jailed for 13 years as a member of a revolutionary group, invited them to resettle here as a humanitarian gesture, offering financial and social services support.

Their landing has been anything but smooth. In early February, Dhiab held a press conference, where he said he felt like he had been transferred from one prison to another and complained that Uruguay needed a better resettlement plan. Then a few weeks ago, another controversy erupted when Uruguayans learned that the men didn't take jobs they had been offered.

The jobs ranged from construction to cooking, said Fernando Gambera, secretary of international relations in the PIT-CNT union, which has overseen many several aspects of the resettlement.

"When the offers arrived, (the men) went to the interviews, and visited the places they would be working, but later fear set in" and they did not show up to work, said Gambera.

Mujica visited the men at their house, and later on his radio program said they were not as hardy as the ancestors of Uruguayans, who he said were gritty, hard-working immigrants.

El Ouerghi said that during the meeting, Mujica encouraged the men to begin working, but also said he understood they needed to learn Spanish and had to forget about Guantanamo to move on with their lives.

"The president never said we were lazy," said El Ouerghi, who like others in the house spoke fondly about the eccentric leader who drives a Volkswagen Beetle. "If all the world's presidents were like Mujica, there would be no problems." Mujica's last day in office was Sunday.

El Ouerghi and Faraj said they want to work, but first they needed to address nagging health problems, from anxiety and an inability to concentrate to physical ailments like stomach bacterial problems and blurred vision.

The men said they appreciated the hospitality they had received, and hoped to bring their families, at least for visits. However, they worry about the future.

El Ouerghi and Faraj said each man receives 15,000 pesos ($600) a month from the Uruguayan government, which they must use for food, clothing and everything else except lodging, which is currently paid for by the union.

"Buying a house here is impossible," said Faraj, who spent most of his adult life in Guantanamo and expressed shock at the prices in Montevideo. "How could I ever marry?"

Faraj said he had worked as a butcher in his hometown of Hama, Syria, and in Uruguay hoped to open a shop selling halal meat. Similarly, El Ouerghi said he wanted to open an Arab restaurant that would serve shwarma, kebobs and other traditional Middle Eastern foods, which he had not found in Montevideo.

El Ouerghi and Faraj also lamented the lost time, particularly the years since the United States cleared them for release.

"Why can't the United States help me?" El Ouerghi said, arguing the U.S. had a moral obligation to do so.

The men spend most of the day in the house, which has crumbling plaster on walls adorned with paintings of flowers. Two of the bedrooms have two sets of bunk-beds each, where the men sleep on the bottom and put their clothes and a few personal items on the top bunk.

Just inside the front door, a large wooden desk holds a widescreen television connected to a computer, where the men do online Spanish programs and use Skype to communicate with their families, some on a daily basis. Because there is no mosque in Montevideo, the devout Muslims sometimes pray together in the living room, or pray separately in their rooms.

El Ouerghi said he had lived in Italy for seven years, where he worked as a cook and learned to speak Italian fluently, and then in Afghanistan, where he said he was married to a Pakistani woman and had a house but declined to provide more details about his life there. El Ouerghi said his wife divorced him while he was at Guantanamo, but that had not dampened his desire to have a family.

"I have one sister and three brothers," he said. "They are all married and have children."

As difficult as their transition has been, there are signs of integration. Neighbor Patricia Pequena said she sees a big change in the men after three months in Uruguay. When they celebrated New Year's together, communication was all but impossible and they were afraid of the barking of her white poodle, Candy. Now they speak basic Spanish and pick up the dog, which they affectionately call "Candy loca," or "crazy Candy," she said.

All of the men have spent time, from a few nights to a few weeks, at a small hotel about 10 blocks from the house. Like the house, the rooms don't have air conditioning, noticeable in the humid, heat of the Southern Hemisphere summer, and most have shared bathrooms.

Hotel owner Francisco Rodriguez said union officials told him they wanted to find a modest place that would periodically allow the men to have more personal space than at the house. Rodriguez said the men get on well with the staff, but that communication was difficult.

"One asked me if we had Al-Jazeera here," said Rodriguez, chuckling as he referred to the Qatar-based, Arabic language news channel. "I doubt you could find that anywhere in Montevideo."


Associated Press writer Leonardo Haberkorn contributed to this report.


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