Innocents on the ‘Road to Guantanamo’

by Gaetana Caldwell-Smith / July 2006 issue of Socialist Action newspaper

To question the authenticity of events depicted in Michael Winterbottom’s and Matt Whitecross’s recent docudrama, “The Road to Guantanamo,” is to be ignorant of the many testimonies that have come from others—of men being picked up, blindfolded, shackled, dumped into trucks and planes, eventually ending up in prison at the U.S. naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where they are held, chargeless, for years.

“Road to Guantanamo” cuts seamlessly back and forth between the filmmakers’ interviews of three freed prisoners—Asi, Ruhel, and Shafiq, residents of Tipton, England, who are originally from Pakistan—and the re-enacted dramatization of their experiences. Non-actors Riz Ahmed, Farhad Harun, and Arfan Usman were cast to play the “Tipton Three” because of their close resemblances.

It is apparent that the three were freed in 2004 largely because, as British citizens, their incarceration proved to be an embarrassment for the Tony Blair government. Unlike the majority of the Guantanamo prisoners—whose identities are known to very few—the Tipton Three had the benefit of a defense movement back home that was able to agitate for their release.

The film begins as Asi, Ruhel, and Shafiq start off for Pakistan to participate in an arranged wedding for Asi. It is October 2001. The timing could not have been worse.

In Pakistan, with little money, they stay in a mosque. They join in the prayers, but are not taken in by the Imam, who derides America for attacking Afghanistan. The Imam only sparks their youthful curiosity.

Call it naiveté, but they decide to take a side trip to Afghanistan. They “just want to see what it’s like over there for ourselves,” one explains. From Karachi, they board crowded buses, catch rides on overloaded trucks over barren mountains on steeply winding, dusty roads, and make it to the border, ending up in Kunduz, and then Kandahar. As they travel, the footage, shot from the air, reveals a desolate but spectacular landscape.

From here on, most scenes are difficult to watch. Bombs launched by the U.S. and its allies are exploding everywhere; innocent civilians are screaming, running this way and that; pickup trucks roar past, their beds bristling with Kalishnikovs gripped by weathered, turbaned men. People, faces twisted in anguish, shovel the mangled dead into ditches. Panicked men and boys jump on anything that moves, trying to escape, among them, the wedding party.

A harried British reporter in a khaki outfit announces on camera that the Taliban has been routed and is fleeing into the mountains and that the U.S., its allies, and the Northern Alliance, have decimated al-Qaeda.

Every male dressed in native tunic and loose pants, including our three friends, is rounded up at gunpoint and crammed into airless metal containers on flatbed trucks, deprived of air and water. Soldiers riddle the container with bullets, creating not only air holes, but also wounded and dead men.

“Everything was slippery and wet with sweat and blood,” one of the three narrates. He survived by soaking up condensation with his shirt and wringing it out into his mouth.

Hooded, numbered, and shackled hand and foot—and forced to kneel for hours in the sun—they are finally herded into trucks, then into a transport plane and flown to Guantanamo Bay prison, where they are quick-marched into chicken-wire cages, with dirt floors, open to the elements and everything else.

By now it’s December 2001. None are told the reason for their incarceration or how long they have to stay. They have no legal recourse. Sleep-deprived, the three, found to be British; are interrogated mercilessly, beaten, and sexually humiliated.

For not cooperating, or admitting they know Osama bin Laden and were trained in his camp, they’re put in solitary. Chained in a crouched position to a metal loop in the floor of a windowless metal box, prisoners are immobile—unable to lie, sit, or stand—while heavy metal music blares nonstop to pulsating strobe lights. One stated that he endured more than three months in the box.

A female interrogator—dressed as though conducting a corporate job interview, complete with gold-button earrings—shows a blurry photo of a crowd at an alleged bin Laden rally to a prisoner and tries to get him to admit that the smudgy face she is pointing to is his.

One of the more harrowing yet comically paradoxical scenes is of a clump of heavily armed and armored soldiers quick-marching in unison, bearing shields and grunting, “Huh, huh, huh, huh,” as they storm the cage of a mentally ill prisoner who is screaming.

Prison officials, citing “wrong records” and admitting to finding evidence that place the three in Tipton during the alleged bin Laden rally, reassign them to a position where the treatment is better. Finally, in March 2004, they are released with no explanation, no apology, and flown back to Tipton.

In the final interview of the film, one of the men states that the world is not a nice place; another says the experience made him a better person; the third says he feels that the ordeal made him stronger in his faith. None appear bitter. The film ends with the wedding ceremony in Pakistan, in June 2005, with the groom, Asi, decked out like a Raj in silks and a plumed turban.

Today, five years after 9/11, over 450 prisoners still languish at Guantanamo and only 10 have been charged. None have been tried.