La Jollan meets the human faces of Gitmo
Over the past 2 1/2 years, Mahvish Rukhsana Khan has made more than 30 trips to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and two trips to Afghanistan on behalf of Middle Eastern detainees accused of being terrorists.
After receiving security clearance to serve as an interpreter, Khan, a recent law school graduate, was eventually assigned representation of a detainee. A journalist since high school, she has also written news articles about what she witnessed at Gitmo.
Khan chronicles her story in “My Guantanamo Diary: The Detainees and the Stories They Told Me,” which was released June 23.
“It’s written in a diary, kind of biographic format so my upbringing and how I got started is in there,” Khan said.
A first-generation American, Khan, who has two brothers, was raised in a suburb of Detroit, Mich. by parents of Afghan descent. Her mother and father, both physicians, came to the U.S. in the late ‘70s to pursue their medical education at Johns Hopkins in Maryland.
She completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and then attended the University of Miami law school. She graduated in 2006, at which time she moved to La Jolla where she currently resides with her husband, Poe Corn.
“I grew up with a mother who believed in civic engagement,” Khan said. This example lead to her interest in journalism and human rights.
It was her journalistic and legal background that inspired Khan to offer her services as a Pashto translator for Afghanistan detainees.
“It was my way to get involved,” she said. “I figured I would start as a translator and once the attorneys I was working with knew me better, I would ask for a case of my own. I (also) made it clear from the beginning that I wanted to write about it.”
Obtaining her security clearance took six months, but in January 2006 Khan made her first trip to U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, the country’s oldest overseas military installation. She admitted to feeling frightened and worried, but mostly determined.
“I didn’t go to Guantanamo Bay with any opinion of who the detainees were. I didn’t know whether they were innocent or guilty of anything,” Khan said. “The reasons I got involved as a law student were to preserve the legal principals that were at stake ... the conviction that everyone is entitled to a fair trail and the right to show that you’re innocent like any alleged rapist or murderer in America.”
When it came time to meet the first detainee, Khan said Ali Shah Mousovi, the physician she met, was just as scared as she was. Mousovi and his fellow prisoner, Haji Nusrat Khan, an 80-year-old paraplegic with many health issues, touched Khan personally, perhaps, she said, because they were the first detainees she met when she was hypersensitive to her new environment.
Khan said she was shocked not only by the individuals she met – she said they were pharmacists and teachers who seemed unlikely terrorists – but also by the conditions and stories of torture the detainees told her.
Prisoners in Camp 6 were isolated in solitary confinement for up to 23 hours a day. They communicated by yelling to one another through narrow cracks along the bottom of the cell doors.
Although Camp 3 was a communal setting, these prisoners, too, suffered.
Several of the Afghanistan detainees shamefully told her about multiple full body cavity searches, repeated beatings and being paraded around naked. Many said they did not receive letters from home for months and sometimes didn’t know if their family members were alive or dead.
Through it all, Khan said, “they tried so hard to maintain their dignity.”
Many of the detainees, more than 80 percent by some estimates, were swept up as a result of bounties offered by the U.S. military, according to Khan. In a country with ethnic and political disputes and where the average annual income is $300, a $5,000 bounty was reason enough for citizens to turn in neighbors or acquaintances.
“Once I got to Gitmo and I met these guys, the purpose shifted for me from these abstract legal ideals to actually protecting human beings,” Khan said. “I knew I wanted to write about it because nobody knows who the detainees are. They’re known as this mass entity of nameless, faceless foreigners. People would be shocked if they knew who they were as human beings. They’re more like you than they’re different.”
Khan published a lengthy article in the Washington Post that detailed her experiences with the detainees. As a result, she was banned from the base for two months and received more than 900 e-mails.
A small number, 20 or so, were hate messages, but most were supportive, Khan said.
“In those, some accused me of being naive and believing that these terrorists had duped me,” she said, a charge she strongly disputes. “I’ve gone to Afghanistan collecting evidence on their behalf and found that their stories do pan out.”
Of the original 800-plus detainees, approximately 250 remain imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay. The rest have been released.
Raised with a strong sense of cultural and heritage, Khan said her sense of self has only been strengthened by her recent experiences.
“I think I’ve always had a balancing act between how Eastern and Western am I,” Kahn said. “It was kind of hard for me to put all that together, but I think somewhere along the journey of Guantanamo and meeting these individuals, these detainees, and traveling to Afghanistan, I definitely found an equilibrium of characteristics that I like from both cultures.
“I feel that what I’m doing is my duty as an American, and I think it is the patriotic thing to do, to stand up for your country’s reputation and your country’s honor. I think that it’s people’s duty as Americans to want for their country’s image to be improved and not happen again.”