The new life of a former Guantánamo prisoner

On the 15th night of Ramadan, in a suburb of Belize City, Majid Khan and his family of four sat down for a traditional iftar meal to quickly break up the daylight hours. There was a leg of lamb that Majid, a former Guantánamo detainee, had slaughtered himself, and some sweets brought from Saudi Arabia by a sister in Maryland.

The atmosphere was a bit noisy, but not enough to disturb the sleep of little Hamza, born two weeks earlier in a hospital in the Central American city. Little was said about whether the biryani dish was too spicy and how the lamb was perfectly roasted.

These are trivial matters, made more significant because Majid Khan, a former Al Qaeda courier, was celebrating with his wife Rabia and daughter Manaal in their first home together, in Belize, their new adopted homeland.

For two decades this family meal was not possible. After the September 11, 2001 attacks, Khan joined Al Qaeda, agreed to become a suicide bomber and handed over $50,000 that would be used in a deadly bombing of a hotel in Indonesia. For his crimes he was held prisoner by the United States, tortured by the CIA and then imprisoned at Guantánamo Bay. He pleaded guilty and became a government collaborator and, all that time, his wife was waiting for him in Pakistan.

“I have been waiting for this for 20 years,” Rabia Khan said with a sigh of satisfaction. “Everyone said, 'You're brave. You are strong'”. The circumstances required it. “Now I tell Majid: 'It's all up to you, not me.'”

Big questions about life await this family. Will Majid, 44, get his nascent clay pot importing business up and running? Will Rabia, 40, have to take little Hamza to Mexico to see a specialist for a kidney condition? Where will Manaal, 20, go to college and then become a dentist?

But other, bigger struggles loom.

Majid still needs to find health care for the damage he suffered in the CIA's secret overseas prisons. He still has to adapt to the country that welcomed his family. He was unable to open a bank account because of his past.

“Life is a test,” he said, describing himself as a glass-half-full guy. He sees the next chapter in his life as an opportunity to make things right. He was hurt, he said, and did things that hurt others. He punctuates his remarks with “May God forgive.”

Even among the 750 men and boys who passed through Guantánamo prison, Majid Khan always stood out.

Pakistani, he attended high school in suburban Baltimore and became radicalized there after his mother's death in 2001. He left for Pakistan that year, after the September 11 attacks, at age 21, and married Rabia in an arranged marriage. marriage. He also joined members of Al Qaeda, including men accused of plotting the September 11 attacks, and was recruited as a suicide bomber in a never-realized attack on Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf. His decisions, he says, were impetuous and wrong.

He was the first prisoner to be tortured in CIA custody to plead guilty to war crimes, nearly a decade after his detention as a “high-value detainee.” He spent more years isolated from other inmates than any other prisoner, most of that time as a government collaborator.

Sixteen months after a U.S. military jury condemned his treatment – ​​calling it “a stain on the moral fiber of America” – Belize allowed him to move there as a humanitarian gesture. At Belize's insistence, the United States paid for his house, car and telephone and provided him with a salary.

Rabia Khan spent those years as a single mother with her parents and a family of sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews, raising Manaal, their child born after Majid's capture.

At Guantánamo he prayed alone, slept all day and ate alone. “You're used to it,” she said. His Ramadan rations came with three dates, sometimes a packet of honey.

They reunited two months after his release. He met her daughter for the first time in the VIP lounge at the Belize airport. Husband and wife who had been separated during their 20s and 30s did not feel like strangers.

“I don't know why,” Rabia said. “Maybe because of the letters?”

Manaal confides that it has been an emotional year, starting with the sudden news that the father he had never met had been released from prison. Eight weeks later, she and her mother traveled for 48 hours – from Karachi to Doha, to New York, to Miami, to Belize City – and joined him.

There have been visits from her father's family to the United States, sightseeing at tourist spots along Belize's Caribbean coast and now, a little brother – all the makings of a more unusual gap year or two before she goes off to college.

He glides around his family's three-bedroom home with a breezy air of ownership. She has her first bedroom all to herself, now decorated with strings of festive lights. She designed Hamza's birth announcement, with the image of a heart-shaped balloon. She sent it on her phone from the hospital to family in three time zones within minutes of her arrival.

Outside the house, she and her mother wear dressing gowns and cover their hair with a hijab and their faces with Covid masks, a modern version of the austere niqab. He drives the family car, a used Chevy Equinox.

“I'm a Pakistani boy at heart with an American twist on top,” he said. “So I'm a bit of a feminist. But I firmly believe in Muslim modesty. And honor. I have to make sure my daughter is modest until she gets married.

The nation of Belize, with about 415,000 residents, is the size of New Jersey, with about 5 percent of its population. The official language is English, which helps. But for Majid Khan, a man in a hurry, fitting in was a challenge.

“It has yet to synchronize with Belize's laissez-faire,” said its mosque's leader, Kaleem El-Amin, known as Brother Kaleem. “I think he needs a little more time.”

Majid has not yet set up shop for his business, selling painted vases from Pakistan, or found a large commercial buyer.

Part of the problem is that no bank was willing to open an international account for the man who handed over $50,000 to an Al Qaeda affiliate, unaware, he said, of his purpose. He was already in American custody when the money was used in a bombing that killed about a dozen people at a Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, on August 5, 2003.

Belize blames global finance regulations imposed after 9/11. A government official who discussed the issue on condition of anonymity because it involves sensitive diplomatic ties said the issue was beyond the reach of the Belizean government, calling it an “obstacle” to Majid's action. creating a sustainable business.

The family's utilities are on the credit card of his father, who has been visiting for extended periods. Whatever business you do requires cash and sometimes a Belizean partner.

If the wife needs to take the child abroad for health care, he cannot accompany her. He has residency in Belize and a path to citizenship, but, at the request of the U.S. government, has no travel documents.

He also needs medical treatment for a colorectal condition and back pain that he attributes to years spent in CIA black sites, where he was brutally interrogated, held in solitary confinement and became so desperate that he refused to eat. His American captors broke his hunger strike by infusing his rectum with a “puree” of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins, according to a declassified document.

His wife told him he sometimes wriggles in his sleep, he said, but he doesn't recall any nightmares. He had two free visits to a psychiatrist but chose not to continue treatment, at a cost of $100 per visit. The doctor had no experience in torture trauma and “didn't know what prison life was like,” he said.

“I need to get myself together,” he said. “Mentally, physically.”

Every Friday he makes the 30-minute trip to the mosque to pray in a Muslim community, something he was denied during his detention in the United States. Some are Belizean converts to Islam or their descendants. Others are immigrants, many from Sri Lanka.

The community welcomed him from day one, without asking questions, said Brother Kaleem, the imam, who converted to Islam in the 1970s and trained in Saudi Arabia. This is the Belizean way of life: quiet, accepting.

“If he stays here long enough, maybe his kids will understand this place,” he said.

Rabia Khan says her husband is a “softer” version of the man she married. In her words, he is part American, part Pakistani, part Arab: an apt description.

He prefers California dates to Saudi dates to break his fast. She has a basketball hoop for when a grandson visits from the United States. She calls American visitors, including one old enough to be her mother, “Dude.”

For the holiday, he found a Belize with cattle, brought a ritual knife and slaughtered a sheep. So the couple stashed the portions in their newly purchased freezer. The slaughter was daunting. A halal butcher made it at home.

One evening, before dinner at a Lebanese-style restaurant, he called the owner to ask if he could bring his lamb. It was a religious thing, Majid explained, and he called it “kosher.” The restaurateur agreed.

When Majid talks about his life, his philosophy is no different than what he told a military jury in 2021. His actions with Al Qaeda hurt people and were wrong, he said. May God forgive him. So was the torture, which he described to the jury. It was his first public account of what had been done to him and he said he had forgiven his captors.

“The reason I forgive is because I did a lot of bad things,” he said, sitting on the couch, the baby sleeping in the crook of his arm. “The point is, I have no hard feelings. I could have been paralyzed for 20 years due to a car accident. God has decided, 'I will put you through this test.'”

The time spent in detention was a struggle, but an educational one. He learned that he could be mean, rude and write poetry. He also spent years away from other inmates, in the company of guards and federal agents, who sometimes passed the time playing poker and cigars.

One evening, sitting along the Old Belize River, Rabia tells a story:

Majid had been missing for years. His family did not know whether he was alive or dead until the White House announced in September 2006 that he was among a group of CIA prisoners transferred to Guantánamo.

From there, in a moment of deep desperation, he writes her a letter: You have my permission to start over, to find a new husband.

First he cried, he said. She kept her family's message. Then she sent him a furious reply.

“He told me that if I do this, I will never see Manaal,” she recalled with a shudder. “Never.”

Manaal was born in the seventh month of his detention. He had no hope of being released, he still had to take responsibility for his crimes, cooperate with the US government and plead guilty.

This was later, in 2012, more than a decade before he was released in Belize.

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