As two former Guantánamo prisoners begin new lives in Europe (an unidentified Yemeni in Spain, and a Syrian in Bulgaria, whose story I’ll be reporting soon), there are concerns that the ill-defined obligations of countries accepting cleared prisoners from Guantánamo have left the first prisoner given a new life in Spain — the Palestinian Walid Hijazi, who was released in February — in a precarious position, effectively abandoned by the State, and largely reliant on the kindness of strangers for his financial and psychological support.
On Sunday, El Pais published a detailed article about Hijazi, explaining, as my journalist friend Carlos Sardiña Galache described it to me, that "he lives in a small hotel in an undisclosed medium-size Spanish city, waiting to move to a flat provided by a NGO. According to the story, he is devastated and traumatized. The journalist says he looks very weak and fragile, almost like a child, and he has constant headaches. This NGO has a volunteer who looks after him and there is a woman in the hotel who also takes care of him 'like a mother.’"
This is a worrying situation, and even my faltering translation of the El Pais article makes it clear that Hijazi is in a horribly vulnerable position. "He prefers not to talk about the past, not to remember" the article says. "'I’m fine, thanks to Allah,’ he says in Arabic. 'But it is still early. These things take time. I need time.’ The window of his room, whether it is hot or cold, is always open."
The full description of his carers is revealing. "The critical support," the article says, "has not been found in the NGOs or in the Muslim community in the city. It has come instead from a woman who works at the hotel where he is living, and is spontaneously and selflessly looking after him … Hijazi does not speak Spanish, and she does not speak Arabic, so they communicate by signs. They eat together, he accompanies her on errands, and seems comfortable despite the fact that communication is limited. A young man from the NGO also visits in his spare time, and goes for walks with Hijazi."
Crucially, as El Pais noted, senior officials in Hijazi’s new hometown convened a meeting with members of the Muslim community, at which Hijazi was present, "to ask for their support in the reception and reintegration of former prisoners." However, as the article continued, "neither the government nor the NGOs nor the Muslim community realized how difficult it would be to recover psychologically" after eight years in Guantánamo.
Hijazi speaks once or twice a week to his family, but seems unsure of what to think about the future. "Would you like to return to Gaza? Bring your family here?" the reporter asks (somewhat rhetorically, as the Israeli government shows no willingness to provide any support to former Guantánamo prisoners). "I do not know," Hijazi replies, adding, again, "I need more time." The article ends with the reporter noting, "During the day, he goes out for walks. Sometimes, when he is not feeling well, he spends days at the hotel, and barely goes out at all. The last day that we see him he is well and goes out on an errand. The window, as always, is open."
What emerges clearly from this report is how, despite the kindness of the woman who has befriended him, Hijazi obviously needs professional care, which has not been made available to him. Michael Korzinski, the co-director of the Helen Bamber Foundation in London (which cares for torture victims), told El Pais, "These patients need time to reconnect with ordinary life. They have to feel that they have rights, rights that have been denied to them for a long time." He added that they need "specific psychological treatment."
Whether this will be forthcoming in Walid Hijazi’s case, or in the case of the Yemeni who has just arrived in Spain, ought to be a pressing matter for the Spanish government. The fear, however, is that in doing a favor for President Obama, by taking cleared prisoners who cannot be repatriated, the Spanish government is ignoring the former prisoners’ own needs and is interested only in whatever political advantage will ensue from its gesture of solidarity with the Obama administration.
Certainly, the focus of the government seems to be more on the novel status of these men than on their psychological and material well-being. As the article also explains, the government has stated that Hijazi is not allowed to leave the country, prompting lawyers to ask why, if he is a free man with no charges against him, this restriction should be imposed. The Ministry of the Interior has explained that it is authorized under Article 28.2 of the Aliens Act, which allows the Minister of the Interior to prevent people leaving the country on the basis of "national security."
It is valid to ask why this law should be invoked in the case of men who pose no threat to Spain — or to anyone else for that matter — but as Walid Hijazi’s case makes clear, more pressing right now are concerns about his welfare, although questions about the former prisoners’ status — and the manner in which they are being treated — surely need examining in relation to the resettlement of men in other countries, and not just in Spain.
After eight years in Guantánamo, and their release because, in the end, the US government was unable to conjure up a valid reason to continue holding them, the prisoners given homes in new countries — to date, Albania, Belgium, Bermuda, Bulgaria, France, Georgia, Hungary, Ireland, Palau, Portugal, Slovakia and Switzerland, as well as Spain — need guarantees that they will not only be free men, but will also receive adequate support to help them rebuild their lives.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in January 2010, details about the new documentary film, "Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo" (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and launched in October 2009), and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.