In The Media

Outstanding Issues: A Yemeni Teenager’s Trip to Estonia, by Way of Guantánamo

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Written by NY Staff

Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times. In this piece, the reporter Charlie Savage describe the impact of an article he wrote about an ex-Guantánamo detainee — on readers, the subject and the writer.

“For all the people who don’t know me, there is a chance that I am innocent, there is a chance that I am not innocent,” Ahmed Abdul Qader said to me over Skype this spring. “That makes it difficult. How can I prove that? The person who wanted to know more, he has to spend a very long time with me.”

Mr. Qader, a Yemeni, was a teenager when he was sent to Guantánamo Bay in June 2002; he was past 30 when he was resettled in Estonia in January 2015. I have been writing about the wartime prison at Guantánamo for almost as long — for three different newspapers and in two books. But my reporting has tended to focus more on legal maneuvers and high-level policy than on individual people, like Mr. Qader.

The project that brought us together began with a conversation earlier this year with my editor, Bill Hamilton, and The New York Times’s Washington bureau chief, Elisabeth Bumiller. They encouraged me to try something ambitious that would add a human dimension to my reporting: tracking down a former detainee and visiting him.

Since coming to Estonia, Mr. Qader has tried to keep his head down, refusing all interview requests from local media. But when I contacted him through his American lawyer, Wesley Powell, he agreed to talk with me on the condition that I withhold certain identifying details, including where he lives.

So I studied the legal and military intelligence files describing the ambiguous evidence from his case, and then flew to Estonia to talk with him — as well as with Estonian officials overseeing his case and a handful of people who know his background.

The article, published on Saturday, has had an unusually large online readership in Estonia and attracted much interest. It prompted manyTwitter comments and reader emails expressing sympathy or encouragement for Mr. Qader, some of which I forwarded to him. Estonian news outlets and blogs posted pieces describing what he said in the article, attracting a mix of compassionate and hostile commentary.

Meanwhile, ever since it was published, hackers using computer addresses in Ukraine and Russia have been trying to break into my personal website. The story noted that Estonia decided to resettle Mr. Qader as a geopolitical favor to the United States after Russia intervened in Ukraine, another post-Soviet republic, in 2014.

This week, I spoke again with Mr. Qader over Skype. He thanked me for writing about him. And he also said he wanted to expand upon several points. I had compressed his extremely complex life down to terse sentences to keep the article at reasonable length, so I am happy to have an opportunity to honor his request here.

First, the article noted that Mr. Qader met Taliban members after he crossed from Pakistan into Afghanistan in 1999; they invited him to visit an area north of Kabul, near the front lines in their civil war against the Northern Alliance, and where he stayed for 10 months. This episode generated suspicion among intelligence analysts and judges.

On Skype, Mr. Qader told me he wanted people to understand that this was before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and Taliban members were the government — “the police” — so he had no cause to avoid them when they approached him. He also said he traveled separately, not in the company of Taliban members, to that area north of Kabul where he rented a room; his point was that he did not enlist with them.

In addition, the article described how he was among two groups of Arab men arrested in March 2002 when the police raided two guesthouses in Pakistan; at the other, a prominent terrorism suspect was captured. The police later conflated the two houses, telling the United States both had harbored suspected Qaeda cells, although the evidence of terrorist ties to Mr. Qader’s house was thinner.

Mr. Qader told me on Skype that he also wanted people to know that a gun battle had erupted at the first house when the police showed up, but that the residents of Mr. Qader’s house had gone peacefully to the police station at the officers’ request.

Finally, the article noted that Mr. Qader said he understood why, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States would detain him, but thought it should have freed him after a year or two. It quoted him asking the government to clear his name by saying publicly that the suspicions against him had turned out to be a mistake.

Over Skype, Mr. Qader said he worried that people might misinterpret this as a concession that he did something that merited a prison sentence of a year or two. He wanted to make sure everyone understood that he was saying only that it was reasonable, under the circumstances, to detain him for scrutiny, but that officials should have then become satisfied that he had no involvement with the Sept. 11 attacks.

For my part, there were further details about Mr. Qader’s story that did not fit within the piece but that have continued to stick in my mind. This is a testament to how different it is to write about a human being rather than abstract policy.

For example, Mr. Qader told me about how the first fellow detainee he spoke with shortly after he arrived in Cuba in 2002 — after a long, harrowing flight, his limbs restrained and eyes and ears blocked — was a slightly older man who had been arrested in the same boardinghouse in Pakistan. He asked Mr. Qader if he understood the situation, but the teenager was disoriented and preoccupied by the flight conditions.

“For me, only a couple days, they will know who I am,” he recalled saying. “They will send me back. That’s not what worry me. What worry me: ‘how can I survive a trip like this back home?’ ”

In a dramatic coincidence, 13 years later, Mr. Qader and that other man both left on the same plane — after dropping Mr. Qader off in Estonia, it traveled on to Oman to transfer four other Yemenis. Shortly before they left Cuba, the man reminded Mr. Qader of what he’d said through the fence those many years ago.

I was also struck by details from Mr. Qader’s account of the psychological transition to his new life, including his self-consciousness and obsession with symbols of freedom.

When American guards handed him over to Estonian officials at the Tallinn airport, the Estonians removed his handcuffs, handed him a winter coat, and loaded him into a van that would drive him to his new apartment. Sitting unrestrained next to other people, Mr. Qader told me “I didn’t know what to do with my hands.”

Later that evening, his assigned mentor helped him set up a Yahoo email account; Mr. Qader chose the name “freeman” and the date.

And in the days that followed, one of the first places his mentor showed him was a plaza called “Freedom Square” on the edge of Tallinn’s medieval Old Town. Struck by the name, he began taking long walks — relishing getting somewhere after years of walking in circles in a prison yard — and often returned to the plaza, where he sat and contemplated the question of why he did not yet feel free.

Some such details resonated with me because of their imagery. Others were striking because they vividly illustrated the dislocation Mr. Qader has experienced.

For example, many rituals of Islam are pegged to the sun, which complicates observing them at such an extreme northern latitude. The daily fasts of Ramadan — the month Muslims neither eat nor drink from dawn to dusk — last nearly six hours longer in Estonia than in Yemen. (Mr. Qader said his prison experience participating in hunger strike protests helped.) In the dark wintertime, daily prayer times nearly run together.

In some ways, it has helped that Mr. Qader, like many Estonians, speaks English. But an Estonian law, aimed at curbing post-Soviet Russian influence, requires stores to provide service in Estonian. A shop owner who gave Mr. Qader an apprenticeship told me he admires Mr. Qader’s work ethic but cannot hire him full-time because while he is studying Estonian, he does not yet speak it well enough to run the shop by himself.

And making friends, like so much else in Mr. Qader’s new Estonian life, has been shaped by the 13 years he spent behind bars. When Mr. Qader confided to a new friend, also a Middle Eastern refugee in Estonia, how he had reached the country, the friend, who had learned about the prison on the internet, was shocked.

“That was you?” he said. “You were at Guantánamo? YouTubeGuantánamo?”

Though the shared secret brought them closer together, Mr. Qader’s new friend said he noticed that nearly all Mr. Qader stories about himself began the same way: “This one time in Guantánamo …”

In response, Mr. Qader’s friend told me he counseled him: “Forget about that part of your life and put new memories in your head.’”