In December 2001, Murat Kurnaz was arrested at a checkpoint in Pakistan. He details his story in a new memoir, Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo.
I'll never forget the date: December 1, 2001. That was when I was supposed to fly from Peshawar back to Germany. My friend Mohammad had helped me pack my gifts, and I had said good-bye to other tablighis, or Muslim pilgrims, at the mosque. Then we boarded the bus to Peshawar airport.
"Are you looking forward to getting home?" Mohammad asked me. "Tomorrow you'll be seeing your mother."
I had a second piece of luggage with me, a backpack with my personal belongings, as well as a belt in which I kept my money and papers. Mohammad was carrying my bag. I was originally supposed to fly back to Germany from Karachi, and Mohammad was accompanying me to the airport to help change my flight so I could depart from Peshawar. I couldn't wait to get back to Bremen. My wife was scheduled to arrive there before the end of the year from Turkey.
For the first time since I had arrived in Pakistan, I was wearing my shiny black Hugo Boss overcoat. It had remained in my backpack for the entire trip because it was much too warm. I'd thought the fall weather in Pakistan would be the same as it is in Germany and had brought heavy pants and sweaters with me from Bremen. I wanted to look stylish in Koran school and on the street.
When I arrived in Karachi on October 3 in my wool sweater and overcoat, I'd discovered that autumn in Pakistan was as warm as summer in Bremen. So most of the time I just wore T-shirts and my KangaROOSbrand hiking boots. A year later in Guantanamo, a representative of the German government would accuse me of walking around Pakistan in combat boots.
I had bought some sweets for my parents. The packages were lovely, like little works of art—it would have been a shame to eat them. For my baby brother, Alper, I had bought a handmade wooden toy, a game, with rings on a tree with braches. For myself, I had bought a pair of motorcycle gloves made of quality leather that would have cost a couple hundred marks in Bremen. I also had a handmade necklace for my mother, made of wood, leather, and blue lapis lazuli.
The bus we took to the airport was painted in bright colors and decorated with ornamental figurines. There were little bells and strings of red and yellow blinking party lights—it looked like a disco. All the buses in Pakistan look like this. The one I was traveling in was a small vehicle with a sliding door with maybe ten people in it—there was no room for anyone else. Two men had sat next to Mohammad so I had to take a seat in the row behind him.
We came to a checkpoint. I had already been through four or five such checkpoints while traveling from mosque to mosque with Mohammad and the other tablighis—there are checkpoints all over Pakistan. They're part of normal everyday life.
Checkpoints are usually located at police stations and are manned by one or two officers. The police attach a cord or rope to a house or a pole on the other side of the street and an officer sits in a chair sipping tea. Whenever he wants someone to stop, he'll pull the rope taut, and the approaching cars have to brake. If he doesn't feel like checking anyone, he just leaves the rope lying slack on street and everyone drives over it. Sometimes he'll pull up the rope and take a quick glance through the windows of a vehicle before waving it on. I had never been checked personally.
On the day I was set to leave Pakistan, the policeman at the checkpoint pulled the rope. The little bells in the bus jingled as the bus came to a halt. Traffic piled up behind us. The policeman got up from his chair and peered through the window, noticing me. I looked different than the other passengers—I have fairer skin, and that's probably what attracted his attention. He knocked on the window and said something to me in Urdu. Mohammad opened the window and answered for me. I have no idea what he said to the policeman.
Then the policeman addressed me again. I told him in German that I couldn't understand because I didn't speak his language.
Of course, he didn't know what I was saying either. He asked me for my papers—at least I think he did. I got them out of my belt and handed them over. Then he said something else and motioned for me to get out of the bus. I took my backpack, squeezed my way through the other passengers, and got off. Behind us, in the line of cars, people were honking their horns.
Mohammad tried to get out with me, but it took him a while to get to the door because the bus was packed with passengers holding luggage on their laps. The policeman motioned for the bus driver to move to the side of the road. The bus driver closed the door. Mohammad was still inside.
I never saw him again.
I had met Mohammad a couple of weeks earlier in Islamabad where I was hoping to join a group of tablighis. Tablighis are students of the Koran who travel from mosque to mosque, praying and studying the holy book. I only knew a few words of English at the time. Mohammad was several years older than me and spoke English quite well since he was Pakistani, and Pakistan used to be a British colony. He also spoke some Turkish so he could translate and explain things to me. We traveled together until I was arrested that day in Peshawar.
The name Peshawar is Indian in origin, Mohammad told me, and means "city of flowers." I found that fascinating. Peshawar is a very old city, and Mohammad told me that many major historical figures, including Alexander the Great, had visited it. Muslim Arabs and Turks went to Pakistan a thousand years ago and brought Allah's revelations with them. When he introduced me to the imams at the mosques we visited, Mohammad always said with pride: Murat is German, but he's also Turkish, like our forefathers. The Pashtun tribesmen, who introduced Islam to what is now Pakistan, are thought to originally come from Turkey. It was they who cultivated Pakistan, building gardens and parks with palm trees and flowers.
The last mosque we stayed at with the other tablighis was one of the largest in Peshawar. It was so big that all the mosques in Bremen could fit inside it. The rooms for Koran students were located on a spacious interior courtyard, and there, too, flowers were everywhere. The minarets stretched toward the sky. When I knelt on the rugs in the prayer halls, I felt almost intoxicated by the decorations on the walls and under the domed ceiling. Mohammad told me that a century ago there had been a huge fire in the bazaars in front of the mosque but the mosque itself had been spared from any damage because the faithful had congregated there and prayed. Mohammad said Allah had protected them.
In the weeks before we arrived in Peshawar, we had visited a number of mosques in Islamabad. Every day we studied the Koran. We were taught how to read and interpret the Koran and how to pray. We were also given hadith instruction—the Prophet Mohammed's oral teachings. We learned how we were s uppos ed to behave as tablighis and how we could help other people. Twice daily, we had meals together. We went shopping and argued about who would get the honor of paying.
We would sleep in one mosque and then spend the whole of the next day in the other mosques, visiting the other tablighis and drinking tea with them.
The streets and bazaars of Peshawar are crowded, sticky, and hot. They stink of exhaust fumes and rotting garbage. Taxi drivers constantly honk their horns along with the drivers of the motorcycle rickshaws, which look like miniature three-wheeled trucks with a single headlight. The roads are always jam-packed with cars, horses, donkeys, completely overloaded trucks, pedestrians, and bicycles, which are sometimes used to transport large objects like refrigerators or sofas. The people on the streets come from everywhere, from India and Afghanistan, China and Kashmir.
Some of the streets have marked lanes, but everyone ignores them—it's every man for himself. As taxis, mopeds, and rickshaws push their way through the crowds, you have to be quick on your feet to avoid getting run over.
The day before I was scheduled to leave, I walked through the bazaars to buy some gifts to take back home. The bazaars in Pakistan reminded me of the open-air markets in Germany and of Oktoberfest, only much more colorful and wild. There are gold- and silversmiths, spice dealers and butchers, rug merchants and potters. There are shops with electronics, cell phones, and cameras. You can buy fake Nike sneakers, Rolex watches, and Fila jackets. The merchants sell anything and everything a person might need. There are also storytellers and shows with exotic animals and snakes. I had never seen anything like it, even on television. A snake charmer laid rope out in a circle and then sat in the middle. He removed the lids of the baskets around him, and various kinds of snakes slithered out—cobras, vipers, and other highly poisonous reptiles. The charmer closed his eyes and touched the snakes, tapping on their heads. He didn't hurt them; he was just playing with them. All of this took place in the middle of the street for free. People gave him money only if they felt like it.
I was particularly fascinated by the martial arts shows at the Kung Fu schools. Pakistan borders China, so there are many good martial arts coaches there and Kung Fu and ninja schools abound. Mohammad and I often went to watch ninjas throwing Chinese stars and knives and show-fighting. There are no laws against this kind of show in Pakistan—you can live the way you want. I found I liked this kind of freedom.
That is, until the day I took the bus to the airport.
I was told to go inside the police station with the officer. He nodded twice and pointed to the entrance of the building, which had no door.
Okay, I thought, they want to check my visa and my passport. Mohammad would wait for me, and as soon as this was over, I could continue on my way.
The station was a squat structure, and I entered a room with rugs on the floor as in a mosque. There were no furnishings. A naked light bulb hung from the ceiling. There was no desk, just a small wooden table for drinking tea in the corner. The policeman tried to tell me something, but it didn't work. We couldn't understand each other. From his gestures, I gathered that he was leaving, but that he would be right back.
A short time later, another officer appeared, probably the first one's boss. He was of medium height and slightly overweight. He had a huge moustache and a five o'clock shadow. He was wearing a turban and traditional Pakistani dress, a knee-length cotton tunic with white cotton pants. He said something to me in English. I think he was asking me where I came from. I said was from Germany. Then he wanted to know if I was a journalist.
"No," I said.
Was I an American?
Was I working for the Americans?
I told him I was a Turkish citizen who lived in Germany.
He asked whether I worked for Germany. Or for the Germans—I couldn't really tell.
The man with the turban was holding my Turkish passport in his hands. He didn't seem to understand how I could be both German and Turkish, how Germany could be my home country even though I didn't have a German passport. He probably thought he had caught me out in a lie. Maybe he thought I was a spy or something.
"Do you have cameras?" he asked.
I tried to tell him that he was welcome to look through my things and held out my backpack. "Look! Look!"
They went through my backpack. The man with the turban said something to the other officer, who then fetched a telephone from one of the other rooms in the building. It was a regular landline phone with a cord. The boss called someone—I assumed he was talking about me with his superiors. Then he hung up and said something to the other officer. He took the telephone away and reappeared with a key, a tiny mirror, a razor, and some shaving cream.
His boss shaved.
Like the entrance to the building, the room had no doors. While the head policeman was calmly shaving his face, I could hear a loud exchange of words outside. I was sure it was Mohammad, trying to get in to see me. But I could only make out the voice of the first officer.
I was standing in the middle of the room with my backpack on the floor in front of me. The first officer came and went as his boss ordered him to bring him one thing or another. One time it was a submachine gun.
Other policemen, also carrying machine guns, came into the room. They grabbed me and led me away, but not back to the street, where I thought Mohammad would be waiting. Instead I was taken to a courtyard where a four-door pick-up truck was waiting. The driver and one of the policemen got in up front, and I got into the backseat flanked by two other officers with machine guns. Another two policemen climbed onto the tailgate.
We drove through the city for maybe half an hour until we reached an affluent-looking part of town, full of large villas with big gardens and tall gateways. We drove through one of the gates, across a kind of park and through a second gateway, behind which there were a lot of fruit trees. It looked like private property, but there were guards at every entrance. We stopped and a man with blond hair and glasses approached the truck. I couldn't tell whether he was American or German. For all I know he could have been Russian, but he was wearing European clothing, a white shirt and black pants, which isn't all that common in Pakistan.
The two-story villa had orange trees in front, a real Turkish garden. I estimated the blond man to be between thirty-five and forty years old, although he was already losing his hair. He rubbed his hands together, as if pleased about something, and spoke to the policemen in a language I didn't understand. He told me in English to come with him. The policemen followed us. He led me into a room that reminded me of a four-star hotel. It had a double bed, a framed mirror, carpets and large plants.
He disappeared for a short time and then returned with another man who looked Pakistani and wore civilian clothing. They began questioning me.
Was I American?
Was I German?
Was I a journalist?
I tried as best as I could to explain that I wanted to catch a plane back to Germany, that I didn't have much time if I failed to make a flight today. That I had missed the date on my return ticket, November 4, but that it was still valid for another flight for ninety days.
The men said they would come back and ask me some more questions. I was to wait there.
I waited for about an hour.
The two men in civilian clothing never returned. Instead the policemen came back.
Excerpted from Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo by Murat Kurnaz, with permission from Palgrave Macmillan. Copyright (c) by Murat Kurnaz. All rights reserved.