Mansoor al Dayfi is a former Guantanamo Bay prisoner, who was given the option to resettle in Serbia or remain detained indefinitely at the United States military prison in Cuba. He was not allowed to return home to Yemen, even though he is Yemeni. He wanted to go to an Arab country. Now, a riveting two-part PBS FRONTLINE documentary highlights Dayfi’s Kafkaesque situation.
The two-part documentary premieres on February 21. It was produced in collaboration with NPR, WGBH News, and Retro Report.
In the first part, PBS correspondent Arun Rath and crew bear witness to what life is like for a prisoner after release from Guantanamo. The second part tells a largely forgotten story of how Guantanamo was first setup as a prison outside the law during a Haitian refugee crisis in the 1990s.
Rath goes to Serbia to interview Dayfi, who at the time is in the middle of a hunger strike to pressure the U.S. to move him to another country. He says all he is asking is to be sent to another country, where he can start his life.
“That’s what I want, to start a family, start to finish my college education, and to live like a normal person. [That’s] what I want in my life. Not more. Simple dream,” Dayfi shares.
Dayfi was scared to go to Serbia because of the “historical conflict between Serbia and Muslims” in the 1990s, when Serbians slaughtered tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims. In fact, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution in 2005 that declared “Serbian policies of aggression and ethnic cleansing” met the terms of genocide.
“God, I’m going to that country. You threw me in a country in which I know nothing about, no language, no—I mean, it is total chaos,” Dayfi adds.
What follows is remarkable because it shows the reality of how former Guantanamo prisoners live completely isolated and under total surveillance.
Rath and his crew are stopped by Serbian special police while riding in a taxi. The police do not say why they stopped them, but they are quite clearly suspicious of what foreign journalists are doing in the country. In fact, later, Dayfi informs the crew they will not be able to continue the interview the following day because the “government had come,” and he does not want to have any problems.
It is at that time that Dayfi goes missing, and Rath tries to find him by requesting information from the Serbian government, the U.S. embassy, and anyone else who may know of his whereabouts. They also try to confirm whether the government really came to his apartment or not.
Dayfi was prohibited from leaving Serbia for two years. Yet, after that, it is far from clear how he would go about trying to relocate to another country, where he may want to live.
Despite the fact that Dayfi never was charged with a crime and the U.S. government deemed he was not a threat and could be released to Serbia, the stigma of being someone who U.S. officials labeled a “dangerous” man when they brought him to Guantanamo is ever present. Even for eminently fair journalists like Rath, it is impossible not to wonder if Dayfi is engaged in some kind of fabrication.
While scanning a detainee assessment brief leaked by U.S. Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning to WikiLeaks, Rath suggests he spent time at an al Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan before being captured when he was in his early 20s. At first, U.S. military officials claimed he was an al Qaeda commander. But his final review concluded he was at worst a “low-level fighter, possibly not even a member of al Qaeda at all.”
In 2006, Dayfi apparently claimed he was a “committed jihadi” and praised the 9/11 attacks. By 2015, Rath notes he expressed a desire to obtain a college education and said he was a fan of pop star Taylor Swift.
Faced with intimidation and harassment from Serbian authorities, Dayfi turns to the journalists hoping they will be on his side. Yet, there is palpable frustration in his voice when he reacts to their concerns that he may be fabricating what is happening to him.
“I swear by my God. I don’t need to make it up. If you judge me by this, sorry, I have to go,” Dayfi states.
Dayfi explains at Guantanamo he faced situations, where he was subject to 72 hours of “very cold air conditioning” and was “tied to the ground.” Someone might come and pour cold water on him. He would tell officers what they want so he could end this kind of abuse or torture. But to him, there is no incentive to lie about Serbia. “Why should I create problems for myself with Serbian government?”
For the most part, the team investigating Dayfi’s situation do not question the circumstances in which he is placed under total surveillance, where at any moment authorities may seize and confiscate his electronic devices or wipe them clean. But what if this kind of treatment pushes him to try and flee Serbia? Or what if he engages some kind of dramatic and extreme act of retaliation against those who destroyed his life and prevent him from moving on from his detention?
Lee Wolosky, the envoy for the State Department tasked with resettling detainees, is interviewed by Rath in the United States. He makes it clear that the U.S. government will not apologize for detaining any of these men, even though they essentially are innocent people. He is largely unsympathetic to Dayfi’s frustrations and acts as if Dayfi should be happy he is in Serbia and make the most of his situation.
“Sometimes life isn’t perfect, and you have to, you know, make a decision about where you find yourself in life,” Wolosky states.
Such a platitude exemplifies a cruel disregard for what the U.S. government did to hundreds of men tortured, abused, and detained without charge or trial at Guantanamo under the guise of being “the worst of the worst” terrorists in the world, which has proven to be so terribly false.
The documentary builds empathy for what former Guantanamo prisoners like Dayfi live through each day.
As his pro bono lawyer says, “If we are going to take them after holding them for 14 or 15 years and not let them go home and not let them go to a place they want to go to, not let them go to the country where they themselves feel they will be able to build a life, but force them to another place, then I think we have a responsibility to help them adjust to that and make it work.”
There are countries with programs for reintegrating former Guantanamo prisoners into society, but Eastern European countries, which took in prisoners, do not have the kind of programs like Oman, which have proven to be of some success. Instead, prisoners like Dayfi live an isolated existence and face a kind of benevolent totalitarianism while their every move is scrutinized. They are expected to feel grateful they are not in worse barbaric conditions at the notorious U.S. military detention camps, which President Barack Obama failed to shut down.