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Former Guantánamo prisoners find freedom is fraught with difficulties

Resettled in Uruguay three months ago, former prisoners waiting to be reunited with their families

MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay — Late last year, six prisoners from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba were resettled in Uruguay. At the time, it seemed like an opportunity to begin a new life far from the nightmare they had endured and, for some, far from the violence plaguing their home country.

“I have no passport or papers,” Adel bin Mohammad el-Ouerghi, one of the former Guantánamo prisoners, told Al Jazeera in an interview at his home in Montevideo. “I asked for the Americans to send me back to Tunisia, but they refused.”

Three months on, the men have yet to be reunited with their families and some are disillusioned with aspects of their new home. While relieved to be away from Guantánamo, they have found that freedom is fraught with difficulties. “When we were in Guantánamo, the Uruguayan authorities made many promises,” Ouerghi said. “But when we arrived we didn’t find those promises.”

The six men — four Syrians, a Palestinian and Ouerghi — were never charged with crimes and had been approved for transfer by U.S. authorities long before their release. “I want to stay in Uruguay to rebuild my life. If I didn’t, what would I do?” Ouerghi asked.

When he first arrived in the Uruguayan capital, he knew little about his new country. Now Ouerghi says he would like to open a restaurant and would like to be reunited with his mother. But he doesn’t know when or if either of those wishes will become a reality.

Ouerghi and another of the six former prisoners moved out of the house that had been provided to them in Uruguay by the main trade union federation. It was too crowded, he said. He now lives at a nearby hotel. The Uruguayan government and the United Nations refugee agency continue to support the men financially.

The other men live in a four-bedroom house next to an empty corner lot on a quiet street near the center of the city. When Al Jazeera visited, Mohammed Taha Mattan, a Palestinian, sat on the balcony talking to his family on Skype. Two of the other men were watching football. They attend Spanish classes during the week but are making little progress. 

Former Syrian prisoner Abu Wa’el Dhiab, a father of three, said he’s desperate to be reunited with his family and hopes that they will soon be able to join him in Uruguay. Dhiab’s wife has had a particularly trying time. She had to leave Syria because of the civil war, and one of the couple’s children died while Dhiab was in Guantánano. 

Dhiab had also been on a hunger strike on and off for years during his time in Guantánamo, which, his attorneys say, took a physical and mental toll. “After over a dozen years in Gitmo, the abuse, the hunger strike, and on top of that the death of a child and the disintegration of a homeland, the body and spirit take time to heal,” said his lawyer, Cori Crider. “It is a process. He does yearn to be with his family, of course.”

While he waits, Dhiab has traveled to Argentina to talk about the men's plight and says he would like to do more to raise awareness about their case. 

Abdelhadi Faraj, originally from Syria, also hopes to see some of his family members soon in Uruguay. His lawyer, Eldon Greenberg, said he has been assured that the Uruguayan government is working to fulfill that request. Faraj sees Uruguay as his country now, Greenberg says. “Going back to Syria had never been an option.”

Faraj is impatient to start his new life. He wants to live independently, work and get married. “Even though it has only been a couple months, the transition seems very slow to them,” Greenberg said. They have already lost 13 years of their lives, he notes.

The resettlement of all six had been a personal campaign by then-President José Mujica, 79, himself a former urban guerrilla who had been incarcerated for more than a decade by the country’s military dictatorship.  

But after the former prisoners arrived, Mujica speculated that if the men were humble people of the desert, poor people, they might have been stronger and more likely to recuperate quickly. The men are “destroyed” and “have been turned halfway into vegetables,” Mujica said in an interview. 

Mujica’s successor, Tabaré Vázquez, who formally took office on Sunday, is reported to be less enthusiastic in his support for the men from Guantánamo. “The future for us is unknown,” said Ouerghi. “Only God knows the future."

Jenifer Fenton contributed to this report


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