REGI, Pakistan – Three years after the first prisoners in America’s war on terror were dispatched to Guantanamo Bay, wives left behind in Pakistan live like widows. The only word from their loved ones is an occasional letter on military-issue writing paper, chunks blacked out by a censor’s pen.
Among those waiting are three sisters living in a crowded mud-brick house in the northwestern village of Regi, whose husbands are believed to be in U.S. custody. They share the care of 12 children and an unusual fate: All three women are married to Algerian mujahedeen absent from the home.
The Algerians first arrived in the region to join the U.S.-funded “holy war” against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Like thousands of other fighters, they later settled in Pakistan and forged links with the Taliban — the fundamentalist regime backed by Pakistan before its ouster in an American-led military campaign in late 2001.
Shrouded in head-to-toe burqa veils and surrounded by their barefoot children, the three sisters recounted their experiences — including years spent by two of them in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. They expressed grief and frustration at the apparently indefinite separation from their husbands, and denied the men were associated with al-Qaida.
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“My husband neither attacked America nor killed any American. But Americans have taken my husband,” said Mehdia Ahmed, a 31-year-old mother of five. “My youngest daughter Ayesha was born after the arrest of her father and is now starting to talk. When she sees other kids’ fathers she also asks about hers, but how can I explain where her father is?”
The family says Mehdia’s husband, Mustafa Ahmed, also known as Abu Abdullah, was arrested in May 2002 at the house in Regi, six miles west of Peshawar, by Pakistani and FBI agents, along with a male cousin, who Pakistani officials alleged at the time was an al-Qaida fighter. Police said Mustafa Ahmed had been in charge of Islamic schools in eastern Afghanistan during the Taliban years.
“I miss my father very much,” 8-year-old Khadija Ahmed said as she wept over a four-page letter from her father, Mustafa Ahmed, recently forwarded by the Red Cross from Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. “People say that Americans have kept him in a cage.”
The youngest of the wives, Riyazat Amin, 27, complained bitterly that they have no way to reach their husbands or “fight their cases in any court of law.”
Her husband, Adil Amin, also known as Adil Al-Jazeeri, was arrested in Peshawar in July 2003, and she has received no formal notification of his detention. Pakistani officials alleged he was a ranking member of al-Qaida.
Amin wrote letters from Bagram, the main U.S. military base and prison in Afghanistan, but the family hasn’t heard from him for months and suspect he’s been shifted to Guantanamo, too.
The three wives’ fate is comparable to that of the many widows of the 25 years of conflict in Afghanistan who live in hardship around Peshawar, struggling to survive without support from husbands who were killed in fighting.
U.S. officials at Guantanamo have refused to discuss cases of individual prisoners so it’s uncertain if one or both of the husbands are held at the American base. While — as 8-year-old Khadija noted — the prisoners initially were held in cages open to the elements, the inmates have since been moved to conventional cells.
Riyazat, a mother of four, insisted her husband was innocent. “My husband had no links with al-Qaida and if he had any links with al-Qaida then al-Qaida people would take care of us because we are living very miserable lives,” she said.
Pakistan, which has become a staunch U.S. ally, has handed over more than 600 al-Qaida suspects to the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Some have since been freed, but many are held without charge as “enemy combatants” at Guantanamo — a classification that human rights groups complain doesn’t afford the legal protections of prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions.
Guantanamo received the first prisoners on Jan. 11, 2002. It’s unclear how many of the inmates at the U.S. naval base left families behind in Pakistan.
The three sisters in Regi village say they survive on the meager income of their 80-year old father, Sufi Hameed Gul, a prayer leader at the village mosque, and on vegetables grown in the garden inside the family compound.
In all, 17 people share their house, which was built as a dowry when the two eldest sisters, Mehdia and Murshida, got married 15 years ago.
In 1997, after the Taliban took power, Amin and Mustafa Ahmed took their wives and children to live in Afghanistan, and stayed for four years. The wives said Amin was a trader in Kabul and Ahmed taught in an Islamic school in the eastern city of Jalalabad. They said that days before the U.S.-led invasion in October 2001 to oust the Taliban, they all returned to Pakistan.