Human Rights

How a Former GITMO Guard Reached out to Two Former Inmates on Facebook and Found Closure

"It takes a lot of courage to say that it was wrong." Former Spc. Brandon Neely's moving encounter with former prisoners Ruhal Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul.

Specialist Brandon Neely arrived at U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay in January 2002, four days before the first group of prisoners. He worked there six months before serving a one-year tour in Iraq. Neely left the military in 2005 and returned to his hometown, Huntsville, Texas, where he is a police officer and the president of his local chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War. He was recalled to duty in 2007, but refused to return and began speaking out about the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo. Neely was honorably discharged in 2008.

At Guantanamo, Neely guarded two British citizens, Ruhal Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul. Ahmed, Rasul, and a friend of theirs were seized by Pakistani forces while fleeing Kunduz, Afghanistan, to escape American air raids. They were transported to a U.S. military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan, where the three young men were turned over to U.S. forces in November 2001. They were imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for two and half years. The Tipton Three, as they are called in Britain, now live in Tipton, England. Ahmed, a former factory worker, works as a spokesman for Amnesty International.

A year ago, Neely created a Facebook account and decided to use the social-networking site to reconnect with his former prisoners. He found Shafiq Rasul and wrote him a letter of apology. To his surprise, Rasul responded. A documentary film crew facilitated a reunion between Ahmed, Rasul, and Neely at BBC studios in London. It was broadcast on BBC2’s Newsnight on January 12.

Prior to the meeting Neely said, “It’s something I’ve thought about hundreds and hundreds of times. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but hopefully some good will come out of this situation.”

What follows is an edited excerpt of the exchange between Neely and his former captives, based on transcripts from the BBC Newshour and bbc.co.uk.

Moderator: What’s it like just seeing each other together in this room? Walking in and seeing each other after all this time?

Ruhal Ahmed: It’s weird, because last time Brandon was always beyond a cage, and out of sight. Now he’s right in front of me, and we shook hands. It’s so surreal.

Mod: How about for you, Brandon?

Brandon Neely: Same thing. It’s pretty weird. Seven or eight years ago we were guard and detainee. They’re telling me that all these guys in the orange jumpsuits are the world’s most dangerous men. Here I am, a couple feet away from them. These are two of the guys that I was told would kill me if I turned my back on them. Seven years later, here we are sitsitting on a couch together.

Mod: Do you want to tell Shafiq and Ruhal a little bit about why you’re here now?

BN: I am really sorry for you even getting caught up in the situation—the way you were treated when I was there. And I’m just as guilty as the people there, because I took part in a lot of the stuff that happened. Personally, I am really sorry. I wish I hadn’t taken part in it, but I did, and I’m man enough to say I’m sorry for what happened.

RA: I don’t know how to respond to that. How about you Shafiq?

Shafiq Rasul: I can’t explain it in words, how much it means to us, but I don’t hold you responsible for what happened to me. You were there to do a job, and you had to do that job. Basically, we had our story to tell when we got out, but when people like yourself come out and basically say the same things that we were saying—it helped people to believe that what we were saying was true. So I appreciate from the bottom of my heart what you’ve done.

At one point Brandon admitted that he was deeply ashamed of his treatment of one particular prisoner:

BN: We took him to the cell and put him on his knees in alpha block. The guy who was escorting him goes to take the handcuffs off, and he jerks. We start yelling, “Don’t move. Don’t move.” And the interpreter is yelling, “Don’t move. Don’t move,” supposedly. So he goes in again to take the handcuffs off, and when he did the guy jerked. [When he jerked] I slammed him face-first into the ground, and got on top of him. I can remember coming back on the block the next morning, and the whole left side of his face was scraped up. I was talking to somebody in alpha block a couple weeks later, and he told me the reason he was scared was because when we put him on his knees he thought he was going to be executed, because he had had family members executed in the same manner in his country. And that was the whole reason he fought. I really felt horrible.

Mod: What do you make of that? What do you think Ruhal?

RA: I’m speechless man… . I do know how it feels to be there, especially when you can’t speak or communicate.

Mod: Can you see it from Brandon’s position?

RA: To a certain extent … I can see where he’s coming from, because we all do a lot of things that we regret. So I don’t hold it against him. As long as he knows that what he did was wrong. It takes a lot of courage to say that it was wrong.

Patrick Trahey, an In These Times intern, is studying fiction writing at Columbia College Chicago.
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