For nearly six years, British resident Omar Deghayes was imprisoned in Guantanamo and subjected to such brutal torture that he lost the sight in one eye. But far from being broken, he fought back to retain his dignity and his sanity.
It is not hot stabbing pain that Omar Deghayes remembers from the day a Guantánamo guard blinded him, but the cool sen sation of fingers being stabbed deep into his eyeballs. He had joined other prisoners in protesting against a new humiliation – inmates being forced to take off their trousers and walk round in their pants – and a group of guards had entered his cell to punish him. He was held down and bound with chains.
“I didn’t realise what was going on until the guy had pushed his fingers inside my eyes and I could feel the coldness of his fingers. Then I realised he was trying to gouge out my eyes,” Deghayes says. He wanted to scream in agony, but was determined not to give his torturers the satisfaction. Then the officer standing over him instructed the eye-stabber to push harder. “When he pulled his hands out, I remember I couldn’t see anything – I’d lost sight completely in both eyes.” Deghayes was dumped in a cell, fluid streaming from his eyes.
The sight in his left eye returned over the following days, but he is still blind in his right eye. He also has a crooked nose (from being punched by the guards, he says) and a scar across his forefinger (slammed in a prison door), but otherwise this resident of Saltdean, near Brighton, appears relatively unscarred from the more than five years he spent locked in Guantánamo Bay. Two years after his release, he speaks softly and calmly; he has the unlined skin and thick hair of a man younger than his 40 years; he has just remarried and has, for the first time in his life, a firm feeling that his home is on the clifftops of East Sussex.
Deghayes must, however, live with the darkness of Guantánamo for the rest of his days. There are reminders everywhere, from the beautiful picture of Saltdean that was painted for him while he was incarcerated, to the fact that Guantánamo remains open 12 months after Barack Obama vowed to close it within a year.
There are still around 200 prisoners left in the detention camp, many of whom have been there for eight years. Of the 800 freed, only one has been found guilty of any crime and he was convicted by a dubious military commission, a verdict that is likely to be overturned. Deghayes, too, does not want to forget. He says there is so much still to be exposed about the conditions there, and about British collusion in the extraordinary rendition and torture of men such as him in the months following the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Deghayes, one of five children of a prominent Libyan lawyer, first came to Saltdean from Tripoli aged five, to learn English with his brothers and sisters on their summer holidays. He would return and stay with British families every summer. Then, in 1980, his father, an opponent of the increasingly totalitarian Gaddafi, was taken away by the authorities. Three days later, Deghayes’ uncle was told to collect his body from the morgue. Harassed and increasingly fearful for their safety, Deghayes’ mother sought asylum for her family in Britain. They settled in the place they knew best, Saltdean, in a large white house with fine views over the sea. More than two decades on, the family still lives there.
After a secular upbringing in Saltdean, Deghayes became a practising Muslim while at university in Wolverhampton, where he graduated in law. When he finished studying to become a solicitor, he had a “longing” to return to Libya but couldn’t because of his family name and opposition to Gaddafi, so he left for a round-the-world trip to experience Arabic cultures and visit university friends. He enjoyed Pakistan’s mixture of west and east, and was then tempted into a trip to Afghanistan: he saw business oppor tunities and the chance to use his languages (Farsi, Arabic and English) and legal training (understanding both western and Sharia law) to help import-export companies.
He fell in love with the country and an Afghani woman; they married and had a son. “I liked the country – such beautiful rivers and different terrains. The people were difficult to get to know at first, but if they knew you and liked you, they’d open their hearts and houses to you,” he says. Afghanistan, it seems, triggered many ambitious dreams: he says he helped set up a school in Kabul, assisted NGOs, experimented with an agricultural social enterprise and exported apples to Peshawar. “I was generating income for myself but I had more ambition than that – to establish myself as a lawyer,” he says. “Things were really good. Then this war broke out and everything was shattered.”
Fearing for his new family’s safety, he paid people-smugglers to get them all back to Pakistan in early 2002 after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. He hoped his mother would take his wife and child back to England, while he planned to return to Afghanistan and continue his NGO and legal work. “I still thought I had nothing to fear. Even if there was an invasion, there was nothing I had been doing that was illegal.”
They rented a house in Lahore, “far away from the war atmosphere”. But then the Americans began paying large amounts of money to find Arabs who had been in Afghanistan. Suddenly, he was lucrative bounty for the Pakistani authorities. “The atmosphere changed completely. Nice Pakistan turned into a trap,” he says. One day, their house was surrounded by armed police. He was seized, but not taken to a normal police station. Instead he was driven, fast and under heavily armed guard, between secure rooms in hotels and villas. A Kafkaesque nightmare had begun.