In July of 2011, Kate List and I flew to Nice, France, and Lakhdar Boumediene met us at the airport. We apologized for keeping him waiting after our flight had been delayed.
“I waited in Guantanamo for seven years and four months,” he replied with a wry smile. “Half an hour is not a problem.”
Lakhdar spoke in a soft voice, carrying himself with a grace that belied what he had been through. He looked nothing like the man in the photograph I had seen, a photograph taken in Guantanamo, where he wore an orange jumpsuit and a bushy beard that he had not been allowed to shave. That man appeared dejected, bitter, broken, his eyes bottomless pits, his frame gaunt. The man who stood before us now, two years after Guantanamo, was wearing a pressed dress shirt and khakis. His beard was neatly trimmed. His eyes sparkled. He was of slight build, but he no longer looked hollow. There was life in him now.
Lakhdar led us to a nearby bus stop, where we made small talk underneath a billboard for the new Smurfs movie. I showed Lakhdar a picture of my four-month-old daughter. Lakhdar had a son who was almost one year old, so we discussed diapers and sleep schedules and other details that captivate new parents and no one else. Mostly we conversed in English, but sometimes Kate spoke with Lakhdar in his first language, Arabic. Kate had studied Arabic in college, and then spent a year in Syria for a fellowship program and a year in Morocco as a Fulbright scholar.
After a twenty-five-minute bus ride, we found ourselves in Carros, Lakhdar’s new hometown after Guantanamo. Carros is picturesque, nestled among trees on a hillside above Nice, dotted with pink and yellow apartment buildings that are well-worn but not yet rundown. As we walked from the bus stop to our hotel, Lakhdar paused at each intersection, waiting for the walk signal even when there were no cars in sight. He rolled our largest suitcase behind him, carefully wheeling it around the puddles left behind by the previous day’s rain.
Over the next two weeks, Kate sat down with Lakhdar and interviewed him in Arabic for several hours a day. After a few days of interviews, Lakhdar invited us over to meet his wife, Abassia, and their three children. They live in a snug three-bedroom apartment on the sixth floor of a pale yellow high-rise. Lakhdar welcomed us and led us into the living room, where Abassia had set out a tray with tea, cookies, and fruit. A children’s cartoon played on the television in front of Lakhdar’s toddler, Youssef, whose eyes flitted back and forth between the cartoon and his family. Lakhdar’s daughters, fifteen and eleven, made faces at their brother and laughed softly at each other’s jokes. At one point, Youssef pointed skyward and Lakhdar scooped him up, a game that brought delight to all involved.
It was impossible, watching Lakhdar play with his son while his two daughters giggled and egged him on, not to think about how his daughters’ young childhoods had been stolen from him, and their father from them. I retreated to the bathroom, looked at a picture of my daughter, and fought back tears at the idea of spending seven years apart from her.
Then I returned to the living room. The scene, still heartbreaking, was heart-mending too. Watching this man with his playful grin and the wife he adores and the kids he cherishes, a family not only at peace but truly happy despite everything they have been through, I couldn’t help but be filled with hope and an abiding belief that with enough patience, endurance, courage, and love, nearly anything can be overcome. Nothing can ever erase what happened—what we did—to this man. But neither can anything erase the moments of transcendent joy he somehow made his way home to.
While we were in Lakhdar’s apartment, we Skyped with Mustafa Ait Idir. Mustafa had been Lakhdar’s friend back in Bosnia, before Guantanamo, when they were both young men. Like Lakhdar, he had been born in Algeria and had moved for work, first to Croatia and then to Bosnia. He had repaired computers for a charitable organization that helped orphans of the Balkan conflict, and he and Lakhdar had played soccer together on the weekends.
Like Lakhdar, Mustafa had been arrested by Bosnian police, imprisoned until the Bosnian court ordered his release, and then handed over to American troops. Like Lakhdar, Mustafa won his freedom when finally, after seven years in Guantanamo, he got his day in court. Unlike Lakhdar, Mustafa returned to Sarajevo and lives there now. Mustafa and Lakhdar talked for a while, and Mustafa showed off his infant son, whose gurgles eventually gave way to fussing that demanded his father’s attention and ended our call.
Five months later, Kate and I traveled to Sarajevo. Mustafa met us at the airport and accompanied us in a taxi to our hotel. As we drove through Sarajevo, Mustafa pointed out some landmarks. The jail where he had been imprisoned, right next to a law school. The elementary school his son had attended. The American Embassy, which he mentioned but was careful not to actually point toward, lest that seem suspicious. Mustafa showed us a fairly new mosque and said, “That wasn’t there before I went to Guantanamo,” using the same tone of voice as someone describing how their neighborhood had changed while they were away at college.
“In Guantanamo,” Mustafa later told us, “the world is moving forward, and you are standing still.”
Kate interviewed Mustafa in Arabic over the next week. One afternoon, Mustafa was feeling ill and Kate suggested that he stay home and get some rest.
“By God,” Mustafa said, his voice tinged with both mirth and earnestness, “I wish my interrogators had been more like you.”
During the interviews, Mustafa listed the men he bears a grudge against. The Bosnian officials, chief among them Foreign Minister Zlatko Lagumdžija and Deputy Interior Minister Tomislav Limov, who disregarded his innocence and handed him over to the Americans. The American soldiers who tortured him. The American political leaders who oversaw all of it. Like Lakhdar, his is a narrowly targeted anger, directed not at Bosnia or America but at specific Bosnians and specific Americans.
Unlike Lakhdar, Mustafa wears his emotions on his sleeve. He snaps when angry. He speaks animatedly, in rapid bursts punctuated by sharp jabs of his finger. He is a louder, more gregarious sort. He called everyone “brother,” be it a hotel valet or a college professor, and he joked with the cashiers while shopping at stores where he was clearly a regular.
When he was not sharing his story with us, Mustafa showed us the places in Sarajevo that had been his and Lakhdar’s stomping grounds. He took us to the outdoor soccer field where they had played in the summer, and the gym where he still plays soccer every Tuesday night. He showed us the mall where he and Lakhdar would shop for presents for their families, and the coffee shop where they would relax after soccer.
One evening, Mustafa brought us to the gym where he is a karate coach, and we watched him lead a class. His students, ranging from five to fifteen years old and including his own son, were a diverse group: male and female, Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic and Muslim, novice and advanced. All of them, it appeared, were having fun, and everyone treated each other with genuine respect. Mustafa was clearly in his element.
Lakhdar and Mustafa’s stories, as told to Kate in the interviews in Carros and Sarajevo, appear in the pages that follow. In addition to their own accounts, we have provided an appendix with some relevant materials, including the never-before-published account of the intelligence officer who first recommended bringing them in for questioning. Readers can draw their own conclusions, but these materials strongly suggest that the incarceration of Lakhdar and Mustafa was a mistake.
If so, it was a mistake that nearly destroyed their lives. It was a mistake that made some people question the extent to which we as a nation live up to the principles we hold self-evident. It was a mistake that ultimately led to Boumediene v. Bush, one of the most important modern-era Supreme Court decisions on executive power in wartime. And perhaps, if we pay attention, it is a mistake we will not repeat.