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Guantanamo memoirs prove bestsellers

By Dawood Azami
BBC Pashto service

Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef
Mullah Zaeef says he was abused by the Americans at Guantanamo Bay

US President Barack Obama's decision to close the Guantanamo Bay prison within a year has been welcomed as a positive development in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

But Guantanamo literature, produced by a number of former inmates, is making it harder for the US to claw back lost ground in their battle to win "hearts and minds".

The inmates have been publishing a record of what they say they endured during their detention in the notorious US detention facility in Cuba.

Several books written in Pashto have become bestsellers. All have one thing in common - the alleged "cruelty", "savagery" and "inhumane treatment " by the Americans.

One such book, originally written in Pashto, is by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, the former Taleban ambassador to Pakistan who spent more than three years imprisoned at Guantanamo. It is due to be published in English this year.

After his release in September 2005, Mullah Zaeef published his story and it became an overnight bestseller in Afghanistan and Pakistan - which is rare for a Pashto book.

Entitled Da Guantanamo Anzoor (Guantanamo's Picture), the 156-page book describes in graphic detail the events from his arrest by "hypocritical " Pakistani officials to his "mistreatment" by the Americans.

After being "sold" by Pakistanis, the Americans, he writes, "kicked me, punched me and stripped me. They pushed me in a helicopter with my legs and hands tightly shackled. The Americans chatted while they sat over my back, as if I was a piece of wood or stone".

Oral and written

Following the 9/11 attacks on America, the US-led coalition toppled the Taleban regime in Afghanistan, accusing it of harbouring the al-Qaeda leadership.

Of the 800 or so inmates who have passed through Guantanamo since it opened in 2001, about 600 are Afghans.

Guantanamo's Picture
The success of Guantanamo's Picture surprised Mullah Zaeef
The administration of George W Bush labelled them as unlawful combatants. Human rights groups said that most of the Afghan inmates were innocent and were picked up on the basis of mistaken identity or wrong intelligence.

The stories of former inmates, both oral and written, have been circulating in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where mullahs in the mosques and people privately discuss the Americans.

A stream of visitors comes to the door of those released from Guantanamo.

"I wanted the world to know the truth but didn't think that my book would become so popular," says the soft-spoken Mullah Zaeef.

"I think one of the reasons for its popularity is that people wanted to know about the role of Pakistani security officials who sold many innocent people to the Americans."

Mr Zaeef admires a few Americans who were nice to him, did not "torture or beat" him and spoke to him kindly.

But generally the book details "abuse and ill-treatment" by US soldiers and officials.

'Unprecedented'

The book has been published in Urdu, Persian and French.

"There has been a huge interest in the French translation of Mr Zaeef's book (Prisonnier a Guantanamo)", says its French editor and publisher, Gerard de Villiers.

There is no doubt that these books have had a negative impact on public opinion and increased anti-American feelings both in Afghanistan and Pakistan
Dr Wadir Safi, Kabul University

Da Guantanamo Mati Zawlanay (The Broken Shackles of Guantanamo) is another successful example of Guantanamo literature - written in Pashto by two brothers, Badar Zaman Badar and Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, who spent several years in the prison.

They say they were also "sold" to Americans by Pakistani security officials in late 2001 in Peshawar where they lived as Afghan refugees.

In their book, the two journalist brothers also give a detailed account of several years of "humiliation, interrogation and ill-treatment by the Americans".

Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost was reportedly arrested by Pakistani security forces sometime after his release from Guantanamo and is still missing.

Guantanamo Bay
The Bush administration labelled inmates as unlawful combatants
"The readers' interest in such books is unprecedented," says Assadullah Danish, head of Danish Publishing House in Peshawar, who published the first edition of Mullah Zaeef's book.

"In addition to anti-American sentiments, Guantanamo was a new topic and an interesting story to read."

The books have been published several times without the permission of the authors.

"Even Pakistani intelligence agencies have published an Urdu translation of my book but they have omitted the passages where I described their complicity in this whole affair," says Mullah Zaeef.

"There is no doubt that these books have had a negative impact on public opinion and increased anti-American feelings both in Afghanistan and Pakistan," says Dr Wadir Safi, a professor of political science at Kabul University.

"We don't know what percentage of the population in the region would have been influenced but people here say that Americans violate those laws that they made themselves."

Returning home

Around 240 people, including 26 Afghans, are still in Guantanamo Bay.

But hundreds of Afghans who were imprisoned there over the past eight years have been transferred to a purpose-built prison in Kabul.

Afghanistan's Attorney General Mohammad Ishaq Aleko, who also heads the Commission for Reviewing Guantanamo and Bagram Prisoners, says that "some mistakes have been made" in making arrests, adding that "that is why this commission was established".

"They were arrested in a state of war against the Taleban," he told the BBC.

"Foreign forces were nervous, fighting in an alien country and were not familiar with the local culture."

With the election of President Obama there has been a renewed focus on the campaign for winning "hearts and minds" and more resources are likely to be allocated for social and economic development.

But it seems that Guantanamo has caused long-term damage to the reputation of America and changing this image will take time.

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