Accidental Tourists

Had they been born and raised on this side of the Atlantic, they might have turned up as characters in a Bruce Springsteen ballad. They are the sort Springsteen tends to memorialize: Their roots are in a faded manufacturing neighborhood; their brushes with the law were petty scrapes that did not keep them from retaining their jobs as mail sorters or retail clerks, or from studying at a local university. All three have that knockabout way of going through life. It makes them neither aimless nor directed, but somehow it carries them along.

In the fall of 2001, the happenstance of life as they lived it took them from their hardscrabble neighborhood of Tipton, England, (just outside Birmingham) to Pakistan. That is where one of the Tipton Three, Asif Iqbal, was to be wed in an arranged marriage. The other two, Ruhel Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul, were buddies who went to Pakistan for the wedding and for the sheer novelty of it.

“When he asked me to go to his wedding, I said, ‘Why not?'” Ahmed says in the new British film, The Road to Guantanamo. “He's my friend and, also, it would be a great holiday.”

But the lighthearted road trip to a friend's wedding would, within a month, become a grotesque nightmare. Bored with waiting for the marriage ceremony, inspired in a mosque to go and aid poor Muslims in Afghanistan -- and intrigued, as well, by tales about the huge loaves of naan, a local bread, they'd heard were customary in Afghanistan -- the men who would become known as the Tipton Three crossed into Afghanistan just as the American military assault on the Taliban regime began.

It may be that the inspiring imam was recruiting terrorist fighters. But if so, it was an incompetent effort with regard to the Tipton Three. They saw fighting only in the forms of the bombs dropped by American forces and say they never even carried a weapon.

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The Road to Guantanamo is a dramatization of their story. Shot -- with eerie authenticity -- in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran and directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross, the movie won the Silver Bear award for best direction at this year's Berlin International Film Festival. Its American release is scheduled for selected theaters this month. The film is useful not so much for its presentation of new information -- any American who has followed news accounts of this legal no man's land by now knows it is a place where seemingly endless (and mindless) interrogations yield little to nothing of substance.

But if it falls short on eye-popping revelations, the film unflinchingly depicts an enduring truth. Guantanamo is, at bottom, a place where the United States degrades people for the sake of degradation. And because of the extraordinary shroud of secrecy that the government has used to cloak its activities there, the world will never know how many detainees are actually dangerous terrorists, and how many are unfortunate bystanders crushed by a vengeful war.

The Tipton Three appear to be among the unfortunates. Iqbal's mother had traveled from England to Pakistan to find her son a bride. She returned to England -- on September 10, 2001 -- confident that she'd done so, and with instructions to her son to go meet the girl. The three friends were aware of the terrorist attacks of September 11, they say, when they went off to Pakistan not long after the attacks. But they had no idea that their later decision to travel from Pakistan into Afghanistan would sweep them up in the aftermath of the attacks against America.

“Being young, being only 18, you don't be aware of the political issues,” Ahmed told me in a recent interview. “We were young, stupid. You don't know what the outcome is going to be. It's one of the childish things that we did.”

It ended up being worse than childish when the three were rounded up by Northern Alliance fighters as they scrambled to get out of the war zone and back into Pakistan.

This is, we now know, the story of most of the detainees held without charge and without clear prospect of release in the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. They are not, for the most part, “the worst of the worst” terrorists that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has described. More than half of the so-called “enemy combatants” who've been given combatant status review tribunals -- the main legal forum the Pentagon allows -- were found to have committed no hostile act against U.S. or coalition forces, according to a study of tribunal records by lawyers affiliated with Seton Hall University Law School.

Just 7 percent of detainees were captured by U.S. and allied forces, the tribunal records show. The rest were rounded up by Pakistani authorities or various local militias, such as the Northern Alliance fighters who picked up Ahmed, Iqbal, and Rasul.

A fog of naiveté envelops the men throughout their bizarre journey. They wrongly climb aboard a series of vans and buses that they think will carry them safely back across the border, only to discover that they have become part of what was being billed in Western news accounts as a mass surrender of Taliban forces. Hapless is the word that best describes the Tipton Three in the months before they arrive at Guantanamo, where they become more hardened by their treatment. And if there was a single word to describe the Americans they encounter, starting at their first detention center in Kandahar, it would be this: Ugly.

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The filmmakers spare us the most graphic details of the abuse we have by now heard so much about. Though the men were beaten, kicked, stripped naked, shaved, hooded, spat upon, and shackled, the violence is portrayed only in suggestive snippets.

More striking is the sheer idiocy of the questioning they must endure.

The three were questioned initially in Afghanistan. The first American military interrogator in Kandahar greets Iqbal with these words: “You're al-Qaeda!”

“No,” he mumbles.

“Look at me, you're al-Qaeda!” “No,” comes the muffled reply.

“You know this can stop whenever you make the decision it can stop, or it can go all night, OK? We can be here all night or we can be here all day tomorrow. All right, you're al-Qaeda. We got you with the Taliban, you were arrested by the Northern Alliance. All right, now I want to know where bin Laden is. Look at me. Where's bin Laden?!”

If there were ever any intelligence, let alone hard evidence, on which American interrogators based their questioning, the three got no hint of it. On January 13, 2002, clad in the now-familiar orange jumpsuits, black hoods, and goggles, their hands and feet in shackles, they were flown by military transport to Cuba.

Once at Guantanamo, the absurdities mounted. American interrogators first told Iqbal that his passport and other documents were found in an Afghan cave -- an allegation Iqbal denies and which the interrogator, during later questioning, admitted was a mistake. On another occasion, Iqbal was interrogated by a woman and a man who translates for her -- until Iqbal informed them, once again, that he is British and speaks English.

Then the woman asks: “Are you an observant Muslim? Are you a good Muslim?”

Most bizarre, and frightening for the three suspects, is a series of interrogations in which they were shown a picture and later, a videotape of a rally in Afghanistan, featuring Mohammed Atta, the ruthless ringleader of the 9-11 crews -- and Osama bin Laden himself.

This line of questioning, the men say, didn't come up until they'd been detained for more than a year. By then a blonde American woman who said she was “from Washington” was in charge.

“You said you were wearing an Adidas track suit,” she tells Rasul. “This is your friend, Asif Iqbar,” she says, pointing to a man in the photo. Rasul insists that's not the case. “This is you, in your Adidas track suit … Recognize him, Mohammed Atta?”

“Who is that?” Rasul replies.

“He headed the 9-11 attacks,” the interrogator says. “This is you, right? This is you at a rally in Afghanistan held by Osama bin Laden, right?”

In an interview, Ahmed told me that interrogators covered up the date on the still photograph and refused to let him see it when he asked. “We said, ‘Show us the date so we can prove our innocence,'” Ahmed says. “And they would say, ‘It doesn't matter, the date. It's irrelevant.”'

In fact, it would be the date, which the three later saw on the videotape of the “rally,” that apparently helped lead to their eventual release. The tape showed that the video was recorded in 2000 -- a year during which Rasul was employed as a clerk in an electronics superstore in England while the other two, also in England, were serving probation and performing community service to satisfy charges against them.

After British intelligence had cleared them of being at the infamous rally, there was still more. The Americans then tried to link them to Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber” who was thwarted in his attempt to blow up a transatlantic flight to Miami in December 2001 -- after the Tipton Three already were in custody. “I didn't know who Richard Reid was until I got out and heard about him in the news,” Rasul told me.

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The three were finally released in March 2004, after more than two years of incarceration and under circumstances that were never made clear. The release appears to have been a favor to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who was under intense pressure over the fate of Britons held at Guantanamo and because of his close political alliance with President George W. Bush. After brief questioning by British authorities, the three returned to their neighborhood.

Now they travel abroad without incident -- Iqbal finally was married in Pakistan last July, and the trio has visited much of Europe promoting the film. Airlines and international authorities apparently are unperturbed by them.

At the Pentagon, officials say that the three had their cases reviewed, but that none of that material would be made public, since the reviews occurred before later lawsuits forced such disclosure. “Everybody at Guantanamo was there for a valid reason,” Lieutenant Commander J.D. Gordon said in an interview.

The Road to Guantanamo inspires neither anger nor tears, just a numb realization that the United States has somehow gone terribly awry. It is at times a convoluted narrative -- young, unknown actors play the Tipton Three during their travels and interrogations, while the actual Tipton Three appear on camera periodically to tell their own stories. The film does not seek to answer certain questions -- such as what motive really prompted the three to travel into Afghanistan. We learn no shameful secrets. Its impact, though, is in its understated portrayal of the moral confusion of the so-called war on terrorism, with its crass intermingling of politics and fear. If nothing else, the film teaches us that Guantanamo Bay is a place from which hundreds of men will, one day, emerge wondering what fate placed them in the hands of Americans whose actions are so profoundly un-American. tap

Marie Cocco writes a column syndicated by The Washington Post Writers' Group.