When Jawad Rabbani was about 12 years old, he printed out the Wikipedia entry for the Guantánamo Bay U.S. military prison in Cuba. With his rudimentary English, he pored over the document, looking up words and concepts he didn’t understand. Around the same time, he watched a Bollywood film about a young man suspected of terrorism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. A scene depicting a man getting waterboarded left Rabbani shaken — and obsessed with learning all he could about U.S. torture. He spent hours searching for videos demonstrating torture methods and watching them on repeat.
“When I saw that scene, it was really heartbreaking, it was really difficult for me,” Rabbani, 18, told me on a call from his home in Karachi, Pakistan. “I wanted to understand how the CIA tortured these guys, their techniques.”
Rabbani was born months after his father, a taxi driver named Ahmed Rabbani, was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and transferred to U.S. custody — misidentified, according to the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture, as Hassan Ghul, a Pakistani member of Al Qaeda whom the CIA briefly detained and later killed in a drone strike. Jawad had read online that his father had been subjected to 545 days of torture at a CIA black site in Afghanistan before being sent to Guantánamo, where he remains to this day with no charge.
The U.S. government has detained nearly 800 men at Guantánamo since it opened in 2002 — an overwhelming majority of them without charges. Now, nearly 12 years after President Barack Obama vowed to shut down the prison within a year of his inauguration, 39 of them remain, only 12 of whom have been charged with a crime. Ten more have been cleared for release but remain at the prison awaiting resettlement. Transfers out of Guantánamo mostly halted during the presidency of Donald Trump, who opposed closing the prison and threatened to send more people there. President Joe Biden has indicated that he intends to close Guantánamo, though he has offered no timeline for doing so. In July, the U.S. government repatriated Abdul Latif Nasser, who had been held for two decades without charge, back to Morocco — the first transfer under the new administration.
“There’s so much focus on the injustice on the men in Guantánamo, but what’s often forgotten is the fact that this has had such dire consequences for waves of family members around them.”
The abuses these men endured before, during, and sometimes after their stay at the prison are a dark chapter of the two-decade war on terror launched in the aftermath of 9/11. The physical and psychological torture, beatings, and forced feedings they were subjected to have been widely documented. The devastating impact of detention at Guantánamo, however, extends well beyond the men themselves, defining the lives of hundreds of their family members across the world. An untold number of children have grown up with a father at Guantánamo — living childhoods filled with fear, anguish, and stigma.
“There’s so much focus on the injustice on the men in Guantánamo, but what’s often forgotten is the fact that this has had such dire consequences for waves of family members around them,” said Katie Taylor, deputy director of Reprieve, an advocacy group that represents six men who remain at Guantánamo and that has worked to support more than 70 former detainees who were resettled in 28 countries.
“Children grow up without a father, often without a breadwinner,” Taylor added. “And then there’s also a huge amount of stigma, even though the U.S., in most cases, hasn’t charged or tried them, and even though the so-called intelligence that their detention is based on has been debunked so clearly over the years. … But people assume there’s no smoke without fire, and they must have done something — and that doesn’t just impact the men when they are released, it very much impacts their family members. There is so much heartache.”
Photos: Courtesy of Jawad Rabbani
“I Never Told Anyone”
Yusuf Mingazov was 3 years old when his father, Ravil Mingazov, was arrested in Pakistan in 2002 and transferred to U.S. custody, suspected of being associated with Al Qaeda and the Taliban. He was never charged with a crime, and in 2010, a federal court found that none of the accusations leveled against Ravil by the U.S. government could be proved and that there was no lawful basis for his detention. (“Ravil was never a threat. He never did anything to harm the United States or its allies. He was not a member of Al Qaeda or the Taliban. He did nothing to act in a hostile manner,” his attorney, Gary Thompson, told The Intercept.)
Ravil, a Russian Muslim of Tatar ethnicity, had been a classical dancer and a decorated officer with the Russian army before leaving the country in 2000, seeking to escape religious discrimination and harassment from authorities. He wished to relocate his family to a majority-Muslim country, so they set off for Afghanistan by way of Tajikistan.
Following his father’s arrest, Yusuf grew up in the city of Naberezhnye Chelny, in Russia’s Tatarstan region, where his mother worked three jobs to sustain them in his father’s absence. Harassment by Russian authorities eventually sent the family to Syria. Amid the war in Syria, they returned to Russia in 2012. But when Russian security forces again began to harass them, they left for the U.K., where they received political asylum and continue to live. Yusuf, who is now 22, is studying to become a doctor.
From a young age, Yusuf’s mother had told him that his father was in jail “by accident, that he was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” he recalled. But she hadn’t explained the full circumstances of his detention, seeking to protect him by sparing him the details.
Not knowing left Yusuf resenting his father for not being around. He began to seek out answers for himself. When he heard that “Guantánamo is in America,” he turned to Google to learn more, finding photos of shackled detainees at the prison and reports of beatings and torture. He never spoke about his father with friends. “I never told anyone,” he said. “It won’t make sense that he’s innocent if he’s been there for such a long time.”
Over the years, Yusuf had learned to conjure up an image of his father through old photos and family tales. His mother didn’t like talking about Guantánamo but would tell him stories about his father prior to his arrest. Other relatives told him that his father, who worked in a military food warehouse, used to take leftover food and distribute it to people in need and that he had set up a small library of religious books for fellow officers curious about Islam.
“There’s this phrase in Russian, ‘When he walked, it looked like writing,’” Yusuf recalls a family friend telling him about his dad. “He walked in a very beautiful way, he was a ballet artist, and so he had a very good physique, and nice movements.”
Yusuf first spoke with his father more than a decade after he landed at Guantánamo, on a video call arranged by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which for years has facilitated contact between men detained at the prison and their families. He was struck by his father’s long, unkempt beard, which reminded him of a movie about a man cast away from a shipwreck. “He looked like a man on a raft,” he said.
“But he didn’t look like a broken person,” he stressed. “He was very happy, he was laughing. I saw that he was looking at me, like exploring me, because he hadn’t seen me for a long time.”
Over hourlong calls every few months, Yusuf began to get to know his father, who would also send him postcards from the prison — pictures of sports cars, motorcycles, and mosques from around the world.
Photos: Courtesy of Yusuf Mingazov
In 2016, U.S. officials cleared Ravil for release after 15 years of detention without charge. He feared persecution in Russia, where some of his friends had died under suspicious circumstances. At least seven other Russian nationals who were held at Guantánamo had already returned there, where some were arrested and tortured by Russian security forces, according to a 2007 Human Rights Watch report. At least one was killed; others are now in hiding.
Instead, Ravil became one of 23 Guantánamo detainees who were transferred to the United Arab Emirates as part of a confidential bilateral agreement with the U.S. government. He and his lawyers were made to believe that the resettlement would be permanent and that he would be detained for six months, to participate in a rehabilitation program, before being released for good. His son said that Ravil had wanted to be in a Muslim-majority country. “He thought they would be good people because they are following Islamic rules,” he said.
At first, Ravil was treated well in the UAE; he was given access to books and weekly calls with his son. The two started picturing their reunion. “He would say, ‘When I come out, we’ll have a huge barbecue, and we’ll invite all the family, and me and you, we’ll start going to the gym together,’” his son recalled. But as the years passed, the calls grew shorter and further apart. When Ravil complained to his son about the way he was treated, they were abruptly disconnected. “They never let him speak freely,” said the younger Mingazov. “Guantánamo was very bad, but this is even worse.”
Yusuf believes that UAE officials reduced his father’s access to calls in retaliation for his complaints about the facility, which Yusuf passed on to his father’s attorney. (Thompson was never allowed to speak with his client after his transfer.) Last Yusuf heard from his father, he was being held in solitary confinement in an unknown location and denied medical treatment — but it’s been months since their last call.
“There’s just total darkness around the UAE’s behavior, and they can act with impunity.”
“The UAE really does not allow anybody access to monitor what they are doing,” said Thompson. “So there’s just total darkness around the UAE’s behavior, and they can act with impunity.”
Meanwhile, in Russia, officials have shown up at Ravil’s mother’s home, seeking to verify information to issue him with a passport. That has raised fears among his relatives and attorneys that he might soon face forcible repatriation from the UAE.
“The UAE promised our State Department that no such transfer would ever take place,” said Thompson. “They also promised they would treat Ravil humanely, and they haven’t done that either, but the idea [of repatriation] has already been condemned by the United Nations, so it would be in flagrant disregard of international law, and I don’t think the UAE wants to be a pariah government.”
Thompson added that Ravil has a pending petition for family reunification in the U.K., where he could reunite with his son. “They are just sitting on it for political reasons, they’re afraid to do anything with it,” Thompson said, referring to U.K. officials. “They just won’t act on it.”
A spokesperson for the U.K. Home Office declined to comment on Ravil’s petition, saying the office does not comment on individual cases. The UAE Embassy in the U.S. a did not respond to a request for comment.
Photos: Courtesy of Jawad Rabbani
A Lifetime Apart
Among the dozens of men who remain at Guantánamo, Ahmed Rabbani is one of 17 who remain in indefinite detention — facing no charges but still awaiting clearance for release.
That’s despite the fact that the U.S. government realized within a day of taking him into custody in 2002 that he was not the man they thought they had captured, noted Taylor of Reprieve. Ahmed’s name appears multiple times in the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture, which details how he was subjected to “forced standing, attention grasps and cold temperatures.” The report does not mention how he was left hanging from his wrists for hours, causing his shoulders to dislocate — a torture technique described during the Spanish Inquisition as “strappado.” At Guantánamo, Ahmed has been engaging in hunger strikes for years, and he has been forcibly fed by prison officials.
“It’s absurd, but so sinister, so terrible, what was done to him,” Taylor said. “I can’t give you an explanation for why he’s being held. It is complete nonsense. … There is no reason for Ahmed to ever have been held and to be held now.”
Jawad Rabbani first spoke to his father when he was 7 or 8, after someone working for the Red Cross facilitated a phone call. “He told me he’s in jail, and I asked him, ‘Why? Bad guys are supposed to be in jail,’” the younger Rabbani recalled. “He laughed and didn’t answer me.”
At first, Jawad had a difficult time trying to build a relationship with his father. In one of their early conversations, he recalled, his father had asked him to recite a poem. “I think he expected something religious,” he said. Instead, Jawad sang “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” in English. His father laughed but seemed disappointed.
Sometimes, his father would grow impatient with him — frustrated that his son didn’t show greater interest in religion, leave the house much, or talk to his relatives. “I told him I don’t like to leave my comfort area,” Jawad recalls. “He wasn’t happy with me.” As he grew older, Jawad continued to speak with his father every few months. The tensions he felt early on have eased up in recent years. It often takes a while to break the ice on their calls, he says, which start with small talk and awkward silences. “By the time you start enjoying the conversation, the time is up.”
His father also used to send him drawings he made at Guantánamo. In one, a pair of cuffed hands held Jawad’s name. The image was “sad and dark,” Jawad says. “Honestly, I think that painting put me in a depression.”
The rest of the family also struggled. Jawad’s grandfather died kneeling on a prayer mat, heartbroken over his son’s fate. His mother, who had been a teenager and married to his father for less than two months when he was arrested, worked hard to provide for Jawad materially but struggled to give him the answers he needed. “She has been through a lot, I don’t know how she managed it,” he said of his mother. “But I didn’t have much of a childhood that I could remember, any memories to be nostalgic about. I never think about my childhood, I don’t have anything to look back to.”
Jawad searched the internet for details about what the U.S. government thought his father might have done, but he found that the information was “classified.” He collects all the articles that his father has written from Guantánamo by dictating them to his attorney over the phone. As the years passed, he began to fixate less on the mechanics of torture and more on the resilience and strength that it must have taken his father to survive it.
“How is he alive after almost 20 years of this? After all this torture and insults?” he asks. “I can’t imagine how he got through this all these years, without family.”
He still hopes to see him one day, he said, and to show him how he learned to take care of himself. He thinks that when that day comes, it will take time to build a connection after a lifetime apart, but he likes to picture himself with his father, “sitting in a garden, talking about things, like a father and son.”
“Just imagine what life would be for your family without your father. Just imagine what it would be like if your father was at Guantánamo,” he said. “How could they ruin 20 years of someone’s life?”