KABUL, Afghanistan – When Mirwali, 25, finally got the chance to talk to his 65-year-old father, who is held in the U.S.-run military prison at Bagram Airbase, outside of Kabul, he was so overcome with emotion he couldn’t speak. Mirwali covered his face with the long sash of grey silk hanging down from the wrap of his turban, held his head in his hands, and sobbed.
Their meeting wasn’t face-to-face, but rather via a video conference connection provided by the U.S. military and set up at the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Kabul. The video conference program is a compromise between the U.S. military authorities and the Red Cross.
Each family call is limited to 20 minutes – but after many months, sometimes years, of no communication, it is better than nothing.
"We consider this as a positive intermediary step between nothing and face-to-face visits," said Graziella Leite Piccolo, the spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Kabul. "We continue to pressure, to insist on the relevance of face-to-face visits," she said.
Red Cross connection
There have been more than 600 family video conference calls since the program started in January of this year – a lifeline for families who had lost all hope of ever seeing their loved ones again.
Dozens of families turn up at the Red Cross offices in Kabul every Monday to wait their turn at the video booths provided by the U.S. military.
The Red Cross does the legwork. The detainee writes the names of the family members he would like to come to Kabul to take part in the call. All names are then vetted by the Americans -- only family members; no friends.
With the help of the Afghan Red Crescent Society, the family is then contacted – some live in the most remote and inaccessible parts of the country – travel expenses, food and lodging for the relatives are paid for by the Red Cross. Each family is assigned a specific date and time for their call and no more than five relatives are allowed in the booth.
Sometimes a detainee may not include a family member on their list of names because they fear the person may be too old, or too ill, to make the journey. But the family member may show up anyway, some so frail they can barely walk – refusing to miss the opportunity to talk to a loved one.
One old man – the deep furrows in his face framed by his white turban and long white beard – was barely able to stand, even with the help of his cane. He stood outside and watched through the glass window of the booth as his son’s image appeared on the TV screen inside. He cried and banged his head on the closed door, but only his other children sitting inside were able to take part in the call – his son had not put his name on the list.
The U.S. military is holding between 600-650 detainees at the highly secretive Bagram detention center, which was opened in 2002. The authorities do not permit any information to leak out about who is incarcerated there – some have been high value targets in the war on terror. There are cases of detainees held without charges for as long as five years, according to human rights lawyers and the Red Cross.
Sometimes U.S. raids are triggered by bad intelligence or just bad tips that are based on local vendettas in this tribal society. The problem for U.S. and NATO forces is how can they tell what’s real from what is someone’s chance to finally settle an old score with a neighbor.
The U.S. military has recently established "enemy combatant review boards" that will examine every six months whether a detainee can be released. The prisoners cannot introduce outside testimony for their defense and have no access to independent lawyers.
Taken with no explanation
Mirwali, who like most Afghans goes by only one name, said his father is an elder in their village and often acted as an intermediary between the people and the local government to resolve differences and negotiate on issues. He was taken one night after U.S. forces raided their home. The family doesn’t know why.
"They came with their dogs and forced their way into our home firing their weapons," Mirwali said in an interview at the Red Cross office in Kabul. "Then they unleashed their dogs on two of my sisters."
The U.S. military does not comment on the status of detainees.
In the tribal culture of Afghanistan, there are strict rules – no one but immediate family members dare enter a home without first knocking and asking for permission.
Mirwali doesn’t understand why the Americans didn’t ask the local governor to bring his father in for questioning if they suspected him of some crime.
"We are ordinary people," he said. "We are not linked to the Taliban. The Taliban come and destroy the roads and the schools that the government is trying to build. The government is trying to improve our life. The Taliban want to destroy all of that."
Mirwali explained that many people were not happy with the Taliban because they did not respect individuals and now they believe the Americans are doing the same thing.
Reconnected, for a short time
When Mirwali finally got the chance to see his father, it took him a moment to regain his composure and then he asked, "How are you, father?"
He wanted to reassure him that no harm had come to the rest of the family as a result of his detention.
"Please believe me, father, we are all fine. If you are thinking something bad has happened to anyone of us, you are wrong, I swear to God. Father, father, please believe me," Mirwali pleaded with his father who was also crying.
Soon Mirwali’s 20 minutes were up; his father’s face abruptly disappeared from the screen and the line was cut. He put down the old-fashioned black telephone receiver and walked away –another family was waiting for their turn in the booth.
Below: Mirwali, seen here, is driven to tears while speaking to his father via video conference
Click to view image: '184083-080513cryingblog830a_standard.jpg'
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