Several weeks ago, on a visit to Guantanamo Bay, I was preparing for a meeting with Jamil el-Banna, a prisoner there. I was trying to work out how best to talk to him about the death of his mother. The funeral had already taken place, and it might still be years before he would be free to visit her grave. Naturally, as we talked, he cried and, 5,000 miles away from his family, his loneliness deepened.
Last week, I was in Nouakchott, Mauritania, working to secure the repatriation of two other Guantanamo prisoners. I was checking email messages before a meeting with the justice minister, when I learned that my father had died that morning, in his nursing home outside Cambridge. The airline would not let me take an earlier plane for the 2,000-mile journey home, which compounded my sense of alienation from the world around me.
The hotel room was claustrophobic. As I sat on the balcony, I stared out at the Sahara desert, stretching from the edge of the city across the entire African continent. For a moment, I felt an aching parallel between the predicament of client and lawyer. Ultimately, though, the prisoners' pain was greater.
Unable to leave Mauritania for 36 hours, I went along with two American colleagues to visit the family of another Guantanamo prisoner, Mohammed al-Amin. We rode in a smart black Toyota Land Cruiser to their house: three rooms and an outside toilet on the edge of the city. On the way, we overtook caravans of trotting donkeys pulling barrels on rickshaw trailers, the only running water their neighbourhood knew.
Mohammed has five sisters and an ailing mother. His father has died. The family is poor in a country where the average per capita income is less than £250 per year. Mohammed is not alleged to have done anything against America - nobody even pretends that. He had never been to Afghanistan until the US purchased him from the Pakistanis for a bounty, and took him to Bagram Air Base in chains. But the US considers him a troublemaker, as he has been among the most resolute of the hunger-striking prisoners demanding a fair trial for all, becoming weaker by refusing to eat.
As we sat cross-legged on the floor in their main room, we explained his courage to his family. Their response took us aback. "Tell him stop this hunger striking. Tell him to obey his jailers. We need him back here!" exclaimed Mohammed's oldest sister. She pointed out the area on the roof of their tiny house where they plan to build him a room, and the building across the road where they hope he can start a one-room shop. "He will never need to leave here again. Not even to go into the city."
They are six women alone in the world. They speak English well, a talent that might normally be a ticket to a good job. But their skin is dark black in a country that favours the lighter-skinned ruling Arabs, and the discrimination they face has been deepened now they are known to have a brother in Guantanamo Bay. The women struggle to find menial jobs.
I thought of my own brother and sister in Australia. If I were the one locked up in Guantanamo, they would not rest until I was freed. Yet these women lack the influence to cross Nouakchott to meet with ministers, let alone cross the Atlantic to petition the courts to free their brother.
Outside, as we drove away, there was a small boy, four or five years old, swivelling a small brush made of twigs, spraying dust into the air. He seemed intent on sweeping up the Sahara. In 15 years, where will this boy be? Will he still be sweeping up the sands in some McJob, trying to hold his family together? Or will he, by some miracle, get himself an education and become a voice for democracy in his part of the world?
Or will he become frustrated at the futility of his existence, and at the inequity of the world that beams into the televisions even on the poorest street, and join in the jihad against those he perceives as his oppressors?
Clive Stafford Smith is the legal director of Reprieve, a UK charity fighting for the lives of people facing the death penalty and other human-rights violations. He writes this column monthly. Contact Reprieve at PO Box 52742, London EC4P 4WS. Tel: 020 7353 4640. www.reprieve.org.uk.