The other Guantanamo

As the US withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches, what will happen to Bagram prison, where many prisoners are held without charge, trial, or even access to a lawyer?

When President Barack Obama came to power in 2008, he pledged to close Guantanamo, the notorious island prison where terrorism suspects are held indefinitely without charge. Five years after he said that “this war, like all wars, must end”, the prison remains open, the prisoners now in their eighth month of a hunger strike.

Guantanamo is not the only legacy of the Bush era that is proving problematic, as Obama prepares to draw a line under his predecessor’s wars. Bagram prison in Afghanistan is perhaps most famous for a string of prisoner abuse and torture scandals during the long US war. Though less headline-worthy in recent years, it remains there, and, as the US pull-out in 2014 draws ever closer, it is posing such a problem that it has been nicknamed the “second Guantanamo”.

At its peak, Bagram held around 3,000 prisoners, a number which is now reduced. The key problem is the fact that among the prisoners still held there by the US are 67 non-Afghan inmates, none of whom have been formally tried. The US claims that some of these are al-Qaeda operatives arrested after 9/11; accordingly, some have been imprisoned since 2002. They are held without charge, trial, or even access to a lawyer. With echoes of Guantanamo, some prisoners were cleared for release in 2010, but remain trapped in detention. This is because of lengthy, bureaucratic negotiations between the US and the country the detainee is being released to.

Around two-thirds of the foreign detainees (known as third country nationals) are of Pakistani origin. One of them was just 14 when he was arrested in 2008. Repatriation negotiations between the US and Pakistan have stretched on for years. The two concerns are humane treatment for the prisoners in the receiving country (in this case Pakistan), as well as an assurance that the threat the US feels the prisoners pose will be sufficiently mitigated. Under international law, the US cannot send an individual to a country where they face a real risk of torture. And on security, it is no secret that the US does not particularly trust Pakistan, demonstrated by the latest Edward Snowden leaks (showing drastically increased surveillance of the country, which is technically an ally). The spectre of recidivism has also hung over the prisoners trapped at Guantanamo, delaying their release.

So what will happen to the Bagram prison when the US pulls out of Afghanistan in 2014? Theoretically, it should close, but it does not seem likely that it will. The Afghan authorities are reluctant to take on the responsibility for lengthy repatriation negotiations, while concerns have been voiced that prisoners could be tortured if control is transferred away from the US. American officials have said it could be too dangerous to close the prison altogether.

A new report by Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), a legal NGO based in Lahore, representing the prisoners, is damning of all the authorities involved:

The Pakistani government has failed to meet its domestic and international duty to uphold the rights of its citizens in U.S. detention. It has failed to invest the necessary political and bureaucratic capital and failed to adopt clear policies on repatriation The United States has placed little priority on resolving these detainees’ cases, failed to adopt standard policies on repatriation — particularly on humane treatment and security assurances—and has tended to overstate the potential security risks that detainees pose.

While Bagram is not discussed much in America, it certainly damages the country’s image in the Middle East and South Asia, at least as much as Guantanamo does. The JPP report states that “for many Afghans, Bagram continues to symbolize much of what has gone wrong with the US mission in Afghanistan.” Detainees are trapped in a legal and bureaucratic black hole, nationless and unrepresented. As the date for US withdrawal approaches, is indefinite detention really the legacy that the west wishes to leave?

A US captain on a tour of Bagram prison in 2009. Photo: Getty

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Hamzah al Zobi
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Meet the Syrians using education to escape the refugee camps

On the bus to university with Syrian refugees in Jordan. 

The bus to Zarqa University leaves Jordan’s largest refugee camp at 7am sharp. The journey is one of the day’s highlights for the Syrian students who ride this route - a chance to plan weekend get-togethers, bemoan heavy course loads and even enjoy the occasional school-bus style sing-along. It’s also their daily ticket out of Za’atari camp and a means of escaping the dreary realities of refugee life.

“We are the lucky ones. Most had to give up their dreams of higher education” says 19-year-old Reema Nasser Al Hamad, whose family fled to Jordan five years ago when bombs destroyed her home in Dara’a, Syria. She shudders to think of the alternatives: aimless days spent sitting in a crowded caravan, or early marriage. “After the war, students in Syria lost their cities, their opportunities and their futures, so many of the girls just married when they got here. There’s a huge difference between the lives of those who study and those who don’t.”

Despite missing two years of school, Reema (pictured below) was able to pass her exams before securing a Saudi-funded scholarship to study Pharmacy at Zaraq’ University. “In Syria, I’d planned to do medicine and be a doctor because I always had high grades. There are fewer choices for us here but I’m happy to be studying at all,” she says. Hamza al Zobi, who’s studying Pharmacy on an the EU-funded EDU-Syria programnme, says young Syrians are hungry to learn. “We all have friends and relatives who didn’t get this chance and we feel so upset for them. If they’re not well educated, how can they go back and do the right thing for our country?”

More than a quarter of 18-24 year olds in Syria were enrolled in higher education when the war broke out. “Based on data provided by UNHCR we assess that around 20,000 young Syrians in Jordan would qualify for vocational education and higher education,” says Job Arts, Programme Manager Education and Youth, EU Delegation to Jordan, which is supporting some 1800 Syrians and disadvantaged Jordanians on degree courses in Jordan.

“While the number of places for Syrian students to pursue their education has increased dramatically over the past few years, there are still many more interested students than spaces available for study,” says Sarah Dryden-Peterson, non-resident Fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. “Without these possibilities, young Syrians will lose the kind of hope that is essential to productive futures.”

According to the Jordan Response Platform for the Syria Crisis, 1,250 Syrian youth were in higher education in Jordan in 2016. Building on commitments made by the international community at the London Conference on Syria last year, the Jordanian government hopes to secure funding to increase access to tertiary education and vocational training at the upcoming conference in Brussels this April.

“Jordan views higher education from a strategic point of view, specifically in terms of providing the Syrian youth with the education, skill and knowledge that will allow the opportunity to be part of rebuilding their country once the current situation comes to an end,” says Feda Gharaibeh, Director, Humanitarian Relief Coordination Unit at the Jordanian Ministry of Planning & International Cooperation.

Reema plans to return to Syria when the war is over. “After graduation a lot of students want to go to Europe. That would be fine for me too if it’s just to do a masters or doctorate, but then I want to go back to Syria and use what I’ve learnt to help my people.” Now four semesters into her course, she is making good progress but says adapting to the Jordanian education system was a challenge. “It’s really difficult for us. Classes are taught in English and the teaching style is different. They also have a lot more exams here.”

Only the brightest stand a chance of securing a scholarship but many young Syrians have seen their grades plummet after missing years of schooling. For, some, it’s too late to catch up. Accountancy student Ibrahim Mohammed, 23, came to Jordan in 2013 with his younger brother Khalil, now 19, who works in a print shop. “He stopped studying when he was 14. He didn’t even have a chance to get his high school certificate,” says Ibrahim.

Attempts to bridge the gap through open and distance learning programmes aren’t always effective. “It’s not a tool that is frequently used in the education environment in the Middle East,” explains Arts. Refugee students' access to electricity, internet connections, computers and space to study can be in short supply. Moreover, many students seek the escapism that a university education offers. “In our dialogue with parents and students, we often hear the phrase ‘being normal again’,” Arts adds.

Hamzah tries to help fellow students achieve this in his role as representative for the Syrian community at Zarqa University. He and Reema are part of a team that offers advice to new students and support for those from poorer families living in the camps. “There are 900 Syrian students here and each one has a different story of suffering,” says Hamzah, who organises group trips to restaurants and fairgrounds, helping to create a sense of regular student life. “It makes us forget what we are,” explains Reema.

During term time, she prefers to stay with her uncle in Mafraq, a city nearby. It’s hard to study in Za’atari. As soon as the power comes on at 5pm, her brothers switch on the TV, making it difficult to concentrate in the cramped caravan they share. There’s nowhere else to go; the camp is dangerous at night, particularly for young women. It’s even more crowded since the arrival of her baby sister. Reema remembers how her mother sobbed when she learned of the pregnancy, worried about bringing another child into the makeshift world of the camp.

But in five years a lot has changed. “In Syria, I had never left my village; now I feel there is another world to know,” says Reema. Like many Syrian students, she worries about life after university, particularly if they stay in Jordan where employment opportunities remain restricted for Syrian refugees. “It seems like work is forbidden to us Syrians and without a job we can’t take control of our lives. We’re studying hard but with no prospects,” says Hamzah. Few can see beyond graduation. “The future is opaque for us,” he adds, “We’re just living day by day.”

To date, the Jordanian government has issued some 39,000 works permits out of the 200,000 it pledged to make available for Syrians during the London Conference last February. However, with these opportunities built around low-income roles, primarily in the construction, agriculture, and textile manufacture sectors, the way for Syrian university graduates in Jordan still seems barred.

“Jordan is a small country with limited job opportunities,” says Ghaith Rababah Head of Projects & International Cooperation Unit (PICU) at the Ministry of Higher Education & Scientific Research. “Maybe the market will be better able to absorb educated Syrians at a later stage.”

In the meantime, higher education offers young Syrians a semblance of the security and stability their lives otherwise lack, Rababah continues. Given the opportunity to “use their talents for something good”, he adds, young people placed in difficult situations are less likely to fall prey to extremist ideologies and be “tricked into committing terrorist acts".