Nightmare at Camp Bondsteel

Djakova, Kosovo, 14 December. US helicopters appear in the sky; troops raid the school; aid workers

President Bush's war on terrorism may not frighten Osama Bin Laden, but it certainly puts the fear of God into innocent suspects who get caught in the mill. On 14 December, three Muslim aid workers in Kosovo found themselves swept up by the global reach of the US counter-terrorist campaign and were held in solitary confinement for more than five weeks and interrogated.

A little after midday, US attack helicopters suddenly swarmed in the sky over the western town of Djakova, on the border with Albania. Troops from the local Italian K-For garrison, backed up by Spanish soldiers, simultaneously raided the offices of three Muslim charities in the town. Two of them ran classes in English and computer studies. Children ran in terror as soldiers rampaged in their town for the first time since 1999.

As if to recreate the atmosphere of March 1999, the Nato troops used a Serb-speaking interpreter to bark their orders at the doorman of one computer school. Probably they didn't trust an Albanian interpreter not to tip off their targets for arrest. They need not have worried: the workers were paralysed by bewilderment, then fear.

Like the characters in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's "Arrest", the first chapter of The Gulag Archipelago, they could not believe that Nato suspected them. It must be a misunderstanding. It was true that they were bearded Muslims, but they were all registered with the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (Unmik) and their educational and charity work had been commended by the international powers that be. Certificates testifying to the fact lined the wall of one of the offices.

Neither the Italian carabinieri nor the Spanish soldiers could speak English, to each other or to the three main suspects. They went through a pre-scripted routine, ignoring and indeed unable to understand protestations by their targets that they were willing to co-operate. The soldiers seemed psyched up for a confrontation with Bin Laden himself. The local head of the Global Relief Foundation was thrown to the ground and roughed up as the Italians and Spaniards shouted incomprehensible orders at him. Then he was shackled hand and foot, and blindfolded. Like the two other suspects, he was dragged into a helicopter that swept him away.

It seemed like a nightmare abduction out of a Hollywood conspiracy theory movie pre-11 September. Each man remembered feeling the cold fear that his incomprehensible captors intended to throw him to an anonymous death from the chopper. Each man recalled thinking that his wife and children would know nothing of his fate, only that he had disappeared. In fact, the men were on their way to the main US base in the Balkans, Camp Bondsteel, the template for the new steel spine of bases sprouting up deep into central Asia for the war against terrorism.

Once on the ground and in US custody, the men were stripped, made to shower and then received medical attention for their bruises and the chafing of the Italians' manacles. Each was held separately in a small wooden hut. After signing a document agreeing to abide by the sanitary rules of the camp, and not to commit suicide, their interrogation began.

Prima facie, two of the men were open to suspicion. They were Iraqi exiles working on contracts for the Illinois-based Global Relief Foundation, which the US justice department, under John Ashcroft, had just closed down for allegedly colluding with the al-Qaeda terrorist network. But it soon became clear that their interrogators were not interested in the foundation's activities.

During 38 days in solitary confinement, the men were interrogated about their suspected role in the suicide attack on the USS Cole in Aden harbour in October 2000.

All three men were questioned in the depths of the night to test if they were really Egyptians. One of the Iraqis noticed that one interrogator pronounced his family name in an Egyptian fashion, but also that his first name was misspelt on the document implicating him in the attack on the USS Cole which his captors presented to him. When he pointed out the error, he was told: "That does not matter." But the document was withdrawn after all three detainees refused to sign it.

As the weeks went by, despair welled up in each man. The interrogators seemed to lose interest in their charges, but there was no mention of release - unless they agreed to co-operate by admitting guilt.

The men's requests to see a lawyer or contact their families were ignored. As if to rub in their isolated helplessness, officials from the Europe-wide Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is supposed to be establishing the rule of law in Kosovo and protecting human rights, came to see the men and mocked them by telling them they had the right to phone a lawyer - but no access to a phone.

Two of the men were Iraqis; they are still too frightened to agree to their names being published. But the third suspect's case was still more bizarre. He is a citizen of an EU country who did not even speak Arabic, and is so traumatised by his experience that he fears he can never shake off the suspicion that he is a terrorist, and does not even wish reporters to name his nationality.

Early in his detention, a K-For soldier from his country interrogated him in his own language and told the Americans the exact place he came from in northern Europe, but the soldier failed to tell his embassy about his detention. The man's wife eventually got her consul, back from a long Christmas break on 11 January, to raise the matter of her husband's detention. Even after his release later that month, the diplomat urged him not to complain: after all, he was free.

However, the men are jobless and the Kosovars have lost out, too. One thousand fatherless local families have not received their monthly dole since December. The computer hard drives at the schools remain confiscated, as does the £13,000 in cash belonging to Global Relief, the two Iraqis' employer - so they have no pay. They fear that they will lose the right to remain in Kosovo, but deportation back to Iraq would be a death sentence.

What would Saddam Hussein make of their story? To him, there can only be one explanation for the two men spending weeks at a US military base while the Pentagon was softening up world opinion for an attack on Iraq. Following the Afghan model of using local insurgents as ground forces, exiled Iraqis who speak English would be essential linkmen between Iraqi rebels and US special forces.

To Saddam Hussein, the idea that anyone accused of terrorism would ever see the light of day again would be incredible. However frightening their confinement in Camp Bondsteel was, the two Iraqis fear that its real sinister quality is that it marks them out as specially trained spies. Already, the Iraqi newspaper Babylon has reported their detention there.

Terrorism is the negation of the rule of law, but arbitrary arrests and confiscations are not the way to achieve justice against it. The war against terrorism is loosening the restraints of due process alarmingly. A few days before the three Kosovo detainees were released, six Algerians were deported from Bosnia in defiance of the local courts to Camp X-Ray in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, because the US suspected them, but would not share its evidence. The crimes of 11 September cannot exculpate arbitrary counter-terrorism, which antagonises otherwise law-abiding folk. Whatever lesson Washington may be trying to teach, it isn't innocence until proven guilty.

Mark Almond, lecturer in modern history, Oriel College, Oxford, was in Kosovo for the British Helsinki Human Rights Group