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Joshua Colangelo-Bryan Headshot

Truth and Reconciliation

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While it remains unclear whether the United States will create a commission of inquiry to investigate abuses committed after September 11, the process of reconciliation that might be one aspect of such a commission has actually already been started by a former Guantanamo detainee and a former Guantanamo guard.

A month ago I read an interview conducted by the Guantanamo Testimonials Project with Brandon Neely, who had been a Guantanamo guard. Neely said that he was ashamed of his behavior at Guantanamo and that only by speaking out about his experiences was he able to move on with his life.

One of the incidents Neely described was a beating that five guards had inflicted on a detainee. That detainee was Jumah Al-Dossari, my former client. The U.S. held Jumah without charge for over five years, during which time Jumah attempted suicide repeatedly, including once when I found him hanging by a noose. Jumah was released in 2007 and has since rebuilt his life by remarrying, having a baby, and studying computers.

I described Neely's attempts to find peace to Jumah and -- knowing Jumah's compassionate nature -- asked if he would be interested in speaking to Neely.

"He gave us a hard time," Jumah said after looking at a photograph of Neely that I found on the internet. "But it is a new time now."

Neely had already said he wanted to talk and soon we dialed in from Texas, New York and Saudi Arabia. The conversation started with pleasantries, but quickly turned to Guantanamo.

"I remember you," Brandon said. "I remember exactly where you were on Bravo Block."

"Yes, I remember you too," Jumah replied.

"I was so young then," Brandon said, seemingly trying to explain himself. "They told us that everyone would kill us in a heartbeat, but when the detainees came off that bus they looked so weak."

"It made me feel very good when I heard you wanted to talk," Jumah replied. "When a guard wanted to know who I really was it made me feel very good."

"The guards who started to realize that not everyone was a terrorist had no say-so," Neely said. "I wish I had spoken out sooner."

"You still have a good heart if you want to talk now," Jumah said. "Remember that we weren't allowed to look you in the eye? We had no chance to express ourselves then."

"I remember that we always told you 'look down, look down,'" Neely replied. "I wish I wasn't a part of it. I'm really sorry."

Jumah grew more animated. "If we only think about the past we torture ourselves. You are taking a great step to explain that what happened was wrong. We never heard of a guard who talked like that."

"Before we left Guantanamo, the military made us sign a piece of paper so that we wouldn't say anything," Neely explained. "It's a big reason why people aren't talking."

Jumah laughed. "Before I left Guantanamo, the colonel told me, 'Sign this paper. You're not allowed to talk about what happened.'"

The two found they had other similar experiences as well.

Neely said that he left for a tour in Iraq on the night that his twin babies came home from the hospital. He didn't see them for the next year and when he returned to the States, they didn't recognize him.

"It was a great gift from God that you came back safely," Jumah replied. "When I went to Guantanamo, my daughter was six and when I came back she was 12. She said 'Daddy' and I wondered why my sister was calling me 'Daddy.' I did not recognize her."

"I can't imagine not seeing your kids and not being able to talk to them either," Neely said. "I would never have had the strength to do what you detainees did."

Jumah and Neely talked some more about their children and even took a few moments to offer me -- a new father --reassuring words. They also talked more about life at Guantanamo. The conversation was serious, but not without humor.

After 30 minutes, Jumah said, "It's good to talk to a guard without shackles."

"Yeah, like normal people," Neely replied.

"It's finished now for us," Jumah said. "We need to move on."