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Afghanistan: family visit programme begins for Bagram detainees

23-09-2008 Feature

For the first time, families of people in US custody at Afghanistan’s Bagram Air Base can see their relatives in person. The ICRC’s Abdul Hassib Rahimi reports from Kabul.

  ©ICRC/R. Keusen/af-e-01323    
  Kabul, ICRC delegation. Families of detainees registering for ICRC family visits programme.    

  ©ICRC/R. Keusen/af-e-01322    
  Kabul, ICRC delegation. Families of detainees registering for ICRC family visits programme.    

Haji Lal Padshah has taken a day off from his job selling petrol at a small shop on the highway between Logar Province and the capital, Kabul. Earlier this morning, he drove himself and his brother to Kabul after sending his two daughters and two nephews ahead in a taxi. He was going to the delegation of the ICRC to register for a videophone call to his brother, Mohammad Khan, who is being held by the US military at Bagram Air Base.

In early 2008, Lal Padshah learned about the programme set up by the ICRC and US authorities whereby families can maintain contact with their relatives detained at Bagram. Lal Padshah has been a regular visitor to the ICRC delegation ever since, dropping in every two months to talk to his brother for 20 minutes over the phone while seeing him on screen. When he arrived this morning to register for his call, he found out there was now an additional possibility: he could still make a videophone call, but now he also had the opportunity of going to Bagram himself and seeing his brother in person. After briefly consulting his family, Lal Padshah made up his mind. If there really was a chance to meet his brother face-to-face, he and his family wanted to take it.

Lal Padshah remembers the day his brother went to south-eastern Afghanistan to take part in mourning for a dead acquaintance. His brother never came back. Four months later, the ICRC delivered a Red Cross message. It was hand-written by his brother, who informed him that he was alive and well, and in custody in Bagram. " The day I received that message I was really glad, and grateful to God to learn that my brother was OK, " said Lal Padshah. He wrote back and from the n on kept up a regular correspondence with his brother through the ICRC. Later, he also used the videophone at the ICRC delegation in Kabul. " It was just wonderful for me to see my brother for the first time after almost two years, even if it was only on television. " And he added: " I really don’t know what I’m going to say when I see him in prison. I’m afraid I may be so overwhelmed that I’ll be at a loss for words and not know what to ask first. "

Mohammada Jan is a teacher from the village of Khashek in Ghazni Province. He has not seen his brother-in-law Safiullah in person for nine months. This morning, he learned that he could visit him in Bagram for the first time. He was planning to go with another brother-in-law and with Safiullah's wife and their two children.

Mohammada Jan has been exchanging Red Cross messages with Safiullah over the past few months, and has also made three videophone calls during that period. " When my brother-in-law disappeared, we went everywhere to ask about him, to no avail, " he said. " Since I knew that the ICRC made regular visits to places of detention, I eventually sent my brother to Kabul to enquire at their offices. It was there that we learned that Safiullah was detained in Bagram. It was a great relief for all of us to know that he was alive. "

A couple of months later, the first Red Cross messages from Safiullah started arriving at their home. Later Mohammada Jan and his family also started to use the videophone system. " To be honest, " he says, " the first time I saw him on the screen, I just cried. I was so happy and so sad at the same time. " Looking at his nephew, who had come with him to register for a visit to Bagram, he added: " This time will be different. When we visit him in Bagram, we want to make sure that he is not upset about seeing us, but draws strength from the experience. With the help of God, we will make sure that no one cries. "

 The names of the detainees and families have been changed to protect their identities