This article originally ran in CJR’s July/August 2007 issue.
On December 15, 2001, early in the morning on the last day of Ramadan, a reporter and a cameraman from Al Jazeera arrived at the Pakistani town of Charman on the Afghanistan border, on their way to cover the American military operation. The reporter, Abdelhaq Sadah, was replacing a colleague, but the cameraman, a Sudanese national named Sami al-Haj, had been on such an assignment before, and had crossed the border without incident. This time, however, an immigration official stopped him. He seemed angry. The official told Sadah that he could go, but “your friend is a wanted man and will stay here.”
In Sadah’s recollection, the official produced a letter from Pakistani intelligence—written, curiously, in English. It said that al-Haj had Al Qaeda ties and should be apprehended. Al-Haj noticed that the passport number in the letter didn’t correspond to the one in his current passport, but instead to an old passport he had lost several years ago in Sudan and had reported missing. Despite his protests, the official insisted on detaining him overnight. The next morning, Sadah returned to the border post just in time to see a Pakistani military officer lead al-Haj to a car and drive him away.
Al-Haj is a tall, slender man whose round face and glasses give him a boyish demeanor. In photographs, he looks much younger than his thirty-eight years. People who have met him invariably describe him as polite; in conversation he is said to smile almost constantly.
After Sadah informed Al Jazeera management what had happened, the network made contact with the Pakistani authorities and was told that al-Haj’s background was being investigated. On January 4, al-Haj called his wife, Asma, who was then living in Azerbaijan. He sounded confident, almost cheerful, saying that he expected to be back in Doha, Qatar, Al Jazeera’s headquarters, in two or three days.
Instead, al-Haj was taken to an underground prison in Kabul. There, he was transferred to American custody. On January 7, he was brought by helicopter to Bagram Air Base. Al-Haj later described his disorienting arrival to his lawyer. After a fifteen-minute flight, he said, he was pitched from the helicopter into the icy night, hitting the tarmac so hard that he briefly lost consciousness. He claimed that he was then kicked and beaten by military police, who removed the black bag from his head and cut off his clothes. After performing what al-Haj called an “intimate body search,” they dressed him in a blue uniform, and said, “You record videos of Osama bin Laden for Al Jazeera.”
For the next six months, al-Haj was held in Afghanistan. In early June 2002, he was put on a military plane. In another letter to his lawyer, he explains that his hands were gloved and cuffed and linked to his leg shackles; his mouth was gagged. Every so often, American soldiers removed the gag to feed him peanut butter crackers. The plane landed many hours later. On June 14, al-Haj was given an orange jumpsuit and the ID number 345. He was in Cuba. For the past five years, al-Haj has been the only journalist known to be held in Guantánamo Bay.
Many questions surround Sami al-Haj. After talking with his colleagues, friends, family members, and lawyer, I could piece together only a partial picture of his life. He grew up in the Sudan, where an uncle, who was better off than al-Haj’s family, helped him attend college in India, where he studied computers and English. In the late 1990s, he took a job as an administrative assistant for a company called Union Beverages, and later worked in a similar role for an import-export company in the United Arab Emirates. In 1997, a former university classmate introduced him to Asma, and they married the following year. Asma told me that her husband was “a very kind-hearted person, [but] we didn’t have deep conversations about our future or experiences.” She added that he liked to sleep a lot, to watch television (usually Al Jazeera and Egyptian movies), and to read “every newspaper he could find.” In 2000, the couple had a son, Mohammed. Soon after, al-Haj answered a newspaper advertisement for a trainee position at Al Jazeera, and the family moved to Qatar. He started work on a trial basis in April 2000.