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The Prisoners Speak

The Road to Guantánamo

a film directed by Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross


Most moviegoers whom I’ve watched leaving the cinema after seeing The Road to Guantánamo have been wordless and whey-faced, numbed, as I was, by the film’s distressingly vivid recreation of brutal interrogations in the American detention camp on Cuba’s south coast (sequences that were filmed on location in—of all places—Iran). It takes a while to realize that one has witnessed something more than a shocking indictment of the peculiar institution of Guantánamo Bay. Michael Winterbottom and Mat Whitecross’s drama-documentary, a deliberately confusing medley of fact (interviews, news footage) and fictional devices (lavishly filmed reenactments), also has the great merit of exposing the special fog of “asymmetric” as opposed to conventional warfare. Grueling as it is to watch, and it’s the most protracted ninety-minute movie I’ve ever seen, it is packed with sly insights into Bush’s “long war,” hitherto known as the global war on terror.

Winterbottom’s last movie was Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, and his Shandean relish for confusion, dead ends, contradictions, and non sequiturs is everywhere in evidence in this convoluted tale of how three young Englishmen from Tipton—part of the post-industrial urban sprawl of the West Midlands between Birmingham and Wolverhampton where many immigrant Pakistani families originally settled in the 1960s—went to Pakistan for a wedding (it was meant to be “a great holiday,” one of them says) and ended up in Guantánamo, via Kunduz, Afghanistan, in the chaotic aftermath of the battle there in November 2001. The Tipton Three, Asif Iqbal, Ruhel Ahmed, and Shafiq Rasul, should have been four, but one of their original number, Monir Ali, was lost in Kunduz and is now presumed dead.

Our idea,” Winterbottom has said, “was to let [the three] tell their story themselves.” So the directors have appointed themselves as poker-faced secretaries to the Tipton Three, whose reliability as narrators remains in question throughout the film. Winterbottom and Whitecross have tried to be as faithful as possible to the Tipton Three’s version of things, while leaving ample room for the audience to doubt the logic and plausibility of what transpires on screen. The men appear as themselves in on-camera interviews, but are played by actors who bear little or no resemblance to their real-life counterparts—and thereby continually remind us of their own fictionality. The style of trompe l’oeil, on-the-fly realism in which the three’s catastrophic intercontinental adventure is filmed—like the Battle of Namur scenes in Winterbottom’s Tristram Shandy—owes a good deal to such graduates of 1960s and 1970s BBC television drama as Ken Loach and Tony Garnett, expert forgers of the blurred action and grainy texture of newsreel.

After returning from a trip to Pakistan, Asif Iqbal’s mother tells him she has found a bride for him there and that he “should go out to Pakistan and get married.” “So I got a ticket and I went,” Iqbal says flatly in his adenoidal Black Country accent. Bargain travel has much to answer for in The Road to Guantánamo, which at one level might be seen as a long monitory riff on Pascal’s remark to the effect that all human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to stay quietly at home in his room—a remark that applies as much to the uniformed Americans as it does to the British civilians. Having arrived at his family’s village in Pakistan, Iqbal decides to marry the girl selected by his parents and invites his friend Ruhel Ahmed to witness the wedding. Ahmed departs for Pakistan with Shafiq Rasul and Monir Ali, who are both eager to visit the country. Arrived in Karachi, the trio add long tunics and prayer caps to their Tipton wardrobe of nylon tracksuits and hoodies. Speaking Punjabi and Urdu, they merge seamlessly into the Karachi crowd, and doss down for free at the Binori mosque. The filmmakers don’t tell us that the mosque just happens to be where Mullah Omar learned his militant brand of Islamist theology, or that it was described in 2002 by Wilson John, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, whose specialty is terrorism in Pakistan, as “the alma mater of all jihadis.” That the Tipton visitors found lodgings there was, perhaps, pure travelers’ coincidence—or not, as the case may be.

Although Iqbal says the three visitors were supposed to go to his village, he instead meets them in Karachi. Idly sightseeing, the lads pass by another mosque where a preacher is speaking of the “chaos and terror” unleashed by the American invasion of Afghanistan and calling on his congregation to offer their “help.” Because the bus fare to Kabul, nearly one thousand miles from Karachi by road, is just 250 rupees ($4.15 at today’s rate of exchange), the four tourists, ignorant of everything about Afghanistan except the legendary size of its flatbreads, decide to make the trip. “We jumped in a bus and off we went.”

Torrential diarrhea, the scourge of tourism, attacks Shafiq Rasul en route to the Afghan border, and he is somehow forgotten by his friends and left behind by the bus, emptying his bowels in the toilet of yet another mosque, but he is later reunited with his mates after walking across the border. As ever, the storyline is odd, bald, unexplained, but the scenes themselves are rendered so persuasively that one easily forgets the hiatuses between them.

When the group arrives in Kandahar amid bombing, the flatbreads satisfactorily live up to their reputation (“Look at them naans—fucking big!”), though the promised “chaos” of Afghanistan turns out to be strangely elusive. The four adventurers spend one day in Kandahar before leaving for Kabul. British newsreel footage shows the city under relentless aerial bombardment, but the Tipton boys see it differently: swirling red dust, nimble pedestrians dodging traffic, a group of old men placidly smoking and drinking coffee at a sidewalk café. Speaking no Pashto, they become aimless, awkward spectators of the world in which they are adrift. For two and a half weeks, they “chill out,” nurse Asif Iqbal, who has fallen desperately sick, grow ever more bored, and decide to go back to Pakistan.

Along the way, they have somehow acquired a minder, or mentor, in Kabul named Sher Khan, who ushers them into a crowded minivan, assuring them that it’s Pakistan-bound. But it’s the wrong bus. The hapless, geographically challenged travelers are transported north to Kunduz instead of south toward Karachi—straight into the war zone where Northern Alliance troops under General Rashid Dostum, assisted by American bombers, are wresting the city from the Taliban and taking many thousands of prisoners.

When Northern Alliance troops enter Kunduz, prompting an evacuation, Monir Ali is lost in the dash to the city’s outskirts, apparently left behind in Kunduz as the rest of the Tiptonites scramble aboard a moving truck, laden with armed men on the run. Outside the city they encounter true chaos, brought to life by the directors with manic and persuasive exuberance. Illuminated by exploding bombs on the horizon, panicked humans surge back and forth, on foot and in trucks, their movements simultaneously as suggestive and as unintelligible as Tristram Shandy’s marbled page. Shouts from the swarm are translated into contradictory subtitles: “We are surrendering!” “We have safe passage!”

By the light of day, a kind of order emerges. The arid terrain of rock and shale is littered with the bodies of men killed when the trucks in which they were traveling overnight were bombed. After helping to bury the dead and leaping aboard a passing truck, they are captured by the Northern Alliance and forced to march through the landscape with a trudging column of what look like exhausted refugees. On every salient outcrop stands a man wearing a makeshift camouflage top and holding a machine gun. One has to work quite hard to make sense of what one’s seeing here and to figure out that the gunmen are with the Northern Alliance and the refugees are their captives. Most of the prisoners wear baggy Afghan tribal dress, but here and there one spots an Arab kaffiyeh, a Pakistani tunic, and, materializing from the edge of the screen, Ruhel Ahmed’s trademark claret-colored Gap hoodie.

As William S. Lind and others wrote in their important 1989 article “The Changing Face of War: Into the Fourth Generation,” in asymmetric warfare “the distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘military’ may disappear.”1 In the picture on the screen, that distinction has entirely disappeared: the Northern Alliance brigands are clad in a sort of homemade gesture at military uniform but the hundreds of shabby men passing before the camera have perfectly illegible identities. Searching the faces and the clothes, all you can say with certainty is that everyone appears to be a Muslim. Some are, you presume, Taliban fighters, some may be al-Qaeda. But there’s ample room in this bedraggled crowd for unlucky shepherds, cooks, bus drivers, butchers, and bakers; room, too, for a trio of clueless English tourists. You are now looking at the world almost exactly as it must appear to the American interrogators to whom the enormous, indiscriminate mixed bag of humanity will shortly be delivered.

It has to be remembered that leaflets promising bounty of up to $5,000 for a Taliban fighter and $10,000 for a member of al-Qaeda were then being air-dropped all over Afghanistan, falling, as Donald Rumsfeld boasted at the time, “like snowflakes in December in Chicago.” One such leaflet read, in part:

You can receive millions of dollars for helping the Anti-Taliban Force catch Al-Qaida and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life. Pay for livestock and doctors and school books and housing for all your people.2

Inevitably, Afghans turned in their next-door neighbors, old rivals, teachers who’d given them a failing grade. Non-Pashto-speaking foreigners like the Tipton Three were of course prime bounty material.

Between Kunduz and the jail at Sheberghan, 180 miles to the west, the Northern Alliance packed their prisoners so tightly into shipping containers that many died of suffocation. Still more were killed when their containers were raked by machine-gun fire in the disputed Dasht-i-Leili massacre (depending on the source, the dead numbered from 250 to 3,000), named for the site of the mass grave near Sheberghan where the victims were buried. The Tiptonites survive this horror only to face violent interrogation by US intelligence agents at the prison. They are now among the “worst of the worst,” in Bush’s words; alleged al-Qaeda terrorists bent on the destruction of Western civilization. They are also, as native English speakers, natural targets of opportunity for American interrogators demanding to know the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.

In the hellhole of Sheberghan, the prisoners are shaved, stripped naked, forced into orange jumpsuits, gloves, earmuffs, black goggles, and hoods—the outlandish uniform in which they will be flown to Guantánamo. Whatever they may have been before, tourists, shepherds, or fighters, they now look like an army of enemy aliens. The transformation wrought on them by their American captors is a work of cunning genius: arriving at Sheberghan, they were forlorn, exhausted, starving men; departing on the flight to Cuba, they are made to seem evil orange monsters, identical, inhuman, and, as their shackles bear witness, very, very dangerous.

  1. 1

    Marine Corps Gazette, October 1989, pp. 22–26.

  2. 2

    See psywarrior.com/afghanleaf40.html.

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