On July 11 in 2016, Mansoor Adayfi boarded a plane and left the prison at Guantanamo Bay. The United States had held the Yemeni without charge or trial for more than 14 years before deciding it was safe to release him. There was one catch: The U.S. sent him to Serbia, a country where he knew no one and didn’t speak the language. But could it be worse than spending the rest of his life in Guantanamo Bay?
Now, two years later, the answer to that question is more complicated than you’d expect. Despite being released from prison, he still doesn’t feel like a free man.
The Serbian government has kept Adayfi under intense, near-constant surveillance and blocked his efforts to complete his education or get a job. Earlier this summer, the Serbian government presented him with an ultimatum, Adayfi said. He could move into a refugee camp and apply for asylum or agree to be sent to a country in the Gulf with a poor human rights record. Neither option is a good one. He has heard through informal channels that Serbia is unlikely to grant him asylum. If his application is denied, he could be deported. If he ends up in the Gulf, Adayfi fears, he could be immediately imprisoned — or sent back to Yemen, where a civil war fueled by the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has already killed members of his family.
The Serbian government did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Time is running out: Adayfi’s government-issued identification card expired at the end of August. He received a temporary extension but he was told he would lose his apartment and government stipend sometime this month.
Meanwhile, officials in Washington — who claim they are committed to keeping track of former Guantanamo detainees and ensuring they stay away from extremist groups — have turned the other way.
While Adayfi doesn’t want to go back to a life of indefinite detention, the dire options that lie ahead bring him close to despair on some days. In Gitmo, he at least had friends and the hope that his life would eventually get better. “This is worse than Guantanamo,” Adayfi told HuffPost during one conversation. “I don’t feel like I am free … I just live in fear of being snatched off the street.”
Adayfi, who grew up in a rural village in Yemen, never wanted to go to Serbia, he said. U.S. and Serbian officials assured him that he would receive financial support and the opportunity to go to college. But Serbia had never received Guantanamo detainees before and seemed uncomfortable with resettling a man who had, at one point, been accused of being a member of al Qaeda. (The U.S. later backtracked and said no al Qaeda leaders have identified him as a member of the group.)
Adayfi has found hidden cameras in his apartment and discovered spyware installed on his cellphone. He has been interrogated for speaking to journalists about his situation — and the government has harassed foreign journalists who interviewed him. During one Skype interview at a cafe, he pointed out a man seated near him and said he was a government minder tracking his movements. He has struggled to make friends or date because he worries that anyone he interacts with is likely to receive a visit from an official warning them to stay away. Fearing unwanted attention from government authorities, the local mosque asked him to visit less often, he said. When Adayfi tried to get a job driving kids to school, the government blocked him from getting a driver’s license, he claimed.
Assurances from U.S. and Serbian officials that he’d receive an education that would allow him to embark on a career also didn’t pan out. Adayfi and his lawyer spent months pressing the Serbian government to agree to pay for university tuition. He was supposed to start classes in the fall of 2016 — but after he got his student ID card and class schedule, he was told he had to take a last-minute, special admissions exam. He failed the test, which he suspected was a ploy to deny him tuition.
Disillusioned, Adayfi went on a 48-day hunger strike — a protest tactic he had used in Guantanamo. He stopped only after his lawyer and his mother begged him to eat.
Serbia eventually agreed to pay for vocational classes in cellphone and laptop repair. And in the fall of 2017, Adayfi finally started college.
Adayfi settled into a routine. He went to classes in the morning and then headed to the public library to study and write. He published short stories in the New York Times about yearning to see the sea and learning about love. He worked on editing his memoir, a collection of hundreds of short stories he had written by hand in Guantanamo about life in the prison. He wrote about the beatings, force-feeding and torture, but he also described the time he tried to convince the mailman at Guantanamo to let him climb inside a giant box and send himself to his lawyer as “legal mail.” He wrote about the detainee who fell in love with a guard, and another who caused a scene after using toilet paper a guard had doused with pepper spray.
But in June, shortly after finishing his first year of classes, he was summoned to a Serbian government office. That’s when he learned he would be cut off in September.
Adayfi believes the Serbian government is trying to get rid of him, in part, because he has publicly complained about his living conditions. Muhammadi Davlatov, another former Guantanamo detainee living in Serbia, has had an easier time adjusting and has kept a lower profile. Davlatov’s lawyer did not respond to request for comment about his client’s legal status.
“I have no rights, I have no status. They can arrest me at any time. They can ship me off anywhere. They can do whatever they want.”
Since the June meeting, all Adayfi can think about is what to do next — and all of the available options make him fear for his life.
“I have no rights, I have no status. They can arrest me at any time. They can ship me off anywhere,” Adayfi said. “They can do whatever they want,”
Adayfi and his lawyers have asked several countries if they’d consider taking him in. Most places either haven’t answered or have told him he needs to be physically present in the country to apply for asylum. Adayfi doesn’t have a passport and has been unable to obtain travel documents from the Serbian government.
Before President Donald Trump was elected, the U.S. State Department tried to ensure that the countries that agreed to resettle former Guantanamo detainees provided former detainees with long-term support.
“We didn’t feel we had to take responsibility for former detainees’ well-being on an indefinite basis, but we did feel that we had a security imperative to make sure individuals who had been in Guantanamo were in an environment where they could move on with their lives productively and not pursue alternative, and potentially problematic, life paths,” Lee Wolosky, the former State Department special envoy for Guantanamo closure, said in an interview.
Under the Obama administration, Wolosky’s office entered detailed understandings with countries that took in Guantanamo detainees and carefully tracked the former prisoners. The concern wasn’t just humanitarian. State Department officials wanted to make sure former prisoners didn’t go off the grid and join a terrorist organization.
The goal of the agreements with third countries was permanent resettlement. “We never would have entered into an agreement with the expectation that the person would only be there for two years,” Wolosky said. When problems arose between former detainees and the host countries, the State Department office for Guantanamo closure worked to smooth things over.
But that office was disbanded after Trump entered office and State Department officials who were tasked with keeping track of the hundreds of people who have been released from the military prison — people Trump and his allies have long claimed are dangerous militants — were moved into other roles.
A State Department spokesperson said the agency still closely monitors former Guantanamo detainees who were transferred to other countries. “Our top priority is making sure that former GTMO detainees do not pose a threat to the United States and the international community,” the spokesperson wrote in an email.
The spokesperson claimed the State Department continues to engage with countries that resettle former Guantanamo detainees but declined comment on Adayfi’s case.
“We never would have entered into an agreement with the expectation that the person would only be there for two years.”
At least two former Guantanamo detainees have disappeared since the office was disbanded. The two Libyans were sent to Senegal in 2016. At the time, Wolosky said, Senegalese officials “were very engaged in the resettlement at the highest levels.” But Senegal deported the men to their home country in April of this year. They disappeared. Adayfi was friends with the men and fears they may have been imprisoned or killed by a militia group.
“Something clearly went very wrong,” Wolosky said. “Suddenly they had no one to talk to in Washington.”
Meanwhile, Adayfi, who has spent the past two years trying to rebuild his life, feels he has been abandoned by both the Serbian and U.S. governments.
“I try to stay positive, I try to do something good, I try to read, I try to learn — but you need some goal in your life, you need some stability in your life,” Adayfi said. “Imagine, you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow to you. If you are going to live or not. If you are going to be in jail. If you are going to be deported. If you’re going to a refugee camp. If you’re going to end up homeless. How are you going to feed yourself? How are you going to eat? What’s going to happen?”
“I can’t stay here,” he said. “I can’t live like this.”