Migrant Lives

A Former Guantanamo Prisoner Helps Refugees In Germany

Former Guantanamo prisoner Murat Kurnaz
Former Guantanamo prisoner Murat Kurnaz
Oliver Das Gupta

BREMEN â€" Murat Kurnaz, a German native of Turkish origin, likes to joke around. And considering his story, the humor can sometimes turn rather dark. Today, he speaks about the journey from the Guantanamo detention facility in Cuba to the Ramstein U.S. air base in Germany at the end of his five-year imprisonment in August 2006. He counted 15 armed guards on that flight, sharing the details of how they tied him up in shackles and handcuffs. “As if I was radioactive and highly explosive,” he says with a laugh.

But Kurnaz’s laughter still works as a barricade 10 years since he was freed. After his return, Kurnaz spoke widely about his time in Guantanamo, and wrote a book: Five Years of My Life: An Innocent Man in Guantanamo.

For many Germans, Kurnaz is just a bearded Guantanamo inmate they may have seen on television. But for refugees, he is an important part of Germany, now serving as an official cultural and linguistic mediator. He explains to newcomers how Germany functions. Every week he visits six schools for two hours each. He also works in refugee camps. Kurnaz plays basketball and beach volleyball and offers martial arts classes.


In one class, Kurnaz speaks to 17 students from different parts of the world â€" Syria and Afghanistan, Chechnya and Morocco. Some speak English, a few words of German. Others speak nothing but Arabic, Pashto or Farsi. But Kurnaz can communicate with them. He learned all these languages in Guantanamo from fellow inmates.

The students learn of his story: how he went to Pakistan after the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in order to attend a madrasa for Islamic religious studies, but was sold to the U.S. for a bounty. The Americans held him captive, first in Afghanistan, then for five years in Guantanamo. Kurnaz was tortured. He received electric shocks and was dangled from a ceiling. He was not allowed to sleep for days, was subjected to extreme heat and cold, and almost drowned. A few months later, the Americans learned that Kurnaz was neither a militant from Taliban nor a member of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda.

By then, neither Turkey nor the German government would take him in.

There are still people who doubt his innocence, who are afraid of him. Today, he “doesn’t really care” â€" at least that’s what he says. What’s important to him is that his story is heard and his work is known. In refugees camps, he settles disputes. Sometimes he just listens, and consoles migrants, although it’s not technically part of his job description. “I do it out of compassion and humanity,” says Kurnaz, 34. He listen to stories of broken marriages, the stress of escape, and what it was like to see relatives die during war.

Kurnaz recently received an invitation to speak at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. But Kurnaz remains humble. Due to his imprisonment, he feels particularly well-equipped to help refugees with their integration. Although he has no expert knowledge, his story lends him credibility.

U.S. troopers escorting a prisoner inside Guantanamo â€" U.S. Navy/Wikimedia Commons

Although Turks have lived in Germany for three generations and go back 60 years in the country, Europeans are still suspicious of them. “Why do politicians and the media want to destroy everything?” asks Kurnaz. He doesn’t speak of right-wing movements and generally uses a toned-down language.

About the recent string of German terror attacks, including those in Ansbach and Würzburg, Kurnaz says: “You can’t decry a whole religion just because some idiots are committing horrible crimes.”

Kurnaz doesn’t really care about politics but is interested in individuals. He’s grateful toward German Chancellor Angela Merkel. She had spoken up for Kurnaz in front of former U.S. president George W. Bush in 2005. “Merkel got me out of there,” Kurnaz says. “She wasn’t obliged to do that.”

Kurnaz has been married for a couple of years now. His wife is also German of Turkish origin, wears a headscarf and radiates self-confidence. They have two children. Kurnaz says it was his faith that helped him through the darkest hours. He has now committed himself to the fight against torture. “There’s a lot worse than Guantanamo,” he says, referring to news from the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Is he able to sleep peacefully despite his memories? Even a long time after his return to Germany, he preferred sleeping on the hard wooden floor of his room, he says. But since his marriage, he prefers the bed.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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