Terrorism and torture: A mother's journey to Pakistan
Washington Post reporter Brigid Schulte follows up on her exclusive story in which parents of the five northern Virginia men being held in Pakistan on terrorism charges spoke out for the first time. Now the mother of another of the men is talking, and all of the parents are wondering whether their decision not to talk to reporters for the first months of their sons' captivity was the right one....
Amal Khalifa spent more than 14 hours in the air and three more hours on a crowded bus to get from her suburban Alexandria home to the rural town of Sargodha, Pakistan, where her eldest son, Ramy Zamzam, has been imprisoned since December, charged with planning to fight against the United States as a terrorist.
When she first heard the news, she said, it was as if a building had fallen on her. She couldn’t believe what the Pakistani authorities were saying about her son, a 22-year-old Howard University dental student. More, she didn’t believe it. This was her son, who might borrow her credit card only to buy food for the homeless or coffee and doughnuts for the volunteers who packed their lunches.
She had to go see her son, she said, and hear the truth from him.
Zamzam had written her a letter saying he’d been tortured. She had to see for herself, she said.
She arrived in Sargodha with her husband at 10 a.m. on Thursday, April 1. By 10:30, she was waiting outside the gates of the local jail, carrying bags of clothes and underwear and boxes of M & Ms, peanut butter crackers, Kit Kat bars, cookies, even a bucket of fried chicken and french fries for Zamzam and four other American college student friends from Alexandria who are similarly charged. If convicted, they each face the possibility of life in a Pakistani prison.
She waited at the front gate for five hours in the hot sun, hoping Pakistani authorities would let her see her son. She stayed until it was clear the food had gone bad.
The next day, Friday, she arrived at the front gate at 9 a.m. and waited until 5 p.m., when it was clear she wouldn’t be allowed in.
On Saturday, after waiting half the day outside the gate, Khalifa worried that prison authorities might never let her in. Pakistani prisoners are allowed a half-hour visit every 14 days. At 12:30, she called an FBI official she knew in Washington. By 3, she had her now-emaciated son in her arms.
“It was like a dream,” she said. “It felt like it passed in a minute.”
She never had a chance to ask him her questions, she said, because Zamzam had his own.
“‘Mom, why am I here?’” she said he asked her. “‘What did I do?’”
In back-to-back interviews starting Friday and continuing Tuesday morning at the Council on American Islamic Relations on Capitol Hill, Khalifa broke her long silence and began telling her story.
Distraught families contacted CAIR last November, shortly after their sons disappeared. And CAIR advocates urged the families to contact the FBI. CAIR initially wanted the families to tell their side of the story to the news media, but Khalifa said she could not. "At the beginning, everything was so confusing," she said.
But now, she said she wants the public to know that she believes her son has been tortured and might be in custody on false charges. This is the only way she knows to pressure the U.S. government to help the parents get to speak with their sons in jail, to investigate allegations of torture and, ultimately, to bring the boys home.
Ever since Zamzam was arrested Dec. 8, she said she has been too stunned and sick with worry to speak out. But now, she said, she wants to challenge the story Pakistani authorities have told. They say the evidence shows that these five youths from Northern Virginia were “radicalized” by extremists on the Internet and left secretly for Pakistan to join up with terrorist groups fighting Americans in Afghanistan.
The mother contends that the five youths left without telling anyone because one planned to get married in Pakistan and his friends wanted to attend, but knew that their parents would never give them permission to travel to such a dangerous place.
Zamzam had left without telling her where he was going once or twice before, she said, telling her he was going to a conference, but really going to Florida or New York, “like most young men his age.” When he told her shortly after Thanksgiving that he was going to Baltimore for a conference, she said she thought “Great. Life is not all study and school. He’s been under so much pressure. He needed to refresh himself. So I didn’t ask any more about it.”
But if the youths were just off to Pakistan for a friend’s wedding, what of the video Zamzam left behind on a thumb drive? The video has been described by those who have viewed it as a “farewell” video, with images of ongoing conflict in the world and rhetoric that calls Muslim youths to action.
“It’s very mild,” Khalifa said of the video. “He’s calm, quiet, talking in a low voice, about the relationships of human beings, that they should treat each other with respect, no matter the religion. That’s what I recall.”
She told stories about a son who was so scared of a spider in his bedroom that for the last two years, he slept on the living room couch. He was so freaked by a cockroach in his Howard dorm that he called his father at 1 o'clock one morning. “This is someone who couldn’t even squash those bugs,” she said. “He is not a violent person. Jihad, in my son’s mind, means community service, treating the poor with respect.”
Khalifa said she’s spoken to FBI officials who are “confident” that the case in Pakistan is weak and that the youths will return home within six months to a year. The FBI has declined all comment on the cases.
After a long day of talking, on camera, into microphones and posing for photos and repeating herself for scribbling reporters, Khalifa closed her eyes.
“The media keep asking me, ‘Did he say he was sorry?’” she said, without opening her eyes. “Sorry for what?”
| April 21, 2010; 9:55 AM ET
Categories: More on the story, The inside story | Tags: Ramy Zamzam
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