'Ah, David... I'm sorry I've kept you waiting so long': Shaker Aamer's greeting for the Mail on Sunday reporter who led the campaign over his torture

I met Shaker Aamer for the first time three weeks after his release, at his lawyers’ offices in Camden, London. When the door first opened, he stood beaming and expansive, wearing a huge infectious grin framed by a luxuriant beard. ‘Ah, David,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry I kept you waiting so long.’

I had written many times about this man, stuck for 14 years in Guantanamo’s ‘legal black hole’. But through all those years, he had been an almost spectral presence, knowable only at great distance. Now he was present, and manifestly real.

He’d once been a chef in various diners in the US – and like most people from his cultural heritage, he is proud of offering hospitality. There were nuts and squares of cake on the table, and before we got started, he urged me to eat.

At first, his accent sounded almost Italian, and as we spoke – on that first occasion for two intense hours – one could easily imagine him as a commanding guest on a TV chat show. We broke our interview when he stopped to pray.
After further conversation, I accompanied him to Waterloo station on the Tube – one of many things that have changed in the years of his absence: in 2001, the year he was captured, there were no electronic Oyster cards, smart phones, or much else. Even the internet was still in its relative infancy. He is still coming to terms with the new world he is now in. 

For most people, the ordeal endured by Aamer for the past 14 years is almost unimaginable. He has been tortured, beaten and severed from all he holds dear, a victim of institutionalised injustice.

He would be justified in displaying the bitterness he must sometime feel. Yet apart from his smile, the trait that struck me most was that when talking about Guantanamo, his anger rarely emerged when he spoke about himself – only when he dwelt on the plight of the fellow prisoners he left behind, of whom many, like him, have never been charged with any crime.
For me, getting to know him in the course of five intense interviews over the past two weeks, has been an extraordinary experience. He invited me to join his first family outing for 14 years, a trip to the Bicester Village shopping mall.

It was less than a month since his return, and he had coped with so much: the reunion with his family, including the son he had not met before his release; the unfamiliar pressures and choices granted by freedom; and the details of the lawsuit for compensation, which has required hours in conference with his lawyers.

Yet as we sat and talked over lunch at a branch of Pret a Manger, a casual observer would never have guessed what he, his wife and children had been through. Already, they seemed easy in each other’s company. Aamer was open about the emotional obstacles he faced, and his lack of what he called ‘practice’ as a father.

Yet maybe the best hope he has of overcoming them is his self-awareness: Aamer is not a man who is fooling himself that life as a free man will be easy.

It is fitting that his interviews are appearing in this newspaper, for it was The Mail on Sunday that first drew the world’s attention to what was really going on at Guantanamo. Back in January 2002 – three weeks before Aamer arrived there – we published the first notorious photographs of detainees at the Camp X-ray, kneeling blindfolded and shackled in the dust, beneath a one-word headline: TORTURED. Since then, we have returned to Guantanamo time and again.

Fourteen years after this campaign began, there are finally no Britons left in Gunatanamo. It is perhaps not surprising that, as a senior Pentagon official told me in 2004, the camp has been one of the most effective recruiting sergeants that terrorists have ever seen.

Apparently it is still politically impossible to close this camp. That is a spectacular indictment, and, as I have heard from Aamer’s lips, it has a huge human cost.