Karim Saidi was visiting his bank when he was arrested as
an al-Qaida suspect and locked up in Belmarsh. He insists
he came to the UK only in search of a better life. This
is his story
can be a scary place, but I'd always felt safe in England.
That was until early last year, when one afternoon I went
to the bank, and 10 armed policemen bundled me into an unmarked
van on suspicion of being an al-Qaida terrorist. I ended
up in Belmarsh for five months without any charge being
brought against me, petrified that I would be deported to
came to the west not to blow it up but to look for a better
life. I'd slept on the kitchen floor in Algeria. The earthquake
in 1995 had destroyed most of our flat except the kitchen
and the lounge. Nine of us lived in these two remaining
rooms. The kids took turns to do their homework using the
toilet seat as a table. My dad was mentally ill and would
often attack my mother. As the eldest son, I'd clean up
her blood and take her to hospital.
left school for college to study literature but could never
concentrate with all the stress of my family situation.
It was hopeless. I wanted to get my mum and the kids out
of that house, but we had no money and nowhere to go. I
couldn't find any work, except sharing my friend's banana
stall for £50 a month, and I felt constantly frustrated.
I started thinking about going abroad.
six years of working on the stall and doing a few other
odd jobs, I'd saved enough money to buy a visa. I told my
mum it would only be for a few months. I wanted to be able
to help my family, buy a house for us all, then get married.
There was one girl I particularly liked but there was no
way her father would have let me marry her when I had nothing.
In Algeria there are men of 45 killing themselves because
they still can't afford to get married.
took the boat to Marseille with a visitor's visa and watched
the port of Algiers grow smaller in the distance. It isn't
easy to leave your country. I worked for a short time in
France, helping some friends in a market there, then saved
enough money to buy a fake Belgian passport. I came to England
via the Eurostar. Nobody stopped me. I was wearing a business
suit and walked with a confident air. As soon as I felt
safe, I called my friends in Leeds and I went there. I lived
off their generosity for two months until I found a job
washing up in a restaurant. I was relieved to be working
but I was paid £3.50 an hour. I paid tax, so my money
didn't go very far (as a supposed Belgian, I was able to
get a temporary National Insurance number). But I was able
to send my brothers and sisters some really good clothes.
was quite nervous about working illegally and knew that
there was only one way to fix that problem - get married.
But business marriages cost £6,000. I had one bank
account already that I could try to get a loan from, but
knew that any loan offered wouldn't be enough, because of
my low income. So I decided to open a second bank account
and eventually ask for a loan there too. This was the worst
mistake of my whole life.
went to the bank, filled in an application and left it with
them. The next day, a man from the bank called me on my
mobile, asking me to come in and answer a few extra questions,
which I said I would do happily. As soon as I arrived I
was taken into this little room. A man said, "We'll
be with you in a minute," but something about him made
me feel really uneasy, so I said I wanted to go outside
and make a phone call. "No, use this phone," they
smiled, then quickly locked the door. Suddenly the bank
was full of armed police who surrounded me, handcuffed me
and took me away in a van. I'd been trapped.
we arrived at the police station, I was taken into a room
with electronic security doors. Two policemen arrived from
Special Branch. I thought it would be best to admit everything.
I explained that I had entered Britain with false documents
and that I had been working illegally, but they looked straight
at me and said, "Do you know what al-Qaida is?"
I replied, "Of course, they are terrorists." Then
they asked me directly, "Are you a member of al-Qaida?"
I thought I was going to throw up - in Algeria people have
been shot or made to disappear just for having the same
name as a terrorist. I started shouting that I was nothing
to do with them and that whoever they were looking for,
it definitely wasn't me. They were very direct but polite
to me, then asked someone to get me food and drink. I couldn't
touch it. I had watched the news a few times and all I could
think about was that I might be sent to Guantánamo
and no one would ever hear from me again.
the morning it began again. They kept going, "Come
on, tell us how you really feel about al-Qaida." I
was saying, "I told you. I'm just a normal person.
I don't want trouble. All I know about politics is bits
from the TV. I've got nothing against the west. I would
never hurt anybody." While I was in there, the police
raided my flat, where they found nothing. Special Branch
officers also visited the restaurant where I'd been working,
which led to several foreigners being sacked immediately
as the managers wanted to cover themselves. "We've
finished interviewing you now," an officer said at
the end of the third day. I was put in a van and after a
quick court announcement was sent to prison. I felt very
confused and couldn't understand exactly what I was being
of. But I knew my immigration status wasn't what they were
really interested in. All my friends clubbed together and
offered to pay bail for me, but it was rejected.
I was sent to Belmarsh,
locked up for 23 hours a day. Whenever we left the cells,
there were fights. One Tunisian inmate dressed like a devout
Muslim. Prisoners would often pull his beard or take his
religious hat off and play "catch" with it. After
five months I was told that I could leave prison and go
to a detention centre, where I have spent the past nine
my solicitor visited me and told me that the police investigation
into me had finished and that they were satisfied that I
was not a terrorist. They never had any evidence against
me whatsoever. It was bizarre. I have been able to write
to my mother and tell her not to worry and that I love her.
I call her sometimes but I end up crying because she is
crying. Many of us have left prison but are still held in
detention centres for months while the authorities decide
what to do with us. The one thing that keeps me cheerful
in here is sport. Algerians are very passionate about football.
I haven't felt so helpless
since I was at primary school. At Eid my mum sent some baklava
for me but I wasn't allowed to accept it. Cakes from outside
are banned. I rarely sleep well. I just lie awake at night,
thinking about my mum and my God. I've never stopped praying.
I am hoping to get deported
soon, but I am still nervous about the Algerian police.
I am scared the regime will hear about me being investigated
for terrorism but not about me being cleared. The government
is supposed to be more fair now but I won't relax until
I get through the airport and back to my mum's house safely.
No amount of western money could buy a mother like her.
I can't believe I've made
such a mess of my life. Thousands of Algerians leave the
country and come back happy, with plenty of money and nice
clothes. Back home we only hear the success stories from
abroad. I've never been a terrorist. I love the freedom
of England: that's what I came here for. All I needed was
the chance to make a bit of money towards a house; the minimum
things that any man would want. I was totally exhilarated
when I first came here. Now I'm too tired to struggle any
more. To be locked up for something you never even have
a chance to deny makes you despair. All my dreams are broken.
But there is no point complaining, this was my destiny.
God willing, one day I will have a wife and a child and
try to forget it all.
is a pseudonym. Interview and translation by Stella
White. This article was first published in the Guardian.
(R) thedailystar.net 2005