Guantanamo Voices

Tour Updates
January 22, 2009, 7:05 pm
Filed under: speaking event | Tags:

For the first time during the eight panel discussions that Moazzam and Chris
have led during the last two weeks, I actually didn’t get to see them speak. That’s because I showed up late to the Manchester Metropolitan Lecture Hall (thanks to the impossibility of tracking down a cup of coffee after 6PM in Manchester) and the event was so packed I could not get in. The room was absolutely stuffed full of a mostly young, student crowd. This is the view through the back door:

How to fit 500 people into a 300 person lecture hall

How to fit 500 people into a 300 person lecture hall

But there’s some good news for people who haven’t gotten the chance to hear Moazzam and Chris speak at all. The organizers of Tuesday’s event in Sheffield uploaded audio of the whole on-stage conversation between Moazzam, Chris and former detainee Omar Daghayes. Check it out at Sheffield Indymedia.

Amazing Questions Part 2

Chris, Moazzam and other detainees field a dozen or so questions every night from audiences and a constant barrage of them from media. Here are the most insightful of the last week.

From the Sheffield audience, January 20th —

How do you channel and control what I imagine must be incredible feelings of anger toward the west and the world for your situation?

OMAR DEGHAYES: I don’t know, I don’t really understand. Our belief probably helped us. Because we believe in the hereafter, we believe in the destination, that if something happens to us, there must be a wisdom behind it. Though we have been treated badly, there must be some benefit. You learn patience in prison. If I speak how much I learned in prison, maybe people think Guantanamo is a good place. But we learned a lot in Guantanamo really. I said this to Chris when we first met and he couldn’t believe it but we learned a lot about ourselves, about mixing with other people, about prisoners and people’s hatred and prejudices and how we should not be the same if we were in a position of power. All this I think you learn from other people’s mistakes. And the belief that the who turns day and night is not America, but Allah.
From Aerosol Arabic, Birmingham street artist. Interview held with Chris in a random Middle Eastern restaurant on Stratford Road, January 18th —

How did you feel when you came home from Guantanamo?

Very Official Interview (with falafel)

Very Official Interview (with falafel)

CHRIS: I felt like I was losing my damn mind, I couldn’t figure out where I fit.. It wasn’t until I was hanging out with other veterans who were also screwing up their all their relationships and also couldn’t keep jobs that I thought, well, that adds a little perspective. Maybe it’s not just me, maybe it’s this whole damn thing. Maybe it’s having been over there and coming back. I challenge anybody to try it, you come back and you’re a freak show. Nobody wants to touch us with a ten foot stick. My resume says Guantanamo Bay on it now, where am I going to work. Who wants that guy? Cause right off the bat, they know, this kid’s probably got problems.

You’re going around now throwing two fingers up against your country and basically talking internationally about how crap your country is. Do you think that you’re in a way being disloyal?

CHRIS: No, because this isn’t two fingers up against my country, it’s two fingers up against the people who have sold my country out. These are two fingers up against the Bush administration and the corporate pillagers who have sold out the young people of America. I love America. I think America is a great place to grow up. I think a lot of working class values are things I’m really glad to have been imbued with. I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up anywhere but where I grew up. I wouldn’t have wanted to grow up with anybody but the people who raised me. I don’t my regret being an American. But my finger’s goin’ up at the people who are taking our ability to be proud of America away

From the Nottingham University Audience, January 19th:

Who is responsible for the abuses in Guantanamo, the low level soldiers or the high ranking officials?

CHRIS: It comes from both ends. On the blocks, there’s not an extreme level of oversight. The camp comandant and the seargant major of the camp, the highest ranking NCO and officer of the camp, have virtually nothing to do with the camp — they make all the rules, but they never go in and see it. There is a lot of abuse in our operations just day by day, that goes from something that’s procedural to something that’s excessively forceful. But then interrogators and comandants set things from their end, like they’re responsible for the frequent flier program.

MOAZZAM: The great lesson from Nuremberg is that the individual soldier cannot claim they were not liable because they were just following orders. How did abuse happen? In a place like Bagram, which is closer to the front lines, there’s more anger, there’s more energy from soldiers, there’s more liability for abuse. But there is an environment that can be created when people at the top like Donald Rumsfeld says, “I stand for eight to ten hours a day, why is standing limited for four hours for these guys.” But of course when we stand as detainees, we stand chained, with our hands above our heads. So the penny drops from the top.

From the Nottingham University audience, January 19th:

Were there many other soldiers who felt the way you did, Chris? Why did you respond differently to the situation than the other soldiers?

CHRIS: I was definitely minority status, it was like… it reminds me of when Christianity was first starting to come out and people would draw the Jesus fish on walls. It’s like a secret society. I’m an absolute pacifist, which, I know, is at odds with me being in the military but I was playing a dangerous gamble of trying to get college money and get out without being deployed… There were a couple other people who were kind of in line with we. Most of them were like, “We don’t know what these people are here for, it’s more than likely that our government’s full of shit. So the best thing we can do is just go and do our jobs and treat these people like people.” Who recognized that we couldn’t do anything to change things, that were all specialists, we were all privates, we can’t do anything that will radically change things. There were other people there who were good people, we weren’t all horrible monsters.

I don’t know what to attribute my values to. I was raised by this mouthy little Portugese guy, my grandpa, who was an absolute racist. But racism’s just never really stuck with me, I’ve always thought that was wrong. My family are hunters, I’m a vegetarian. I’ve just always been like this. Maybe I’m just some kind of weird hillbilly mutant.

Most Fascinating Guantanamo Questions
January 14, 2009, 9:47 pm
Filed under: speaking event | Tags: , , ,

Chris Arendt, Moazzam Begg and other detainees have been crisscrossing the country for a week now, speaking in four cities during seven extremely long days. By my own calculations, in those seven days they have talked about their Guantanamo experiences to roughly 900 audience members and 22 media people, including the BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN and one reggae-loving documentary filmmaker who said his name was “Small Money.”

A lot of people ask the former guard and detainees the same questions, but here I’ve culled together the most fascinating questions so far from both audiences and media.

From the Bristol audience: What were the most memorable worst experiences you have seen?
Moazzam: I don’t really like to focus on all of those on a personal level because I like to move forward, but some of the worst things: The dehumanization, the torture and the murder of other people. And that for me was worse than anything I had to endure.

Jarallah: They put me in the cage or the prison without anything. One day they just knocked the door and said, “You’re going home.” They put me on the plane and returned me to my country and that was it. I spent six years of my life in this prison and I didn’t do anything wrong.

Chris: Like Moazzam, I try to stay away from the negative things, not only for me because they’re around in my head but it’s often a question that comes out. Guantanamo, it’s a pile of the worst thing you’ve ever seen. Just to try to provide a visual of the worst thing, well, I didn’t see it, but I was working the sallyport all night. I got to listen to a man scream and scream and scream. Screaming through the night for eight hours because he’d completely lost his mind. Or, not lost his mind. Maybe that’s a totally rational response to the situation.

From the Bristol audience: I’m looking at both of you [the detainees and Chris] and I’m thinking, who is the victim here? Are you the victim, Chris? And if you’re the victim, what are we?

Chris:I am both the oppressor and the oppressed in this case. I’m a victim in that my family has been economically repressed for the entirety of my lineage. We’re victims of a warrior culture that pushes us into the military and economic baiting. I don’t know if writing books or making speeches helps anything, I don’t know if this will end the war. We’re speaking for the possible benefit to the public good, but I came here to meet Moazzam. So that I could share the things inside of my head and he could share the things inside of his. Myself and the members of my organization are doing what we can with what we’ve got and that’s all we’ve got to give.

Question from University of Reading audience: To the detainees, how did you withstand the torture?

Jarallah: Actually, it’s hard. One day, six years, eight months, they kept me in a cell. And then one day, within two days, I have freedom. The government need to hold me, we bring your family. I have two children, one daughter five years, one daughter two years, who was born when I was there.  When they came to me, I was really really, need to see them. The first time, I see them, I couldn’t accept. I feel something between me and them. The same night, I changed my mind and told [the government] I change my mind, I cannot go, keep me here for some days… My mind is good, but I’m strange to see people. It’s really strange to see people, talk to people like you now is really hard for me.

Moazzam: You have to cut yourself off. You have to say to yourself, you are not the man you once were. I’m not a father anymore, I’m not a husabnd anymore, I’m not a son anymore, because if you do, you start thinking about them, and if you start thinking about them, it starts breaking you. And if they break you, they have done their job. They want to break you, so you can’t let them. So you have to cut yourself off from yourself. So, when you see your family after all of those years, you’re cold. You have to say for yourself, for this time here, I am nothing. You are the number they gave you. Here, in a situation like this, During these time, if you do not believe in a God, I challenge you, because you need to believe in something, you need to have someone to talk to. If you are not a person of faith, you will find faith. These were the tools for me that were extremely important. When you return and you see everyone around you crying and your eyes are dry, it’s because your tears dried up a long time ago.

Question from University of Reading audience: There is a difference, maybe, between what a person considers humane treatment and what international law defines as humane. In your eyes, was the treatment at Guantanamo humane?

Moazzam; There are sets or standards of humane treatment. Cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment are outlawed by the US military. And yet people are being degraded to the point that I don’t even want to mention here. The concept of US torture has been outlawed by the US military. And yet torture has been redefined by the Bush administration. When Alberto Gonzalez said that, for something to constitute torture it must lead to organ failure or death, otherwise it’s not torture… And so the interpretations the interpretations have been widened so much that they’ve been reinterpreted. But most ordinary people, I think, should stick to this standard: “Treat people as you would be treated.”

Chris Arendt: Uh, Guantanamo Bay is a dog kennel and you can’t put people in a dog kennel and then say that you’re treating them humanely… I guess that’s as simple as I ever saw it.

Moazzam: The iguana, which is a lizard, is a protected creature in Guantanamo. It is protected under the Endangered Species Act. The detainee has no rights. The first statement made to us as detainees under United States custody was, “You are the property of the United States and you have no rights.” And that’s the distinction, particularly because five people have died in Guantanamo. Because if you kill accidentally an iguana in Guantanamo, you face a fine of $10,000. Ten human beings have died in Guantanamo.

Conversing Without Fences for the First Time

This morning two former Guantanamo Bay detainees ate breakfast with one of their former guards. This has never happened before.

Moazzam Begg is a well-known British ex-detainee who was released after three years, never having been charged with a crime. Across the table from him sat Jarallah Al-Marri, who was just released from Guantanamo this past July and is now agitating for the release of his brother, who is still held on a naval brig in South Carolina. And sharing toast with them was Christoper Arendt, who served in Guantanamo during 2004.

At 10am, they hailed a taxi and rushed off across the streets of London to a press conference announcing the beginning of their travels together.

The three chatted for the whole ride. They laughed about specific guards they all remember, the incomprehensible accents of Virgin Islands soldiers and the ridiculous rigidity of some rules — like that detainees are only allowed eight or less sheets of toilet paper at any time because they may sculpt toilet paper knives if allowed more.

Chris laughs while he complains that to prepare for homemade shanks, he spent two horrible days letting other soldiers stab him with rubber knives while repeating (on command), “I will get stabbed but I will not die!”

Chris has never been to England and the conversation inevitably turned to cultural differences. “We do everything big in America,” says Chris, “except cell sizes.” Moazzam and Jarallah crack up, but Chris looks quietly out the window for a moment. He turns back around to Moazzam.

“Is it okay to make jokes?” Chris asks.

“Yeah, it’s okay to make jokes,” replies Moazzam, smiling.

Chris thinks for a few moments, watching London pass by outside the taxi window. “We’ll be figuring out what’s okay for former detainees and former guards to discuss which eachother,” he says, “That book hasn’t been written yet.” Chris pauses again. “We’d better make it awesome.”

Eventually, the taxi driver finds the conversation so interesting that he chimes in from the front seat. He shouts back an apology for the Labour Party not taking a strong enough role in closing the prison. “Guantanamo is total shit!” he opines.

The press conference gets off to a rough start. Since it’s taking place in a meeting room of the House of Lords, a member of the House of Lords must be present and even though the Lord hosting the meeting is running late the bureaucracy is inflexible and a dozen journalists wind up squeezed into the entry hallway with the entire staff of Cageprisoners. Finally, 20 minutes past the scheduled start time, everyone is allowed into the meeting room and the cameras start rolling.

Yvonne Ridley, Moazzam Begg, Chris Arendt and Jarallah Al-Marri launch the Cageprisoners tour

Yvonne Ridley, Moazzam Begg, Chris Arendt and Jarallah Al-Marri launch the Cageprisoners tour

Well-known UK activist and journalist Yvonne Ridley introduces the Cageprisoners “Two Sides, One Story” tour, which is officially launching this Sunday. Moazzam takes the opportunity to ask some of the big questions still unclear in Obama’s policy. “What will happen to the detainees once Guantanamo closes? What judicial process can you use on people who have been systematically tortured?” Chris then lays out his role in the whole tour. “This is a new thing for me and for the whole world, I guess,” he says, “But somebody has to do this and this dialogue has to happen.”

Chris, Moazzam, Jarallah and other Guantanamo activists are in the difficult situation of working through all their intense, emotional very personal issues about the prison while at the same time publicly discussing the big political, legal and moral issues surrounding Guantanamo. Their complicated personal struggles inevitably surface in discussions over the more general issues.

At the end of the press conference today, one journalist leaned toward Chris and asked, “You never abused any detainees yourself?”

Chris paused and took a sip of water. “That’s not entirely true,” he said, explaining that while he never instigated abuse treatment of prisoners, he felt complicit because he stood by while other soldiers kicked and beat detainees. He also did not correct soldiers who routinely used racial slurs. “In hindsight, I wish I’d been more gung ho and said, ‘Hey, that’s no way to treat a human being.’ But at the time I didn’t want to say anything that would get me kicked in the mouth by a bunch of guys that weighed 250 pounds more than me. So I just kept my mouth shut and let them be racist.”

Just some ex-Guantanamo prisoners and guard hanging out around the Houses of Parliament.

Just some ex-Guantanamo prisoners and guard hanging out around the Houses of Parliament.