Guantanamo Voices

Liverpool Humor and Toilet Paper Knives

Thursday afternoon and we’re driving into Liverpool, which Chris and I know only as the home of the Beatles. But Moazzam and Obaid, the driver, inform us that Liverpool is more well-known these days in the UK for its self-critical humor, Irish-tinged accent and attempt to dress up its depressed economy with the city-wide slogan, “Liverpool: Capitol of Culture.”

“Watch the accent, we’re in the city of culture,” says Obaid, as we pull into the rough and tumble outskirts of town, “They’re good people here, they’re like stand up comedians. Even when they’re having a fight, they’re smiling.”

Along Edge Lane, the main road into Liverpool, all the houses are boarded up – a sight that Chris jokes makes him a little homesick for Lansing, Michigan. But here the buildings’  empty windows are covered with colorful banners. “Beatles!” reads one in maroon and purple.

Chris Arendt - Swarmed in L'Pool

Chris Arendt - Swarmed in L'Pool

Chris is particularly glib onstage in Liverpool.  Maybe it’s the Liverpool sense of humor infecting  He jokes about the fact that his unit to received only one week of reclassification training to turn the Michigan artillery men into prison guards for the world’s most maximum security facility.  Chris received just five hours of education about Middle Eastern and Islamic history, culture and traditions. Meanwhile, he says, “Two whole days of that training was spent getting trained on hand to hand combat to prepare us for the possibly of being stabbed with toilet paper knives. Two days of stabbing each other with little knives while shouting, ‘I will get stabbed but I will not die!'”

Laughter roars through the crowd. Knives made from toilet paper! Liverpool eats up the dark humor. Moazzam laughs, too, but after the noise dies down he brings the discussion back around.

“Although people find this funny, this is true. You were trained to believe that we as detainees were skilled at constructing impromptu stabbing devices,” says Moazzam.
“Yep. That’s why we were trained at stabbing each other with knives for two days. But the whole time we were in Cuba I never saw one of these illusive killing machines,” says Chris.

Moazzam points out that crafty ability to construct deadly knives from toilet guantanamopaper is part of a whole American military view of detainees not as regular humans, but some kind of insane, bloodthirsty savages.
“When we were transported on airplanes to Guantanamo, we were made to wear facemasks in addition to blackened goggles and earmuffs. I never understood why they did that, why they thought the facemasks were necessary, until I heard Donald Rumsfeld explaining, “These people are so dangerous that they will chew through the cables of an aircraft to try and bring it down.”

“Toilet Paper Knives” has become such a joke on this tour that I had to ask Moazzam and Jarallah Al-Marri one day, “So… how do you make a toilet paper knife?” They had no idea. Luckily, I found simple instructions online, if you’re looking for a politically relevant Sunday afternoon craft project.

GuantanamOBAMA Policy Roundup
January 19, 2009, 1:07 pm
Filed under: gitmo policy | Tags: , , ,

Oh my God. Barack Obama becomes America’s president in under 24 hours from now. Judging from the news coverage, the entire nation seems to be going batshit crazy in anticipation of his inauguration, but I’m more interested in what’s going to happen AFTER the big day — Obama promised to issue an executive order to close Gitmo on his first day in office, but there’s been a lot of discussion that the US is “stuck with Guantanamo.”

So what exactly will Obama have to do in order to close Guantanamo?

Reform Detention Policy:

Okay, first of all, big point: Guantanamo Bay is the best known prison established during the War on Terror, but it’s not the only one. The U.S. is also detaining suspected “enemy combatants” at prisons all over the world. People know about some of these detention centers (like ones in Bagram, Kandahar and Abu Ghraib) but the CIA also runs an unknown number of secret prisons. Since the people being imprisoned in those secret prisons aren’t acknowledged by the US military, they’re called “ghost detainees.” So according to groups like hte ACLU and Center for Constitutional Rights, closing Guantanamo is only the tip of the iceberg. Obama must reform the U.S.’s overall detention policy and either close military prisons all over the world or go through due process for the detainees held there.

Address Use of Torture:

In a major break with the Bush administration’s defense of waterboarding, Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder publicly announced that waterboarding is a form of torture and should not be used by the US military. This means that in the coming year, Obama’s team will have to investigate the military’s use of this and other “enhanced interrogation” techniques. It’s not clear whether evidence gained from detainees under torture is admissible in court. One detainee who was waterboarded, Khalid Sheik Mohammed is being tried in January, so the courts will need to resolve that issue soon.

Review Cases of All Detainees

In the last three months, military courts have determined that nearly 10 percent of Guantanamo’s remaining population were not actually enemy combatants and should be released to freedom. These 24 men were part of a dwindling group of 245 detainees that Dick Cheney affirmed were definitely the “worst of the worst… now what’s left, that is the hardcore.” In order to get the detention system in working legally, Obama’s team will have to put all the men currently in US custody on trial.

Since former Guantanamo guard Chris Arendt ended his tour of duty at Guantanamo in 2004, about 500 of the detainees he guarded have been determined not to have been enemy combatants after all and released. “As things unravel, the job I was told to do becomes much more insidious every day. Every time a detainee is released without charges is proof that the United States was wrongfully imprisoning these people,” says Arendt, “It makes me feel sick in a really fundamental sense.”

Return Freed Detainees to Safe Places

A handful of the guys in Guantanamo have already been declared safe to release, but if they’re returned to their home countries, they’ll definitely be tortured. Specifically, seventeen men who were rebels in China before they wound up in Guantanamo will never be able to go home safely again. The U.S. needs to find places to resettle these wrongfully imprisoned men. This might mean pressuring European countries to grant asylum for ex-detainees — though the only country that has so far agreed to that idea is that bastion of democratic liberties, Albania.

Iguana Rights VS. Human Rights

Guantanamo Bay prison is filled with some bizarre creatures. “Banana rats” the size of opossums scurry around under the blocks, freaking out soldiers and detainees alike — though Chris remembers the time when one soldier from his unit drunkenly hurled rocks at a banana rat, killed it, grilled it and, yes, ate it.

Gitmo Iguana Basking in Full Iguana Rights

Gitmo Iguana Basking in Full Iguana Rights

And then there’s the iguanas. Iguanas make driving around Guantanamo’s base a harrowing activity because the lizards are protected by the Endangered Species Act. While U.S. judicial code does not apply in Guantanamo, the Endangered Species Act apparently does because soldiers are warned that if they accidentally run over an iguana they can be fined up to $10,000.

The irony of this is not lost on Moazzam Begg, who spent two years detaineed in Guantanmo. He summarizes the iguana situation for audiences most nights:

“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.”

Chris sees the disparate rights of humans and iguanas as an offshoot of an environment designed to totally dehumanize the detained terrorist suspects.

“I don’t think they wanted us to consider you as humans, I don’t think they wanted you to consider yourselves as humans. They took away from you everything you could possibly have,” says Chris, explaining the military strips detainees of their rights and also their names and possessions — detainees are known only by numbers and are allowed only a one-inch toothbrush, a Koran, a foam prayer mat and eight sheets of toilet paper. “And that’s exactly the training they used on us soldiers as well,” adds Chris, “take everything from them and break them down.”