Guantanamo Voices


The Daily Interrogations
January 21, 2009, 10:42 am
Filed under: media | Tags: , ,

Another one of the endless interviews. I count maybe 25 in the last ten days? I lose track. This time Moazzam and Chris are in Birmingham’s Central Mosque, seated across a wide table from a German photographer and reporter. The call to prayer occassionally sounds over the loudspeaker and the photographer’s digital camera clicks, but the reporter’s words still sound loud and harsh in the silent space of the mosque. His questions are printed off on a sheet of paper and he asks, one after the other, “Mr. Begg, what torture did you experience in Guantanamo? Mr. Arendt, what was the worst experience you made in Guantanamo?” These are tough, heavy questions and they roll off like low cannon fire.

interview - chris arendt moazzam begg

I know what the reporter wants — he needs some personal facts to color these big political issues. He’s got an hour, it’s a good story he’s doing his job. This is just how media works. But for Chris and Moazzam, these are complicated, raw personal issues. “What torture did you experience?” It’s not an abstract. Moazzam has learned how to turn his experience into a digestible, powerful narrative. He can tick through a list of actions if he wants to, with numbers and dates for the reporters and lecture hall audiences. But Chris is just figuring out how to keep these daily interrogations from bringing up all the sick feelings again. He’s learning how to build the emotional mess into phrases, how to create distance, how to say no to questions that unintentionally pierce.

“How do you feel about Guantanamo?”

“Um, overwhelmed? It’s too much to answer right now, I’m going to need a couple more years to figure that out.”



Obama Vs. Guatanamo
January 20, 2009, 7:52 pm
Filed under: gitmo policy, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

“I have as big of stake as anybody on the opposite side of the aisle in capturing terrorists and incapacitating them. I would gladly take up arms myself against any terrorist threat and to make sure my family is protected. But as a parent, I can also imagine the terror I would feel if one of my family members were rounded up in the middle of the night and sent to Guantanamo without even getting one chance to ask why they were being held and being able to prove their innocence.”

Barack Obama, Statement to Senate on Homeland Security Sept. 27, 2006

Moazzam’s phone has been ringing constantly today — everyone is calling to ask what he thinks about Obama. Will he actually change things? What should happen to the men in Guantanamo?

Moazzam is highly skeptical. As he explained to one reporter:

“Obama has said he would like to close Guantanamo. But Bush also said he would like to close Guantanamo. In the statement of another famous black American, “You don’t put a knife in man’s back nine inches deep, pull it back three inches and say that’s progress.” Obama has said he will close Guantanamo, but what about the secret detention sites? What about the whole secret detentions program? He hasn’t mentioned anything about that at all.”

On the way to Nottingham University, the minivan conversation turns to Obama. Chris Arendt and Obaid, the man responsible for routinely driving the van across the countryside at speeds exceeding 100 miles an hour, are as skeptical as Moazzam.

“I don’t think much will change at all,” says Chris, “With the economy and the war on terror, it’ll be impossible to get anything effective done.”

“I think they just gave him the job so that when everything goes wrong, they can blame it all on the black man,” chimes in Obaid, “That’s right! You heard it here first!”



Brainstorming at 100 Miles an Hour
January 13, 2009, 3:38 pm
Filed under: conversations, media, speaking event | Tags: , , , ,

Moazzam and Chris are supposed to be appearing on Yvonne Ridley’s Press TV show at 2:30pm. But it’s 12:50 pm and we’re still in the lobby of the hotel in Bristol, 115 kilometers away from Press TV’s London studio. Chris wolfs down some cold pizza, they throw their bags in the car and we speed down tiny country roads lined with old stone walls. Rounding a corner, the driver slams on the brakes, stuck behind a slow moving truck emblazoned with “Scraggy’s Chimney Sweep.” Chris starts cracking up, saying in his mocking British accent, “I’m a chimbley sweep!” Moazzam and the driver start laughing, too, at the fulfillment of the British stereotype. “No, really, I’ve never seen this,” says Moazzam, “Never in my life have I been stuck behind a chimney sweep.”

Finally we hit the freeway. Chris gets buried in his book — Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity — as Moazzam and Jarallah carry on a loud, expressive conversation in Arabic around him. I crane my neck to see the speedometer. We’re driving 110 miles an hour. We are NOT going to miss this interview.

Moazzam’s phone rings maybe a dozen times. After one call he turns around from the front seat to talk to Chris.

“We’re going to be debating a couple of right-wing guys on television,” Moazzam says, “How do you feel about that?”

“Uh, I might get a little impassioned, but I’ll try not to swear,” replies Chris.

Moazzam nods. “I mean, this is the place to tear them apart. Don’t get angry — get even. This guy, I’m guessing, is an armchair neocon. You and I, we experienced this on opposite sides of the wire but this guy will be talking about something he’s never experienced.”

“Well I won’t be afraid to pull that card out,” says Chris. They both nod and Chris returns to his de Beauvoir.



Detainee Debacle Makes Top Headlines
January 8, 2009, 1:10 pm
Filed under: legal loopholes, media | Tags: , ,

I’m sitting on the floor of JFK airport in New York City, spreading peanut butter (from my 6 oz security-approved safe liquids container) onto a granola bar, waiting for my flight to London where I’ll meet up with Arendt, Begg and Al Haj for the first time. Check out what’s front page news at Delta’s international terminal:

UK's Guantanamo "Exiles" - Jan. 1 issue of the Times

UK's Guantanamo "Exiles" - Jan. 1 issue of the Times

The article revolves around the issue of what to do with Guantanamo detainees when Obama’s team follows through on its promise to close the prison camp. According to the article, the Obama administration plans to place 30-80 of the “most dangerous” suspects on trial in the U.S.  But it’s unknown what will happen to the rest of the 248 detainees still in Guantanamo. While Obama has made no formal request to other countries asking for help dealing with the detainees, apparently his staff “cabled 100 countries for help in closing Guantanamo.” Countries like Britain that have spoken out against the prison have some strong incentives to help the new president.

A couple reporters published articles last spring about how the US is “Stuck with Guantanamo” (that headline ran on three different pieces in the Economist, the BBC and CNN). Shuffling the detainees off to other countries is by no means a fix to the legal problems of the prison, but it might at least get some due process rolling and put the detainees in more humane conditions. If detainees are moved to the UK, they would likely be treated as asylum seekers. That’s important because it means they would receive health care benefits and 42 pounds a day — amenities that are causing some controversy about whether the UK should be putting up money to help out the quagmire.

What also caught my eye on the Times article was the headline for the jump: the front page piece ends with the direction to continue reading on page six, at “torture hellhole.”



Ex-Detainee Describes Life After Guantanamo
January 6, 2009, 6:28 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , ,

The New York Times put together a great piece this week about former Guantanamo detainee Muhammad Saad Iqbal, who was picked up in Jakarta in 2002 allegedly for bragging that he knew how to make a shoe bomb. From there he was held in Egypt, Bagram and finally Guantanamo Bay for five years. The NYT describes what Iqbal was like this August,when he was released after six years of detentions, never having been charged with a crime.

 

iqbal-nytimes

… he had difficulty walking, his left ear was severely infected, and he was dependent on a cocktail of antibiotics and antidepressants. In November, a Pakistani surgeon operated on his ear, physical therapists were working on lower back problems and a psychiatrist was trying to wean him off the drugs he carried around in a white, plastic shopping bag

The maladies, said Mr. Iqbal, 31, a professional reader of the Koran, are the result of a gantlet of torture, imprisonment and interrogation for which his Washington lawyer plans to sue the United States government.

Iqbar’s story is similar to those of many detainees and I wonder about his threat to sue. As former detainees feel safer speaking up with Bush moving out of office, I would imagine many would bring lawsuits — especially since lawyers have been the ones on the front lines fighting for human rights in Guantanamo for the last six years.

The article also includes this confusing line:

“But the full stories of individual detainees like Mr. Iqbal are only now emerging after years in which they were shuttled around the globe under the Bush administration’s system of extraordinary rendition”

 

A solid number of detainees have been telling their stories for several years. Moazzam Begg’s in-depth book about his experience, Enemy Combatant, came out in 2006. Is the “full story” available now because government officials are more willing to talk and documents are easier to obtain? Detainees have been speaking up for a while — they’ve just had trouble finding an audience.