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.”

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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.