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Here but also there

Binyam Mohamed is free at last. But will he ever truly be free from the memory of what happened to h

I took a walk in the countryside with Binyam Mohamed after his release from Gitmo. “I still think I might wake up tomorrow morning and find myself back in Guantanamo Bay,” he told me, as we climbed a hill in the West Country. “It would all be the same. I’d just find that I had just been allowed to spend a rather longer-than-normal visit with my attorney.”

Adjusting after seven years in prison is not easy; adjusting after the surreal nightmare of seven years of torture is obviously much harder still. Binyam and I continued to talk. Only hours earlier he had been in a cell in Camp Five. At Gitmo, he was allowed a maximum of three paces in one direction, before a concrete wall turned him around. The freedom of this field, where only sheep were fenced in, seemed unreal.

The day before, Binyam had flown in to RAF Northolt. A phalanx of journalists waited at the entrance to the air force base in west London. For Binyam, it was a confusing welcome. Here were many of the people who had worked hard for his freedom, people who had written and broadcast about the horrors of his rendition to torture in Morocco. When we had carried their newspaper articles into his prison cell, he had hope. But, to keep his spirits up, I never took him the hostile editorials.

“Terror suspect flown back to Britain by private jet”, the Daily Express headline now shouted at him. Indeed, he did fly in on a Gulfstream – paradoxically, the same brand of “private jet” used by the CIA in July 2002 to carry him to 18 months of medieval mistreatment in Morocco.

“Treated like royalty,” added the Express. It is true that I waited with his sister Zuhra and his military attorney, Lieutenant Colonel Yvonne Bradley, in the “Royal Suite” at RAF Northolt. Binyam, in the meantime, was undergoing two hours of questioning by the British police, less typical of the welcome accorded to Her Majesty.

The police were worried, reporting that dozens of photographers on motorcycles were revving their engines just outside the base. The prospects for us of carrying Binyam away to recuperate quietly in the countryside seemed dim. But, in the end, we did escape, running the gauntlet of the Northolt gate.

The next day, Binyam and I walked, and he talked about his future. Seven years of his life had been taken from him. How could he ever hope to make up for that time in the years ahead? Was his life destined to be defined by the stolen years? Would he only be asked to talk about the torture?

Binyam was reticent about the media. We discussed how, if he spoke to only one journalist, he would risk alienating the rest. He knew that if he had to talk to everyone, he would risk losing a tenuous grip on his new reality. He knew that the more his picture was published, the less likely it would be that he could live a normal life.

He had returned home with only one clear ambition – to help secure justice for the 241 men whom he left behind at Guantanamo. Among them was Shaker Aamer, who Binyam had hoped would be on the same Gulfstream flight as himself. Shaker would have been coming home to his wife and four children; instead, he remains Internment Serial Number 239, still unable to hold Faris, a child he has never met, born after he was seized in Pakistan.

Binyam never told the men on his block that he was slated for freedom. He felt it would be unkind. How could he tell Mohammed el-Gharani, snatched by the Pakistanis and sold to the Americans at the age of 14, that he – Binyam – was headed home, while Mohammed would be left behind? So he hedged, and hinted that he was packing his meagre belongings for a move to another cell block.

Now some of Binyam’s first, strange meetings on a West Country farm were with other British men he had met at Guantanamo Bay. This only deepened his confusion. Was he here, or was he there?

These former prisoners respectfully urged him to face as much of the media as he could. He was, they told Binyam, the only voice for the men left behind.

So Binyam decided that he would try to speak out. But it would have to be incremental. And some things he simply could not confront. He would not, he insisted, go into the details of the harshest abuses. The torture had been designed to humiliate; repeating it all now would merely add to the degradation.

Binyam knew he had to talk about some of his mistreatment. We talked about the music torture that had been designed to destroy his sanity. When we had spoken at Guantanamo Bay, he had described how Eminem was played incessantly at him in the “Dark Prison”. Back then, I could never play the music so as to identify it for him; I was allowed to carry only a pen and paper for the interviews. Now, with my laptop in front of us, we could identify the songs. I played him “White America”. He flinched. He knew, warily, that he would be destined to encounter songs such as this at random through the rest of his life.

As the days went by, Binyam slowly decompressed, beginning a process that will take months, if not years. He began to emerge more frequently from his room. In the kitchen, my seven-month-old son, Wilf, reached out to tug on Binyam’s beard. Binyam smiled gently at the child. There was a twinkle in his eyes, perhaps for the first time in seven years.

Clive Stafford Smith is director of Reprieve, the UK legal action charity that uses the law to enforce the human rights of prisoners, from death row to Guantanamo Bay. For more information, visit:

Clive Stafford Smith is legal director of the charity Reprieve and has spent more than 20 years representing prisoners on Death Row in the United States. More recently he has represented many of the prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

This article first appeared in the 09 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Planet Overload

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood