The other Guantanamo

As the US withdrawal from Afghanistan approaches, what will happen to Bagram prison, where many prisoners are held without charge, trial, or even access to a lawyer?

When President Barack Obama came to power in 2008, he pledged to close Guantanamo, the notorious island prison where terrorism suspects are held indefinitely without charge. Five years after he said that “this war, like all wars, must end”, the prison remains open, the prisoners now in their eighth month of a hunger strike.

Guantanamo is not the only legacy of the Bush era that is proving problematic, as Obama prepares to draw a line under his predecessor’s wars. Bagram prison in Afghanistan is perhaps most famous for a string of prisoner abuse and torture scandals during the long US war. Though less headline-worthy in recent years, it remains there, and, as the US pull-out in 2014 draws ever closer, it is posing such a problem that it has been nicknamed the “second Guantanamo”.

At its peak, Bagram held around 3,000 prisoners, a number which is now reduced. The key problem is the fact that among the prisoners still held there by the US are 67 non-Afghan inmates, none of whom have been formally tried. The US claims that some of these are al-Qaeda operatives arrested after 9/11; accordingly, some have been imprisoned since 2002. They are held without charge, trial, or even access to a lawyer. With echoes of Guantanamo, some prisoners were cleared for release in 2010, but remain trapped in detention. This is because of lengthy, bureaucratic negotiations between the US and the country the detainee is being released to.

Around two-thirds of the foreign detainees (known as third country nationals) are of Pakistani origin. One of them was just 14 when he was arrested in 2008. Repatriation negotiations between the US and Pakistan have stretched on for years. The two concerns are humane treatment for the prisoners in the receiving country (in this case Pakistan), as well as an assurance that the threat the US feels the prisoners pose will be sufficiently mitigated. Under international law, the US cannot send an individual to a country where they face a real risk of torture. And on security, it is no secret that the US does not particularly trust Pakistan, demonstrated by the latest Edward Snowden leaks (showing drastically increased surveillance of the country, which is technically an ally). The spectre of recidivism has also hung over the prisoners trapped at Guantanamo, delaying their release.

So what will happen to the Bagram prison when the US pulls out of Afghanistan in 2014? Theoretically, it should close, but it does not seem likely that it will. The Afghan authorities are reluctant to take on the responsibility for lengthy repatriation negotiations, while concerns have been voiced that prisoners could be tortured if control is transferred away from the US. American officials have said it could be too dangerous to close the prison altogether.

A new report by Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), a legal NGO based in Lahore, representing the prisoners, is damning of all the authorities involved:

The Pakistani government has failed to meet its domestic and international duty to uphold the rights of its citizens in U.S. detention. It has failed to invest the necessary political and bureaucratic capital and failed to adopt clear policies on repatriation The United States has placed little priority on resolving these detainees’ cases, failed to adopt standard policies on repatriation — particularly on humane treatment and security assurances—and has tended to overstate the potential security risks that detainees pose.

While Bagram is not discussed much in America, it certainly damages the country’s image in the Middle East and South Asia, at least as much as Guantanamo does. The JPP report states that “for many Afghans, Bagram continues to symbolize much of what has gone wrong with the US mission in Afghanistan.” Detainees are trapped in a legal and bureaucratic black hole, nationless and unrepresented. As the date for US withdrawal approaches, is indefinite detention really the legacy that the west wishes to leave?

A US captain on a tour of Bagram prison in 2009. Photo: Getty

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.