I am sitting at Guantánamo, looking at something my clients here have in twelve years never viewed: the sea. It is my last day here. This morning one of my hungerstriking clients, Shaker Aamer, refused to come out. This, apparently, is because the camp powers are trying their hardest to break the men’s strike. First was the Camp VI block raid, after which every man was locked in isolation and stripped of his main emotional anchor – his fellow prisoners. The second tactic seems to be to subject each prisoners to such indignities if he wishes to speak to his lawyer that he will conclude that the conversation is just not worth the groping. Outright censorship looks bad when your motto is "Safe, Humane, Legal, Transparent"; so, the authorities have concluded, best to engineer a situation where it looks as if the prisoners "voluntarily" do not come out.
Shaker was not the first to refuse. Another hungerstriking client refused for the same reason yesterday. As I waited for him, in one of Gitmo’s daily ironies, guards in the sally port chit-chatted idly about their favourite foods and US restaurants for forty-five continuous minutes. Which is better; Olive Garden, or Red Lobster? And the lobster itself: delicious, or disgusting bug-like crustacean?
If those guards had ever looked these 130 starving men in the eye and seen their humanity, they showed no sign of it. But I don’t blame them; they are bored young soldiers, perhaps trapped, in their posts, although not as trapped my clients are. Defence officials have proclaimed this strike is a plaintive attention grab. To those who believe this even for a second I say: try not eating for a day. Or two. Then tell me that to starve yourself for over 120 days, as my clients now have, reveals anything other than abject desperation.
My clients cannot believe President Obama would really have forgotten them and his promise to them at the beginning of his term. My client Nabil’s jaw drops when I explain that yes, Obama really did close the State Department office that was meant to get cleared men like you out earlier this year – and no, it wasn’t because he assigned some other official to help you. Today, Nabil seems to be no one’s responsibility.
Obama, when a journalist finally coaxed him into making a public statement about the hunger strike, was tight-lipped and embarrassed – having decided not to do nothing for the 166 souls here for the remainder of his presidency. "I will go back at this," he said. How? When? With more hand-wringing about Congress? The starving men are unimpressed. His later speech was long on rhetoric and short on detail, while Senators have urged him to use the power he already has to send men home.
It is impossible to overstate how devastating Obama’s indifference is to a desperate man. My clients live in a bubble. A concrete, razor-wired bubble, but one in which the tiniest scrap of information takes on enormous significance. Wild rumors of release – to Qatar, Turkey, Kuwait, anywhere – echo around the blocks for months, even years. For they have nothing else to sustain them.
I tried to explain to poor Nabil that in a way, President Obama lived in a bubble too. He must have forgotten all of you, I said, because a wall of White House bureaucrats shoved your suffering out of his sight, kept you at the bottom of his pile. Men in the White House wholike Greg Craig, who tried to keep Obama’s much-repeated promise to free you? Those men were edged out by Rahm Emanuel. Craig lost his job. Obama spent the majority of his first term in an echo chamber consisting mainly of people who insisted that political expediency demanded leaving my clients here to die.
Today, my task is to make my clients real to Barack Obama. The military makes this as difficult as possible, by robbing the men of their two greatest assets: their voices, and their faces. Two journalists at the base with me were furious because a haunting photo they took of a very hungry man was deleted by camp authorities. The ostensible reason for this was to protect his privacy – the real reason, of course, is that with the face of a suffering man comes empathy.
Much the same thing happened a few weeks ago, when the New York Times published an op-ed based on a telephone call between me and my client. Within hours I had journalists ringing saying "military sources" claimed I broke some rule. I sighed, and explain that a government censor was on a call, that we had done such things many times before, and that no rule had been violated. The only rule I broke was an unspoken one: Never Make the Prisoner Human.
How many more humans will have to die before Barack Obama takes personal responsibility for this prison? Stop blaming Congress. Enough excuses. My clients say they will start to eat if – and only if – cleared men start to go home.
Cori Crider is Strategic Director at Reprieve. She is also an attorney for Reprieve's clients in Guantanamo