How many people have to die before Obama takes personal responsibility for Guantanamo?

"I will go back at this," the President claimed. But when? While he wrings his hands and blames Congress, men who have been denied justice are protesting in the only way they can - refusing to eat.

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

A view over Guantanamo Bay. Photograph: Getty Images

Cori Crider is Strategic Director at Reprieve. She is also an attorney for Reprieve's clients in Guantanamo.

Getty
Show Hide image

In Bangladesh, bat in hand, I list all the things that could go wrong

Not everyone gets to play cricket in Bangladesh but I still managed to notch up more worries than runs.

Back from Bangladesh. I picked up a stomach bug while I was out there, and possibly a heart bug, about which I’d rather not go into any detail at the moment, but both will get better as time passes. Meanwhile, as I lie in my bed of pain (the nasty stuff has stopped but I’m still getting the occasional painful ache in the guts), I have my memories.

I must say it was very odd to be treated like royalty while I was out there. (For those who missed it: I was invited to participate in the Dhaka Literary Festival, and saw no reason to refuse, especially after being bought an exceptionally good dinner by the main organiser.) The democrat in me feels shifty even when I’m addressed as “sir” in shops in the UK, so when, one day, on entering the campus at the Bangla Academy, I was actually saluted by a military policeman, I was somewhat taken aback. I wonder if I will see that look in the soldier’s eyes until my dying day: alert, respectful, possibly a bit unhinged. Anyone saluting me must be a little off their rocker, but then how was he to know what a cock-up of a human being I am?

Still, it was extraordinarily pleasant. The highlight was, of course, the cricket match, in which I was invited to play for a scratch team of five from the Authors’ XI, plus two extra lads from the local college, or perhaps affiliated to the local team, the Khulna Titans, whose boss presented us all with caps. I’m wearing mine even as I write these words. I find it soothing.

At the time, though, I was feeling most unsoothed. I found myself going through a list of worries. I should point out that I often start to worry when I start descending the staircase to my own front door – and I was, at this point, roughly 5,000 miles from my front door.

So here are my top ten worries on the way to, during and after the match. I present them in chronological order of beginning to freak me out.

1) Getting shot by terrorists. (That police escort does make one stand out in a crowd, and this lot didn’t seem to be carrying any guns.)

2) Being bitten by one of the dogs lounging around the side of the pitch and having to make the choice between having a series of terribly painful rabies shots, or having rabies.

3) Being stung by a wasp or something on the field and going into anaphylactic shock.

4) Being hit in the mouth by a bouncer and having to go to a hospital to have my teeth crammed back in somehow.

5) Making a huge mow at a full toss not quite as outside the off stump as I’d suspected it was, and missing and being bowled by it.

6) Dropping a catch . . .

6a) . . . and having the ball slam into my mouth etc (see 4).

7) Getting sunstroke/sunburn.

8) Being bitten by a dragonfly, or a swarm of them, while on the pitch. There were loads of dragonflies, for some reason, but they were rather drab. Maybe they weren’t dragonflies, but they flew in the same manner.

9) Throwing the ball back to the keeper in an unmanly or generally disappointing fashion.

10) Being stuck in traffic on the way back for ever and ever, and so missing the event I was scheduled to chair later in the afternoon.

As it is, only number 5) transpired. And maybe a bit of 9). However, I at least made one rather streaky run and so am now able to make the hilarious joke that I have scored on the subcontinent. I marvelled at the state of the pitch: it looked like very fine-textured, pliable tar, or mud baked halfway to being a brick, but soft enough for the spikes on your boot to make a neat hole. Still, it was loads better than the poor neglected pitches at Dogshit Park in Shepherd’s Bush. And I thought of my father, who would have been strangely proud of me for having played in so far-flung a place, and wished that he was still around so he could hear my news.

And so back to London. I was greeted, as I stepped, in my summer linens, from the Heathrow Express at Paddington to the cab rank (I was too tired and sick for public transport), by a blast of chill rain, and shivered as I turned on the cab’s heater. Once again I seem to have fallen in love with a place new to me, and I begin to get indignant at the fact that the weather gets miserable in the UK.

There might be millions of poor people in Bangladesh, but not a single one of them is living in fear that one night they might freeze to death while sleeping out of doors. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage