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Shaker Aamer: "I’m a bit of a professional hunger striker, I’ve done it so often"

A Guantánamo inmate since 2002, Shaker Aamer explains why he's joined the other detainees in a hunger strike.

 

If you chase life, it has a habit of running away from you. When I complied with the picayune rules in Guantánamo, it never did any good; though I was cleared for release almost six years ago now, in 2007, I am still here. When I started a campaign of non-violent protest – all I wanted to do was sit outside in a cage for a week as a silent objection to the Obama Administration trampling on my rights – they FCE’d me almost every day for a year. (FCE is a Gitmo euphemism, when the goon squad comes in and performs a "Forcible Cell Extraction".) But in the end the authorities half-capitulated and gave me another of their euphemisms (additional "comfort items") to try to shut me up. So when I ran away from life, it came hurrying towards me.

But I’m 47 years old and a white uniform, a table, a chair and a Nintendo game are no substitute for being back with my wife and four children. My youngest boy, Faris, was eleven on February 14 and - can you imagine? - I’ve never met him, since that was the day I got to this forsaken place.

They’ve taken almost all my "comfort items" away again now, along with the knee brace the doctors ordered, the back brace, the medical socks for my edema, and the blanket for my rheumatism. Not that I care. Everything is meaningless, so long as I am still here, cleared, without charges, and without a trial. Nobody has yet had a fair trial, and an additional 85 of the 166 detainees who have been cleared for release. So a little over fifty percent of the prisoners have been told they can go home – or go somewhere – but who are still here. The Administration got mad down here where people started calling Guantánamo a "gulag", but I’ll bet no gulag in the Soviet Union ever saw half its population cleared for release but still there years later.

It’s sad: President Obama made his big promise back when he was first elected, but I guess it was just a politician’s promise. The number of men going back to their families has slowed to a trickle, far less than when President Bush was in charge.

Things were bad back in 2002 and 2003, the time of General Miller – we called it "Miller Time". To be sure, Miller was notorious, and he went off to Gitmo-ize Abu Ghraib, but in a way things are even worse now. This new Colonel seems to think they can abuse us into submission. He remarked recently that he has children, so he knows how to deal with us. Someone must send the American social services round to his house: I fear for his poor kids, the way he treats people here.

Right now, none of us is chasing life down here, but it may run away from us anyway. Some people are going to die in this hunger strike soon. People have been sending messages home, thinking they might be their last messages in this life.

I’m a bit of a professional hunger striker, I’ve done it so often. But this one is a whole lot different from the hunger strikes back in 2005 and 2006. I’ll tell you the story of one prisoner who has been near to me on the cell block. We’re not really allowed names. I sometimes wonder when I eventually go home whether I will answer when my four kids shout "Daddy", or whether I’ll be waiting for them to call out 239. The man I’m writing about is 171, but his real name is Abu Bakr from Yemen. If I’m a professional, this man’s in the Premier League – he’s been on hunger strike all the time since 2005. He’s paralysed, in a wheelchair, and he’s gone through a lot. Maybe for the first time, though, now he thinks he’s going to die.

The Colonel seems intent on breaking him. Back in October, 171 was tied in the feeding chair, and just left there for 52 hours. Then, from 4 January, he was isolated for a full month. He’s slipped to just 77 pounds. He’s so light now, he’s afraid that if he takes medication he’ll overdose. He’s afraid his time has come, and he’s going to die. He thinks they’ll kill him off, to encourage the others to give up their strike.

Three numbers down, there’s 168, who is Bilal, from Tunisia. He’s been cleared for years too, just like me. He tried to kill himself on 19 March. He was in Camp Five Echo, which is the worst of the worst places here in Hell, just the place you’d put someone you said was no danger, who should be sent home to his family. He didn’t die, fortunately, and they took him to hospital, patched him up for nine days, and then brought him right back to Camp Five Echo. That’s what they call treatment for people who are so depressed they’re suicidal.

So it’s the worst of times here, but actually it’s the best of times. Everyone is more united than they have ever been. Yes, they can break our bodies; but I think maybe, just maybe, we’ve finally learned that they cannot break our spirit.

Shaker Aamer has been in Guantánamo Bay since 2002. He has never been charged or tried for any wrongdoing. This piece comes through his lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, and the charity Reprieve, which campaigns for the human rights of prisoners

 

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.