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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

 

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The problem with grammar schools – and the answer to Labour's troubles

This week's news, from Erdogan the despot, to memories of Disraeli, and coffee and class.

Whom should we be cheering in Turkey? Coups are by their nature ­anti-democratic, whatever the rhetoric of their instigators, but Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamist president, is about as much of a democrat as Vladimir Putin. Once he regained power, he dismissed several thousand judges, putting some under arrest. A large number of journalists were already in prison.

As recently as 1990, nearly half of Turkey’s employed population worked on the land and, even now, the proportion is more than a quarter. Erdogan has ruthlessly exploited the pious, socially conservative instincts of his people, who are rarely more than a generation away from the peasantry (and therefore politically “backward” in the Marxian sense), to win elections and push through economic liberalisation and privatisation. His foreign affairs ministry claims that the aim is to confine the state’s role to health, basic education, social security and defence. That is good enough for most Western governments. Provided he also co-operates in limiting the flow of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, Erdogan can be as Islamist and authoritarian as he likes.

 

Quick fix for Labour

I have an answer to Labour’s problems. Its MPs should elect their own leader while Jeremy Corbyn continues as party leader. The former, recognised by the Speaker as the leader of the parliamentary opposition, would get the usual state aid for opposition parties. Corbyn would control Labour Party funds and assets.

He and his hardcore supporters should welcome this arrangement. Their aim, they say, is to build a new social movement. Relinquishing the burden of parliamentary leadership would leave them free to get on with this project, whatever it means. Corbyn could go back to what he enjoys most: voting against the Labour front bench. He would no longer have to dress up, bow to the Queen or sing the national anthem. This, I grant you, would not be a satisfactory solution for the long term. But the long term is more or less extinct in British politics. If Labour had peace for a few months, it might be enough. The situation would be resolved either by Corbyn falling under a bus (preferably not one driven by a Labour MP) or the Tory government collapsing in the face of a mass people’s uprising demanding Corbyn’s installation as supreme ruler. Don’t tell me that neither is likely to happen.

 

Divide and rule

The choice of Birmingham as the location to launch Theresa May’s leadership campaign, combined with proposals such as worker representation on company boards, has drawn comparisons between the new Prime Minister and Joseph Chamberlain.

Chamberlain, who as mayor of Birmingham in the mid-1870s tore down slums, brought gas and water supplies under public control and opened libraries, swimming pools and schools, was a screw manufacturer. There was an Edwardian joke – or, if there wasn’t, there ought to have been – that he screwed both major parties. He became a Liberal cabinet minister who split the party over Irish home rule, putting it out of power for most of the next 20 years. He and his followers then allied themselves with the Tories, known at the time as the Unionists. He duly split the Unionists over tariff reform, excluding them from office for a decade after the Liberals won the 1906 election.

Chamberlain was a populist who brilliantly combined patriotic imperialism with domestic radicalism, proposing smallholdings of “three acres and a cow” for every worker. One can see the appeal to some Brexiteers but he was also divisive and volatile, making him an odd role model for a supposedly unifying leader.

 

Mind your grammar

Justine Greening, the new Education Secretary, is the first to be wholly educated at a mainstream state secondary comprehensive. Pro-comprehensive groups were almost lyrical in praise of her appointment. Yet, unlike her predecessor-but-one, Michael Gove, she declines to rule out the ­return of grammar schools.

To understand how iniquitous grammar schools were, you need to have attended one, as I did. Primary-school friendships were ruptured, usually along lines of social class. The grammars were rigidly stratified. I was in the A stream and do not recall any classmates from semi-skilled or unskilled working-class homes. They were in the C stream and left school as early as possible with a few O-levels. No minister who wants a “one-nation Britain” should contemplate bringing back grammar schools.

 

Living history

Simon Heffer’s recent account in the NS of how his father fought in the Battle of the Somme led one letter writer to ask if anyone alive today could have a grandparent born in the 18th century. Another NS reader replied with an example: John Tyler, a US president of the 1840s, born in Virginia in 1790, had two grandsons who are still alive. Here is another possibility. “As Disraeli said to my husband . . .” If you hear a 94-year-old say that, don’t dismiss her as demented. Disraeli died in 1881. A 71-year-old who married a 24-year-old in 1946 (not impossible; the actors Cary Grant and Anthony Quinn both married women 47 years younger) could have spoken to Disraeli as a boy.

The past is not as far away as we think, though many politicians and journalists behave as though anything before 1980 happened on another planet.

 

Milk money

The class system is alive and well in parts of England. On a family weekend walk, we came across a small village with two adjacent pubs – one clearly for the toffs, the other more plebeian. This was most evident when ordering coffee. The downmarket pub told us that it served only UHT milk with its hot drinks. The other was ostentatiously horrified at the suggestion that it might serve any such thing. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt