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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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What's happened to the German left?

For a fourth successive election, the left seems to be failing to challenge the status quo.

When Germany goes to the polls this weekend, Angela Merkel is expected to win a fourth term in office. Merkel has maintained her commanding lead in the polls on 37 per cent, while her closest competitor, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has been relegated to, at best, a possible coalition partner. 

The expectation that the status quo will continue has left commentators and politicians of all stripes asking: what has happened to the German left?

Lagging behind in the polls, with just 20 per cent of the country's voting intention, Martin Schulz’s SPD has slumped to its lowest level this year only days before the vote, according to the latest poll by Infratest dimap for ARD television.  

Even the prospect of a left-wing alternative to a Merkel-led coalition appears to have become unpalatable to the electorate. An alliance between the SPD, die Grünen (the Greens) and the socialist party die Linke (the Left) would not reach the threshold needed to form a government.

One explanation for the German left's lack of impact is the success Merkel has had in stifling her opposition by moving closer to the centre ground. Over the last four years, she has ruled a grand coalition known as GroKo (Große Koalition) with the centre-left SPD, leaving many of its voters believing their party was no longer any different to the chancellor's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Rolf Henning, 34, has been a member of the SPD since 2004. Campaigning in Pankow, a diverse area of eastern Berlin which has traditionally voted on the left, he told the New Statesman that although the coalition had enabled the SPD to push its social agenda, the party did not receive any credit for it.  

“It is now hard to motivate people to vote for the SPD because people think it will not make any difference. If we were to enter a coalition again with Merkel and the CDU then our support base will drain even further,” he said.  

Another grand coalition between the CDU and the SPD is very much on the cards, as Merkel is unlikely to win an outright majority. But while the arrangement has seemingly worked out well for the chancellor, its benefits for the SPD seem rather less certain.

“The political strength of the left is an illusion," says Gero Neugebauer, a political analyst and a former senior researcher at the Freie Universität Berlin, "The SPD did a good job in the coalition to push issues of social policy and family policies, but Ms Merkel took the credit for a lot of it. People saw the car and the chauffer rather than paying attention to the engine."

In 2015, under pressure from the SPD, the Merkel administration introduced a minimum wage in Germany, a benchmark for many in the party which yet did little to gloss over the SPD’s image. On the contrary, Merkel’s election campaign sought to win over disillusioned SPD voters.

According to Neugebauer, the left-wing parties have failed to work together to form a real alternative coalition to the Merkel administration. He warns that Germany’s left-wing camp has become “an illusion” with “virtual power”.

For a short-lived moment the election of Martin Schulz, the former president of the EU Parliament, to head the SPD, brought hope to the idea of a left-wing coalition. 

Stefan Liebich, a member of parliament for die Linke representing the Pankow district, says the SPD initially rose in the polls because people thought there could be an alternative coalition to Merkel. "But then the SPD made a lot of mistakes and they were wrongly told they would lose support if they worked with us," he adds.

"Now nobody believes a left-wing coalition could ever happen because the SPD is so low in the polls.” 

Before Schulz took over the SPD, few believed that after four years in the coalition government the party had a good chance in the upcoming election. “But Schulz arrived and said ‘I will be chancellor’ and it was like a phoenix rising from the ashes,” says Neugebauer.

Schulz revived the social-democratic tradition and spoke about social justice, but the delay of his election programme left many wondering whether he would be able to walk the walk – and his popularity started to fall.

“Compared to Merkel, he became less credible and less trustworthy,” says Neugebauer.  

The SPD are, of course, not the only left-wing party running. Back in Pankow, Caroline, a lawyer and a long-time SPD voter said she was considering voting for the more left-wing die Linke because she did not want to give her ballot to Schulz.

“There is something about him, he is not straightforward and he is too much like the CDU," she continues. "As the head of the EU Parliament, Schulz was good but I don’t think he has what it takes to tackle issues in Germany."

For Ulrike Queissner, also a Pankow resident, the SPD’s lurch to the centre convinced her to vote for die Linke: “The SPD has become mainstream and part of the establishment. It has become too close to the CDU and has no strong position anymore.”

Stable at about 8 per cent in the polls, die Linke is still trailing the extreme-right Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD), which is anticipated to win between 8 and 11 per cent of votes. This means it would enter the German parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time, becoming its third biggest party.

At the core of die Linke’s manifesto is the redistribution of wealth, a peaceful foreign policy and measures to stamp out the remaining social rift between east and west Germany.  

The party strives to challenge Merkel’s feel-good slogans by putting the spotlight on the discrepancies between rich and poor, and east and west.

 “When we look around to Portugal, Spain, Italy, and maybe even to the UK, we seem happy," says Liebich. "We don’t have an exit [from the EU] debate or a high unemployment rate. And yet, there is a part of Germany that sees that things are not going so well."

And for some of die Linke’s eastern electorate, immigration is at the top of the list of grievances, putting pressure on a party which has always defended an open door-policy – something Liebich acknowledges.

“In Berlin a majority of voters say they are open to people who need help, but in the eastern states, where we have a high unemployment rate and a lot of people who are not used to living with people of other cultures, there is a lot of anger."

That will add to concerns that large numbers of silent AfD supporters could create a surprise in the traditionally left-wing area of east Germany, where the far-right party is capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment. The left seems to be squeezed between Merkel’s move to the centre ground and the AfD’s growing populist threat.

For Neugebauer the prospect of AfD members in parliament should force left-wing parties to sharpen their political lines, and form a consensus bloc against the rising extreme-right. The silver lining lies in the hope that all three left-wing parties – die Linke, die Grünen and die SPD – find themselves together in the opposition.

“Then, there would be an opportunity to start a conversation about what the parties have in common and start working together," he says. "It would be a chance for the German left to find itself again and create a vision for co-operation.” 

And yet, commentators still anticipate that at least some part of the left will end up working with Merkel, either through a grand coalition with the SPD or a three-way “Jamaica coalition”, with the pro-business FDP and the Greens. For the German left the time for cooperation, and a shot at taking charge of Germany's future, may still be some years away.