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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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Why orphanages are not the answer to Hurricane Matthew’s devastation

For this year’s New Statesman Christmas charity campaign, we are supporting the work of Lumos in Haiti.

Two weeks after Hurricane Matthew made landfall, I found myself driving along the Haitian coast, 40 miles north of Port-Au-Prince. The storm had barely impacted this part of the country when it hit in early October. There were a few days of rain, some felled trees, and locals complained that water ate away at the beachfront. But nothing remotely comparable to the devastation in other parts of the country.

In an odd turn of events, I found myself traveling in this relatively untouched central zone with two young American women – missionaries. “And there’s an orphanage,” one pointed out as we zoomed by. “And here’s another one too,” the other said, just on the opposite side of the road. They counted them like a memory game: remembering where they’ve popped up, their names, how many children are housed within their walls.

The young women spoke of the neglect and abuse they witnessed in some of them. No matter how “good” an orphanage might be, it simply cannot replace the love, attention, and security provided by a safe family environment. “And it doesn’t matter if the kids look OK. It doesn’t mean anything. You know it’s not right,” the younger of the two quietly says. She was a volunteer in one that cared for 50 children at the time. “Most people who live and work in Haiti don’t like the orphanage system. We keep getting them because of Americans who want to help but don’t live in Haiti.”

In the quick mile of road that we covered, they identified nine orphanages. Two of the orphanages housed less than 10 children, six averaged around 40 children. One housed over 200 children. All but one was set up in the months following the 2010 earthquake. There was a significant increase in the number of orphanages across Haiti in the next four years.

The institutionalisation of children is still the go-to response of many Western donors. US funders have a quick and relatively cheap access to Haiti, not to mention an established history of support to orphanages with nearly seven years’ investment since the earthquake. Many local actors and organisations, international NGO staff, and others in the child protection sphere share the same fear: that many new orphanages will crop up post-hurricane.

But it’s not just orphanage donors who do not understand the true impact of their interventions. Humanitarian relief workers have a gap in institutional knowledge when it comes to best practice in emergency response for this particular vulnerable group of children.

Nearly two months on from the hurricane, rain and flooding continue to hamper humanitarian relief efforts in the south of Haiti. Over 806,000 people still need urgent food assistance and 750,000 safe water, and 220,000 boys and girls remain are at risk, requiring immediate protection. But what about the virtually invisible and uncounted children in orphanages? These children cannot line up to receive the food aid at relief agency distribution centers. They cannot take advantage of child-friendly spaces or other humanitarian services.

We must find a way of reaching children in orphanages in an emergency, and bring their situations up to an acceptable standard of care. They have the right to clean water, food, medical attention, education, and safe shelter – like all other children. But therein lies the catch: orphanages cannot just be rehabilitated into perceived best options for vulnerable families. A balance must be struck to care for institutionalised children in the interim, until family tracing and reunification can occur. Simultaneously, families must be strengthened so that they do not see orphanages as the only option for their children.

We know that nine orphanages per mile does not equal a good emergency response. Housing children along an isolated strip of road segregates them from their families and communities, and violates their best interests and their human rights.

Since I visited Haiti last, Lumos, in partnership with the Haitian government and local partners, has documented over 1,400 children in 20 orphanages in the hurricane-affected South. Vulnerable families have been strengthened in efforts to avoid separation, and we are working with the government to ensure that no new children are placed in orphanages.

We are all worried that, without concerted messaging, efforts to raise awareness among donors, relief agencies, and families, the orphanage boom will happen again in Haiti. And though Haiti is susceptible to natural disaster, its families and children shouldn’t have to be. In seven years we cannot find ourselves repeating the same sorry mantra: “and there’s another orphanage, and another, and another. . .”

Jamie Vernaelde is a researcher with Lumos, based in Washington, DC. Follow her on Twitter: @jmvernaelde

This December, the New Statesman is joining with Lumos to raise money to help institutionalised children in Haiti return to family life. In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, funds are needed to help those who have become separated from their families. Please consider pledging your support at http://bit.ly/lumosns

Thanks to Lumos’s 100 per cent pledge, every penny of your donation goes straight to the programme. For more information, see: http://wearelumos.org