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The Meaning of Terror

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November 20, 2005

In London, at Amnesty International’s Global Struggle Against Torture Conference

I have just spent two days listening to heartbreaking testimony from men who were unlawfully detained and tortured by U.S. officials at Guantanamo Bay. I am at a conference in London convened by Amnesty International and Reprieve to bring together men who have been released, human rights advocates who continue to work for the release of other prisoners, and family members of men still locked up in the black hole of Guantanamo.

These men are from multiple countries – England, Russia, Bosnia, Pakistan. All of them are innocent, but were locked up for years without charges. They ended up in Guantanamo because they were in Afghanistan at the wrong time, or because they were kidnapped in other countries at the direction of the U.S. government. Seeing them close up immediately breaks the Mohammed Atta stereotype of the so-called “terrorism detainee.” They were black, brown, white. Some spoke clipped British English, some perfect German.

These men say that words are incapable of describing what it is like to be tortured, how it feels to live day after day in 2×2 cages. I am now struggling to capture the power of their personal testimony in words. I’ll try.

The first speaker was Moazzam Begg, a British citizen. He is a slight man, with wire-rimmed glasses and a professorial air. Moazzam described in stark language how U.S. forces – in the name of fighting terrorism – engaged in acts of terror against him and other human beings. “It is terrifying to be interrogated repeatedly with cocked guns pointed at your head. It is terrifying to sit in a cage day after day and believe that you will never see your children again. It is terrifying to watch and hear others humiliated by guards all around you.”

Jamal al Harith, a soft-spoken British national of Jamaican descent, spent two years, three weeks, and six days in Guantanamo before his release. He was beaten, stripped naked, and interrogated repeatedly. He spent weeks in solitary confinement, where he was exposed to extreme temperatures and bright lights day and night. Jamal, who was captured by the Taliban while in Afghanistan, noted with irony that when the Americans arrived in Afghanistan, he was relieved — he thought they would treat him fairly and help him get home.

Tarek Dergoul spoke from behind a curtain. He told us how he was beaten with baseball bats and left in a freezing cage. When military forces refused to treat his frostbite, one of his toes and part of his arm had to be amputated.

Feroz Abbasi spent one year and seven months in solitary confinement at Guantanamo. Yet Feroz and several other men said the most painful experience for them was witnessing the abuse of other prisoners, and listening to their screams night after night.

Shafiq Rasul and Asif Iqbal look like shy, scared kids. They were two of the named plaintiffs in the lawsuit brought by the Center for Constitutional Rights to challenge the unlawful detention of Guantanamo detainees. In one of the few victories in the ongoing legal struggle, the Supreme Court held last year that they had a limited right to challenge their detention. While still in Afghanistan, Shafiq and Asif were both packed into containers for transport. When the containers were opened, most of the people inside had suffocated to death. Some of the guards shot bullets into the containers to provide air holes, and one of those bullets struck Shafiq.

Rustam Akhmarov, a Russian, was sold by Pakistani police to U.S. forces for $5000. Rustam said that he and other men at Guantanamo were given injections by force, and were later diagnosed with Hepatitis B. Though a number of Russian detainees have been released and cleared, Russian officials keep them and their family members under constant surveillance. They can’t get work because employers fear they will be tainted by the stigma of hiring former Guantanamo detainees.

Though it was painful to hear the former prisoners speak of their ordeals, these men realize they are among the fortunate few who are now free. It was even more devastating to hear the pleas of the family members of those still locked up.

Rabiye Kurnaz is the mother of Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish citizen who was a long-time resident of Germany. Murat is twenty-three years old and has been in Guantanamo for four years. The German government won’t help secure Murat’s release because he is not a citizen, and the Turkish government refuses to help. Rabiye said that she tries to keep news about Guantanamo from her other children, but that they hear about it on the news and on the Internet.

Nadja Dizdarevic is the wife of ElHadj Doudellaa of Bosnia. A small woman in full hijab, Nadja is the mother of four children. One son, now four years old, has never seen his father. Nadja said the children are suffering because both of their parents are absent – she must spend hours and hours each day advocating for the release of her husband. Nadja ended with a poignant thank you to “all of you who have sacrificed precious time with your own families to be here to listen to my testimony.”

Yet anger and horror were not the only emotions provoked by this gathering.

It was incredible to hear several former prisoners insist that others had it far worse than they. Martin Mubanga, another British citizen, talked about the strong spirit of Yusef El Gharani, who was sent to Guantanamo when he was just 14 years old. Shafiq Rasul talked about Jamil el-Banna, who remains at Guantanamo because the British government won’t negotiate the release of non-citizens. Shafiq said, “I have no children and yet they finally let me go. Jamil has five children who desperately need him – he deserves to be released more than I did.”

Meeting other people who had been detained was a powerful experience for many of the men present. Moazzam realized that he had spent six weeks in Kandahar lying face down in a freezing cell next to a Russian man who he never saw face to face until this weekend.

Several of the former prisoners were asked how they coped. Martin Mubanga found relief in poetry and rap. Moazzam memorized everything he could remember from school. Jamal learned not to think about his family.

A filmmaker in the audience asked whether any of the guards expressed kindness towards the prisoners. Several said they formed powerful bonds with some guards, especially while in solitary confinement. Moazzam and Tariq came to realize that many of the guards had no real choice but to join the army, and were putting in their time because they had to. There are different forms of imprisonment, they implied.

These moving testimonies are not isolated instances but part of a widespread and systemic policy of abuse. And yet one rarely sees these victims or hears their stories in mainstream media or anywhere else in the United States. Worse, our government officials continue to dismiss the overwhelming evidence of torture. When two courageous Iraqi men who are suing Rumsfeld for torture were in the U.S. last week, Rumsfeld’s sick response to their testimony was that “terrorists are trained to lie about their treatment, and they do it consistently, and it always works.”

As Moazzam pointed out, the iguana is a protected species at Guantanamo. Human beings are not. What have we become in America?

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