So for me, the strike is over: not for any particularly good reason, just because it has gone on a week, and it is time to pass the baton over to Frankie Boyle. I was not sure when I began how long I would go for, since I had never foregone food for 48 hours before. I am satisfied with a week - it is longer than I expected to last, though less time than I could have.
Meanwhile, others are waiting with varying degrees of eagerness in the wings. Actually, Frankie's action is more important than mine. If Twitter followers are the measure of the man, then with almost one and a half million, Frankie is almost exactly a thousand times me (you might consider being one of the 1,401,000 people who follow the progress of his own strike this week - @frankieboyle). One purpose of these symbolic actions is to provoke debate, to press President Obama to fulfil his post-election promise, and I suspect Frankie is better at doing that than I am. I was touched this afternoon to receive a message from the actress Julie Christie, a long time patron of Reprieve, saying she could do the week after Frankie, before Rob DelNaja does his bit. We live in a celebrity world, and there is nothing wrong with that so long as celebrities use their notoriety for a good purpose.
One lesson I have learned in the last week has been the importance of this moral support to the detainees in Guantánamo. When I had a legal call with Shaker Aamer last Friday, he was really taken aback, really grateful.
But mostly what my experience has underlined is the plight of the detainees themselves. The last day of my strike was pretty plain sailing. To be sure, one can of Ensure was all that I had ingested (bar water, tea and decaffeinated coffee) in seven days, but I knew it would be over at ten p.m. That is the real difference between a clearly delineated sentence and Guantánamo Bay: as part of my work over the past 30 years, I have visited most of the death row prisons in the American South, and I can say without equivocation that Guantánamo is by far the worst prison I have seen. Yes, there is the fact that the guards simply beat up the prisoners on a routine basis, something that could never take place on the US mainland. To be sure, the federal courts are toothless when it comes to controlling the excesses of the US military command.
But the truly pernicious element of Guantánamo Bay is its essential limbic nature: currently, 86 of the 166 detainees have long since been cleared for release (some for as long as nine years), yet they are still there. Another 42 have been told that they will never be tried; they will be detained indefinitely for crimes unspecified. It is no wonder that the rates of suicidal depression are so high (three times as many prisoners have died in the prison as have been tried).
For some religious thinkers, Limbo (from the Latin limbus, meaning edge or boundary) is the periphery of hell - in Dante's Divine Comedy, it actually takes the form of the first circle of Inferno itself. The theologians faced a conundrum of their own creation: they had defined baptism as a necessary precursor to entry into heaven. What, then, to do with those who could not be baptised - a classic example was Virgil, who died before the birth of Jesus Christ, and never had the chance to be a 'Christian'. He had to be condemned, perhaps for Eternity. Likewise, infants who died shortly after childbirth, simply because they inherited 'Original Sin' - i.e., Adam's fall from the Garden of Eden.
When I first read this as a child, it struck me as horribly unfair. These so-called 'guiltless damned' were condemned for the simple reason that they were never told what they had to do to avoid punishment. It was the ultimate ex post facto law -eternal damnation.
Thus it is with Guantánamo Bay. The overwhelming majority of the detainees held there were not fighting against the US or anyone else. More than half were not even in Afghanistan when they were originally detained - they were minding their own business, for the most part in Pakistan. US aircraft littered the landscape with bounty fliers promising $5,000 for each 'terrorist' turned in - given the comparative standards of living, that would be about $250,000 to an American or a European. The predictable consequence was that Pakistanis with an eye on the loot grabbed any Arab with a beard. Indeed, at page 237 of his autobiography In the Line of Fire, former Pakistani strongman Pervez Musharraf boasts that at least 369 of Guantánamo's prisoners were sold to the Americans.
These were men who had no idea that 9/11 was going to happen, and played no role in its happening. They were just swept up into the first circle of hell by American neocons who had created their own theological paradigm: Muslims who were in the wrong place at the wrong time were the 'new enemy,' they were all damned, and nobody would be allowed an opportunity to prove his innocence in a fair trial.
So where does that leave Shaker Aamer? He is a man who I have come to like, and respect. The Guantánamo authorities hate him for loudly proclaiming injustice, and treat him far worse than they would any animal. Yet Shaker goes on with his own private battle, convinced that one day he will get back to see his wife and four kids in London. It will be the first time he has ever met Faris, his youngest, who was born on the very day that Shaker first arrived in Cuba - 14 February 14, 2002.
And where does that leave my own token hunger strike? I am not sure the Guantánamo Diet is a good idea for anyone. I lost twelve pounds in a week. Maybe that weighs very little in the struggle to get people to pay attention to the fate of these prisoners. But at least I did something. The only true sin is to sit in silence when injustice surrounds you.
I will end my own hunger strike with Shaker's words to me during our legal call: "It's evil. That's all, it's evil. You should just shout to the world that Guantánamo is evil. It is not really possible to understand how this place is so horrible if you are not living it. Torture is not what they do to you each time, it is the fact that you are living it, minute by minute, hour by hour, day by day, year by year. How can you describe what is happening minute by minute, every day?"
Indeed, how would you feel if you were damned, never to see your family again, perhaps for all Eternity, without charges and without a trial? President Obama was right when he said Guantánamo must close; it is well past time that he fulfilled his promise.
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