On February 7, 2013, there was a dispute inside Guantanamo Bay over prison guards searching Qur'ans. For the following two days, inmates ate the remainder of the food they had—including stuff that was reportedly two years past date—and, once finished with all of their decomposing rations, embarked on a hunger strike. Yesterday was the 100th day of the inmates' protest against their treatment and, out of the 166 still being held at Guantanmo, 102 are on hunger strike, with 30 being force-fed.
Authorities at the prison camp have revised their guidelines to allow them to shackle hunger-strikers to a chair, before fitting them with masks and inserting tubes through their noses and into their stomachs to force-feed them for up to two hours at a time. Despite these efforts, some prisoners claim to weigh as little as 85 lbs.
Several attempts have been made to punish or dissuade inmates from their starvation efforts. According to Shaker Aamer (the last British resident being held in Guantanamo), prison wardens have begun inflicting sleep deprivation on inmates, as well as adopting a new practice where, instead of shackling their hands and legs and pushing them along from behind, they're now clipping cloth dog leashes to inmates' waists and dragging them around like animals.
Aamer is one of 86 inmates who have been cleared for release but are still being held inside the facility—something that, according to Clive Stafford Smith, a lawyer representing inmates at the prison, is completely irrational. “Any prison, even in the most despotic dictatorship, should not have 86 of 166 [52 percent] prisoners cleared for release,” he told me, before adding, “Obama hasn't shown the political will to do the right thing.”
Stafford Smith provided me with testimonies from three Guantanamo hunger-strikers in order to gain a little more insight into the Cuban detention camp that President Obama promised to close within a year back in 2009.
Shaker Aamer is a legal permanent resident of the UK. Aamer was volunteering with an Islamic charity in Kabul in 2001 when he was wrongly arrested, tortured, and eventually deported to Guantanamo Bay. He was cleared five years ago, but remains imprisoned today. At the time of speaking to Aamer, he had lost 32 lbs.
Aamer speaks about “forcible cell extractions (FCEs)," a euphemism for sending in the Emergency Reaction Force to extract prisoners from their cells. These "procedures" are apparently almost always carried out during prayer time, which seems a little insensitive. Then again, this is Guantanamo, where guards seem to stem more from the school of brutality than sensitivity. In one instance, the force exerted on one of Aamer’s fellow inmates was enough to leave him hospitalized, unconscious for four days.
Despite full knowledge that the prisoners are starving themselves, officers carry out FCEs in order to deliver food. “They FCE’d me at 2 PM to bring lunch,” Aamer explains. “They wouldn't take the lunch away. They left it until dinner.” He has also been FCE’d for water. “For three days now, if I say I want more water, they FCE me just to give me water.” Aamer has also been denied various items that were ordered for medical reasons and went ten days without being allowed a toothbrush. Which seems kind of a pointless thing thing to deny someone who's not eating any food.
Describing his experience of force-feeding, Aamer continually refers to "the Board"—something Stafford Smith describes as “a kind of hard stretcher that officers use to transfer prisoners involuntarily from their cells to the force-feeding, or other things.” He goes on to add, “It's better to use the board than what they're doing now, which is to grab inmates by the arms and legs and to drag them.”
Aamer goes some way to explaining the psychological toll he suffers while starving himself and remaining in prison for a crime he's been cleared of: “I try to go to sleep early in the night. Then I feel as if I've just died.”
Nabil Nadjarab is Algerian but spent most of his pre-Guantanamo life in France. He moved to London briefly, but found the cost of living hard and quickly moved to Afghanistan, where he had heard it would be possible to live "without papers." Following 9/11, he—like Aamer—believed that, as a foreign Arab living in the country, he would be rounded up and killed by the Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban military front.
Nadjarab escaped to the mountains, but was eventually discovered and captured. In 2007, six years later (SIX years later), the Administrative Review Board found that Nabil was not an "enemy combatant," and US interrogators have apparently even told him that his was a case of mistaken identity.
By the end of March, Nadjarab had lost 44 lbs after being on hunger strike for ten weeks. He explains, “On March the 22nd, I was force-fed for the first time. Since then, I've been force-fed two times a day, every day. To be force-fed is unnatural, and it feels like my body is not real. They put you on a chair—it reminds me of an execution chair. Your legs, arms and shoulders are tied with belts. If you refuse to let them put the tube in, they force your head back… [it is very risky] because if the tube goes in the wrong way, the liquid might get into your lungs. I know some who have developed infections in the nose. They now have to keep tubes in their noses permanently.”
“The real issue here,” Stafford Smith explains, “is that the US is force-feeding people in a gratuitously painful way to try to force them off their peaceful protest. So the US intentionally changed various procedures to make it less 'convenient' to be on strike. One change was to use only larger tubes. The second was to put the tubes in and take them back out after each feeding, rather than leaving the tubes in place. This adds immensely to the pain. Then they use the force-feeding restraint chair and leave the prisoners in there for hours at a time. All of this takes a medical procedure that is, according to the World Medical Association, already unethical, and transforms it into something that is just torture.”
For Nadjarab, hunger-striking is not just an act of protest, but the only solution to an insufferable situation. “I cannot stand being in here any further,” he says. “I am done. So I am sacrificing myself.”
According to reports, Moroccan national Younus Chekkouri is one of the most compliant prisoners being held at Guantanamo. After leaving his home country for Pakistan in the 90s, he moved several times due to financial reasons and eventually settled in Kabul to begin working for a Moroccan charity. After 9/11, Chekkouri fled via Jalalabad and was met at the Pakistan border by officers rounding up people of Arabic descent en masse. After being apprehended, he was sent to a Pakistani prison, then on to Guantanamo.
Over the past decade, Chekkouri has been issued only one disciplinary. He began his hunger strike after officials raided his room, stripping him of "comfort items" that had previously been cleared by authorities. He reports that a close friend of his dropped to 120 lb, his face turning from red to blue, before he almost died.
Chekkouri is currently being fed Metamucil, a bulk-producing fiber supplement. “When I eat it,” he says, “it feels like the best food in the entire world. I am addicted to the small pieces of Metamucil.” But Chekkouri's forced diet concerns health experts, who believe the high-fiber supplement can prevent the body from absorbing key minerals. Chekkouri says that he wakes up from dreams in which he imagines “he is faced with large piles of food”.
Last month he wrote a sign on the window of his block: “Dial 911—I’m starving.” And another that simply read, “SOS.”
That so many people are starving inside the facility seems to still have no impact on the political decisions surrounding its closure. “The hunger strike has already got Obama's attention,” Stafford Smith explains. “It is our job to make sure the world doesn't forget these men, who are simply making a claim for basic human rights. It is notable, and hypocritical, that the US has often praised people in Iran or Burma for going on hunger strike to courageously demand their rights.
“The world is forgetting 800 or a thousand years of experience. This is all down to the politics of fear and vilification that the US has currently turned on Muslims, and is sadly something that is being emulated around the world. I just hope that we can all work to ensure that it is a brief passing phase on the march towards human rights, rather than something permanent.”
Follow Nathalie on Twitter: @NROlah
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