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behind the bars: guantanamo bay

What Happens When I Try to Give My Guantánamo Guards Presents

"Once, my block commander had a seizure. I found myself crying."

by Emad Hassan
10 November 2014, 10:00am

Illustration by ​​James Burgess

The words below were originally produced as one of the letters that Guantánamo detainee Emad Hassan regularly writes to his lawyers.

While I was being fed, the Block Commander fell down unconscious, his eyes rolled back up into his head, a choking sound came out of his chest and his legs kicked at something invisible. I watched for a second. Then two. Then three. I found myself crying, calling the medical team to come. I was worried about him. I forgot who we both were. The block guards jumped to his aid, trying to help him breathe. He was taken to the hospital.

Believe it or not, I was really worried about him. I tried to analyse my feelings later, but found it odd that I would do so. This is the reaction of any human, surely? But here in Guantánamo, things are different. I'm supposed to enjoy this terrible scene. I'm supposed to be happy to see this man suffer. After all, he is, as the colonel put it, "an enemy". If he is truly an enemy, then I shouldn't have called the medical team over, I should not have asked about his condition for the rest of the day. Yet I thanked God for my reaction – it means I am still human.

I agree with Colonel Bogdan the guards here have been suffering. Although he said guards here suffer from PTSD at twice the rate of combat troops and that was an absurd statement. [He later retracted it.] The guards here are suffering because of the inferiority complex with which they live. They are ordered to separate their bodies from their souls and to abandon their humanity, yet this cannot be. They are forced to ignore their emotions and feelings for others. More than that, an important part of them was murdered: Justice, freedom and rights were erased.

These are the principles that they live by and are willing to die for, that's the fuel that keeps them standing their ground in Afghanistan. So, where is it here? Guards do what they are convinced is wrong and say what they believe is nonsense. Especially the Block Commander who collapsed unconscious.

This life affected him; it created an imbalance within his personality. This conflict disabled his mind, eyes and ears and instead he used his boss's mind, eyes and ears. What his boss decided, judged, said – that is what he does. He is a robot.

I once gave a guard a gift, if you can consider chocolate milk a gift. He refused it with a fierce look, as if I was trying to bribe him. I expected the refusal. A refusal like that is nothing new. But why did he react like that? Did the chocolate milk offend him? Did he misunderstand my simple action? I explained why I did what I did. I told him: "My religion and morals teach me to appreciate respect and so when you show me respect, I want to give you a gift. I know it is nothing – the chocolate milk, I mean – but as you can see, there are few things I have. If we were living outside in the real world, it would be different. I didn't mean to offend you, it never came to my mind that such a simple offering would offend you."

Even after this speech, he refused to accept the chocolate milk. Perhaps he just doesn't like chocolate milk.

I continued to give guards small tokens of my appreciation. The medical staff reacted in the same way. Some accepted, but most refused my presents. I had to explain why I was doing this to everyone, particularly the women. It is hard to get beyond their suspicion. I have learned that if you give someone something then you must expect something in return. And no one here – guards, medical staff – wants to give us detainees anything.

They believe it is a risk to accept something from us. Once, one guard saw another guard accept candy bars from a prisoner. The first guard told someone what had happened, and the guard who accepted the candy was punished and moved to another camp while the detainee was targeted and harassed by the guards.

So now we have been taught as detainees that our job is to hate the guards and we will be punished if we do not do our job.

How many times have I been punished for this reason? Too many. But I refuse to stop. Sometimes the gifts are not just for them, they are for me, they are given to remind me that there is a place for gifts in my heart, to remind me that I am alive and am capable of love, honesty and sincerity.

About Emad Hassan:

Born in 1979, Yemeni Emad Hassan was seized while studying in Pakistan. Emad says that during interrogation, he was asked if he knew Al Qaeda, and said yes, referring to a small town called al-Qaidah in Yemen. This sealed his fate and he has now been in Guantánamo for almost 12 years. He has been on a more or less permanent hunger strike since 2007. The US government has so far failed to return Yemeni detainees to their homeland because it considers the country dangerous.