Hungry for Justice: Guantanamo Prison
A personal perspective on the humanitarian crisis at Guantanamo Prison

Published Street Roots, May 2013

On Sunday, March 24, in response to an email I’d received the day before, I quit eating. Witness Against Torture (WAT) had proposed a Holy Week fast in solidarity with the detainees at Guantánamo, some of whom had been on a hunger strike for six weeks.

I gave away the organic produce I’d just brought home from the market, checked the date stamps on the dairy products, and began the fast on Passion Sunday.

The decision had been abrupt and left me with unanswered questions: Who was still at Guantánamo? Why were they still there? Why were they on hunger strike now? What does it mean to act “in solidarity?” I pondered these questions to distract myself from hunger.

According to Andy Worthington, the British journalist and pre-eminent Guantánamo scorekeeper, 86 of the 166 detainees who remain at Guantánamo have been cleared in U.S. court for release, some as long as nine years ago. They came from 23 different countries, with Yemen conspicuously over-represented. The 56 Yemenites cleared for release were not repatriated because Yemen is deemed “unstable.” 

Yemen. My ignorance is vast. My single connection is through my Veracruz dance partner whose Yemenite rabbi grandfather resettled in British Palestine in 1923. Researching Yemeni food, I discovered saltah, said to be the national dish. A recipe from the Toronto Star uses ground lamb, onions, potatoes in a beef broth, with lots of spices. This was Tuesday, the third day of my fast: Saltah sounded delicious.

Guantánamo’s detention hospital has a protocol: Staff are required to explain the grave risks to anyone who refuses food. A translator, a witness and a medic all sign a report, testifying that the detainee now “understands that they may experience hunger, nausea, tiredness, feeling ill, headaches, swelling of their extremities, muscle wasting, abdominal pain, chest pain, irregular heart rhythms, altered level of consciousness, organ failure and coma.” According to the protocol, detainees have to refuse nine consecutive meals before they are officially recognized as hunger strikers.

From the beginning there was controversy over how many were participating. On Monday, March 25, Ben Fox of the Associated Press had reported a new tally: Defense lawyers claimed as many as 100, while Navy Captain Robert Durand, Guantánamo spokesman, acknowledged only 28, ten of whom were being force fed with a hose snaked up their nose in order to insert Ensure directly to the stomach. 

David H. Remes, a lawyer defending Guantánamo detainees pro bono, explained the hunger strike to a New York Times writer. Remes said that while it had been triggered by rough search and seizures of the Holy Qu’ran, in fact the deeper underlying cause was “their frustration at being held without trial going into their 11th year with no end in sight.”

Wednesday night I discovered the poem by Adnan Latif, the 37-year-old Yemini poet who committed suicide in his cell last September, its final stanza a mantra for the Guantánamo solidarity movement:

Where is the world to save us from torture? Where is the world to save us from the fire and the darkness? Where is the world to save the hunger strikers?

. . .

Holy Week was well chosen for the solidarity fast: Words from Psalm 22, which the lector read at Sunday mass, haunted me throughout the week: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?

On Holy Thursday, the Washington Post ran a guest editorial by Thomas Wilner who was the lawyer in a 2008 case heard by the Supreme Court that established the right to habeas corpus for his client, a Guantánamo detainee. Wilner pointed out that fewer than 20 of the current prisoners were “high value.” The others, he described as “low-level functionaries or people swept up and sold for bounties in the confusing initial stages of the fog of war in Afghanistan.”

Reading Wilner’s words on Holy Thursday, at least one connection was easy to draw: by midnight, even Jesus had been sold for 30 pieces of silver.

On Good Friday, I found the letter from Kenneth Roth, Director of Human Rights Watch, to Defense Secretary Charles Hagel, in which Roth addressed one of the most troublesome aspects of this ongoing scandal: “The indefinite detention of individuals without trial at Guantánamo has been in violation of international law. The lawful course for dealing with these detainees is to either prosecute them or release them.”

He might have added the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., written from the Birmingham Jail 50 years ago this spring: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

Throughout my fast, I struggled with the notion of “solidarity.” What can it mean if an act is undertaken invisibly, in solitude?

I broke fast at communion on Easter morning — followed by a salad back at my apartment — and I did so with a sense of guilt, anxiety and failure.

Would strikers persist to the point of death? Or would staff doctors call a halt? And how do doctors work in a prison camp anyway, and still keep their Hippocratic vow to keep the sick “from harm and injustice?”

The week had opened a place in my thought and prayer for 166 men I will never meet.

May they hold out, and may they take nourishment in hope, until they be nourished by food.

. . .

On Thursday, April 11, as the hunger strike entered its third month and some of the detainees having lost 30 or more pounds, WAT called a national Day of Action to Close Guantanamo and End Indefinite Detention. In New York and Washington, D.C., protesters in orange jump suits and black hoods held up signs: “Obama Close Gitmo” and I died waiting for change.”

In Portland, Linda Olson-Osterlund devoted her morning KBOO show, A Deeper Look, to the crisis at Guantánamo. She interviewed Pardisss Kebriaei, one of the lawyers with the Center for Constitutional Rights, the New York organization that orchestrates the legal defense of detainees, including recruiting several years ago Oregon Public Defenders to take on seven of the cases.

Olson-Osterlund, who easily switches hats, the interviewer becoming the activist, told her listeners to call the White House and remind President Obama of his campaign promises to close this black hole.

Meanwhile, WAT had announced a “rolling fast,” and I signed up for two more days, committing also to write a detainee (I chose at random a Russian from Andy Worthington’s list), and to phone the Southern Command, the Defense Department and always the White House.

I was surprised by how hard it was to gracefully get out of a long and crazy conversation with the Southern Command’s Public Affairs Office in Florida. I spoke to a man whose cocky, cheerful voice belied a taste for argument.

I explained that I used to teach human rights.

Where?

At a local college.

What college?

Lewis & Clark.

I told him that we researched the cases of political prisoners around the world, worked up files on them, and advocated for their release. These were countries such as China, Iraq, Turkey, where prisoners were tortured and not necessarily brought to trial. It seems inconceivable that the United States has adopted those very practices. This is not who we are, I told him.

He roared back at me: There are people out there who just want to let them die. We have to be responsible for their well-being.

I remembered reading that during the big hunger strikes of 2005 at Guantánamo, some of the guards kicked and punched prisoners who resisted being strapped down and fed.

Surely, no one enlists for this duty, the responsibility of forcing a man to eat, to live.

I eased out of the conversation by explaining I prayed for the guards whenever I prayed for the detainees. We’d been on the phone for 20 minutes.

His scorn, more than my fast, gave me a sense of solidarity with the men in their cells. 

After the phone call, I looked up Ravil Mingazov, the detainee to whom I’d sent my letter: He was a ballet dancer with the Red Army Choir, for heaven’s sake, ordered released on May 13, 2010, by Judge Henry Kennedy of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

My discouragement was complete.

. . .

Then, at his April 30 press conference, President Obama finally spoke:

“I’ve asked my team to review everything that’s currently being done in Guantanamo, everything that we can do administratively, and I’m going to re-engage with Congress to try to make the case that this is not something that’s in the best interests of the American people. . .[T]he idea that we would still maintain forever a group of individuals who have not been tried — that is contrary to who we are, it is contrary to our interests, and it needs to stop.”

The demonstrations and fasts orchestrated by Witness Against Torture, and the advocacy and encouragement practiced by Center for Constitutional Rights had helped the hunger strikers hold out, and the hunger strike had finally accomplished something: It captured the President’s attention. I don’t think he would have recommitted to closing the prison without the hunger strike. I was flabbergasted.

In human rights work, we celebrate the victories humbly, knowing we can never claim them to be ours. Instead, they are the result of hundreds, maybe thousands of people all working at the same time, alone and in the dark.  

Now, nearly two-thirds of the 166 detainees are still on strike, and 40 new medical staffers have been sent to Guantánamo to “handle” the emergency.

The White House phone number is 202-456-1111.

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