Faces from GITMO

By Molly Crabapple with Creative Time Reports
September 3, 2013

As a months-long hunger strike persists in the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Molly Crabapple’s drawings of seven detainees—one of whom was released last week—challenges us to remember their history and humanity.

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America wants to forget about Gitmo.

Sure, we gloat about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. When I visited Guantanamo in June to cover the 9/11 military commissions for VICE, I drew him through three layers of bulletproof glass. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed is a mass murderer, and we caught him. U-S-A Number One.

But KSM-style terrorists are rare at Gitmo. Out of the 164 men held in the island prison, the chief prosecutor at Guantanamo Military Commissions, Brigadier General Mark Martins, told me that 144 would never be charged with any crime.

During the invasion of Afghanistan, the United States offered locals $5,000 bounties for turning in terrorists. Instead, we got a mixture of Taliban draftees, guys who shot rifles at Islamic training camps in the 1990s, Uighurs fighting China and, above all, Arabs in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Now, branded by Bush as “The Worst of the Worst” they are to be held until the end of the “War on Terror.” But wars on concepts seldom end.

Of the 144 men who will never be charged, 84 have been cleared to leave for years. But they live in a Kafkaesque legal limbo. In what a Guantanamo spokesman claimed was a concession to the Geneva Conventions, they’re banned from speaking to press.

As of September 2, 35 prisoners are on hunger strike. Thirty-two are being force-fed, a brutal process that involves Ensure being pumped through a tube snaked into their stomachs.

One night, I drank beer with a press officer at Guantanamo’s jerk chicken joint. She described herself as a pacifist in camo. As she spoke about the hunger strike, her tanned, pretty face drew tight. “I don’t know if they’re innocent. I don’t know if they’re guilty,” she told me. “I don’t even know their fucking names.”

This is by design. Guantanamo’s guards refer to prisoners by numbers rather than names, and are banned from reading their Joint-Task-Force Guantanamo detainee assessments, which WikiLeaks made public. The U.S. government refused to release prisoners’ names until 2006. When I returned to Cuba in August to write a follow-up article for VICE, I visited the prisons for the first time, but I was not allowed to draw detainees’ faces. Americans see bogeymen in orange jumpsuits—not men with PTSD, favorite soccer teams and back problems; families and dreams; loves and legitimate hates.

For a journalist, trying to piece together the life of a Guantanamo detainee involves staring into the bureaucratic unknown. You have JTF-GTMO assessments, filled with feverish claims and torture-induced accusations. (One former detainee, Binyam Mohamed, comes up repeatedly as a source of accusations against fellow prisoners – accusations he made during C.I.A. rendition in Morocco, while interrogators allegedly sliced his genitals with razors. The U.K. government awarded him a million pounds in damages for their role in his torture.) You have their lawyers. If you’re lucky, you have blacked-out intelligence reports. Thanks to a Freedom of Information suit filed by Miami Herald journalist Carol Rosenberg, you know the names of the indefinite detainees.

But why some are approved to leave while others will be held as long as the prison exists? That’s hidden behind a wall of classification.

Since media are not allowed to photograph prisoners at Guantanamo, the only recent images come from photos taken by the Red Cross. The British legal charity Reprieve shared these photos of seven of their clients. Each of these men has been cleared years ago to leave Guantanamo. None has been charged with any crime. Here are their names, faces and, as best I could figure out, their stories.

Pictured: Guantanamo press officers hate Shaker Aamer. Though they are not supposed to speak about individual detainees, they roll their eyes at his complaints of abuse. Believing anything Aamer says, they seem to hint, is for chumps.

Aamer, a Saudi-born British resident who worked as a translator for the U.S. army during the first Gulf War, is married to a British woman. On February 14, 2002, the day Aamer was transferred to Guantanamo, the youngest of his five children was born. Aamer has never met his son.

Aamer is also Guantanamo’s most vocal detainee. As organizer of hunger strikes, he writes scathingeditorials for the Guardian. He is a cause celebre in Britain.

Ramzi Kassem, Aamer’s U.S. attorney and a law professor at the City University of New York, told me, “Shaker believes that only through constant civil disobedience and peaceful protest can he retain and assert his dignity and autonomy as a human being imprisoned at Guantanamo.”

“I sometimes feel sorry for these young prison guards at GTMO,” Aamer told Kassem. “They have been trained not to be kind, even where their instincts tell them to be kind. They have been told lies and absurdities about the prisoners to the point that they are shocked that I can speak English and they are still in disbelief that I know bands like AC/DC and that I listened to that band before the guards were even born.

“The guards check the soles of prisoners’ shoes as part of their body search protocol. They ask me to lift up my shoes behind me while I am standing up, like a mule. I have rejected this procedure for years. Instead, I insist on being brought a seat, I sit down, then I stretch out my foot and make the guard get down to the ground on his knees to check the soles.”

For more stories & portraits, click here.

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