The Witness to Guantánamo Project


Last November, I was delighted to meet Peter Jan Honigsberg, Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco, and the author of Our Nation Unhinged: The Human Consequences of the War on Terror, when he enthusiastically agreed to show the Guantánamo documentary, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (directed by Polly Nash and myself) as part of my US tour of the film. Peter is also the director of the admirable “Witness to Guantánamo” project, which involves “conducting in-depth, filmed interviews with former detainees and other witnesses to document human rights abuses and rule of law violations that took place at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.” As the project’s website also explains:

Witness to Guantánamo is the only project that is systematically filming and preserving in-depth narratives of former detainees and other witnesses. By creating an archive of these videos, W2G will collaborate and partner with other projects around the United States and the world to educate the public and mobilize pressure to hold US government officials and private actors accountable for human rights transgressions and violations of US and international law.

I urge readers to visit the website, to learn how “[t]he project’s methodology reflects the Shoah (‘catastrophe’) model” initiated by Steven Spielberg with regard to the Holocaust, and to watch a number of video clips of former prisoners and others with experience of Guantánamo, which have been made available online. These provide an excellent insight into the horrendous abuses initiated by the US administration in the “War on Terror,” and also provide a useful introduction to the archive, which is intended to be used by those requiring evidence to support other projects aimed at exposing the truth about Guantánamo, as the website also explains:

No one has systematically chronicled the abuses and rule of law violations at Guantánamo from the perspective of former detainees as they speak in-depth on camera, telling their own personal narratives of their experiences in Guantánamo. All the interviews will be translated into English and transcribed to reach the broadest audience possible. It is our intent that the video archive grow into an invaluable resource for present and future generations of activists, scholars, historians, journalists, students, documentarians, lawyers, former detainees and the general public. Eventually, individuals will be welcome to apply to use the interviews to support qualitative and quantitative social science research; select footage for documentary and other media-related projects; create educational units on Guantánamo for elementary through graduate school students; and inform and educate the public. The diverse potential uses of the archive will be limited only by the imagination.

Below, I reproduce a fascinating article written by Peter Jan Honigsberg for the Huffington Post, after completing a recent series of interviews with former prisoners:

Dignified, but Broken
By Peter Jan Honigsberg, the Huffington Post, August 30, 2010

A friend said that she recently saw photos of men who had been incarcerated at Guantánamo prison and that the photos expressed each man’s human dignity. I, too, have seen the dignity in each of the twenty-four former detainees we have interviewed on film for our Witness to Guantánamo project. However, I have also seen something else. Many of the men, though dignified, were broken.

Indeed, how could men, who were sold for $3,000 to $30,000 each, held for up to eight years without charges, often sensory deprived — whether isolated or sleep deprived for long periods — not be broken? The men depicted Guantánamo as a “psychological prison,” and that it was.

One of the men we interviewed was introduced to us as the “jokester” of Guantánamo. He was seemingly cheerful and laughed with us before we began filming. Yet, during the interview (our interviews usually run for two to two and a half hours) his sense of hopelessness while in the prison surfaced. He told of the time he called a guard to his cell. He asked the guard to bring a high-ranking military official, a sheet of paper and a pen. He said that he would write on the paper that it was “okay.” After signing the paper, he wanted the official to take him to the beach and, demonstrating to us with his index finger pointed at his forehead, “shoot me.”

Another man, who was intelligent, exceptionally sensitive, spoke five languages and had never been to Afghanistan or Pakistan but was seized elsewhere, broke early. He was a librarian by trade and should never have been held at the base. When we asked him whether he had ever met with psychiatrists while at Guantánamo, he responded by equating them with “devils” who tried to tear down his mind. He told the interrogators whatever they wanted to hear, whenever they wanted to hear it.

A third man, very insightful, thoughtful and charismatic, told us that he managed the torture and pain by focusing on his foot or on some other detail of his body that he could control. He knew English, but did not reveal it to the guards so that he could overhear their conversations and help orient himself. He prided himself on being a loner and on his initial ability to hold fast and refuse to talk to the interrogators. After several months, the military officials placed him in isolation. He was denied all human contact. The guards shoved his meals through the “bean hole” in the cell door. After one year of intense isolation, “I broke,” he said.

Sometimes, I think that men who resisted while at the prison emerged psychologically healthier. And, sometimes they did. One man we met was 16 when captured and, like most prisoners, arbitrarily beaten. He continually fought the guards by throwing feces and such at them, even though it meant that he was beaten up frequently by the Emergency Response Force (ERF) team and then taken to isolation. (The ERF team consisted of 5 or more guards in riot gear. They sprayed detainees with mace and then pummeled them, sometimes while the men lay prostrate on their beds). Although he was released to a country that is not his home, today this detainee seems able to cope better than many of the men we have met.

Other men survived by “going with the flow.” They did what they were told and were beaten less frequently. Necessarily, the men’s actions reflected their personalities and character traits. Five men would not survive Guantánamo. They allegedly committed suicide.

Yes, there is a powerful sense of dignity in each former detainee you meet today. But these men who were held for years without charges were more than imprisoned. They were broken. And even though some — but not all — of the men released are doing better today, one must wonder whether they will ever fully move on from what they suffered unnecessarily in that hell we call Guantánamo.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, currently on tour in the UK, and available on DVD here), and my definitive Guantánamo habeas list, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

One Response

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    Over on Facebook, Jasvinder Khosa wrote:

    Good man, Andy. Thanks to your humanity.

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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