Shaker Aamer, Saudi national with residency, is on hunger strike in Guantanamo
He was arrested for allegedly leading military unit under bin Laden but not charged
Former Gitmo inmate: Detainees do not get clean water, are strip searched constantly
U.S. Defense Dept: Detainees treated in the most humane manner possible
Detainee 239 has been in Guantanamo for more than 11 years now. He’s never been charged with a crime, has been cleared for release twice – but has yet to be freed.
Shaker Aamer, a Saudi national who has British residency, is Detainee 239, arrested in 2001 by U.S. forces in Afghanistan for allegedly leading a military unit under Osama bin Laden, accusations that he denies.
His wife and children – including a son has never met because he was born while Aamer was in Guantanamo – live in the UK.
Aamer is now one of 103 Guantanamo detainees on hunger strike: more than half the detainees at the facility are refusing food and water.
The U.S. military says it has now been compelled to force feed inmates to keep them alive – but even President Obama questioned the practice in a speech on May 23 at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington.
“Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are?” Obama asked. “Is that something that our founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?”
Moazzam Begg, a former inmate of Guantanamo, knows about life in the facility: now he works as outreach director at advocacy group CagePrisoners, which pledges to raise awareness about prisoners at Guantanamo Bay as well as others impacted by the war on terror.
“People are saying they are protesting the conditions,” explains Begg, “that they don’t get clean drinking water. They are getting stripped searched constantly. Sprayed in the face with pepper spray. Rubber bullets. All of that is true. But that’s not why they are doing this. They are doing this because there is no hope.”
Opinion: Stop force-feeding inmates and close Gitmo
A U.S. Defense Department spokesman said: “Accusations that the detainees in our charge are treated in anyway other than the most humane manner possible, informed by the processes established by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, simply does not stand up to even glancing intellectual rigor.”
Shaker Aamer explained why he was continuing with his hunger strike in answer to questions composed by, and posed by, his lawyers at London-based law firm Reprieve. Here are his replies:
Q: What is the status of your hunger strike? How are you feeling?
A: I am losing my mind, I am losing my health, I am losing my life. They are trying to do as much damage to us as they can before we leave here. They are humiliating us as much as they can. They are harming me as much as they can.
For 11 days my heart has been aching very bad. If I sneeze I feel as if there is ice on my heart. It is in my shoulder on my left hand side. I cannot cough or laugh. It gets a little better if I hold my hand on my chest. That does not help much but without that I feel as if something is going to blow up.
Q: Are you being force fed and what is that process like?
A: I do not want to be force fed. I don’t want to die either, but this is a living death here in Guantanamo, so if I have to risk death for a principle, that is what I want to do.
I am not yet being force fed. The new procedure is to wait until people are really badly off and have physically harmed themselves perhaps permanently before force feeding, which then just keeps us barely alive, as a husk of a human being.
The way they have gone about force feeding has been designed to be torturous. So back in 2005 or 2006 they used to leave the tube in my nose for days on end; now they pull it out after every feed, so detainees have 120 cm of tube shoved in and pulled out twice a day. And although a corpsman recently said they have plenty of size eight tubes, they only use the bigger ones. And if someone vomits on himself (as just happened) they carry on force feeding him. It is very, very wrong.
Q. How would you describe your treatment in the prison?
A: Our prophet told us: “Speak only as people can comprehend if you want them to understand.” Nobody can understand what it means to be under torture 24/7. It is not just hanging you from the ceiling, or being beaten up. It is fighting for hours to get a packet of salt. It is beyond explanation.
I met with the London Metropolitan Police for three days in February as part of their investigation into torture, and told them some of what has happened to me. They had a statement from me that ran to maybe 120 pages, but that is still only one page for every month of my suffering here. How can the truth be told in such a short time?
It is all senseless, all about trying to break us. The most I can say is to quote George Orwell, in “1984”: “The system is for the system, the torture is for the torture.”
Not everyone is the same. Some of the corpsmen and guards are beautiful people trying to get me to help them with other detainees, because they are afraid the men will die. Some of the guards are aware of what is happening here. These guards say: “I’m sorry 239.” I honestly forgive them, even though what they are doing is wrong.
Not all guards are like that, sadly. People here are dying for lack of a salad. There is a brother on my block with a heart problem. We do not want him on the hunger strike as he could not survive it. He needs salad as he cannot eat most of the food they give him. So I took the salad they had given me and asked the guard to take if over to his cell. The guard would not do it. In the end, though, I managed to get it from the splash box on my cell door to my brother.
Q: What has your daily routine become like?
A: I am in the “psych cell.” They want to tell the world I am crazy. They have a man standing outside my cell all the time, staring at me. He writes down everything I do. “239 stood up. 239 sat down. 239 scratched his head.” This is every day. This has been going on for over a month. I came here on April 9.
There is a white woman comes all the way from the control room and stands in front of my cell with the other guard. She writes on a piece of paper in front of me. She whispers in his ear. She reads a paper from the file.
“I studied psychology before you were born,” I told her. After all, I was a nurse. I know the psychology is a package. Someone has created the whole system and they just follow it.
So in response I write everything they do and send it to my lawyer.
The other day I wanted to dry my shirt after washing it. I hung it on the door. There is nothing else, as it’s the psych cell, meant to stop you hanging yourself. So I put it there. As soon as I did it, they told me to take it down. I told them, “You have the camera 24/7. You are watching me all the time.” But they brought the FCE team. [Editor’s note: abbreviation for Forcible Cell Extraction ]The other brothers on the block argued with them. But I knew they wanted to FCE me any way they can. They did it. They FCE me for anything.
I sing to my brothers. Sometimes I sing to the guards. I talk to the guards a lot. I shout to the other prisoners. I try to lift their spirits. But despite this I am falling apart like an old car. Now the engine of the car is beginning to fail, the heart is really aching. I have not been able to read for a month now. My eyes are going. I cannot remember anything. I forget things. I cannot stand up. I fall down. But I don’t want to fall down too much. They will do a Code Yellow on me when they burst into my cell and step on my hands, they tread on you.
It is cold in here. You might not think so, as it’s 70.5 degrees. But when you’ve not eaten for 100 days, that’s cold. I try to do exercise in my cell. A brother told me to do some gentle things to keep my body warm. But it is hard on my heart and I need to conserve myself.
They took my basic isomat so it was even colder. I slept without it for 9 or 10 days. Thankfully I just got it back.
Q: What conditions are there for the end of your hunger strike?
A: The hunger strike is a simple matter: it is about justice. There are 86 detainees here (including me) who have been cleared by the Americans – cleared to leave this place, but they are still here. There are 80 who are not cleared, but they have not been tried. It is ironic. President Obama seems to agree with us that the place should be closed, so presumably he agrees with our hunger strike.
Q: How do you see your hunger protest ending?
A: By being set free. And I believe it will happen very soon. I do go back and forth. On the one hand I know that I am going to come home soon, I am sure of that. On the other, though, they are taking revenge on us in so many ways. I am scared – I am afraid of taking medications from them. It is like lamb going to the butcher and seeking help. My heart pain is now constant and I don’t want to die in here.
But I do fear that when my children shout for daddy I will not respond, as I have been called 239 for so long – they may need to call me by a number for a while.
When I get out I want to work with Kings College London, with doctors, lawyers, and everyone, to learn the human rights lessons of Guantánamo. It is only by this that we can make sure we do not do this again.
Q: Can you describe how you feel about not being released despite being cleared for release twice?
A: No. The most I can say is that I have never even met my youngest child, who was born on the very day I arrived in Guantanamo Bay, February 14, 2002. I have missed my other three lovely children for 11 years. I have missed my wife for 11 years. I have missed my life for 11 years. I have never been charged with anything.
Q: What’s your message to Obama and Congress?
A: I have a message for Obama and Congress. This place is going to close. Either sooner, or later. And it is going to be a stain on America’s reputation that you start cleaning either sooner, or later. Don’t wait for too much later, as there are going to be dead people down here, and that’s not good for anyone.
Q: Are you worried that by speaking out the authorities will in any way punish you?
A: What more can they do to me that they have not already done?
Victoria Eastwood contributed to this report.