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Why I Keep Working to Close Guantánamo

I have a long trip ahead of me this weekend. It begins with the Shore Line East commuter train in Old Saybrook, Conn. I will transfer to the Metro-North in New Haven. From Grand Central Station in New York, my roller bag and I will walk across town to the Bolt Bus stop at 12th Avenue and 33rd Street. I’ll hop a bus to Baltimore and spend the night with my mom. Then take the MARC train — the Baltimore to Washington, D.C. commuter train — to our nation’s capital, where I’ll join friends who have been fasting and demonstrating since Monday for the closure of Guantánamo and the end of torture and indefinite detention.Frida Berrigan speaking at an anti-torture demonstration outside the White House in January 2010. (Facebook / Pax Christi)

I will be late. I will not be fasting. I have a pretty good excuse on both fronts: I am almost eight months pregnant.

Pregnant or not, there is nothing quite like being with a group of fasting anti-torture activists in a cavernous church in January. I’ve done it every year since 2007. I know it will be cold and uncomfortable. I know the days will be long and physically draining. There will be long emotional meetings, long frigid vigils and long complicated action scenarios. This time, I have the added challenge of figuring out how, when and what to eat while all my friends are fasting. And, to top it all off, I am leaving Seamus — my 18-month-old son — for the first time to join this odyssey.

Sitting on a nice warm train anticipating all this discomfort, I have to ask myself “Why?” Why leave my husband Patrick, step-daughter Rosena and Seamus? Why devote five days towards the end of my pregnancy to this, when I could be organizing baby clothes, collecting home birth supplies, cooking nutritious post-partum meals for the freezer, fine tuning my birth plan, celebrating and cherishing the last days of Seamus’ little brother-ness and our little family’s comfortable, even-numbered four-ness.

Why Guantánamo? Why me? There are so many issues, so many injustices, so many tugs at the heartstrings and the consciences — not to mention, there is only so much time, only so much energy.

This is why: I am haunted by the families shattered by indefinite detention. I am undone that they suffer for our “security.” I do what I can because I cannot sit by idly while children are kept from their fathers.

The 155 men at Guantánamo — two-thirds of whom have been cleared for release by the Obama administration — are at the end of their ropes; many are on hunger strike and suffering brutal forced feedings. They are trying to end their indefinite detention by death or by waking up the American people to their plight (whichever comes first). Despite the best efforts of Witness Against Torture, the human rights and legal communities, and people of conscience throughout the United States and the world, it looks like death might win out.

President Obama reiterated his promise to close Guantánamo and selected a new Guantánamo czar in May 2013. Recently, nine men have been released from Guantánamo — two Algerians have been sent back to that country, despite its despicable human rights record and an outcry from the human rights community that they would be subjected to gross abuses at the hands of authorities there. Two Saudi men have also been returned home. And three Uighurs — Muslim Chinese — have been transferred to Slovakia. But little else has happened, except more solitary suffering for the men there and their families throughout the world.

I identify with the suffering of the men’s families. I have tasted it in very small doses. As nonviolent, radical, Catholic peace activists during the Vietnam War and nuclear age, my parents spent long stretches of time in prison. But, even before I really understood time or what they were doing, I always knew that my mom and dad would come home. I knew it was not forever. Ten days, six months, 18 months, two years — even the longest sounding sentences came with a “come-home-date.” And there was always a friend who could figure out what an 18 month federal sentence actually meant — time off for good behavior, the newest sentencing guidelines that made every third Friday count for two-and-a-quarter days off your time. There was always someone who could say, “Look at it this way, 18 months sounds like a really long time, but your dad will be home before next Easter.” And they were right. He was always coming home. And so was Mom.

But Faris, Johina and Michael’s father has not come home. Shaker Aamer is originally from Saudi Arabia, but he has lived in the United Kingdom since 1996, where he is a legal resident married to a British citizen. Shaker and his family were in Afghanistan in 2001, doing charity work before he was seized by Afghan bounty hunters and turned over to U.S. forces. He recalled his relief at ending up in American hands after being held and mistreated by various Afghan groups. But that relief was short lived.

Shaker was brought to Guantánamo in February 2002, where he was tortured repeatedly, singled out as a ring-leader and subjected to gross abuses. Shaker Aamer has been cleared for release since June 2007. The Bush and Obama administrations agreed that he is not a terrorist, agreed that he posed no threat to the United States or its interest and yet he continues to languish.

When I first started learning about Guantánamo, one of the things that struck me was how letters in and out of the prison are read and censored. Lakhdar Boumediene, an Algerian held at Guantánamo for more than seven years, wrote in a New York Times op-ed in 2012 that, “During that time, my daughters grew up without me. They were toddlers when I was imprisoned, and were never allowed to visit or speak to me by phone. Most of their letters were returned as ‘undeliverable,’ and the few that I received were so thoroughly and thoughtlessly censored that their messages of love and support were lost.”

I still have many letters from my dad. When I miss him, all I need to do is open up a green box that sits above my desk and hold a small piece of him in my hand — slips of yellow legal pad (usually a quarter sheet), his handwriting neat and legible despite often having to write with a golf pencil, his distinctive spidery slant belying years of parochial education. I know that letters in and out of jails and prisons in the United States are subjected to search and could be read, but his letters were never altered or censored. He has been dead more than 11 years, but his voice is still so alive in those little letters. He remains present to me through them.

Whenever he was in prison, my mom received a letter from him every day. Their correspondence was so steady that even a small blip was cause for alarm. After September 11, 2001, she went days without hearing from him. After being stonewalled by the prison officials, Mom appealed to Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, who eventually found out that Dad was being held incommunicado and in solitary confinement. He was placed there on September 11, before lunch. The Senator’s office was told that he was put in the hole for his own protection. He was there for 10 days.

He was not the only one. Across the United States as most of the country was reeling and searching for answers, wardens were isolating their leftist and militant prisoners — Black Liberation Army members, Puerto Rican independentistas, perhaps as many as 10 or 15 around the country. No calls, no letters, no visits. In each case, it was only because friends and family noticed a change in their normal patterns of communication and started agitating for answers that they were placed back in general population again, usually after a few weeks. Without that outside pressure, all those folks could have been indefinitely held in solitary.

As Anne-Marie Cusac wrote in The Progressive in December 2001, the actions of Dad’s warden in rural Ohio and wardens in Allentown, Pa., Dublin, Calif., Oxford, Wis. and elsewhere were codified in new regulations from the Bureau of Prisons soon after September 11. These authorize the Bureau of Prisons to hold an inmate incommunicado for a “period of time designated by the Director [of the BOP], up to one year.” In the past, the term was only 120 days (which sounds long enough indeed). In addition, “The rule also allows for the Director to extend the period for the special administrative measures for additional one-year periods, based on subsequent certifications from the head of an intelligence agency.”

I remember those days of uncertainty and anxiety as my mom frantically tried to figure out what happened to Dad. I remember the relief that came with knowing for sure what had happened. I remember how the relief was quickly replaced by outrage and anger. “For his own protection?” they said. What? He was in no danger. He was in a position to help other inmates understand and process the horror they were watching on the rec room TV screens. He was in a position to contextualize and explain and educate. So was Marilyn Buck, Comancho Negron, Sundiata Acoli and the others who were isolated and silenced. Maybe the prison industrial complex sought protection from an informed and motivated population.

But it was just 10 days of phone calls, letter writing and agitating. Plus, we had a U.S. senator and her office on our side. Ten days and we had answers and results. Ten days, not 10 years, not 12 years, not forever.

So, when I have stayed up too late working on a press release, when the last thing I wanted to do is brainstorm ideas for the next action, when I was hungry and delirious on day two of a 10- or 12-day fast, when I spent the night on the hard and grubby floor of a police holding cell, when the handcuffs were too tight, when the orange jumpsuit was too unflattering or too hot or too cold or too stinky from the last person who wore it, when going to or organizing another demonstration to close Guantánamo seemed like a bridge too far, I return to those 10 days our family spent working to get my dad out of the hole. I think about how precious that first letter after the long silence was. I think about how happy I was to hear his voice on the phone. I think about how even when he was incommunicado, he was always coming home. And I want that for Faris and Johina and all the children of Guantánamo. So, we keep working for justice, for liberation, for families. It is worth the trip. Join us if you can!