In the absence of an intact corpse,
families often gather for memorial services rather than funerals.
The families of Salah Ahmed Al-Salami,
Mani Shaman Al-Utaybi, and Yasser Talal Al-Zahrani - three Guantanamo prisoners
whose earlier purported suicides were declared "asymmetrical warfare"
by the Bush Justice Administration - received Salah's, Mani's
and Yasser's broken and lifeless bodies. Previously the families
had gathered to wake their loved ones, after authorities in their countries
informed them that their sons had died in Guantanamo.
Following three grueling years of unanswered
questions and heartache, Scott Horton's recent article in Harper's
Magazine has revealed that the deaths of these three detainees may not,
in fact, have been due to suicide, but to having been tortured to death
in U.S. custody1.
Compelled to act by this tragic news,
fourteen members of the Witness Against Torture fast (www.witnesstorture.org) were arrested in the Capitol Rotunda on Thursday,
January 21st for holding a memorial service in remembrance
of the three men. The activists paid respect to the families of the
dead in the very room where U.S. presidents are historically waked,
adorning a makeshift burial shroud with handfuls of rose petals and
filling the enormous Rotunda with story and song.
The Yemeni and two Saudis have stories
much like many of the other men who were (and still are) indefinitely
detained at Guantanamo; snatched and handed over to the United States
for bounty money, 16-year-old Al-Zahrani spent the last five years of
his short life in custody. Al-Utaybi, orphaned in his youth and described
as "a peaceful person who would harm no one", was intercepted after
traveling to a conflict zone that straddles Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan
to do humanitarian work. The U.S. Justice Department has no evidence
linking Al-Salami to Al Qaeda or the Taliban. Two of them had already
been cleared for release by the U.S. government; it was determined that
they could not be held any longer, and they were flagged, finally, for
return to their home countries.
All three were on hunger strike to
challenge their illegal detention.
Although I had never met Salah, Mani,
or Yasser, I could imagine the three Muslim men hauled out of their
tiny cells on that dreadful night in June 2006. I could see their
eyes fill with terror as their head, arms and legs were strapped to
their chairs, writhing in pain as military personnel gouged at their
eyes and bent back their fingers. Struggling for air as rags were
forced down their throats, and then gasping, panicked, hooded and silenced,
they finally left this world.
The bodies of the three men were returned
to their families mangled and beaten, and, interestingly enough, in
pieces. The U.S. government has refused to provide the families
with their loved ones' throats.
We entered the Capitol last Thursday
- the one-year anniversary of President Obama's inauguration - with
hopes that this small act of remembrance would commemorate the lives
of those we had never met. In the very spot every U.S. President
has been laid before burial, we shared the lives and mourned the untimely
deaths of our three Muslim brothers, tortured and killed on behalf of
our "freedom" and in accordance with our country's "justice".
As I moved to lay our banner over the
spot that marked the middle of the Rotunda, twenty-eight other activists,
clad in orange jumpsuits and black hoods, were refusing to move from
the steps outside the Capitol building. Our group inside formed a semicircle,
and each of us adopted the name of an imprisoned detainee.
If someone had told me a year ago that
I would find myself in Washington D.C.'s Central Cell Block, providing
the police with only the name of a Guantanamo
detainee and not my own, I would have been struck with disbelief.
This courage was found through the experience of a twelve-day fast in
the midst of a deeply connected and inclusive community. I have wondered
how the prisoners who endure torture, indefinite detention and the loss
of beloved friends at Guantanamo, Bagram, or any of the other U.S.
secret prisons around our world find the courage and will to continue
living. From what I've read and heard, they turn to community, faith
and an abiding hope to be reunited with loved ones.
Remembering the victims
and their families requires that we look in the mirror and see ourselves
as we are seen by them. When
we see what we have become, we may be prompted to ask ourselves, "If
not us, who? And if not now, when?"