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Zaher Hamdoun has been living here for nearly 14 years. (Photograph: Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

'I Have Become a Body Without a Soul': 13 Years Detained in Guantánamo

It’s been four years since the Obama administration promised to review indefinite detentions. For my client there, it’s been one long nightmare

Pardiss Kebriaei

 by The Guardian

I feel like there is a heavy weight on my chest – it’s as if I’m breathing through a needle hole. And then I ask myself, “If I write or say something, is anybody going to listen to me? Is it really going to make any difference?”

Zaher Hamdoun is a 36-year-old Yemeni man who has been detained in Guantánamo without charge since he was 22, one of 116 prisoners still detained there six years after Obama promised to close the facility. After I visited him earlier this summer, he followed up with a letter filled with questions.

Will there be a day when I will live like others live? Like a person who has freedom, dignity, a home, a family, a job, a wife and children?

Hamdoun is not among the 52 men approved for transfer from Guantánamo, nor is he in a dwindling group of detainees the government plans to charge. He is in a nebulous middle category of people the Obama administration has determined it is not going to charge but doesn’t know if it is ever going to release. Though the president in 2011 ordered periodic administrative reviews of men in this group to ensure that any continuing detentions were “carefully justified,” the reviews didn’t start until a mass hunger strike broke out in 2013 and forced Guantánamo back onto the administration’s agenda. Still today, the majority of men haven’t been reviewed, including Hamdoun.

Though he has been a Guantánamo prisoner for almost 14 years without charge, and doesn’t know if he will ever be released, the administration says this is not indefinite detention. When I met with him, he asked me questions I couldn’t answer.

Will Obama’s conscience weigh on him when he remembers that tens of human beings who have fathers, mothers, wives and children have been waiting here for over 13 years, and some of them died before even seeing their loved ones again? Will his conscience weigh on him and make him finally put an end to this matter? Or are we going to remain the victims of political conflicts, which we have nothing to do with?

We discussed the reasons for the fits and starts of progress on Guantánamo – the political fear-mongering, judicial abdication, administration dysfunction, the public exhaustion.

Many people have written, demonstrated, spoken out, filed lawsuits in courts, held sit-ins and repeatedly gone on hunger strikes for long periods of time. Hopelessness has, without a rival, become the master of the situation. Mystery surrounds us from every direction, and hope has become something that we only read about in novels and stories.

At the rate prisoners reviews are going, the administration will not finish by the time Obama leaves office. Of those reviewed, most have been approved for transfer, but they continue to languish. They’ve been added to the administration’s long list of people waiting for release, most for years.

The reviews are far from a panacea. They don’t reach the underlying harm of the administration’s sanction of perpetual detention without charge. They can only limit the incidence, and in even this they are so far failing.

I have become a body without a soul. I breathe, eat and drink, but I don’t belong to the world of living creatures. I rather belong to another world, a world that is buried in a grave called Guantánamo. I fall asleep and then wake up to realize that my soul and my thoughts belong to that world I watch on television, or read about in books. That is all I can say about the ordeal I’ve been enduring.

I’ll see Hamdoun again soon. He is still waiting to be heard.


© 2020 The Guardian

Pardiss Kebriaei

Pardiss Kebriaei is a senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York. She has represented Guantanamo detainees since 2007.

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