Over the last 20 years, Guantanamo has represented many different things to the world. It is not only the site of one of the most infamous prisons in the 'War on Terror' but joins the ranks of Alcatraz and Robben Island as one of the most notorious in history. Outside observers may know it as a symbol of torture, rendition and indefinite detention without charge or trial; for me however, it was my home for 14 years. Every inch and crevice of the Camp has seared itself into my mind, the images of that brutal reality will forever remain firmly embedded in my mind's eye.
That's why I looked on with interest as a series of secret, never-before-released photos of the original detainees arriving at the detention camp were published.
The images, posted by the New York Times Sunday, show scenes of men in shackles, blindfolds, and ear protectors as they arrived at Guantanamo in 2002. Most of what was done to us there was kept safely out of the glare of the public eye, and the NYT points out that the only images ever leaked from the prison were put out by WikiLeaks in 2011. Why were they taken? Apparently to give Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld and other leaders in Washington a look at the start of the wartime detention and interrogation. Perhaps even to comfort them that the "worst of the worst" were being treated how they deserved. One of the first things I did was to share the NYT article with a WhatsApp group I share with former Guantanamo prisoners, asking if they could identify with what they saw in the photos. I knew already it would be triggering, but I needed to hear and know what they thought. The majority reacted the same way I did, and some could not even look, let alone comment. The trauma was too fresh.
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What were the reactions? The sentiments ranged from: "I wish I was treated like that", to "Is this a sick joke?". We then spoke about the things that really happened and how they happened. We also floated what the real narrative would sound like, if it were ever to be reported: "We kidnapped them, abused them, tortured them, set their life on fire, released them without charge or trial. Now we are going to sugarcoat what we did to them and use photos to lie to the world."
I personally know the story of each of the men who make up this group of survivors, I lived, prayed and suffered with them. We were all part of each other's stories- like jigsaw pieces in a cursed puzzle. Yet, I always want to hear them again. I want to know about their lives now. I want to understand the impact of those years on the kind of life they're trying to live today. It is a grim reality. We may technically be far from the shores of Cuba, but we are all still imprisoned in many open and hidden ways. The conditions of our release and the choking restrictions on our lives mean we are all living what can only be called "Guantanamo 2.0".
One of the brothers' messaged, he has just read the article. "They can lie to the world here in this life, but a day will come where justice will be served in the Hereafter. And there, in a Divine Court, there will be no lying. It is not over yet."
The photos you see today would have us all looking like pampered terrorists. Look at us clothed in our clean, pressed orange jumpsuits, being cradled like babies, fed and provided the best healthcare. Oh, look at all the freedom to practice religion we've been given as we kneel in prayer, it's almost heartwarming.
Except, those of us who have lived it know the truth of our experiences. Our experiences are unanimous.
"My ribs were broken there, and I still live with the pain of it today" says one. "I still have the scars on my head and body, and I can't explain to my children why," says another.
Then one brother chimes in: "Thankfully I can't even look at the photos since – as you all know – I lost sight in one eye in Guantanamo while being tortured. The vision in my other eye is so weak that I am clinically blind."
Another takes a more reflective approach: "It is one thing to destroy a man, his family and his future… it's another to then release sanitized and misleading images to the world to cover up the evil of what you did."
For me, I have questions. Questions I would like to ask the photographers: How could they bear watching the atrocities that they did while they stood with a wide-angle lens? How could they position themselves to take the perfect pictures while human torture was taking place in front of them? How can they live with themselves?
My call to the public is to dig deeper, and not allow yourselves to be fooled by powerful PR. When a global superpower has access to media resources and the power to control the narrative, go straight to the people on the receiving end and truly open yourself up to all sides of the story. Consider how tightly controlled and censored any public information was about Guantanamo since it opened its doomed doors in 2001. The US military reviewed and had to sign off every single photo taken by pre-approved photographers. The press themselves were not allowed to leave the base until their work was authorised for public consumption. The prisoners were not the only ones not to be free there. The only images of Guantanamo released to the world were vetted and manipulated by the US government, keen to whitewash crimes under the familiar refrain of "fighting terrorism".
There are some photos that will never make it to your screens, however. You will never see the images of the 60 children held in cages, including a three-month-old baby. A glorified human zoo of vulnerable children. You will never see the photo of the 105-year-old prisoner who was beaten so badly that blood poured down his aged and decrepit frame. You will not see the force-feeding. You will not see prisoners sat naked, cold and hungry in the long nights, forced to defecate and sit in their own excrement. You will never see the men who lost their life and had their killings covered up as "suicides". You will not see the photos of the brothers who had their organs removed and their dehumanised bodies gutted from the inside out. You will not see the body bags shipped out of the facility – with just an ISN barcode – back to families who were offered no explanation, let alone remorse or reparation.
No, the Americans torture and kill first and ask questions later. Heck, they don't even bother asking questions. They just release pretty photographs to demonstrate their humanity in the face of our barbarism. The CIA has already destroyed thousands of photographs and videos that attest to the torture that has taken place at CIA black sites across the world.
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Here for you now is just one image of our journey to Guantanamo. One stop on the road to Hell. Most of us were wishing the plane would crash and we would die there are then. Nobody sat on those planes. We were gagged, hooded, shackled and chained to the floor. I myself was sporting a sign around my neck saying "BEAT ME". The soldiers enacted the command and then posed for photos with my heaving, bloodied body. They were fond of photography, for sure. They slammed their boots down on our heads. They rode us like animals. Choked us. They pulled down our underwear and took photos while elbowing one another in delight. They carried out their infamous "cavity searches" which involved taking a deep, long look into our anuses. "You like that, huh? Do you want us to do it again?" I will never stop hearing their laughter in my head, they enjoyed nothing more than humiliating us.
We were dragged naked to our cage where we had to wait for hours to be given the infamous orange jumpsuit. This was the first stop in our journey. And the journey was long and brutal.
So now we make a request.
We ask the Pentagon to release the photos of prisoners who died in Guantanamo. The Guantanamo children. The waterboarding. The force-feeding. The blood-stained walls of cells where prisoners were killed. The prisoners who left the cursed facility in wheelchairs because they had their backs literally broken during interrogations. Release the pictures of us when we were kept naked and cold in metal cells for weeks and months in solitary confinement.
Even then, we prisoners produced art. We painted, we drew, we wrote, we sketched. Instead of these photographs, we ask the Pentagon to release the Guantanamo art that we created while detained. Since 2017, lawyers have been petitioning the US government to return it, yet they have refused. Our art is "a threat to American national security." Our art is dangerous … because it tells the truth.
Even after all this, I feel the first victims of the American government are its people. They are being lied to and deceived. They are being fed false tales of the American Dream, freedom, democracy and justice. They are being misled and abused by the powers they have entrusted to safeguard their interests. This is the slow rot of America that is killing it from within.
Without accountability, acknowledgement and openness, the world will never know the truth. Americans will never know the reality of their government, of their country, of the lies which are veiled in plain sight.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.