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Cover Story: Guantanamo Wives

July 01, 2013

Shaker Aamer, a British citizen with a wife and four children, has been imprisoned and interrogated at both the Bagram base in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba for over 10 years. He has never been charged or faced trial and is on hunger strike in Guantanamo — where at least 44 detainees are force-fed every day through a nasal tube to keep them alive. Detainees, meanwhile, have pledged to starve to death. Kuwaiti prisoner Fayiz al-Kandari said that during a recent crackdown, the hunger strikers were left hands tied and face down on the floor for six hours, their clothes soaked with pepper spray.

Like many other Guantanamo detainees, Aamer was cleared for release by the US authorities in 2007 but is still being held without charge. Sent to Guantanamo in 2002, Aamer is known to have told his lawyer about the presence of MI6 officers during his interrogation and torture at Bagram, the reason he is said to be not released. It has recently been reported that the British Prime Minister David Cameron raised the case of Aamer with Obama at the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland this month.

In her book, Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror, Victoria Brittain tells of women and children affected by the ‘war on terror,’ which has allowed for brutal and dehumanising practices that have deprived the detainees and their families of their basic human rights. Violence and torture during interrogation and an absence of access to the justice systems in the US, Britain or other countries have left hundreds in a legal ‘black hole’. President Obama said he wants to close Guantanamo, but the question is whether the detainees can be brought to the US and tried and those cleared for release returned to their home countries. After 9/11, it is alleged that at least 1,200 people — mostly Arab and South Asian and mostly Muslims — were arrested, held in solitary confinement, interrogated and tortured. Many were deported from the US and Britain. The Patriot Act and subsequent legislation allowed the US government powers to arrest, detain indefinitely and deport, even if there was no proof of crimes committed. Renditions were not questioned and many countries acted as hubs enroute to prisons such as Guantanamo and Bagram. Thousands of men from Pakistan, the Middle-East, Bosnia, Gambia and other countries were captured and handed over to the American forces by warlords in Afghanistan for $5,000 bounties. The Wikileaks Guantanamo files have revealed how little evidence was produced against many of the men incarcerated and most of them were never charged with a crime.

Brittain shows the families of detainees resisting the urge to give into suffering through loss and persistent humiliation. While there have been accounts of interrogation and force feeding made public by former detainees, little has been documented about the lives of their wives, children and mothers who often did not know for years where their loved ones had disappeared. Many of the women — wives, sisters and mothers — are aware of the torture practised, the clandestine rendition flights to secret CIA-run prisons and the fact that these men were (and are) beyond the reach of the law. Even after their release, former detainees are subjected to controlled movement and surveillance.

Sabah, the Palestinian wife of Jamil-el-Banna, was living in north London with her five children when her husband was arrested in West Africa while allegedly setting up a peanut factory with his Iraqi friend, Bisher-al-Rawi, also from London. Sabah meets Brittain for the first time in her home where she had “miraculously created a tiny world of happiness and security for her children.” Sabah’s is a story of tenacity: she met Jamil in Jordan where she lived with her family, they married and moved to Pakistan where he taught in a school and “the two of them happily settled there until the US-backed war against the Soviets … came to an abrupt end.”

Shadow Lives recounts the untold stories of families in Britain during the decade long fall-out from 9/11 which spread apprehension among local communities and allowed Islamophobia to brew dangerously. The women show resilience despite mental breakdowns and systematic social isolation and even abuse because of their association with a terror suspect. Religious practice is important for all families as a form of solace.

Like many other wives, Sabah received only one letter from her husband in all these years. It was written in April 2003 from Guantanamo. And Banna got 13 letters from his wife in January 2005, which had been withheld from him for more than two years. Sabah’s story tells of how she shielded her children’s identity when they went to school so that they wouldn’t suffer taunts; how, when other prisoners were released and her husband was not, she openly began campaigning by writing letters to politicians, holding public meetings and lobbying parliamentarians. For someone like Sabah who had never left her home, spoke little English and who finally went through two years of a British college course, this was a lonely battle for five years. Brittain writes: “Her extraordinary determination had seen her choose to wear the hijab as a teenager against her family’s advice, had taken her far away from her family to Pakistan with her new husband, then had made her at home with her children in Britain, a country where she did not know the language well, and where she fought a lonely five-year battle against the power of the state for her husband’s release.”

When you read the various accounts in Shadow Lives, it’s not the torture of detainees or whether they are militants or captured mistakenly that stands out, but the loss — of years, of fighting against hope and of the women forced to choose between putting their lives on hold, forgetting about their husbands or divorcing them, as has happened in a few cases. This is a book that reminds of the severe consequences of dismissing normal legal standards and denying redress to justice.

With most families profiled in Shadow Lives living in Britain, the procedure remained the same when detainees were released. They wore electronic tags and had an early evening curfew; many families were not allowed access to the internet and were unable to have visitors. Some families found comfort in communities that helped them and the rights organisations campaigning for the release of British detainees. But the children were bullied, the wives spat at and abused. Police officials continually visited and children’s computers were confiscated as were their toys and never returned. Homes were searched arbitrarily and wives and children kept under surveillance. Some men suffered shattering mental illnesses, witnessed by their families. In other cases, “women … had suffered complete mental breakdowns [and were] being looked after with loving care by husbands who could only step outside for very restricted hours.” One young girl says: “Listen to my story, [and] then decide if you will be able to live my life.”

Aamer’s wife Zinnira remained depressed and on medication for years after their “life, their happiness, ended after 9/11”. Her father had travelled from India as an imam to work in a South London mosque. Brought up in London, Zinnira was one of 11 children and she married Aamer at 21. They moved to Afghanistan because they wanted to be part of “what they believed would be building a pure Islamic state.” When the ‘war on terror’ started, Aamer sent her to Pakistan but stayed back to look after their home. He was captured by bounty hunters in 2001 who “bartered him with two of the other armed groups” in Afghanistan at the time and he was handed to the Americans. Zinnira’s father, like Aamer’s family in Saudi Arabia, thought he was dead until he read a small notice saying he was one of the men sent to the Cuban prison. Brittain who has spent years interviewing the families of detainees in the UK, says Zinnira (like Sabah) had to cope with not knowing when her husband would come home as some detainees returned in 2003 and 2004. “She gradually had to learn something about the horrors these other men had endured … Hunger strikes, restraint chairs, shackling, solitary confinement, freezing cold cells, sexual humiliations were beyond anything she could bear to take in.” She did not read the newspapers or watch television.

Aamer’s case has been in the news for years with campaigns led by British parliamentarians questioning why he hasn’t been sent home. Attempts by British delegations to meet US officials, and public meetings at the House of Commons where Zinnira’s father has spoken have had no results. A letter written to Zinnira by her husband holds the British government responsible for his death as much as the Americans. He says that he is ‘dying here every day, mentally and physically.” Aamer was rumoured a few years ago to have been put on a plane for Saudi Arabia according to a former prisoner, but he refused to be sent to any country other than the UK. Through the Red Cross the family has finally spoken to him after years of waiting. They know nothing for certain other than he is on hunger strike and ready to die. His wife suffers from loss of memory and concentration and retreats to her mother’s house when she cannot manage on her own. Her children have had little professional support during this time, Brittain writes.

Zinnira’s story reflects the sadness and fear that hundreds of women and men left behind must deal with, never knowing the ‘secret evidence’ that remains undisclosed and that keeps these men incarcerated indefinitely.