Guantánamo is in the grips of a hunger strike – an age-old form of protest that marked such world events as the fight for women’s suffrage and Indian and Irish independence. The U.S. military’s response to the hunger strike is not surprising: punitive force-feeding, a dangerous and painful approach. In March I was treated to a grisly demonstration of this procedure at a conference of Guantánamo attorneys in London and Oxford.
We also met with members of the British Parliament and ambassadors from our clients’ countries of origin (as well as ambassadors of countries that might be willing to offer asylum to former prisoners). But one of the main topics of the discussion was the current hunger strike, which is only now being discussed in the press.
The hunger strike coincided with the fifth anniversary of the opening of Guantánamo, as well as the opening in late December 2006 of the maximum security complex, Camp 6, constructed by Kellogg, Brown and Root, then a subsidiary of Halliburton. My Libyan client, Abdul Hamid Al-Ghizzawi, has been moved to Camp 6.
The exact number participating in the hunger strike is unclear because the military will not talk about it, but based on accounts emerging from the base through attorney-client notes as they get “cleared” by the military, we know the number is large. According to my Algerian client, Abdul Razak Ali, more than 46 prisoners are on hunger strike, but he is only in one section of the base, so presumably there are many more. The men participating in the hunger strike are force-fed “Ensure” twice a day. Each man is strapped to a chair (the model I saw was made of wood). A plastic tube approximately 30 inches in length is forced down his esophagus. (Occasionally it runs down the trachea into the lungs, maybe by accident.) This is what your country is doing – in your name.
One of the detainees subjected to this is Sami Al-Haj, the Al-Jazeera cameraman who has been held without trial for nearly 2,000 days. He described the force-feeding to his attorney, Clive Stafford Smith, in early March. According to Stafford Smith, Al-Haj is force-fed each day at 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. This coincides with what Abdul Razak Ali told me about the men on strike who are taken from his camp every day. They are taken to several different buildings; Al-Haj is brought to the now-deserted mental health block.
In this building there are two cells with force-feeding chairs. Each day Al-Haj is strapped tightly into the chair with 13 straps. The guards begin with the feet straps, then his waist. Then they fasten one wrist at a time. There is one band around each shin, one on each wrist, one on each elbow, one strap that comes down over each shoulder and one around the waist. Three straps are used to immobilize his head. The ankles are shackled to an eye on the chair, and then they pull a mask over his mouth.
Every morning they insert the tube through Al-Haj’s left nostril and every afternoon, his right – presumably to avoid excessive pressure on a single nostril. According to Al-Haj, the pain of putting the tube up his nose is considerable; the tube’s diameter is 12 millimeters, (three times the clinically recommended width of a nasogastric tube) and he gags when it passes through his throat. As it descends into his body, the attendants blow air into the tube to hear where it is, and then they put a stethoscope near his heart to listen. Most days he suffers in silence until tears stream down his cheeks. Three times they have inserted the tube the wrong way, so it went into his lungs. When they think that has happened they check by putting water into the tube, which makes him choke. Al-Haj says that never once have the hospital personnel apologized when the tube entered his lung.
After force-feeding Al-Haj, they hold him in the chair for an hour to make sure he doesn’t throw up. If he does, which Sami says happens frequently, he is given no clean clothes, and he cannot clean himself after returning to his cell because the water is turned off (so that the guards can check whether he has thrown up in the toilet).
At a press conference held before our meeting at Parliament, we watched a live demonstration of the force-feeding process. A brave volunteer underwent the grueling process, though the jumbo-sized feeding tube was not used. Everyone present looked away as this man was strapped down and the tube was inserted down his nostril.
Why does Al-Haj continue to endure this torture? He said, “Food is not enough for life. If there is no air, could you live on food alone? Freedom is just as important as food or air. Give me freedom, and I’ll eat. Every day they ask me, when will I eat. Every day, I say, ‘Tomorrow.’ Every day. It’s what Scarlett O’Hara says at the end of Gone With the Wind: ‘Tomorrow is another day.’ “
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