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Poetry gives voice to Guantanamo Bay detainees

Several years ago, an "enemy combatant" at Guantanamo handed his New York defense attorney a sealed envelope. It was a list of what he wanted to discuss at their next meeting, he said. Then Jumah al-Dossari returned to his solitary confinement cell, where he lived 24 hours a day for years. • The lawyer, Josh Colangelo-Bryan, suddenly remembering something he wanted to tell his client, got permission to go to his cell. There, he found al-Dossari dangling from the bars, having fashioned his sheet into a noose. The lawyer yelled for guards to cut down the 30-year-old Saudi construction supervisor. • When he regained consciousness, the lawyer asked why. • "I'd rather die than live dead," whispered the prisoner. • That night Colangelo-Bryan opened the sealed envelope and found a suicide note from al-Dossari. • "Take my blood. Take my death shroud and the remnants of my body. Take photographs of my corpse at the grave, lonely," it began. • It is this note, along with other writings, that became the only intimate voice of the isolated Guantanamo prisoners. • They scratched words into Styrofoam cups with pebbles and etched them into napkins with their fingernails. Eventually their words became a 72-page book of poetry, Poems from Guantanamo, The Detainees Speak. • "Even when they had no hope, writing the poems gave them back their humanity," said Colangelo-Bryan. • Though President Obama has ordered the camp to be closed within a year, the debate about Guantanamo continues to be a political prism of sorts, reflecting a full spectrum of views on the prisoners. There are versions of what U.S. Rep. Bill Young, R-Florida, told CNN after Obama made his announcement. • "They're dangerous. They're the enemy," said Young.

In contrast, there are opinions that reflect what a recent phone poll (by Belden, Russonello and Stewart) showed: Fifty-seven percent of Americans want Guantanamo closed.

Some say it has simply outlived its usefulness, while others say its very existence damaged beyond measure the reputation of the United States as a moral leader. Still others worry over what the indifference to Guantanamo says about our humanity when so many Americans took an "out of sight out of mind" attitude about our government's harsh treatment of the men there.

There's an impersonal math that accompanies the prisoners: More than 775 have gone through. More than 500 were never charged and have been released after years of torture and isolation. Two were convicted by military commissions, but are now free after serving their time. Military spokesmen at first said 61 returned to the battlefield, later dropping that number to 18. But only two are named and known to be active in al-Qaida.

The fewer than 250 remaining prisoners are divided into three groups: Between 65 and 135 detainees who were never officially charged and who will likely be released to their countries. About 60, who will probably be tried in the United States and could end up in super max prisons (about 14 of them are suspected of being al-Qaida masterminds and planners). And, the third group: Between 50 and 120 in a limbo where they can't return to their own countries because they could be harmed or worse — or can't be tried because the treatment at Guantanamo deranged them.

"They'll probably be returned to third countries," said Colangelo-Bryan.

The predictions, polls and groupings are helpful, but they do little to show what the years in Guantanamo were like for the detainees, who were packed away like oysters in a cave at the bottom of the sea. Except for the poems, we have very little to bring them to life.

Maybe because torture and extreme isolation have a way of stripping people of their descriptive abilities even when they get out. Maybe because physical and psychic pain are difficult to describe in interviews, other than to say, "It hurt." And, maybe because most people on the outside have either been afraid of the prisoners, indifferent to them or couldn't figure out how to get involved.

"What the poetry does is force us to look at the total loneliness and abject helplessness of the men held at Guantanamo," said Chicago psychologist Frank Summers, who is president of Psychoanalysts for Social Responsibility, which monitors psychologist participation in coerced interrogations and torture (including Guantanamo).

"The lack of interaction was terribly destructive to the men's psyches — even more than the torture. When they are transplanted back into humanity, some will recover, but not all," said Tampa psychiatrist Edward Stein, who teaches about the "horribly destructive effects of isolation" at the University of South Florida medical school.

That recovery, says Summers, will depend on whether the former detainees feel their environments are safe enough to tell their stories, which will help them reintegrate into society.

"The poetry was a first step," he said.

Guantanamo defense attorney Marc Falkoff came up with the idea for the poetry book after a couple of clients stuck napkins and flattened cups with fragments of poems in legal papers. When he talked to other defense attorneys, he learned that they too were getting poems.

Attorney Clive Stafford Smith found a poem in a letter from al-Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj, who was picked up going into Afghanistan with a film crew and held more than six years, without being charged.

From that poem: "After the shackles and the nights and the suffering and the tears, how can I write poetry?"

Smith also retrieved a poem among legal papers from detainee Osama Abu Kabir, a Jordanian truck driver, who was picked up on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan because he was wearing a Casio watch similar to those worn by al-Qaida leaders. Like al-Dossari and al-Haj, Kabir was never formally charged.

His poem, written while in solitary confinement, begins, "Is it true the grass grows again after rain?"

Said Stein: "Sometimes, with severely traumatized people, even the most basic realities of every day — like the sun rising and setting — are thrown into question."

To hold on to reality, Falkoff said, the prisoners went to great ends. He tells how they saved cantaloupe and watermelon seeds from their meals and pressed them into the scab­rous soil, splashing their drinking water on the burrows and watching.

"It was hopeless," he said. "But, like the poems, the urge to create was about the only thing that kept them going."

In the past year and a half, the three men have been released.

Kabir returned to Jordan in late 2007, where he lives with family.

Al-Haj lives in Doha, Qatar, with his wife and child. He films short segments on human rights abuses for al-Jazeera.

Upon his release last summer, he told the St. Petersburg Times: "It is not vengeance that drives me. It is telling the stories of oppressed people everywhere so there is never another Guantanamo."

Al-Dossari, who was picked up in Afghanistan while working on a mosque-building project, returned to his home in Saudi Arabia in late 2007, where he married for a second time and is expecting a second child. Despite damage to his larynx from trying to hang himself, he is a spokesman for a program in Saudi Arabia that rehabilitates former Guantanamo prisoners.

He recently told his lawyer: "Whenever I start to feel bitter about the cruelty at Guantanamo, I imagine the faces of the soldiers who were kind to me. Like them, I want the world to be a better place."

Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@ or (727) 893-8068.

Death Poem

(A suicide note from Guantanamo)

Take my blood.

Take my death shroud and

The remnants of my body.

Take photographs of my corpse at the grave, lonely.

Send them to the world,

To the judges and

To the people of conscience,

Send them to the principled men and the fair-minded.

And let them bear the guilty burden, before the world,

Of this innocent soul.

Let them bear the burden, before their children and before history,

Of this wasted, sinless soul,

Of this soul which has suffered at the hands of the "protectors of peace."


About this poem's author

Jumah al-Dossari, 34, was held at Guantanamo for almost six years. During that time, he attempted suicide several times. Detained without charge or trial until his release in late 2007, al-Dossari was subjected to a range of abuses, some detailed in Inside the Wire, an account of Guantanamo by former military intelligence soldier Erik Saar. In the photo at right, al-Dossari, far right, walks with an unidentified man at a rehab center in Saudi Arabia for those who were jailed. He's now a spokesman for the center. He and his wife are expecting.

Humiliated in the Shackles

(an excerpt)

When I heard pigeons cooing in the trees,

Hot tears covered my face.

When the lark chirped, my thoughts composed

A message for my son.

Mohammad, I am afflicted.

In my despair, I have no one but Allah for comfort.

The oppressors are playing with me,

As they move freely about the world.

They have monuments to liberty

And freedom of opinion, which is well and good.

But I explained to them that

Architecture is not justice.

I was humiliated in the shackles.

How can I now compose verses? How can I now write?

After the shackles and the nights and the suffering and the tears,

How can I write poetry?

My soul is like a roiling sea, stirred by anguish,

Violent with passion.

I am a captive, but the crimes are my captors'.

Sami al-Haj

Al-Haj, a Sudanese national, was a journalist covering the conflict in Afghanistan for the television network al-Jazeera when, in 2001, he was taken into custody and stripped of his passport and press card. Handed over to U.S. forces in January 2002, he was tortured at both Bagram air base and Kandahar before being transferred to Guantanamo Bay in June 2002. Al-Haj was never charged and released in the spring of 2008. He works for Al-Jazeera and lives with his wife and son in Doha, Qatar.

Is It True?

Is it true that the grass grows again after rain?

Is it true that the flowers will rise up in the spring?

Is it true that birds will migrate home again?

Is it true that the salmon swim back up their stream?

It is true. This is true. These are all miracles.

But is it true that one day we'll leave Guantánamo Bay?

Is it true that one day we'll go back to our homes?

I sail in my dreams, I am dreaming of home.

To be with my children, each one part of me;

To be with my wife and the ones that I love;

To be with my parents, my world's tenderest hearts,

I dream to be home, to be free from this cage.

But do you hear me, oh Judge, do you hear me at all?

We are innocent, here, we've committed no crime.

Set me free, set us free, if anywhere still

Justice and compassion remain in this world!

Osama Abu Kabir

Kabir is a Jordanian water truck driver. After joining an Islamic missionary organization, he traveled to Afghanistan, where he was detained by anti-Taliban forces and handed over to the U.S. military. One of the justifications offered for his prolonged detention was that he wore a Casio digital watch, a brand supposedly favored by members of al-Qaida. Kabir was never formally charged and was released in late 2007. He lives with his family in Jordan.

Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak

Edited by Marc Falkoff

University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, 2007

84 pages, $13.95.

Other Guantanamo detainees since released. Their poems, Page 5P

Poetry gives voice to Guantanamo Bay detainees 01/31/09 [Last modified: Thursday, January 23, 2014 1:38pm]
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