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Guantánamo: Both Sides of the Wire

United we stand: Chris (left) and Moazzam (centre) in London at the start of their speaker tour, January 2009.


Chris Arendt is not your conventional Guantánamo guard. Pale and gangly with a Mohican haircut and a shabby hoodie, he’s a proud vegetarian and a self-declared anarchist. Yet this rebellious anti-establishment 19-year-old was let inside the gates of one of the world’s most notorious prisons and asked to hand out sheets of toilet paper to people who supposedly pose some of the greatest threats to Western civilization.

‘The rule was eight sheets per visit. They said we couldn’t give them any more because “they might make knives out of it”. You try using just eight squares of paper – I’m telling you it isn’t easy.’

Chris’s straight-talking attitude cuts right through the dark formality of Guantánamo. It exposes the farcical side of the institution as well as its terror:

‘One of the first things I learned on the island was “Don’t mess with the iguanas”. In Guantánamo there is a $10,000 fine for killing one. I used to drive around terrified of running over one of these things; but people would beat the shit out of detainees. We could act like fools on the block, but mess with an iguana and it’s a different story. They’re a protected species; detainees are not. I’m telling you – the whole place is nuts.’

Whilst Chris’s words eloquently tumble forth, the man sitting close by listens to him intently. This is Moazzam Begg, a detainee held in Guantánamo while Chris worked there. Although they never met during their time on the island, Moazzam remembers when guards like Chris locked prisoners in cages. Today, they sit beside each other as equals.

There couldn’t be a more appropriate time for these two to meet. President Obama’s public commitment to close Guantánamo has thrown the prison back into the media spotlight. Together, Chris and Moazzam offer the world a perspective of Guantánamo from both sides of the wire.

A guard’s life

Chris’s story begins in a small trailer in the secluded rural heart of Michigan. His family had a history of military service, but very little money. He joined the National Guard to help pay his way through college. When he received a notice informing him that he was to be posted in Guantánamo after a meagre two weeks’ training, he was still a teenager. Leaving for Cuba was the first time he’d ever set foot off US soil.

From the very beginning, it was clear that Chris didn’t fit in. The only vegetarian in the group, he was regularly taunted for continuously nibbling saltine crackers, and beaten up for sympathizing with detainees.

‘My relationship with the military was tense. I was always verbose; I was against everything they were doing. I got my ass kicked quite a few times, especially for talking to prisoners.

‘We had nicknames for them – “tainers”, “rag head”, “sand digger” – a lot of racist terms. We were a hillbilly unit straight out of Michigan. It always made me feel uncomfortable, but I rarely corrected anyone if they said anything. In hindsight I wish I’d been more gung-ho and said, “They’re human beings too – you’re demoralizing them”. But at the time I just didn’t want to get kicked in the mouth by someone who weighs 100 pounds more than me.’

Although Chris himself never had the rank or training to administer any formal torture, he told me that it was hard not to get sucked into the day-to-day culture of bullying and aggression that pervaded the camp.

‘I participated in things I shouldn’t – things I regret now. Once I was taking – well, dragging – a detainee to the interrogation cell with another guard. He wasn’t coming willingly. Between the two of us we smashed his head into a metal pole.’

On the surface, everyday life for a Guantánamo guard is pretty sweet. They live in two-storey apartments with air conditioning and swimming pools. They go for rides in fast-paced jeeps, and have access to fast-food chains. They call home when they want, and they can leave the grounds when they want.

‘In hindsight I wish I’d been more gung-ho and said, “They’re human beings too – you’re demoralizing them”. But I didn’t want to get kicked in the mouth by someone who weighs 100 pounds more than me.’

But talking to Chris, it becomes clear that the suffering in Guantánamo is not one-sided. Somehow, this is something that is best understood and articulated by former prisoner Moazzam:

‘The guards suffer the exploitation of the military too. The more Chris and I talked, the more we realized that we were on the same side. That we had both been subjected to the same thing – the sergeants of the guard, the procedures, the managers. We’d both been victims of the same power structures.’

This is one of the many horrible untold stories about Guantánamo: what the regime does to its guards. For young men like Chris, the effect of bearing witness to degrading torture day after day is devastating. To feel like you are complicit in it is unbearable. Just a few months in, Chris tried to hang himself with a cord from a ceiling fan. Luckily, it broke.

To hold a man down...

Moazzam was imprisoned for three years between 2002 and 2005. The first 11 months were spent in Bagram prison, Afghanistan; the rest in Guantánamo. Perhaps it was the hours, days and weeks spent in solitary confinement that gave Moazzam the meditation and reflection space necessary to empathize with guards like Chris. Unlike the young soldier, he does not believe that the ordinary military men at Guantánamo should be hunted down for trial after the prison closes. Somehow, he has found it within himself to understand that it is the perpetrators as well as the victims of Guantánamo that suffer. As he so simply and beautifully puts it, ‘To hold a man down, you have to stay down with him.’

Born in Britain to an Indian family, Moazzam is now 40 years old. Although he was not brought up practising Islam, he became more interested in the religion after witnessing atrocities perpetrated against Muslims abroad. Motivated by the injustice, he set up an Islamic bookshop and study group and used the proceeds to open a girls’ school in Afghanistan. In 2002, he was picked up by US forces and accused of helping to train extremists. To this day he swears that he did nothing to justify this allegation, and he was never given a trial to prove otherwise. In 2005, he was released from Guantánamo without explanation.

Unlike some of his less fortunate inmates, Moazzam was never subjected to water boarding or sexual humiliation. But he was deprived of sleep for days at a time, and threatened and beaten by guards. He was forced to hold the stress position for hours, denied the right to exercise and locked in isolation:

‘Solitary confinement is monotonous, dreary and bleak. You spend the whole day pacing, but the cell is only eight feet by six feet. That means three steps forward and three steps back. You are literally kept like an animal in a cage. At the changing of the guard you get to see new faces, but apart from that there is almost nothing to break up the day.’

In his book, Enemy Combatant, Moazzam describes the harrowing experiences with a level of detail I couldn’t bring myself to ask him about again: 

‘I was past a state of shock, I couldn’t believe all this was happening to me. The noises were deafening: barking dogs, relentless verbal abuse, plane engines, electricity generators, and screams of pain from other prisoners. Maybe I screamed, too… I felt knees pushing hard against my ribs and legs, and crushing down on my skull simultaneously. I was pinned to the ground by this massive weight; I was not sure how many of them were on me – perhaps three. They used a knife to slice off all my clothes… I was pulled into a standing position and the hood removed… I was confronted with the sight of soldiers encircling me, screaming abuse and taking pictures.’

‘I thought that the people of Britain had given up. It gave me hope to know that they hadn’t’

It is treatment like this that has turned Guantánamo into a testament to US hypocrisy. It has come to symbolize everything that is wrong with the ‘war on terror’. The lasting image of 9/11 is no longer smoke billowing from two shattered towers, but the wires and bright orange uniforms of those the US trapped and tortured without trial.

Yet glimpses of humanity could still be found. Moazzam told me how – unlike the competitive, bullying relationships Chris had with most of his fellow guards – the friendships he formed with fellow inmates were a continuous source of comfort.

‘You do find a kind of camaraderie or solidarity that transcends the 40 or so nationalities of prisoners that are there. I was held next to David Hicks, an Australian detainee, and Osama bin Laden’s driver. We could see each other through steel wired mesh. We regularly talked about our families and our lives back home as a form of escapism. If one of us received something from our lawyer – a chocolate or some other luxury item – then he’d cut it into pieces and pass it over from cell to cell.’

Similarly, in its darkest, quietest corners, Guantánamo did offer opportunities for prisoners to speak intimately to guards. This happened despite the fact that ‘fraternization with the enemy’ remains a punishable crime, and that guards – including Chris – were beaten and transferred for talking to ‘tainers’.

‘There was one guard in particular – an American veteran of the Vietnam War – who talked to me when I was in solitary confinement,’ Moazzam continued. ‘There were two things that he told me that gave me hope. He told me how the Supreme Court had passed a judgment in favour of the (Guantánamo) detainees in 2004. Second, he told me that millions of people had marched on the streets of Birmingham and London against the war. I thought that the people of Britain had given up. It gave me hope to know that they hadn’t.’

In 2005, with the help of the legal charity Reprieve, Moazzam was finally released. When he left, there were 700 detainees still inside. Over the next few years, waves of these prisoners were also discharged. Today, there are only 250 or so who need to be released before Guantánamo can close for good, something that President Obama has openly declared that he wants to see.

Unfortunately it is not so simple. Many of the detainees’ home countries will not take them back, and offering US citizenship to potential perpetrators of 9/11 attacks is political suicide. The normal route for offenders – regular prison through regular courts – is not an option, because the evidence against many prisoners was obtained through illegal means and would not be admissible. It looks like Obama may have to choose between maintaining his commitment to human rights and political expediency.

A testament to history

As for the Guantánamo detention centre itself, both Chris and Moazzam agree that the building should be preserved as a monument.

‘Parts of Guantánamo should be displayed around the world to demonstrate how the US behaved at its worst,’ according to Moazzam. ‘It should be preserved as a testament to history about what happens when a nation loses its head, destroys people’s lives and ceases to follow its own rules.’

Guantánamo might be closing, but both Moazzam and Chris say that they are unable to get over their experiences of their time there. Since leaving the island, they have been relentlessly campaigning, via their organizations Cageprisoners and Iraq Veterans Against the War, not just against the existence of Guantánamo, but against all the other detention centres that exist on American military soil.

It could be a long struggle. No-one knows just how many detention centres are in operation around the world, and the figure is likely to grow if Obama follows through with the rumoured surge in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, guards working in these camps continue to avoid sanction by claiming that their actions were taken ‘in the heat of battle’.

But Chris and Moazzam are not giving up. The prisoner and the guard have managed to lay down their differences and come together to fight the prison itself. Their ability to do that offers hope to all of us who believe not just in emancipation of the body, but freedom for the soul.



New Internationalist issue 420 magazine cover This article is from the March 2009 issue of New Internationalist.
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