Leaving Guantanamo is not the end: It is a new beginning.
As one brother leaves Guantanamo, the focus turns back to releasing those left suffering inside. We often tell ourselves that those who have left have escaped a life of agony and have what matters most: their freedom. But after one year, or 12 years, of being cruely held without charge or trial – is there any way of healing the scars of Guantanamo?
The War on Terror has created a torrent of psychiatric trauma for those it has affected. Prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, Bagram, Kandahar, black sites across the Middle East – men who were kidnapped and stripped of their fundamental rights to charge and trial – languish in their cells, trying to understand how mankind could be so inhumane. In 2011, the U.S. army classified around 100 prisoners at Guantanamo as suffering from a psychiatric illness including bipolar disorder, severe depression and schizophrenia. When they return home, our brothers are completely unable to explain why they were subjected to such cruel and degrading treatment over a number of years. They experience regular flashbacks of the mental torture, physical torture and the isolation. Memories of the fear and the uncertainty of life regularly ring through the survivors’ minds, forcing them to relive the trauma despite their apparent freedom. An answer for why they were put through this treatment never arises: an answer does not exist.
In order to deal with the potentiality of never seeing their loved ones again, the brothers in Guantanamo often cut contact with their families in an attempt to switch off the emotions and save pain and suffering. They become accustomed to a lifestyle that no man should ever have to become accustomed to. Isolation, no contact with family, solitary confinement – over the years, their cell room becomes their worst nightmare but also the only “home” they know. An inescapable torment. When they are reunited with the families that they have not seen for years, they must figure out how to bring back the emotions that they locked up for so long. Creating emotional friendships, building trust and getting to know the children that they have never met or have not seen grow up, is a long-term challenge. Their loved ones want nothing more than to embrace them, and feel their warmth again. But the brothers are often unable to connect to the intensity of even a hug, after so many years of not having a person close to them. Survivors have spoken of a desire to be in a room by themselves, because this is the reality that they have become used to.
The barbed wire walls of Guantanamo Bay extend far beyond its location in Cuba. A prisoner is released and becomes a survivor, but the traumatic effects of his experience remain. When we campaign for our brothers who remain, we should not rest and be satisfied with a release. There may be nothing we can personally do to help a survivor and sometimes the best we can do is to let our brothers heal with their families. But we can strive to never forget that Guantanamo Bay goes beyond that prison camp. When they are released, we can take a moment to reflect on how difficult it will be for them as they try to rebuild their lives. We should keep the survivors in our prayers, and remember: The men can be released and the prison could be closed, but the effects of Guantanamo Bay are inescapable.
(NOTE: CAGE represents cases of individuals based on the remit of our work. Supporting a case does not mean we agree with the views or actions of the individual. Content published on CAGE may not reflect the official position of our organisation.)