When the detention facility at the U.S. Naval base in Guantánamo Bay opened in early 2002, I was a junior in high school. This week, nearly 14 years later, I’m making my first visit to the base as an attorney with CCR to visit two of our clients, Ghaleb al-Bihani and Zaher Hamdoun, men not much older than I am, who have been held without charge this entire time.
Guantánamo has always been a prison for Muslim men and boys, and today, 116 remain detained here. From day one, the U.S. government has shrouded the facility in secrecy to conceal a plethora of abuses and to hide the stories of the people it keeps here. They want the world to forget this place exists. Even here at Guantánamo, prominently displayed maps note the location of the movie theater on the base and even the favorite local graffiti spot, but not the whereabouts of the infamous detention facility.
The first thing that struck me about Guantánamo is the breathtaking natural beauty of the landscape: the vast blue ocean, the white sandy beaches, the exotic birds, the freely roaming iguanas. To think that something so ugly could be hidden in a place so beautiful.
Everyday life here is like a take from the “Truman Show”. Yellow school buses, operated by the Centerra Group (formerly G4S), and driven largely by Jamaican and Filipino laborers, provide transportation around the base. They still sport signs reminding passengers of appropriate classroom behavior. The military escorts assigned to habeas lawyers like me stop at McDonald’s every morning for us to get breakfast before our client meetings and take us to Subway for lunch in between our meetings. After a jog on my first day here, I returned to the small lodge where we are staying. A famous scene from “A Few Good Men” played in the lobby: Tom Cruise cross-examining Guantánamo commander Jack Nicholson about misconduct on the base. The irony seems lost on most of the people around me.
Classification rules and a protective order I signed before coming prevent me from sharing almost anything about my most moving experience here: meeting Ghaleb and Zaher in person for the first time. But I can tell you that the resolve and humanity of these men, who have endured unthinkable horrors, defies logic.
Take Ghaleb, a man who, despite 13 years of detention without charge, still strives to better himself and envision a future beyond his cell. Ghaleb regularly cooks, does yoga, works out mathematical problems, practices English, and also paints. I wish you and others could hear his story in his own words. At times during our meeting, I saw Ghaleb’s face light up with a look of hope, of yearning for nothing more than freedom from the prison that he has been forced to call home for much of his adult life. Whenever he did, I found myself unconsciously peeking under the table at the shackles around his feet.
My father came to the U.S. 41 years ago in search of a country that would allow him to pursue his dreams and start a family. This country has afforded him and our family everything we could have asked for. Just last month, we were blessed with the arrival of the newest member of our family, when my sister gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. As I sit here, thinking about our clients and President Obama’s plan to move Guantánamo to a U.S. facility, I can’t help but wonder whether my niece may one day become a lawyer and represent Ghaleb or some of the other men detained here. It may seem far-fetched, but so did the idea, back when I was a high-school junior in 2002, that men would still be languishing at Guantánamo in 2015, still without charges, many of them long cleared for release. This much I know: our freedom—my father’s, my niece’s, yours and mine—will remain incomplete so long as the shackles remain around Ghaleb’s feet.