Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

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H. Candace Gorman

H. Candace Gorman is a civil rights/human rights lawyer in Chicago who is representing two Guantánamo detainees.

January 11th, 2007 3:45 AM

'FIVE YEARS LATER... but who's counting?' ...by H. Candace Gorman, Esq.

I know Mr. Al-Ghizzawi is counting, as are the 400 other men sitting in the wretched heat at Guantanamo bay Cuba. The expression “time flies” has no meaning to these men. At Guantanamo Bay time does not fly, it drags on, in a dry, cruel and sadistic way.

The first time I went to the base my client had already been there more than four years. The first part of his detention was spent in a cage with a strip of concrete around the sand floor. It was open to the elements: be it sun, rain, cold, or the occasional hurricane. The hovel erected by our government to house human beings looked like the animal shelter where we picked out a dog some years back, only our dog had a little covered corner where she could get away from the weather.

Mr. Al-Ghizzawi and the other men were eventually “upgraded” to the facilities they are currently living in. Now they have walls, a roof and barred windows. They have air conditioning and concrete floors. Everyday the air conditioning is blasting cold air on poor frail Mr. Al-Ghizzawi. He has no blanket (blankets are not allowed). Instead he has a plastic “thing” to cover himself with. This plastic “thing” is cold when it is cold and hot when it is hot. It is never washed and it stinks.

But the floors are washed. Everyday gallons of a pine sol like substance are thrown on the floors and the men are forced to breath in the fumes for hours until someone gets around to hosing the solvent off the door. Mr. Al-Ghizzawi described how his eyes and throat burn and how he coughs and gags, every day. Unfortunately, some of the guards laugh at the discomfort that this causes the men. Some even leave buckets with the solvent under the open windows so that Mr. Al-Ghizzawi and the other men are forced to continue breathing in the fumes all day and/or night. These men sit in their tiny cell: day after day, week after week, year after year. They have nothing to occupy their time.

As Mr. Al-Ghizzawi was telling me this, I was looking around at the tiny cell where we were meeting. We were at Camp Echo. Camp Echo is made up of several one-story buildings divided into two rooms by mesh grates. The eight feet by ten feet concrete buildings have no windows, but are somewhat air-conditioned (it’s not quite as hot as being out in the sun). The cell side contains a toilet/sink combination and a metal cot. The visitor side contains a table and chairs. The lawyers meet with their clients on the visitor side of this tiny cell. The client’s feet are shackled to the floor.

This same Camp Echo is where the interrogations take place. This fact is not lost on the detainees. On another day, an interrogator could be sitting in my very same chair asking Mr. Al-Ghizzawi or some other detainee whatever question it is that they think is relevant after five years of detention. The interrogations clearly focus on important issues. For example, in Mr. Al-Ghizzawi’s last interrogation (a few months ago) he was questioned at length about the type of perfume his wife wears. The answer, of course, was none. They were poor shopkeepers; they could not afford such a luxury. Mr. Al-Ghizzawi asked me why they ask him such stupid questions. I explained to him that he is probably being used for training purposes (for training the interrogators). In fact Rumsfeld said as much a few years back, that Guantanamo was a wonderful training ground for the interrogators. We know now that techniques developed at Guantánamo were applied expertly in Abu Ghraib. There is no other explanation for Mr. Al-Ghizzawi to be here. The military found Mr. Al-Ghizzawi to not be an enemy combatant when they were classifying the detainees. Unfortunately Washington overruled that determination, claiming five weeks later that they had new evidence. It was a crock. Mr. Al-Ghizzawi is truly an innocent man trapped in a living hell.

As we sat in Camp Echo and talked about his health problems and his family, I could feel the sweat pouring down my back. Each night after our meetings I would go back to my hotel room and wash my dripping wet clothes and think about the fact that Mr. Al-Ghizzawi does not have this, or any other, luxury. I wonder how Mr. Al-Ghizzawi can keep going, not charged with anything and with no end in sight. Amazingly, he even shows a sense of humor at times. How can he sit here and discuss with me notions about justice and civil rights and then go back to that cell with its wretched smell of pine oil, not knowing if he will ever get out of here?

Now that the men are in their “upgraded” facilities, they get very little time outside. Of course there are no trees or shade when they are outside, so it is a double edged sword to ask for time outside. (I can hear Rumsfeld saying “ok you want fresh air, stand out here for 10 hours.”) When they are led into the open pen area for their few minutes of “recreation” time, Mr. Al-Ghizzawi tells me the first thing he looks to see is which guards are on duty. If he is lucky, he might see the little cat that sometimes comes to the area. He says it is a nice little cat and the detainees try to bring it scraps of food when they can. He said the cat is very smart, it knows that certain of the uniformed men are very cruel and it does not come around when those particular guards are present. Mr. Al-Ghizzawi envies the luck of the cat, it can pick and choose when to show up.

So now we start year five. Mr. Al-Ghizzawi’s health is rapidly deteriorating from the effects of untreated hepatitis B and tuberculosis. His daughter, who was just a few months old when he was turned in for a bounty and whisked off to Guantanamo, will turn six soon. His wife and daughter live on the kindness of family. The bread and spice shop owned and operated by Mr. Al-Ghizzawi and his wife has been long since closed down (she cannot run the shop without him). Our courts and politicians have forsaken Mr. Al-Ghizzawi. The diplomats look the other way. Countries that understand just how awful the US has become refuse to take Guantanamo refugees, not because they are afraid the men are terrorist, but because they don’t want to be seen doing anything to help the US out of this awful mess we made for ourselves. Time will not look favorably to anything our country has done to the men of Guantánamo, but that is a bitter-sweet pill for the men we have caused to suffer so greatly.

When Mr. Al-Ghizzawi was explaining to me his early years at Guantanamo, he told me about a flower that had appeared outside his cage in the spring of 2002. Just one little flower poking its beautiful leaves and petals out of the sand. He was describing the flower to me, but I couldn’t quite figure out what kind of flower it was. He called it a primrose and maybe it was. He said to me “I am like that little flower. It didn’t belong there…. I don’t belong here either.”

H. Candace Gorman is a civil rights attorney in Chicago. Visit her blog at http://www.gtmoblog.blogspot.com/

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