THE GUARDIAN: The Guantanamo Hunger Strikes

THE GUARDIAN: Few outside the US military have even seen, let alone recorded, what goes on inside the infamous Guantánamo Bay prison. Now, using the words of the detainees themselves, an extraordinary animated film aims to show the brutality and claustrophobia of daily life there. This is the fascinating story behind its making…For Sami al-Hajj, the scenes in the film he is watching at his home in Doha, Qatar, take him back to his darkest hours. Twice a day, for 16 months, al-Hajj was strapped down and force-fed inside Guantánamo Bay. Today, viewing a film representation of the procedure in Guantánamo Bay: The Hunger Strikes – an animated short made by two British journalists – induces a familiar sensation of torment.

“It reminds me of the painful suffering during my hunger strike. It was painful in every sense of the word. I felt at the time that I died twice every day during the force-feeding,” says the 44-year-old from Sudan. A former al-Jazeera cameraman, al-Hajj was illegally detained and tortured by the US authorities for seven years inside Guantánamo Bay, before being released without charge in 2008. More than five years later, the mystery of what goes on beyond the watchtowers and barbed-wire perimeter of the world’s best known, most controversial and most expensive prison, has if anything deepened. What exactly is daily life like inside Guantánamo Bay? How does it feel, smell, sound? What do its detainees do all day? What do they think? How do they cope?

Apart from the odd photograph, usually shot under tightly controlled conditions, practically nothing exists that gives us a picture of contemporary life inside the prison in Cuba; certainly there are no films, no documentaries, no on-camera interviews recording conditions within its zealously guarded walls. It’s telling that the best known image associated with the camp remains that of detainees shackled in orange boiler suits, a picture taken in 2002 in a part of the camp that no longer exists. Actual information from within Guantánamo Bay is similarly scarce. When last March reports of hunger strikes began to surface, details as always were sketchy and contradicted by statements from the US military. The main source of the reports was Clive Stafford Smith, director and founder of legal assistance charity Reprieve, who, having heard that inmates were on hunger strike as a protest against their conditions, had started regularly visiting his Guantánamo-based clients in an attempt to ascertain what was going on. Stafford Smith was only allowed to meet a detainee once the prisoner had agreed to body cavity searches. Interviews took place under tightly regulated conditions and Stafford Smith was prohibited from recording a word. Only when outside could the lawyer scribble down conversations with inmates. This circumscribed method of accumulation of evidence was, even by the arbitrary standards associated with the US administration’s “war on terror”, eccentric. “Detainees are effectively censored,” says Cori Crider, a lawyer at Reprieve who has also made visits to the prison. “Everything they say to me on the telephone is listened to – and interrupted if the authorities hear anything they don’t like. MORE

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