The two faces of America

What did a Guantanamo inmate learn about Americans in Halloween?

Prisoner number 239, cleared by two US administrations, awaits his release [Al Jazeera]

November 10, 2013 – It was Halloween ten days ago in the United States. Having spent the last 11 years in US custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, I’ve learned a fair amount about American culture. I understand that it is customary for people to dress up in masks and embrace different identities for a night. In Camp 5 at Guantanamo, the masks rarely come off.

Take one of our military guards here. Standing 195cm tall at 114k, Biggie is the name that the prisoners have given him. A young soldier in his 20s, Biggie can be both courteous and helpful. He often runs errands for us and speaks to us respectfully. But Biggie is also the most brutal of guards.

In February of this year, my fellow Guantanamo prisoners and I began a hunger strike to protest our indefinite imprisonment without charge. I also routinely stage peaceful sit-ins, refusing to leave my cell or the recreation area.

A procedure known as “Forced Cell Extraction” (FCE) is used to transport protesting prisoners. A typical extraction begins with the FCE team slamming my face into the ground. Four men grab my legs and arms and a fifth takes my head. The team leader pins my feet and arms together behind me at a single point while all the other guards press down on him with their cumulative weight.

Biggie is the FCE team leader on my cellblock. He is the one who nearly breaks my back during each forced extraction. He is also the one who handcuffs me using tight, cutting plastic restraints and then subjects me to a humiliating body search. I’m lucky if Biggie and the FCE team handle me like a sack of potatoes.

I recently confronted Biggie about this contradiction. His only response is that he’s “just doing as told”.

I often reflect on how Biggie mirrors his country’s contradictions. Elected American officials labeled me and the other prisoners here as “the worst of the worst”. They called us “terrorists”. Yet, despite these claims, I have not been charged with a single crime nor has any evidence been presented to support my imprisonment these long years. In fact, I have been cleared for release by both the Bush and Obama administrations.

Of course, Guantanamo does not define me. I arrived here bound at the hands and feet, blacked-out goggles covering my eyes, and expecting death. But up until that point, I had been an English teacher, a translator, a volunteer with a humanitarian group, a resident of Great Britain, a husband, and a father of four.

I know who I am. I ask the American people which face they wish to choose for their country – the good or the bad. I pray that Americans do not continue to allow fellow human beings to suffer such atrocities in the name of their security. I dream that they will find the strength to peacefully challenge those in power. And I hope that their actions are shown more humanity than ours have seen.

Shaker Aamer is the last remaining UK resident imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He has been in US custody since 2002 and was one of the very first prisoners moved to Guantanamo, and was assigned Internment Serial Number ISN 239.

This article was provided by his legal team at CUNY School of Law.