“Torture is for Torture, the System is for the System”: Shaker Aamer’s Letters from Guantánamo

by Andy Worthington | May 14, 2013

“I have been deprived of everything but my life. So that’s the only decision I have left: to live or to die.”

The quote in the title of this article is from 1984 (aka Nineteen Eighty-Four), George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece, published in June 1949, which Shaker Aamer, the last British resident in Guantánamo, described as being “probably the book I’ve read more than any other but the Holy Koran” in a recent letter to his family from Guantánamo.

I recently wrote about the latest developments — or the lack of them — in Shaker’s case, which continues to be a transatlantic game of political football, in which responsibility for his continued detention, six years after he was first cleared for release, is bounced from Washington to London and back with no regard for Shaker’s ongoing suffering or the injustice of holding a man who has long been cleared for release.

Shaker’s suffering — and the injustice of holding a man long cleared for release — are part of a much bigger story, of course, in which a prison-wide hunger strike at Guantánamo, involving the majority of the 166 prisoners still held, is now in its fourth month, and 85 of those men — in addition to Shaker — are also being held despite being cleared for release, through inaction on the part of President Obama and obstruction in Congress, all of which can be overcome if the political will exists.

As we continue to put pressure on the American government — and on the British government in Shaker’s case — I’m cross-posting below Shaker’s latest words from Guantánamo, from two letters written to his family and made available to David Rose of the Mail on Sunday. They follow reports by Clive Stafford Smith, the director of Reprieve, of phone calls with Shaker in March and April, which I reported here and here, and Shaker’s own words in an article for the Observer on April 21.

Worryingly, it appears that, as part of the clampdown on the prisoners that occurred after a pre-dawn raid on Saturday April 13, when the authorities violently removed prisoners in Camp 6 who had been living communally and put them all into solitary confinement, the prisoners’ ability to speak to their lawyers and– most crucially — to get their words out to the general public in the US and the rest of the world — has been severely curtailed.

As a result, I hope you have the time to read Shaker’s latest report from Guantánamo, and that you will be able to circulate it and to make it available to others.

Shaker Aamer’s letters from Guantánamo

I began my hunger strike on February 12, 2013. There was a time when I worried about a whole lot of medical problems that were causing me suffering: the knee that has caused me pain since I was beaten up early in my detention; my back which gets re-injured each time the FCE Team [the Forcible Cell Extraction team, formerly known as the Emergency Reaction Force] comes in and beats me up some more; the kidney trouble that  is made worse by the yellow water that comes through the taps round here; the swelling in my ankles caused by wearing shackles every day.

But since I started the hunger strike, my concerns about all this have pretty much been overridden by the endless desire for food.

My treatment was bad before, but since the beginning of April I have been treated with particular venom. They started by taking my medical things. I had an extra blanket to lessen my rheumatism, but that was soon gone. My backbrace went at the same time. The pressure socks I had to keep the build-up of water down did not last long. Then they came for my toothbrush. Next, my sheet was taken, along with my shoes. My legal documents vanished soon after, leaving me only my kids’ drawings on the wall. They were the last to go.

And now I am left alone. Since 8am Monday, April 15, I have had nothing, not even my flip-flops. I am meant to sleep on concrete, and when I say alone, I mean alone in a very lonely world. The bean hole is what they call the small hatch on the door through which they normally pass my food. Recently they have started using a padlock to close it all day long. The OIC [Officer In Charge] keeps the key so no one else can open it.

One reason they do this is that, despite my being on hunger strike, they were making me take the meals through the bean hole at lunchtime, and then refusing to take the clam shell [the polystyrene platter] back until the evening meal. I couldn’t throw it out of my cell, since the bean hole is locked. So it just sat there. I used to think the food round here smells disgusting, but when you’ve not eaten for two months or more, having any food sit around in the cell is pure torture. But then that’s the point, isn’t it?

I often quote 1984 by George Orwell (it’s probably the book I’ve read more than any other but the Holy Koran): ‘Torture is for torture, the System is for the System.’

They have taken to sending the FCE team in for everything. That’s if I’m lucky. Normally, if I ask for something, I just don’t get it. That includes my medicine. Then, if I want water — and I have to ask for a bottle, as you can’t drink the stuff that comes out of the tap — they don’t bring it until the night shift.

The FCE team comes in, some 22-stone soldier puts his knees on my back while the others pin my arms and legs to the floor, and they leave me a plastic bottle. You’re allowed only one bottle at a time, as having two is somehow a threat to US national security. That means from morning until night, I have nothing to drink unless I conserve it carefully.

My lawyer, Clive Stafford Smith, has talked to me about this. He told me about Hurricane Carter, the black American boxer who was wrongfully jailed for murder – Bob Dylan did a song about him. Carter realised that American prisons try to control you by taking away every choice you might have, as that’s what we humans use to build our sense of who we are, whether it’s something trivial like what we have for dinner, or something important. They try to reduce you to nothingness. It’s ironic, but that’s what the authorities do to the soldiers too, to make them into automatons: they’re just meant to follow orders.

This is what they try to do to us. For a while I was doing better, mentally, because I just refused to do what I was told. If they told me to come in from recreation [in  Shaker’s block, prisoners are normally allowed two one-hour periods outside their cells each week], I told them I wanted to just sit there, on the ground, as a peaceful protest.

So they would send the FCE goons to beat me up. Sure, that hurt physically, but it meant I was not just their robot, their slave. And for a while that worked for me. I was making my own decisions.

But now there’s nothing I can refuse to do. Sometimes I have not even had my bottle of water. So I have no food, no water, no meds, no linen, no books, no rec, no shower … nothing. I have been deprived of everything but my life. So that’s the only decision I have left: to live or to die.

I do sometimes worry that I am going to die in here. I hope I don’t, but if the worst comes to the worst, I want my kids to know that I stood up for a principle. The guards stare at me 24/7. I hear they’ve been saying that we started the problems here. That’s a sorry joke. There’s nothing I could ever do to them, even if I wanted to. They have all the guns, and they have ten soldiers for each prisoner.

They waste more than $1 million a year for each man they house here, 40 times what it would cost in a maximum security prison in the US. And for what? We get nothing. They just get a headache.

[Later the same day]

I just got FCE’d for no reason. Just as when they did it after the last time I took my lawyer’s phone call, I had asked for nothing, I had done nothing, they just came along: tramp, Tramp, TRAMP … busted in, and beat me up. They just wanted to hurt me.

I try to avoid them all the time now, but they try to provoke me, and when that doesn’t work, they just beat me up. I am trying to keep calm and not react, but it’s hard. They told me that if I wanted water, they would FCE me; then they FCE’d me and did not give me water. They are going crazy in this place. They are driving all of us crazy too.

I wrote their numbers down as best I could. I am known only as 239 here, and like me, they have no names. They are meant to have numbers so we can report them, but normally now they cover these up. But this time I saw two. One, a young man, was A2 06186. Another was E6 08950. Report them if you can. I am sitting here in my cell, waiting for them to come to FCE me again. It’s the only thing I have ahead of me.

Hopefully they won’t hurt my back and shoulder too much next time. It’s so painful I can hardly move them. I sometimes wonder whether this is because I may be leaving soon and they are taking revenge on me. After all, that is what they did to Ahmed Errachidi, who they called The General, for the month before he left in 2007. They treated him so badly.

You may not believe me, but even now I try to see the light at the end of this dark tunnel. For some reason, I am optimistic. After all, I’ve been cleared for six years now, so how can they keep me here?

PS: At the same time as I wrote this, I wrote to the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, but I very much doubt that the US will allow such a letter through. So the best way I can get my message out (and perhaps even to him) is by writing this.

Andy Worthington is a freelance investigative journalist, activist, author, photographer and film-maker. He is the co-founder of the “Close Guantánamo” campaign, and the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison. This article originally appeared on his website on May 14, 2013.