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Why Guantanamo hunger strike could be the last

Sandy Close

Editor’s Note: Ahmed Rachidi, a native of Morocco who has been a British resident since 1985, was held in extrajudicial detention in Guantanamo from March 2002 to May 2007, when he was released without charge. Now 47, he is the author of a memoir about his experiences in Guantanamo called “The General: The Ordinary Man Who Challenged Guantanamo,” co-authored by Gillian Slovo and published in March 2013. New America Media editor Sandy Close interviewed Mr. Rachidi by phone in his home in Tangier, Morocco, where he lives with his wife, mother and three children.

Why did you call your memoir The General?

Because I was one of a limited number of prisoners at Guantanamo who spoke English, I was often forced to be an “unofficial leader” by guards and interrogators. They nicknamed me “the general.”

How were you released?

I was released in May 2007. I was on the “cleared for release” list for one year before I was released. Although I was a British resident and had worked as a chef in London for 16 years, I was repatriated to Morocco. I was never allowed to regain my passport, so I was unable to return to London even for the release last March for my memoir.

How did you go from being a chef in London to being a prisoner in Guantanamo?

I had traveled to Islamabad in the late summer of 2001 on a one-month business visa. When I saw television coverage of Afghan refugees fleeing U.S. air strikes across the Pakistan border, I wanted to help. It’s the kind of emotional response you have when you see disasters. I thought I would volunteer for a week — the border was not far away. But I wound up in the middle of a war zone. There was nothing I could do. When I crossed back into Pakistan, I thought I was safe. I was riding in a car with five other passengers, but the car was stopped at a Pakistani army checkpoint. After 44 days in a Pakistani jail, I was traded by Pakistan intelligence to the FBI.

Were you the only prisoner “cleared for release?”

At any one time, there are as many as 50 or 60 prisoners on the “cleared for release” list, including Shaker Aamer, a native of Saudi Arabia. He is the last British resident held in Guantanamo. President Obama claims that those who are cleared for release can’t go back either because they will face torture in their home countries, or because their governments don’t want them back.

Is that true?

That simply is not true. For the last 11 years, the British people have been campaigning for the release and return of Shaker to his family in London. And the U.S. has already sent dozens of prisoners back to countries like Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

How did you know Shaker?

I knew Shaker in the isolation box. Like me, he was a father. I can tell you that a father in Guantanamo is a desperate father, knowing that his kids are growing apart and away from him. They are growing away from him without his knowing, without his care, without his affection and attention. So a father in Guantanamo is simply a devastated father.

Can you tell us about the hunger strike?

Shaker is one of over 100 prisoners in Guantanamo who have been on a hunger strike for almost three months. The Obama Administration claims they are on a hunger strike because they want better treatment or better food. But that is not true. They are on a hunger strike because they want justice. They want freedom. They want to go home to their families. And this time they will not quit.

Where you ever on a hunger strike?

I was on a hunger strike many times in Guantanamo. Food is the only comfort that prisoners have in their cell. So when there is a hunger strike, that means that the prisoners give up their one source of peace and comfort. They allow themselves to fall into a deep coma. It’s like crawling with your weak body into this dark tunnel with no light at the end of it.

What makes them quit?

During one hunger strike in 2006, the prison commander assigned me to a special block to take care of prisoners he said were coming out of the hospital. But they were actually coming from isolation blocks that were kept ice cold. Each prisoner was shaking, each prisoner had a bruised nose with dried blood and black ringed eyes that were petrified. Everyone complained of gut wrenching pain … Soldiers would insert feeding tubes with such force and no anesthetic through their noses and throats while they were strapped to chairs … If they vomited, the soldiers would repeat the process. By using these tactics, they stopped the strike. Even I begged the administration to stop.

What is your biggest worry right now?

This will be the last hunger strike. To stop eating is the only way prisoners can exert any control when they are powerless. But this time, Shaker and the other prisoners don’t have the same strength, the same energy they used to have. Mentally and physically, they are very weak. I am worried that something can go wrong, that someone will lose his life.

The hunger strike has gotten President Obama’s attention. Has that helped?

President Obama said that he is sending 40 doctors to Guantanamo. Prisoners don’t need doctors. Prisoners want to go home to their families. They have been crying out for justice for 11 years. To hold someone for 11 years without trial, without charge, is a crime.

What is the message of the hunger strike?

Guantanamo is a concern to every human being who believes in democracy, who believes in human rights, who believes in the rule of law. We don’t have a lot of time. We need to come together to force President Obama to restore the rule of law and put an end to this disgrace.