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Why I went to Guantánamo, again

Tuesday, December 15, 2015 10:23
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by Frida Berrigan

Frida Berrigan in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Flickr / Justin Norman)

Frida Berrigan in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Flickr / Justin Norman)

I have the world’s worst hair cut. It is uneven, hacked and does nothing to flatter my features. For the first few days after I cut it, my hair was also super dirty, sticking straight up with a Pomade of bug spray, sunscreen and Cuban dirt.

While so many in the United States were being driven to distraction by the biggest deals of a lifetime on Black Friday, I was in Cuba, taking a pair of scissors to my head as I looked down a mountainside at the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay. I could see the base, which straddles the sparkling bay, cutting the Cuban people off from rich fishing waters and full access to their land. A representative of the Cuban government told us that the Department of Guantánamo lags behind the rest of the nation in economic development because they have expected an invasion to come from the base since 1903, when the United States seized the land. “Why invest in an area that is just going to be destroyed by bombs?” she asked.

Standing at this spot, I could see the sacred — mountains, valleys, rainbows, water, skies that almost sing with gorgeousness — and the profane — occupation, militarization, torture, abuse, indefinite detention. I was there with 13 other friends from Witness Against Torture. We were spending our Thanksgiving week far from our families, camping out at the Mirador overlooking the U.S. Naval Base. We were being hosted by the staff of La Gobernadora restaurant and lounge. From the look out, we could see the U.S. base that has occupied more than 100 square kilometers of Cuban land for over a century and imprisons 107 men in torturous conditions.

We camped. We prayed. We worked to transform a random international tourist spot — not to mention local make out spot, where the night staff drink rum from the bottle and blast reggaeton music toda la noche — into a place to honor. We wanted to connect and extend ourselves towards the men our nation has demonized and forgotten — hoping our songs, chants and prayers were carried by the wind, refracted by the sun, swept along by the rain, and carried along by every bird that flew overhead.

After a while, though, I needed to do just a little more than fasting and camping. I needed just a little more suffering. I was here — close this exact spot — 10 years ago, when Witness Against Torture was born. That time, in December 2005, 25 of us walked about 100 kilometers from Santiago de Cuba to the Cuban military checkpoint that guards the entrance to a Cuban military territory that surrounds the U.S. naval base. We fasted then as well, camping out at the Cuban checkpoint and calling U.S. SOUTHCOM to request entry onto the base. That time, we hoped that the United States would press charges against us for traveling to Cuba, giving us an opportunity to put the Bush administration’s torture program on trial. They declined.

What drew me back to Guantánamo? What propelled me away from my husband and three small children during Thanksgiving week? I returned 10 years after our original mission because so much has changed for me — I am now a wife and a mother — and so little has changed about the criminal injustice of indefinite detention, abuse and torture.

Relations between the United States and Cuba have changed. Travel restrictions have loosened. Embassies have opened in both countries. We are not breaking any laws by being here, but we are doing something no one has done before, and the Cuban people were with us. They are sick of being occupied, sick of being exploited, sick of Guantánamo being synonymous with torture the world over, when it should bring up visions of gorgeous beaches, fat healthy fish and rigorous mountain climbing.

That’s why I needed a little more than fasting and camping. That’s why I needed a little more suffering. And that’s why I opted to give myself the world’s worst haircut. As I sawed and hacked off hanks of hair, I recalled all the names we had read earlier in the day. The names and stories of 107 men still held at Guantánamo, many in solitary confinement, many on hunger strike, many still subjected to forced feeding.

Mohammed Ahmad Said al Edah is a 52- or 53-year-old citizen of Yemen. As of November 16, 2015, he has been held at Guantánamo for 13 years and 10 months. As of January 2010, the Guantánamo Review Task Force had recommended him for transfer to Yemen provided that certain security conditions were met.

Abd al Malik Abd al Wahab is a 35- or 36-year-old citizen of Yemen. As of January 2010, the Guantánamo Review Task Force had recommended him for continued detention. A parole-like Periodic Review Board later recommended him for transfer. As of Nov. 16, 2015, he has been held at Guantánamo for 13 years, 10 months.

I wanted to get back to my kids, my husband and my domestic routine. I yearned to wash dishes (and my hair) and read books. But I didn’t want to forget what we were able to do on that mountaintop. I didn’t want to forget what people of good will are able to accomplish. We established an outpost of prayer and intention, and showed the world that people from the United States still care about what happens here.

I wanted to leave Cuba with more than a sunburn, a stomach ache and pile of really beautiful, moving photographs of our work here. I wanted to leave Cuba changed and doubly committed to changing the life circumstances of the men who are stuck in the worst form of hell — life in limbo. We are living in an age of borderless war, pervasive terror and prevailing fear. We can trace many of the origins of this to 2001, the launch of the U.S. war on the people of Afghanistan and the delivery of a planeful of Arab and Muslim men into U.S. custody on Cuban soil in 2002. Guantánamo — the wholesale shackling, torturing and confining of men without charge or evidence — was the beginning of a new and grim chapter in our nation’s history.

I keep thinking about what my children and grandchildren will ask me about this time when they are older. I want to be able to tell them that I stood on the side of the outsider, that I was not afraid, that I kept the flame of peace afire and held onto my humanity by never losing sight of anyone else’s humanity. That’s why I embarked on this journey, to be able to look my children in their big beautiful eyes and say, “I tried. I am trying.” But, the first thing they said when they saw me was, in fact, “Hi Ma, what happened to your hair?”

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