“You can receive millions of dollars for helping the Anti-Taliban Force catch Al-Qaida and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life. Pay for livestock and doctors and schoolbooks and housing for all your people.”
Guant�namo: Pictures from Home. Questions of Justice
FotoFest, 1113 Vine St., 713-223-5522.
Show has been extended through June 2.
The above is from a flier distributed in Afghanistan and Pakistan by United States forces after 9/11. A copy of it is included in a binder labeled "Guantnamo Statistics" and included in the exhibition "Guantnamo: Pictures from Home. Questions of Justice." On view at FotoFest, the exhibition explores the lives and cases of Guantánamo detainees. Organized by photographer Margot Herster, the show is built around photographs of the homes and families of detainees, taken by the lawyers representing them and reproduced by Herster. The exhibition includes narratives from the attorneys about the detainees as well as a video interview with the lawyers.
Guantánamo Bay Detention Center became a prison for “enemy combatants” in 2002. Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said the detainees “are among the most dangerous, best trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth.” The Bush administration said that the Geneva Convention didn't apply at Guantánamo, that they could detain anyone at any time and hold them indefinitely. U.S. attorneys began seeking the right for prisoners to challenge their detention. Two years later, the Supreme Court ruled in their favor. Herster became interested in the detainees because her husband is one of the lawyers who, in 2005, were allowed to represent them. She wondered what the detainees looked like.
The lawyers representing them had taken numerous photos of the detainees' homes and families. It was a kindness to their clients, but it was also a means to establish trust. According to the attorneys, the detainees had been heavily interrogated and were suspicious of them, some saying interrogators had in the past dressed up like civilians and claimed to be their lawyers. The lawyers took the photographs when they visited the detainees' home countries and families, establishing bonds with the families, who were frantic for information the U.S would give none about their loved ones.
The photographs are fascinating, not because they're great photographs, but because they humanize and make real the detainees at Guantánamo. In these casual snapshots, we see families in comfortable middle-class homes and families in abject poverty. There are frail, elderly parents and a plump baby daughter never seen by her imprisoned father. DVDs taken of the families show little nephews goofing around for the camera. Next to the photos, text on the FotoFest wall gives information about the detainee.
Abdullah Al Naiomi was picked up in Pakistan. In one photograph, his father and brother pose on either side of a lawyer. The wall text is from an interview with his lawyer, Josh Colangelo-Bryan. According to him, Al Naiomi said he was relieved when he heard he was going to be transferred from that “crazy” Pakistani prison and into American custody. He believed he could talk to the Americans and that they would understand him. He talked to his lawyer about the shock he felt when, “from the beginning he was screamed at and threatened and hit.” He says that after several days he told them, “Okay, tell me whatever you want me to confess to, and I will confess to it out of fear.” He has since been released.
On another wall, a young man stares out from a photograph of a gold-framed black-and-white portrait. He's a nurse named Riyad Al Haj, arrested working in a Taliban hospital; the U.S. thought he was Riyad Al Haj, a.k.a. Riyad the Facilitator, Al Qaeda's chief fund-raiser. They later arrested the actual Riyad the Facilitator. But Riyad the Nurse still sits in Guantánamo.
Information included in the “Guantánamo Statistics” binder reveals that 86 percent of the total number of people handed over to United States custody by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance were turned over while the U.S. was offering large bounties for suspected enemies.
Another photo shows a cluster of squiggling nieces and nephews lined up and holding copies of the Guantánamo mug shot of their uncle, Abdullah Al Anazi. A chubby little girl giggles in the middle. According to Al Anazi's lawyer, Anant Ruat, “The family who gave us these pictures wants also for the world to know what is going on. They want the world to know Abdullah is a real individual.”
According to Herster, Guantánamo has housed approximately 750 detainees; almost half of Rumsfeld's most “vicious killers on the face of the earth” have been quietly released to their home countries. Approximately 380 still remain at Guantánamo; three are under 18, and the oldest is 94.
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“Detainee” is a euphemism for prisoner. It sounds like something you would say walking in after the start of a business meeting: “I'm so sorry I'm late, I was detained.” Detaining someone indefinitely somehow sounds a lot better than imprisoning someone indefinitely. I imagine a detained person sitting in an office looking at his watch.
These people have greater discomforts than boredom. According to them, they have been beaten unconscious and shackled to the floor for hours. They have attempted, and succeeded at, suicide. In Carolyn Borlenghi and Margot Herster's audio installation, set in a darkened room, you hear an attorney describe discovering his client after he had attempted to hang himself in a bathroom.
“As an attorney and an American, I believe it is important for us to at various levels demonstrate to the world that we afford due process and the rule of law even in very difficult situations,” states a conservative-looking, middle-aged lawyer in a video interview. FotoFest materials explain that a recent decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed suits filed by prisoners challenging their detention and “threatens to eliminate lawyers' access to their clients.”
Whether you think Guantánamo is filled with Bin Laden clones or hapless people in the wrong place at the wrong time, you should see “Guantánamo: Pictures from Home. Questions of Justice.” It'll tell you more than your government has.