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Forgotten Women of the War on Terror: Author Victoria Brittain on the Wives and Families Left Behind

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As pressure grows for President Obama to close the Guantánamo military prison, we speak with British journalist Victoria Brittain, who has closely covered the military prison for years. Her latest book is “Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror.” “Some of the women that I’ve written about are the wives of Guantánamo prisoners. One, in particular, who is like chapter one of the book, is one of my closest friends, and I kind of lived alongside her and her children through a very long period when her husband was in Guantánamo. And she had absolutely no information about why he was there, when he might come back, no contact with him whatsoever,” Brittain says.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Willie Nelson singing “Blowing in the Wind.” He turns 80 years old today. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. In a moment we’ll speak with him, but today, right now, we continue to talk about Guantánamo, turning to Victoria Brittain, leading British journalist who has closely covered the military prison for years. She co-wrote a memoir by former Guantánamo prisoner Moazzam Begg called Enemy Combatant and co-authored the play Guantanamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom. Her latest book has just been published, called Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror . I recently interviewed her here at Democracy Now! with Democracy Now! co-host Juan González. I began by asking her to describe the people whom she has spent the last decade with.

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Well, some of the women that I’ve written about are the wives of Guantánamo prisoners. One, in particular, who is like chapter one of the book, is one of my closest friends, and I kind of lived alongside her and her children through a very long period when her husband was in Guantánamo, and she had absolutely no information about why he was there, when he might come back, no contact with him whatsoever.

And a second woman, who I know very well, her husband is still in Guantánamo after 11 years. And he’s one of the 86 people who were cleared in that task force report that President Obama ordered very early on by very senior intelligence and military people. And those 86 people, which of course included a lot of Yemenis, but it also included this British resident, Shaker Aamer, who—having been cleared as innocent, everybody expected him to be released. The British government has also asked for him. But President Obama has not managed to release him.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And do you know why?

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Well, there are many reasons. There are the roadblocks put up by Congress. There’s these rules that the secretary of state has to certify the person will never do a terrorist act. Our government has to certify, which they have said they were certainly prepared to do. And I think it’s important to remember that we’ve had 14 people come back to Britain from Guantánamo Bay, and never any one of them has done any tiny infraction of any sort. And, in fact, they have all—including Shaker, who hasn’t come back, they have all had big payoffs from the British government, who didn’t want to be in court having to justify their complicity in rendition and torture of these men.

So, why don’t they want Shaker back? I mean, why don’t you people want to send Shaker back? One theory is that because he has been a leading figure in all the hunger strikes and a leading negotiator between the American authorities and the prisoners, he’s a person with tremendous personality and power. He was educated in the United States. He comes from Saudi Arabia. He lives in Britain and has a British family. So he covers all the bases.

AMY GOODMAN: How was he taken to Guantánamo? Where was he picked up and when?

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: He is one of the many people who were picked up as a response to the Americans dropping leaflets offering bounties for any foreigner that Pakistanis or Afghans turned over. So Shaker was sold to the Americans. He had been living in Afghanistan with his young family, like Moazzam Begg—in fact, in the same house. And they had been building girls’ schools and digging wells. And it was as charity workers that they were there. And that’s completely uncontested by anybody. So, after being sold, he was then tortured—

AMY GOODMAN: Who was he sold by?

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: He was sold by different groups. At that moment after the American bombing, there was a proliferation of different armed groups who picked up these different people as a money-making enterprise. And it’s not clear who sold him to who and how he ended up first in Kandahar, Bagram, and then in Guantánamo Bay.

AMY GOODMAN: And in Kandahar, that was when?

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: This was in 2002.

AMY GOODMAN: So he’s been held for more than a decade.

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Yeah, he’s been held for 11 years, essentially.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you read the letter he has gotten out? And how did he get this letter out?

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Well, this letter is particularly poignant now, when the hunger strike is going on, because he wrote this in a much earlier hunger strike and sent it to his wife, Zinnira, who’s chapter two of my book. And I always think of the impact of sitting in your very own living room with your little kids around you and receiving this letter from your husband. I’ll read the letter now:

“I am dying here every day, mentally and physically. This is happening to all of us. We have been ignored, locked up in the middle of the ocean for years. Rather than humiliate myself, having to beg for water, I would rather hurry up the process that is going to happen anyway. I would like to die quietly, by myself. I was once 250 pounds. I dropped to 150 pounds in the first hunger strike. I want to make it easy on everyone. I want no feeding, no forced tubes, no 'help', no 'intensive assisted feeding'. This is my legal right. The British government refuses to help me. What is the point of my wife being British? I thought Britain stood for justice, but they abandoned us, people who have lived in Britain for years, and who have British wives and children. I hold the British government responsible for my death, as I do the Americans.”

Now, since then, the British have asked for him many times.

AMY GOODMAN: That was 2006?

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: This was 2006. But what I—one of the things I find so poignant about this letter and thinking about now, he thought then that he would be able to die. But because of the American medical personnel in Guantánamo Bay who force-feed people, this very painful process, through the nose, they are kept alive. So, I think the authorities’ preoccupation now is: Don’t let anybody die. And in Britain, of course, we have the experience of hunger strikers in Ireland who—we did not force-feed them, and Bobby Sands died. And this was a kind of political turning point. I think the Obama administration does not want that political turning point.

But judging by what the Red Cross is saying, he has had a team in there. He’s had doctors in there. He thinks that some of these people, who are of course very fragile after lots of hunger strikes, lots of torture and lots of beating up in this process they call “earthing,” when they enter a cell and throw the man to the ground—and Shaker has had his back very seriously injured by this process on more than one occasion. So these people were in very poor shape when they made this dramatic decision to go on hunger strike.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask you, the—it was more than four years ago that President Obama, in his inaugural speech, announced that he was closing Guantánamo. We have the secretary of defense saying now he wants to close Guantánamo. And yet it remains open. And the impact on British law and on American law of this continued outpost of illegality and of torture existing as part of the war on terror?

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Well, in Britain, the feeling about American justice, as displayed in Guantánamo, is very, very strong. And I know from other former prisoners or families of former prisoners in places like Kuwait—or, indeed, there are still some Kuwaitis in there—everybody who’s been caught up in this, the reputation of American justice has had such a total body blow. And it gets worse every day. It’s really like a running sore.

AMY GOODMAN: Last month, U.S. State Department official Michael Williams testified on Guantánamo at a hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights. The senior adviser for Guantánamo policy said the Obama administration is working within restrictions imposed by Congress to transfer prisoners out of the prison as part of an effort to close the facility, one of the president’s original campaign promises.

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: The U.S. government continues to stand by its decisions to designate certain detainees for transfer subject to appropriate security measures. We have transferred 71 of those individuals, including the resettlement of 40 detainees in third countries in cases where the U.S. government identified humane treatment or related concerns in the individual’s country of origin. There are 56 individuals designated for transfer who remain at Guantánamo. Each potential transfer is individually assessed, as was the practice of the administration prior to the legislative restrictions, to examine whether appropriate security measures can be taken in the receiving country to mitigate the potential security threat the transferred individual may pose.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Williams also claimed during his testimony that Guantánamo prisoners do not face indefinite detention.

MICHAEL WILLIAMS: The United States only detains individuals when that detention is lawful and does not intend to hold any individual longer than necessary. For instance, in 2010, following the application of the suspension of transfers to Yemen, the U.S. government did transfer a Yemeni detainee from Guantánamo to Yemen after he was ordered released by a U.S. federal court pursuant to his petition for a writ of habeas corpus. The U.S. government is acutely aware that the majority of detainees at Guantánamo are Yemeni nationals, and recognizes the need to identify solutions for that population as part of our broader transfer efforts.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s U.S. State Department official Michael Williams testifying on Guantánamo. Victoria Brittain?

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: Well, I find it very hard to see how he can say, “We don’t hold people indefinitely,” when these people, like—I’ll take the example of Shaker and perhaps of another man, Fouzi Al Awda, a Kuwaiti man. These are people who have been held for 11 years. These are people who, everybody knows, pose no threat whatsoever. The Kuwaiti government has been asking for Fouzi for—since the very, very beginning. The very first court case against President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, Fouzi Al Awda was the correspondent. They cannot possibly say that the British government is not able to assure them that Shaker does not pose any threat of any sort. The British government—William Hague, himself, the foreign secretary, has said it over and over again. So, I think there’s a bit of economical with the truth going on there.

AMY GOODMAN: So, he’s on another hunger strike now. He was on, in 2006. Your book is about the families and the wives. Tell us about Zinnira and her family, her children. What effect does this have on the family, held for—and I hesitate to use the word—the U.S. government uses “detainee.” For us in the United States, “detainee” means you’re detained for a small amount of time, as opposed to “prisoner.”

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: We use “prisoner.” I think if you’ve been in a cage for 11 years, you’re a prisoner. Let’s be quite clear about that. I think the use of words, you know, can be very effective, and you do minimize it by saying “detainee.”

Well, Zinnira. I want to tell you first, the first thing about Zinnira, and one of the bits in my book that I love most, is the poem love letter that she wrote to Shaker after 10 years, on Valentine’s Day. And that chapter is called “He’s Still My Valentine.” And for her, February the 14th is a special day. It’s not only the day that her youngest child was born, who Shaker has never seen—that’s little Faris, who’s never seen his dad—but it’s also the day, coincidentally, and she didn’t know it while she was giving birth, that Shaker was taken to Guantánamo. So, whenever this date comes around, it’s psychologically very stressful for her. But last year on this day, she wrote this amazing long poem called “Heart of Gold.” And—

AMY GOODMAN: Can you read it?

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: I can read a little bit of it. And I think it gives you an idea of the sweetness of the personality.

You are the roof over my head,
You are the shadow that can’t be lead,
You are my voice when the silence breaks,
Your hand I seek, your hand I hold,
Cause you have a heart of gold.

You show me light in the dark,
And you guide me when I am lost,
Your happiness is all I ask,
But your story remains untold,
Cause you have a heart of gold.

You know, it’s a very hard—sorry. But, you know, Zinnira, when she wrote that, she was in one of her up phases, and she was so pleased with the crafting of it, and she worked so hard on it to make it perfect to send to him. And she sends him photographs of the children and little stories and letters that the children write. But over these years, she has had some very serious breakdowns. And sometimes I’ve been with her when she’s been talking about wanting to go to paradise, because she has these bad dreams. Sometimes she dreams that Shaker’s dead. Sometimes she dreams that Shaker is divorcing her. And you have to reassure her over and over again, “The voices—don’t listen to the voices. You have to push the voices away.” And sometimes she can, and sometimes she can’t. And she’s had some sad periods in mental hospitals, and she has periods when she simply packs the kids into the car and goes off to stay with her aged parents, and they look after her until she recovers.

And some of the time, you know, she’s a great mom. She runs her little house. She takes the kids to school. She does extra teaching after school. And she’s a wonderful, warm, outgoing mom, only concerned about her children. And always, always, when she talks about Shaker, it’s, you know, “Will he—will he think I’m a good wife?” And sometimes she, in a good period—she’s been learning Arabic on the Internet, because she wants to make him proud of her in every possible way. And when his mother’s been ill in Saudi Arabia, she calls the mom and talks to her. And she asked me recently, you know, “Do you think I should go to Saudi and pack up the children?” She wasn’t in a very good phase. I said, “No, you call your mother-in-law on the phone, and that’s the correct thing for a daughter-in-law. But your actual job is keeping your children and yourself ready for when Shaker comes back.”

And, you know, President Obama is the most powerful man in the world. Sorry about your Congress and all the roadblocks it put up. Is it really impossible that he could take this one case, which the British are begging him for—the man was cleared by his own most senior people—and say, “Actually, we made a mistake with this one”?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Let me ask you, in terms of the families that you’ve dealt with, has there been any change whatsoever in terms of the government’s willingness to at least promote communication and contact or even visits on the part of the families to these prisoners while this indefinite detention is being resolved?

VICTORIA BRITTAIN: No, no visits. There’s never been any visits. And the lawyers’ visits have recently become even more difficult. And now, not even journalists are allowed. I mean, they’re never allowed to speak to prisoners. But there have been—by great efforts of the Red Cross, there have been some efforts at Skype meetings. And Shaker has had a few talks on Skype with his family in Saudi and with his family in London, which was incredibly emotional when it first happened. But then the Skype failed. And there were two attempts when it didn’t work. And he then said, “This is worse than not doing it.” So although there have been a couple of sort of great moments when they saw dad—and what the children told me was, you know, “My dad, he’s so funny. He makes jokes all the time.” And it was great for the kids and great for Zinnira to have those little moments. But real visit? And no real prospect. I mean, your officials say they’re not held indefinitely. But, you know, if it’s not indefinite, it’s definite. So, aren’t they going to say 11 years is enough?

AMY GOODMAN: British journalist Victoria Brittain, author of the new book, Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in a minute with Willie Nelson. He’s 80 years old today.

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