Courage, Muslim brothers, you do not walk alone. We will, walk with you. And sing, your spirit home…”
This is one line of a folk song taken from the lyrics used during the liberation struggle of the African people in Apartheid South Africa. With our words we sing this song for the imprisoned and tortured men of Guantanamo.
Another January 11 is almost upon us as we the community of Witness Against Torture gather to raise awareness of the Guantanamo prison camp, indefinite detention, abusive degrading treatment, secret illegal renditions by our intelligence-security services and for profit contractors, and torture in places known (Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib) and unknown (“black sites”) around the world.
This time, January 11, marking the arrival of the first rendered prisoners to Guantanamo, in US American occupied Cuba, is so very bittersweet for me. I have come to know so many incredible, courageous, committed, beautiful people associated with the work of Witness Against Torture. Although initiated mostly by Catholic Workers in 2005 with an attempted Christmas visit to the Guantanamo prison camp, our ranks are composed of those religious, spiritual, non-religious, and not spiritual at all. But there is a spirit that marks our community and work. It is a spirit of friendship, hope, nonviolence, justice, truth, and love for life. I have been consistently moved by the commitment of all these good people for justice for the Guantanamo imprisoned and an end to all torture everywhere.
This week and on January 11th Witness Against Torture and our friends and those who care about the prisoners of Guantanamo will gather daily, hold our fast, and witness for justice. Many others who cannot join us in Washington, DC will also hold fast and witness as they are led. Over the last 9 years we have attempted to bring our message, our petition for justice and against all torture, to presidents Bush and Obama, the US Congress, Department of Justice, The Pentagon, US Supreme Court, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the US District Court in Washington, DC. We have risked arrest numerous times and have been arrested and sometimes not arrested at all for making the same witness towards the same elected and appointed government officials. Several of our number have also been sent to the DC jail.
The fasting is a spiritual act of solidarity as we align ourselves with the suffering of the Guantanamo captives, their families and friends, and the injustice of this whole bloody mess. The fast in and of itself will not bring an end to this terrible travesty. In a way though, the fasting will also highlight the hunger strikes of the prisoners. Prisoners of Guantanamo have engaged in hunger strikes now for years to protest the illegality of their confinement, treatment, their torture, and their helplessness and hopelessness. In fasting we stand with them, the men who starve for justice.
Today as I write this reflection I observe the 4th year since my brother Barney died at 45 of Alzheimer’s Disease. He was a person born with Down Syndrome. Barney loved parties, birthday parties, weddings, and all kinds of celebrations. He also was very engaged with other observances like memorial services, or when someone had to go into the hospital or moved away. Often I think of the men in Guantanamo. How many birthdays, births of children, deaths of family members or friends, and other celebrations have they missed? What does this feel like and what is the impact for them and their loved ones? How would you feel if you were in this situation? The grief of Barney’s death heals or eases with time but how can the grief, frustration, anger, helplessness and hopelessness be healed if every day, EVERY DAY, one is confined indefinitely and unjustly? What do you tell a family member or friend about their beloved in Guantanamo? The cleared for release are not clearly released at all and justice is rendered to a black site.
One of the most important things about my work with the Witness Against Torture community is that we always try to do and say what the prisoners want. We learn this from our relationship with their lawyers and others. When the first group, of what grew into Witness Against Torture, attempted to visit the prisoners on Christmas of 2005 they had no idea that their presence outside the prison camp would be made known to those held inside. After their return to the US lawyers contacted Witness Against Torture and let them know that their presence outside Guantanamo gave the prisoners hope. The lawyers have repeated this to us over the years. What we do gives them hope. If this is the least that I, or we, can do then I will feel in some way I have helped these unjustly imprisoned men. This week and beyond I will continue my work at this bittersweet time thinking about the prisoners of Guantanamo and all those mistreated and held indefinitely, unjustly, and in solitary confinement including our brothers and sisters in US jails and prisons.
“Courage, Muslim brothers, you do not walk alone. We will, walk with you. And sing, your spirit home…”
Reflection from Malachy Kilbride