Time spent in Guantánamo is time no one gets back — whether soldier or prisoner

I love my local paper. The Day is locally owned and based right in downtown New London, Connecticut. They publish an actual, physical newspaper every single day and have a first rate photo department. Their news pages feature a mix of national and international articles from The New York Times and AP wire service stories, as well as locally produced articles of local interest — with headlines like “Reality television producer sees show for New London.”

Usually, I turn to the opinion page first because I like to see what hits home with my fellow Southeastern Connecticuters. Wing nuts and firebrands of all political stripes (this one included) expound in the letters to the editor section. I am constantly composing letters to the editor in my head, but two kids down with the flu ate away all my screed-writing time last week. So, consider what follows an extended version of what I would have sent to my local paper if I hadn’t been covered in vomit and cranky kids.

The headline that caught my eye was this: “Niantic-based National Guard Unit home after deployment to Guantánamo Bay.” I read the article with interest, and had no idea that local people were among those burdened with patrolling and guarding this tropical hold-over of the Monroe Doctrine. The article was accompanied by joyous pictures of families reunited after the long deployment to the Cuban base.

One woman was welcoming home her husband right before their first wedding anniversary. She held a sign that read, “I would wait forever, but 10 months is long enough! Welcome home!” She told the reporter, “We have been apart for 10-and-a-half months. It’s been a really long year by myself, and we’re so excited to be back together finally.” There were balloons, flowers, tears and children in adorable outfits.

Yet, there was no mention in the article of the unit’s duties while on the base and — given the immensity of the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo Bay — no reason to assume they had anything to do with the Muslim men who have been held there in extremis for 14 years. There was no mention of the changes in policy and personnel that took place during their deployment. There was no mention of President Obama’s oft reiterated promise to close Guantánamo.

I was struck that during our local guard’s deployment, the prison population at Guantánamo shrank to under 100 for the first time since its establishment as a “Global War on Terror” indefinite internment site in early 2002. As the Connecticut guards were preparing to come home, three men were supposed to leave Guantánamo as well. But they were not welcomed home with flowers and balloons. They did not return to their home countries.

Tariq Mahmoud Ahmed al Sawah was born in Egypt and sent to Bosnia, where he is a dual citizen. Abdul Aziz Abdullah Ali al Suadi, a Yemeni, was resettled in Montenegro. They join a growing cadre of displaced former Guantánamo prisoners, trying to make a life for themselves in new and unfamiliar countries after more than a decade of imprisonment, torture and mistreatment. They now live in Ghana, Palau, El Salvador, Uruguay, Slovenia and a dozen other European countries.

The third to be released refused to get on the plane. Mohammed Ali Abdullah Bwazir of Yemen was not told where he was going and according to his lawyer, John Chandler, was “frightened” to leave the prison headed to an unknown country, where he had no ties or connections. Bwazir, who is in his mid-30s, was brought to Guantánamo in 2002 and is one of the many men who had used hunger striking as a tactic to resist and oppose his detention. Chandler told The New York Times, “Can you imagine being there for 14 years and going to a plane where you could finally leave, and saying, ‘No, take me back to my cell?’ This is one of the saddest days of my life.”

There was no such sadness as families reunited in Connecticut last week. One captain held his eight-month-old daughter who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the message: “I’m here to pick up my daddy.” He and his family were able to video-chat and connect throughout his deployment, so he was not too surprised by how much his daughter had grown. But there is nothing like the real thing. He hugged her and told the reporter, “It’s wonderful. I couldn’t be more excited. We’ve been counting down the months, the days.”

I am always happy when families are reunited, but the words of another father reuniting with his children rang through my head as I read these words.

Shaker Aamer was told he was going home an hour before he was loaded onto a U.S. military plane and flown back to England. The British resident and father of four had been at Guantánamo for nearly 14 years. The United States never charged him with a crime; he had been cleared for release by the Bush administration in 2007. So, for nearly two thirds of his detention, he was officially and categorically innocent. At Guantánamo, he was beaten, tortured and almost asphyxiated. He was held in solitary confinement for 360 days at one point during his imprisonment. His lawyers think he was singled out for mistreatment because he spoke English, was well educated and well spoken, and was thought to be an agitator within the prison population. Aamer engaged in many hunger strikes to protest his detention and the mistreatment of his fellow prisoners.

Shaker Aamer met his 13-year-old son Faris for the first time on October 31, 2015. His older children are now young adults. He told the BBC, “I’m a father who did not practice his fatherhood for 14 years. I left them when they were little tiny kids, hugging them, carrying them all the time. And now they are grown up.” Their first moments together were surreal, and punctuated by sorrow. “Even though it was a happy moment,” Aamer explained, “it was sad at the same time. Because it was happy that I’ve seen my kids again, but it was so sad that the feeling is not that they are my kids. They look at me and they’re just trying to know who is this person? But through their eyes, I feel like they are just looking at a stranger.”

We heard President Obama repeat his “close Guantánamo” promise at the State of the Union. “As Americans, we have a profound commitment to justice. So it makes no sense to spend $3 million per pris­on­er to keep open a pris­on that the world con­demns and terrorists use to recruit. Since I’ve been president, we’ve worked responsibly to cut the pop­u­la­tion of Gitmo in half. Now it’s time to fin­ish the job.” He added, “It’s time to close Gitmo.”

Time. We can’t get it back. When it’s gone, it’s gone. The families embracing their returning fathers, sons and husbands after 10 months of separation in Connecticut know it. Shaker Aamer and his children — Faris, Said, Michael and Johina — meeting almost as strangers after 13 years apart know it too. All those innocent men released from Guantánamo and still struggling to find their footing in strange lands — and still struggling to heal from severe trauma — know it too. And so do those 91 men who remain at Guantánamo, while their families wait for them. Time, to close Gunatánamo. I wish my local paper had used the happy occasion of families reuniting to say it too.

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