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Peter Jan Honigsberg

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Coping With Loneliness in Guantanamo

Posted: 08/19/11 02:48 PM ET

Can a person held in a prison cell among neighbors who do not speak his language be as lonely as someone who is held incommunicado in an isolation cell? That question arose in the interview of a former detainee we filmed for the Witness to Guantanamo project (W2G). (Presently, W2G has filmed interviews with 66 people in 11 countries.)

Much has been written about Guantanamo and the torture, isolation and harsh treatment of the men inside the prison as a result of America's rule of law violations and human rights abuses. However, the literature has not been as extensive in comparing the existential experiences of the men. For example, whose fate was worse: the men who were held incommunicado in isolation cells or the men who were held in the general prison population but who were unable to speak to their neighbors because they did not share a common language?

Is the man held in the general prison population less lonely because he sees men nearby engaging in conversation with each other -- although he himself cannot converse except through basic sign language? Or, might the man held incommunicado and in strict isolation have the advantage because he must remain very conscious of his situation and know that it is imperative to keep mind and body alive?

One of the men we interviewed recently (we will call him Mohammed) did not speak the lingua franca of the prison -- that is, he spoke neither English nor Arabic. During his 8 years in the prison, he was placed in the general prison population but his cell was not near anyone who spoke his language or even a similar language. The result, whether intended by the United States military officials or not, was isolation and a resulting loneliness that informed his life at Guantanamo for those 8 years.

While held in Guantanamo, Mohammed observed human contacts all around him, many of them warm and culturally shared. Perhaps he could have felt that he had a community in having other men present, even if they did not speak the same language. Yet, Mohammed told us that he could not participate in their shared experiences and in their communications the same way that the men who shared a language or a country could.

Sure, he could reach out and communicate through eye contact, hand signs and facial expressions. But he was a shy and quiet man and, apparently, those connections did not provide him adequate human contact. While others who spoke the Arabic language and shared their country's culture had shared identities, he was left to go it alone, he expressed.

Over his 8 long years in the prison, Mohammed made acquaintances and learned minimal Arabic and English. However, he never had the facility for languages that some of the other men had. In addition, and adding a sad irony to his stay in Guantanamo -- it was apparent to the interrogators that he was not a threat to the United States government. Hence, after a few initial interviews, his interrogations in GTMO were terminated. The one advantage of an interrogation is that a translator would have been present for him to talk to in full sentences. Mohammed did not even have that avenue as a means to communicate and express himself.

From what we could gather, for nearly eight years Mohammed may have had other humans surrounding him, but he was dreadfully lonely. And his depth of loneliness came through powerfully as he spoke of his life in Guantanamo. I asked him how he coped. "I cried, and then I felt better," he replied. Apparently, he cried often.

To our surprise, he did not seem bitter. Mohammed's tone was one of humility and acceptance. His quiet manner was inspirational, actually. Was it the way he coped in prison that quieted his bitterness? Was it something else in his personality? Who is to say? In stark contrast, we also had interviewed someone who, 5 years after he was released, continued to be intensely angry and bitter over the injustice he suffered.

Based on these interviews and other interviews that W2G has filmed, it appears (common sense would likely confirm) that one's personality helped form one's ability to cope in Guantanamo. That is, what a man made of the conditions to which he was subjected was more important than the conditions themselves. In addition to coping with the issues by crying, Mohammed also believed that his attorneys would ultimately succeed in obtaining his release. Unlike many other men who became disillusioned and depressed in seeing no results from the work of their counsel, Mohammed never gave up believing in his lawyers.

Throughout our many W2G interviews of the detainees, we also found other examples of how one's personality helped form one's ability to cope. In several other interviews of former detainees, we noticed that people who had resisted the authorities, whether mentally or physically, were often more likely to function better in the outside world once they were released, than people who had not resisted while imprisoned. However, since our data is anecdotal, and since the men we interviewed are not statistically representative of all the men who were held in Guantanamo, we cannot make any firm assertions at this time.

Based on our interview with Mohammed, we believe that he is on his way in transcending his isolating Guantanamo existence. Since his release, he has married a Muslim woman, attends school to improve his skills, is learning the local language, and does not look back in anger. Hopefully, his lack of bitterness will make it easier for him to go forward in the world outside Guantanamo. He is determined to make a better life for himself and his family.

Peter Jan Honigsberg is professor of law at the University of San Francisco; author of Our Nation Unhinged: The Human Consequences of the War on Terror (Univ. of California Press); and Director of the Witness to Guantanamo project (witnesstoguantanamo.com).