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Peter Jan Honigsberg

Peter Jan Honigsberg

Posted: August 30, 2010 03:47 PM

Dignified, but Broken

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A friend said that she recently saw photos of men who had been incarcerated at Guantanamo prison and that the photos expressed each man's human dignity. I, too, have seen the dignity in each of the twenty-four former detainees we have interviewed on film for our Witness to Guantanamo (witnesstoguantanamo.com) project. However, I have also seen something else. Many of the men, though dignified, were broken.

Indeed, how could men, who were sold for $3,000 to $30,000 each, held for up to eight years without charges, often sensory deprived -- whether isolated or sleep deprived for long periods -- not be broken? The men depicted Guantanamo as a "psychological prison," and that it was.

One of the men we interviewed was introduced to us as the "jokester" of Guantanamo. He was seemingly cheerful and laughed with us before we began filming. Yet, during the interview (our interviews usually run for 2 to 2 ½ hours) his sense of hopelessness while in the prison surfaced. He told of the time he called a guard to his cell. He asked the guard to bring a high-ranking military official, a sheet of paper and a pen. He said that he would write on the paper that it was "okay." After signing the paper, he wanted the official to take him to the beach and, demonstrating to us with his index finger pointed at his forehead, "shoot me."

Another man, who was intelligent, exceptionally sensitive, spoke five languages and had never been to Afghanistan or Pakistan but was seized elsewhere, broke early. He was a librarian by trade and should never have been held at the base. When we asked him whether he had ever met with psychiatrists while at Guantanamo, he responded by equating them with "devils" who tried to tear down his mind. He told the interrogators whatever they wanted to hear, whenever they wanted to hear it.

A third man, very insightful, thoughtful and charismatic, told us that he managed the torture and pain by focusing on his foot or on some other detail of his body that he could control. He knew English, but did not reveal it to the guards so that he could overhear their conversations and help orient himself. He prided himself on being a loner and on his initial ability to hold fast and refuse to talk to the interrogators. After several months, the military officials placed him in isolation. He was denied all human contact. The guards shoved his meals through the "bean hole" in the cell door. After one year of intense isolation, "I broke," he said.

Sometimes, I think that men who resisted while at the prison emerged psychologically healthier. And, sometimes they did. One man we met was 16 when captured and, like most prisoners, arbitrarily beaten. He continually fought the guards by throwing feces and such at them, even though it meant that he was beaten up frequently by the Emergency Response Force (ERF) team and then taken to isolation. (The ERF team consisted of 5 or more guards in riot gear. They sprayed detainees with mace and then pummeled them, sometimes while the men lay prostrate on their beds.) Although he was released to a country that is not his home, today this detainee seems able to cope better than many of the men we have met.

Other men survived by "going with the flow." They did what they were told and were beaten less frequently. Necessarily, the men's actions reflected their personalities and character traits. Five men would not survive Guantanamo. They allegedly committed suicide.

Yes, there is a powerful sense of dignity in each former detainee you meet today. But these men who were held for years without charges were more than imprisoned. They were broken. And even though some -- but not all -- of the men released are doing better today, one must wonder whether they will ever fully move on from what they suffered unnecessarily in that hell we call Guantanamo.

Peter Jan Honigsberg is Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco, Director of the Witness to Guantanamo project (witnesstoguantanamo.com), and author of Our Nation Unhinged: The Human Consequences of the War on Terror.