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Transforming Lives on This Side of the GTMO Wire

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Much has been written on the lives of detainees in Guantanamo post September 11, 2001. But relatively little has been written about the lives of Americans who worked on this side of the wire. In the Witness to Guantanamo project, www.witnesstoguantanamo.com, we have filmed in-depth interviews of former Guantanamo prisoners, as well as American citizens who worked in Guantanamo. The interviews have documented that many of the detainees have been severely damaged, and even broken. But the interviews have also revealed that sometimes the lives of Americans on this side of the wire have been transformed.

An American translator had emigrated from East Turkistan, China, when she was 18. In fall 2001, she was the only American citizen of Uyghur heritage who spoke Uyghur and Chinese. The government asked her to work as a translator at Guantanamo for the captured Uyghurs. At first, she refused, saying that she did not want to be anywhere near "the terrorists." However, a friend persuaded her to reconsider, explaining that it was her duty as an American citizen. She relented, and worked at the base for nearly all of 2002.

After serving the year, she quit. She had become convinced that the Uyghurs were entirely innocent and wrongly held. Sometime after, she joined the legal team that was representing the Uyghurs.

A former Guantanamo prison guard told how surprised he was that many of the men he was guarding were at peace in their hellish environment. During his midnight shifts, when the prison was quiet, he engaged the men. He asked how they could endure the beating, isolation, sleep deprivation, other sensory deprivations and humiliations. The men answered that the Koran gave them strength to accept their fate. Guantanamo, to them, was a test of faith. After several months of conversations with these men behind the wire, the guard asked one of the prisoners to convert him. That night, in the prison hallway outside a darkened cell, the prison guard accepted the Muslim faith.

Another former prison guard now "friends" on Facebook former detainees he had guarded.
The Chief Prosecutor in Guantanamo quit after being told by his superior that his job was to obtain convictions -- that acquittals were not an option. Now he heads a humanitarian anti-war project.

A former Guantanamo military commissions prosecutor had been a fervent believer in the Global War on Terror. He never questioned what he observed, even when suspected terrorists were seized and rendered to CIA black holes to be tortured. To him, the military policy of "need to know" governed. He did not need to know. He trusted America's leaders, who had the intel. After serving in Iraq -- where his assignment was to pay out reparations to the families of people Americans had killed -- he was offered the opportunity to prosecute detainees in Guantanamo. He leaped at the chance. He was on a mission for justice.

When he began processing the military commission cases, a JAG defense attorney explained to him that the men he was prosecuting were not necessarily "the worst of the worst." At first, the prosecutor was dismissive of the JAG defense attorney. However, as he continued to review the evidence, he found serious problems of proof, including an instance where an illiterate Afghani juvenile was being prosecuted on the basis of his "confession" written in a language he did not speak.

One day, the prosecutor awoke to find himself questioning not only the evidence, but also his role in prosecuting defendants where the evidence did not support the charges. As he questioned his role, he realized that he was utterly alone. He could not share his concerns with the other prosecutors on the base (they would not understand, he believed), nor with his wife and family (the information was classified).

With no one to turn to, he entered a monastery. He resided there for three days and contacted a priest for advice. The priest told him to do the right thing. He resigned his position. The charges against the juvenile detainee were ultimately dropped and he was repatriated.

Today, this former prosecutor heads the public defender program in his home town.

It is not often that we meet, or even hear of, people who go through major transformations in life. But that hell we call Guantanamo has transformed the lives of Americans who worked on this side of the wire.

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.