The Power of Prayer: Christian Witnesses at Guantanamo

23226554212_b10f208352_o.jpgBy Frida Berrigan. Reprinted from Sojourners Magazine.

“Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world,have mercy on us
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us
Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.”

Mohammed Ahmad Said al Edah is a 52- or 53-year-old citizen of Yemen. As of Nov. 16, 2015, he has been held at Guantánamo for 13 years and 10 months. As of January 2010, the Guantánamo Review Task Force had recommended him for transfer to Yemen provided that certain security conditions were met.

I finish this reading, hop down from the concrete cistern that serves as our stage, take a piece of duct tape from the row and place it on the back of the photograph and then tape Mohammed’s photograph to the wall. The pictures of men at Guantanamo were released by Wikileaks in 2011. They are essentially mugshots, taken at some point in their now decade plus of captivity. Some are impossibly young, some are terrified, some scowl, and a few smile. But, beyond these basic expressions, it is hard to read what they are feeling from this snapshot taken in extremis. Mohammed’s expression is sort of flat and skeptical. He wears a black skullcap and thick black rimmed glasses that are so functional and unflashy that in another context they would be very hip. He has a full beard and short hair.

I add his photograph to the wall, which seems placed there just for this purpose, and move around to the other side of our make shift altar, hopping back up onto the cistern as another of our small circle beats the Buddhist drum. I look down at our altar, covered in prayer rugs and objects of devotion, including the mass card for Sister Anne Montgomery, a member of Christian Peacemaker Teams and a Plowshares activist who died in 2012. I look up and out at a set of vistas that defy description as one of our group leads us in the mercy prayer once again.

Abd al Malik Abd al Wahab is a 35- or 36-year-old citi

zen of Yemen. As of January 2010, the Guantánamo Review Task Force had recommended him for continued detention. A parole-like Periodic Review Board later recommended him for transfer. As of Nov. 16, 2015, he has been held at Guantánamo for 13 years 10 months.

And we were still at the very beginning of a very long day of reading the names and stories of 107 men still held at Guantanamo.

We are in Cuba. More specifically, 14 members of Witness Against Torture are in the Department of Guantanamo, at the Mirador overlooking the U.S. Naval Base. We are being hosted by the staff of La Gobernadora restaurant and lounge. From the lookout, we can see the U.S. base that has occupied more than 100 square kilometers of Cuban land for more than a century. We can orient ourselves toward the camps where the Abd and Mohammed and their brethren are being held. We are camping. We are praying. We are acting. We are transforming a random international tourist spot — one more site to click photos, drink a beer, and move on from before heading to the beaches — into a place to honor and connect and extend ourselves toward the men our nation has demonized and then forgotten. We feel like our songs and chants and prayers are carried by the wind, refracted by the sun, swept along by the rain, and carried along by every bird that flies over our heads.

Uruj reads a Sura from the Koran — The Great News — and I weep. I reflect on the power of language and prayer. I can say with utter confidence that these words have never been spoken here by anyone. These words are free; these words are human. And with these words, we make the men — who pray these same words in conditions of such deprivation — free. We wish it and we make it so.

Ridah Bin Saleh al Yazidi (Tunisia) (Cleared for release) is a 50-year-old citizen of Tunisia. As of January 2010, the Guantánamo Review Task Force had recommended him for transfer. As of Nov. 16, 2015, he has been held at Guantánamo for 13 years 10 months

We are not camping in luxury. There is poop on the base of the wall we have turned into our reflection point. There is no running water. It is hot and there is little shade at the lookout. The ground is littered with trash and there is a dump down one side of the hill. The staff stays up all night and plays their Reggae-ton so loud. We are overlooking a Cuban military artillery range and our prayer and reflection is interrupted by extreme, teeth-shaking blasts. The mosquitoes are fierce and it rains dramatically every day. But everywhere we look, there is incredible beauty. Mountains and valleys and bushels of flowers. Incredible skies and so many double rainbows that we stopped running for our cameras to capture the bands of color that connect the valley and sky.

At times most of our 14 are around the altar, but for most of the day, just a few gather to read the names and stories. As we stumble over the unfamiliar names and read stories of capture and torture, I am conscious of how so many back home are spending their day after Thanksgiving. It is Black Friday, which means a running of the bulls at shopping malls and big-box stores throughout the nation, a multimillion-dollar bonanza as people buy things they don’t need and can’t afford. Our Friday is black for very different reasons, as we seek to read all the names and look at all the faces of the men of Guantanamo.

Abdel Qadir Hussein al Mudhaffari . Cleared for release but held in “conditional detention. He is a 38- or 39-year-old citizen of Yemen. As of Nov. 16, 2015, he has been held at Guantánamo for 13 years 10 months. As of January 2010, the Guantánamo Review Task Force had recommended him for transfer to Yemen provided that certain security conditions were met.

He says he traveled to Afghanistan to teach the Koran while the U.S. alleges that he was a friend of bin Laden’s secretary. Captured crossing the border from Afghanistan to Pakistan in November 2001, al Mudhaffari has been cleared for release but is “held in conditional detention.”

Moving with intention in a circle, in and out of the blessed shade, to the beat of the drum, we make up the ritual as we go along. At one point, without a lot of discussion, we decide to beat the drum once for each year the man has been at Guantanamo so far. That addition brings a new level of attention in the hot afternoon. Most men have been at Guantanamo for 13 years and some months, but sometimes it is 11 or 12 years. We recommit ourselves to listening for that.

The sun was low on the horizon as we put the last photo up the wall and stepped back. I was spent, sun dried and dehydrated by reading and crying and moving; exhausted by the weight of 107 lives broken, interrupted, held as static and suspect; saddened, angered, and outraged by accumulated misery we were bearing witness to.

We were done. We had just begun. We gathered in a ritual of homecoming, pausing to reflect on the nine men who had died at Guantanamo — eight in apparent suicide and one of cancer — and then physically moved the pictures of the 107 men from the wall to a “home place” we had established with mementos and photos from our own happy homes. We sang “courage, Muslims brothers, you do not walk alone. We will walk with you and sing your spirits home.”

We laid out a huge portrait of Shaker Aamer, who recently won his release from Guantanamo and has returned home. We spoke of the homes we hope that most of the men can return to and renewed our dedication to their release.

Author’s Note: We will do this ritual when Witness Against Torture gathers in Washington, D.C., to fast and act from Jan. 3 to Jan. 13. You can find more information here.

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