My heartbreaking journey to Gitmo: A widow, a military prison & the enigma of human compassion

While reporting on abuses at Gitmo, I got the worst news of my life. Then I was shown kindness that others were not

Published January 28, 2016 12:00AM (EST)

The author with her husband in August 2014. (Falguni Sheth)
The author with her husband in August 2014. (Falguni Sheth)

Jan. 11, 2016, marked the 14th anniversary of “the national shame” called Guantánamo Bay. As of this writing, there are still 91 men in the prison, down from its highest point of 779. Some of them have been there since 2002, several months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Even before being brought to Guantánamo, many were held at Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan, or were interrogated and tortured in offsite CIA detention facilities. Many of them were suspected of being low-level staff working for al-Qaida, once our ally in Afghanistan against the Russians. A number of men were captured and brought to U.S. agents by bounty hunters, eager to obtain the handsome ransoms being offered by the United States, eager post-tragedy to reflect a great show of strength in leading the War on Terror.

For the last 14 years, I have followed whatever information was accessible about the routine kidnapping (rendering), detention (imprisonment) and treatment (torture and other brutal practices) of the hundreds of detainees in Guantánamo Bay. Striking during that time has been the range of reactions from various military personnel, ranging from unconditional support to indifference to the torture and cruel treatment of men whose guilt has been in serious doubt.

For six months, I had tried to obtain permission to enter Guantánamo to view the prison facilities. Finally, after a series of mishaps caused by impossible application procedures, on Dec. 31, 2014, I was invited to observe a military commission instead of the prison. Anxious to get to the base, I accepted the invitation, which meant I would fly on a military plane from Washington, D.C., rather than on a charter plane out of Miami. My trip was set for three weeks later. I was elated, as was my husband, who notified nearly every acquaintance or friend or family member he could think of. He seemed to believe that the invitation was the result of personal perseverance on my part rather than happenstance.

On Jan. 24, 2015, I kissed my husband and partner of 27 years goodbye as I began my trek to Guantánamo Bay Naval Facilities from the Springfield, Massachusetts, Amtrak station. As a columnist for, I had obtained permission to observe a trial of an Afghan detainee, Abd Hadi al Iraqi, who had been rendered by the U.S. government from Turkey in 2006 and brought to Guantánamo to face a military tribunal for war crimes. He was not part of the original group of detainees who had been brought to Guantánamo in 2002 when the prison facility was first re-opened.

At 8:30 a.m. on Jan. 27, after being unable to contact him since arriving on the base two days earlier, I received word that my husband had been found at home in our bed. He had died of a brain aneurysm sometime after I left that weekend during the great blizzard that blanketed the Northeast. It was the beginning of a snowstorm that, through the lens of my dimmed eyes, seemed to continue unabated for months.

With me in the press room when I learned of his death were two other people: One was C, a longtime war journalist and only reporter who has nearly daily, consistently, covered the goings-on at Guantánamo Bay since its opening 14 years ago. She was a remarkable person to observe in operation. From the moment we reached Guantánamo, she was busy making phone calls, getting the scoop on some latest story, casually finding out hot details, chatting up people for confirmation. The other was J, a lawyer who was covering the trial for a small newsletter. J and I shared a sense of humor, similar political views, and we had hit it off immediately. I think she, like me, was in awe of C.

By the time I got off the phone, C informed me that there happened to be a plane leaving within the hour and that I needed to be on that plane. My mind, suddenly completely numb, resisted her suggestion with a range of semi-rational, if not utterly irrational thoughts. I needed to call my in-laws, my family, his friends, others. I needed to call his employer, his colleagues. I needed to figure out how to organize the services. There was no way that I could get onto that plane.

C persisted. She insisted that I needed to get on that plane, because there was no telling when another would be leaving for the mainland. We were on a naval base, not an airport. Numbly I agreed, but remained sitting, still stunned and unsure how to move. C, securing my assent, packed my bags while I made two more phone calls to friends who would set the machinery of post-death preparations in motion while I was in flight for the rest of the day -- informing immediate family of my spouse’s death, organizing times for friends to visit and drop off meals, coordinating who would stay close by once I arrived back home, arranging time off from my classes.

While I made those phone calls, other machinery on the Naval Base was being set in gear, machinery that reflected a certain kind of urgency, a kind of institutional compassion that I did not anticipate, but for which I was deeply grateful. Someone, most likely C, had informed the Public Affairs Office, which was hosting my trip, of the news that I had received. When I got off the phone, J made sure I had all my gear, and, holding my hand firmly in hers, led me outside the air-conditioned office to the hangar that served as a garage for press vehicles. I was composed, and my mind was meticulously organizing the list of things I needed to do once I got home: funeral arrangements, food, asking Bob why he dared to die on me. There was a press van waiting to take me to… somewhere. I wasn’t sure where, and my mind didn’t have the necessary components at that moment to ask. All I knew is that we were waiting and couldn’t leave right away. Somehow, it was communicated to me that the proper paperwork had to be prepared to allow me to leave the base; the plane was waiting for both that and my physical presence.

Waiting in the hangar to escort me and J (who held on to me all the way to the airport) was an Air Force officer named Maj. Wayne Capps. I don’t remember much, but I was struck by his sincerity.  He expressed his deep sorrow to me.

Finally, the paperwork to allow me to exit the naval base had come through. My sense of time is skewed, but it might have been anywhere between 30 minutes to one hour later. It was clear that the plane, which was scheduled to take off at 9 a.m., was still grounded.

We climbed into the air-conditioned van, along with the major and several more of his colleagues. I stared out the window silently, barely grasping the flashes of greenery, surrounded by man-made dividers and cones to guide our vehicle. We drove through a series of checkpoints through the base, our driver flashing papers and IDs until we finally arrived at a small dock where a Coast Guard speedboat was waiting. Even in my grief-induced haze, I marveled at the remarkably tight track-and-trolling surveillance procedures that the military had perfected. There was nowhere to go without having one’s movement tracked, at least if one was, like me, an interloper.

Equipping us with life jackets, Capps and his colleagues escorted J and myself onto the boat. My legs moved of their own accord, independently of my impulse to collapse on the dock and moan until Bob was back in this world again. Once we sat down, the boat whisked us to the other part of the island where the airport was. The incoming ride on the ferry had probably taken at least an hour, if not more. Yet this ride must have been much shorter than it felt to me. As Capps remarked to me, “In all my time on this base, I’ve never gotten from this side to that side as quickly as we did today.”

Finally, we arrived at the hangar, and the pilot arranged our places on the small C-12 Navy plane, organizing us by weight and size so as to ensure that the tiny aircraft would be able to maintain its balance. He warned the women to make a last rest stop, as it would be virtually impossible for women to relieve themselves during the flight, given the absence of facilities. (I managed to defy that restriction quite valiantly, if I say so myself. But that’s a story best told over a drink.) Some time later, we took off for what would be a four-hour flight to Mayport Naval Base, which was approximately one hour from Jacksonville Airport in Florida. Realizing that those four hours would be the last time that I would have any quiet to consider my loss, to try to understand how in 72 short hours my entire world had been upended, I crawled into that corner of my mind that still believed a tiny bit that Bob was not dead, or at least that he could still hear me, and remained there for the rest of the flight. I talked to my darling, promising to finish his last two books, cursing him for leaving me, asking him how I would ever breathe again without him.

Arriving in Mayport, I was approached by a female military press officer who had been instructed to drive me to Jacksonville to catch the flight to New England via Atlanta, which C had booked for me. I felt a strange unexpected relief. I had not expected to be met by anyone, anticipating instead that I would be catching a taxi to the airport alone.

During that hour, the press officer and one other passenger, a woman who had helped me defy the restroom restrictions on my flight, silently listened as I cried on the phone with various relatives and friends, apologizing to my mother-in-law for his death and uttering other sorts of inanities of grief. As we arrived at the airport, each woman hugged me goodbye. The press officer pressed a piece of paper in my hand with her name and number in case I needed anything (although I’ve since lost that precious paper) as I made my way back home in the midst of the blizzard that had refused to cease even in the face of world’s biggest tragedy. At least it was for me, in that moment.

* * *

[caption id="attachment_10007081" align="aligncenter" width="570"] Credit: Associated Press[/caption]

Over the last several decades, the public reputation and image of the military has been burnished or tarnished by turns, depending upon the news item. As support for the War on Terror has ebbed and flowed and the last two presidential administration have realized that support for the military would diminish in the event of a draft, the military has been continually remade. On the one hand, political officials and their spouses, eager to exploit a range of tragedies—9/11, WMD, nuclear weapons, bringing democracy to the uncivilized--have pushed hard to appoint the military the world’s police force. On the other hand, as the ever increasing television ads for the Navy, the Army, the Air Force proudly boast—the military has a complex existence as a humanitarian enterprise: saving babies, rescuing flood victims, digging wells, offering widespread emergency medical assistance. It is clear that military personnel are proud that they have been integral in alleviating the suffering of their fellow countrymen, as well as denizens of other countries.

Clearly, the humanity with which the military treated my tragedy will come as no surprise to some, be they members of the military or family members or others who are familiar with them. It is clear that men and women in the military understand suffering. They seem to empathize deeply with others who suffer. They understand death, perhaps in a way that most of us who have not been in combat or in war zones, or victims of drones or bombs or subject to warfare, may not ever quite get a handle on. The capacity of individual members of the military to understand suffering has never been in doubt, at least not for me. But I wonder whose suffering they understand—or, more important, whose suffering they don’t understand... and why.

It seems that for a very long time, there hasn’t been much of a will or interest—at least in the upper echelons of military decision makers, whether the commander-in-chief or his advisers, to be attentive to the deep distress of other groups who have suffered deeply, like the Guantánamo detainees. Consider, for example, the plight of Shaker Aamer, who was detained in Guantánamo for 14 years, even though he had been cleared for release since 2007, five years after he was turned over to the U.S. by bounty hunters who had captured him in Afghanistan. From there, Aamer was held in Baghram Jail on a U.S. Air Force Base, where he was acutely tortured for two months before being sent to Guantánamo, where the torture continued.  As a result, Aamer suffered deep health problems.  Many of these stemmed from his treatment in Bagram and Guantanamo. As the doctor who examined him stated:

He reported severe maltreatment by guards, interrogators, and medical personnel working in concert, by means of humiliation, sleep deprivation, exposure to cold, manipulation offood and water, stress positions, threats of sexual assault against his young daughter, and beatings.

As Amer describes:

One interrogator talked about what he would do to my five-year-old daughter in details that destroyed me. He said ‘They are going to screw her. She will be screaming, ‘Daddy! Daddy’’ You are completely disorganized. You are completely destroyed.

The medical report is intensely graphic and detailed. I recommend that you read it. There can be no doubt that he suffered deeply. There is every reason to believe that the upper echelons of the Bush administration and the Obama administration were aware of it, even if not the commanders-in-chief themselves. Still, there was little interest in releasing him, despite the Bush administration’s admission that they had no evidence against him.

Why, in the face of such clear indifference to the cruelty and brutality, to the suffering to which someone like Shaker Aamer--imprisoned without any justifiable evidence--was subjected, was there such a humane response to my suffering? What are the limits of compassion for the U.S. military? Clearly, mine was relatively modest suffering in terms of the scale that military personnel have seen. I was in Guantánamo as a journalist--a class of people that, I suspect, the military doesn’t like or trust very much, no matter the declarations to the contrary.  From its perspective, the press maligns the U.S. military, misstates the facts, embarrasses them frequently, and is relatively unaccountable.

Yet, despite this presumable dislike, when the press office learned of my news, they made every effort to treat me humanely--to ensure that I was able to return home with minimal disruption or intervention to my already frayed mind. Their humanity, their kindness, their compassion was deeply welcomed, if striking.

It will seem ridiculously obvious to many readers why I was treated humanely. I am a U.S. citizen, an academic and political writer, and I haven’t been accused of wrongdoing. Like me, many of these detainees are dark and from a similar part of the world. Unlike me, they are accused of (but neither charged or shown to have committed) crimes.  Still, the difference in treatment is worth considering; I want to make what seems obvious a little more unfamiliar: I want to ask when and how the military recognizes deserved versus undeserved suffering. I understand that the military’s job is to destroy, kill, to conquer the enemy. But these men are not in any position to threaten us in their jail cells, even when untortured. And we know that torture leads to no good information, to little else but an outlet for frustration and hate.

One can argue that it didn’t take much for the military personnel I was surrounded by to care for me: They merely had to process the papers and get me on a plane off the Naval Base. Yet, the efficiency with which they were able to organize themselves in order to get me home indicates that, if not a procedure in place, there is certainly a particular comportment that enables the alleviation of suffering.

Hannah Arendt argues that human beings rarely have the capacity to negotiate with institutions or nation-states in their status as mere human beings. We require political protection—a mantle of sorts: to be a citizen of a specific nation-state that is willing to recognize us, extend us legal protections, defend us.  Of course, when Arendt wrote about this in 1948, she was referring to stateless refugees. They not only had no nation-state to which to appeal for protection, but they were by many nations considered the victims of wrongdoing, subject to enmity, hatred, and racism through no fault of their own. And despite those circumstances, despite the Minority Treaties, beginning in 1919 and extending into the 1920s, whereby European nations agreed to extend hospitality to the stateless, the unwanted populations of Europe in the 1930s were neither encouraged nor welcomed to seek refuge among the signatory countries.

The detainees of Guantánamo, meanwhile, have been unceasingly under a public cloud of suspicion since their initial capture, despite the fact that the United States government, under both the Bush and Obama administrations, has rarely offered substantial charges nor public evidence against the detainees. In a famous challenge to the U.N. Geneva Conventions about how to treat prisoners of war, the Bush administration decided to treat the detainees as unlawful enemy combatants, a new category altogether, which left the detainees in a legal limbo. The entire scenario reflected a Kafkaesque reality: It was a no-man’s status in a no-man’s land, Guantánamo Bay Naval Base—territory leased from Cuba, considered American, and not easily part of any national jurisdiction or legal territory when questions of accountability arose.

Besides the treatment of Amer, there were multiple accounts of widespread abuse and torture so extreme and so graphic that it sickened various officials who observed it. And yet it continued for years. It continued despite multiple reports pointing to the futility of torture in obtaining solid information. In fact, as Jason Leopold and Jeffrey Kaye report in a stunning article that shares the handwritten notes on the torture program by one of its original designers—a psychologist under contract with the CIA, Dr. Bruce Jessen--the program was created not to extract information, but to produce compliance among the detainees.

Despite these reports and the horrific counterfactuals that betrayed the injustice of the indefinite imprisonment and horrific treatment of these men in Guantánamo Bay, there was indifference—both among U.S. military troops and their commanding officers, as well as in the upper echelons of both the Bush and Obama presidential administrations. The torture continued—if not through outright savagery as experienced by Shaker Aamer, then by medically and militarily unjustifiable practices such as force-feeding--despite the initial statements and executive order by President Obama to end it.

In my case, I suspect that I was extended a certain easy humanity because I wasn’t particularly suspicious. I had been vetted before being cleared to travel to Guantánamo, and this revealed me to be a quiet if occasionally vocal and irritating academic, with no interesting ties to Islam or to many political organizations. But these are procedural answers. The question that I am really asking is what distinguishes my entitlement to be treated compassionately from that of the detainees? Why, when I am seen to suffer through the loss of a loved one, does the U.S. military recognize my suffering and respond humanely to it, even as it is fundamentally unable to offer a similar kind of attention to men who—even if once under suspicion—have not been found to have done anything, except perhaps by loose affiliation with suspected bad boys, as retiring Commander of the Southern Command, Gen. John Kelly called the remaining men in Guantánamo in his final remarks to the press?

I’m not sure that I can convincingly argue for some link between the individual capacity to empathize and the expression or extension of that ability to a bureaucratic organization. I’m not suggesting that institutions have emotions or passions. But the policies that institutions adopt can reflect any one of a number of mind-sets: defensiveness (obviously this can be seen through various combat situations or decisions to go to war), compassion and humanity (as in utilizing troops to repair or build infrastructure, offer medical assistance, organize supply chains and pipelines to bring nourishment to people). At some level, the difference in treatment might lie in the difference in the value of these lives, or the difference in their political worth, or just a mere question of recognition: Who gets to be seen as worthy of respect in the face of trauma? And why?

By Falguni A. Sheth

Falguni A. Sheth is a professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University. She writes about politics, race, and feminism at Follow her on Twitter at @FalguniSheth.

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