This article was adapted from the essay “Nourishing Resistance: Tariq Ba Odah’s 8-Year Hunger Strike at Guantanamo Bay” by Omar Farah, which appears in Obama’s Guantanamo: Stories from an Enduring Prison, edited by Jonathan Hafetz, to be published in June 2016 by NYU Press © 2016.
Editor’s note: On June 25, the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represents Tariq Ba Odah, filed papers seeking habeas relief for their client and calling for his immediate release.
Tariq Ba Odah would be a slight man, even if he were willing to eat. His shoulders are barely wide enough to keep his orange prison uniform in place. His wrists are childlike and his hands delicate, veins visible all the way to the ends of his fingers. When his arm is straightened, he can almost touch the tip of his pinky to his thumb around his own bicep. The combination of his raised cheekbones and beard cast a shadow down the side of his face. His eyes and nose are naturally large, though they take on particular prominence now that his weight has fallen under 80 pounds. Ba Odah’s curly black hair, which he keeps shoulder-length, does little to fill out his profile. The office chairs in the cells in Camp Echo, where Guantanamo prisoners and attorneys typically meet, appear to swallow Ba Odah up. Sores plague him. The pain in his stomach and back cause him to shift in place moment to moment. All of this gives Ba Odah the appearance of, as a fellow prisoner put it, a bird about to take flight. But Ba Odah has been caged at Guantanamo for more than 13 years, despite being cleared for release by the nation’s top national security agencies. He is 36 years old.
Ba Odah arrived at Guantanamo like so many other prisoners who have passed through its wire gates. For reasons he does not understand, he says he was arrested by local police in Pakistan and handed over to American forces. A stubborn myth about the men at Guantanamo is that at some point they were all squared off against U.S. soldiers with guns drawn, and were captured and shipped off to Guantanamo to neutralize the threat they posed. The well-documented but little known reality is that following its invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the U.S. military ran a slipshod, bounty-based dragnet that ensnared hundreds of men and boys whose worst crime was being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Ba Odah says he was among them – sold into U.S. custody and then rendered to Guantanamo at roughly 23 years old. The trip was a harbinger of what lay ahead. For two days on the transport plane he says he was drugged, and his hands, legs and waist were tied “to the point of feeling that his body would be ripped apart.” A rotten black cover was placed over his head. He says he was “dying a thousand times every moment because of the inability to breathe.”