Tariq Ba Odah’s Eight-Year Hunger Strike at Guantanamo Bay
Today at Guantanamo, Ba Odah is what is known as a “long-term” hunger striker. Ba Odah has not eaten – not voluntarily, at least – since February of 2007. As a result, he is force-fed, usually in the morning and again in the evening. Guards remove Ba Odah from his cell, several at a time in protective gear, strap him to a restraint chair, and medical staff force a liquid supplement through his nose and into his stomach. “Waterboarding,” Ba Odah calls it, both for the obvious torture analogy and because, at times, it has caused him to urinate and vomit.
I traveled to Guantanamo to see Ba Odah in March. I met with him again on April 21. Ba Odah had recently passed the eighth anniversary of his hunger strike, but he was not in the mood to reflect: “I don’t feel the days anymore.” Ba Odah doesn’t feel much of anything anymore. “My body gets so numb; no sensation,” he said, rapping his knuckles on the arm of his chair to illustrate the point. Apparently, this is a symptom of starvation. And with military doctors saying Ba Odah is now only 56 percent of his ideal body weight, there is no doubt he is starving. The Defense Department’s force-feeding regimen is not working. When Ba Odah lifted his prison smock, I had to look down. All I managed to write in my legal pad was “does not look like body of human; every bone visible.” Imagine liberation photos of Holocaust survivors, and you will have a sense of what I saw. Ba Odah sat back in his chair and said, “My life is not like it was. This is the hardest I have ever had it.”
My visit in April was the most recent in a series of meetings that began five years ago. By the time Ba Odah and I first met face-to-face in 2010, I had already been his lawyer for two years. Agreeing to introduce himself to me in person was a decision Ba Odah weighed carefully. Guantanamo has taught him to be leery of leaving his cell. What follows is rarely pleasant: over the years, he has endured more humiliating interrogations than he can remember; when the prison administration rotates him to a new cellblock, typically it is to make his confinement more isolative. Even visits to the prison clinic are coercive; Ba Odah complains of an array of physical ailments, from a collapsing nostril to bloody stools, but says simple medical assistance is withheld to compel him to abandon his strike. Worse still, in recent years, the prison administration implemented pretextual searches of the prisoners’ genital areas whenever they enter or leave the cellblock. So it was understandable that Ba Odah consistently declined my meeting requests. Indeed, much of our initial contact was through “refusal” notes – handwritten messages attorneys send to persuade Guantanamo prisoners to attend a scheduled legal meeting.
No matter how challenging attending meetings may be, it must still seem odd to those unfamiliar with Guantanamo that someone enduring what amounts to an indefinite sentence without ever being charged or tried would refuse the assistance of counsel. But Ba Odah has seen well-meaning lawyers come and go at Guantanamo for a decade, while little has changed for him. As he observes, only the cells change, becoming rustier and more decrepit by the year – a visual reminder of the time that has elapsed.
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