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.”
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.
There is no shortage of blame to go around for Guantanamo’s continued operation. My March trip to the prison happened to coincide with Tom Cotton’s tightly scripted media tour – one would have thought the freshman senator would visit Guantanamo before his “rot in hell” stunt at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in February. My visit in April followed the launch of Marco Rubio’s presidential bid, during which he called for Guantanamo’s expansion and declared the six prisoners recently freed to Uruguay, each unanimously cleared by multiple national security agencies, “a danger…for our country and the world.” Meanwhile, Republican senators are seizing on ISIL’s bloodthirst to ram through legislation intended to halt all Guantanamo releases indefinitely. Yes, fearmongering around Guantanamo is old news, but the stakes remain high – higher now than ever. With less than two years left in the White House, President Obama now says he failed to close Guantanamo only because of politics, rhetoric and fear. It is a haunting admission considering the suffering Ba Odah so easily could have been spared.
Unsurprisingly, in Ba Odah’s view, lawmakers, the courts and the president are all part of the same system that keeps him locked up and far from his family. To make his point, Ba Odah often gestures to the lock on the cell door where we meet and says, “The men who brought me here on the first day, those are the only ones with the power to let me out when it’s my last.” I am hard-pressed to disagree. But, surely, as the person with ultimate power over Ba Odah’s fate, President Obama bears unique responsibility for the fact that today, Ba Odah remains in isolation at Guantanamo, bracing himself for his next feeding.
Ba Odah believes the Obama administration is consistent only in that it never does what it says it will. Upon taking office, President Obama vowed not only to close Guantanamo within a year, but also to ensure living standards for the prisoners were compliant with the Geneva Conventions. Yet, in some objectively measurable ways, Ba Odah’s detention was more tolerable before President Obama took office.
Ba Odah says it was not until May 2009 that he was transferred to Guantanamo’s notorious Camp 5, where prisoners are held in isolation cells. Almost without interruption, Ba Odah has been committed to solitary confinement ever since. “Days go by and I do not speak to a soul,” Ba Odah said during a March 2012 meeting. And the little recreation time he is allowed – sometimes just two hours per day – has been scheduled during hours not customarily devoted to physical fitness. “As I have already mentioned to you,” Ba Odah wrote to me in a letter, “I’ve been spending 24 hours a day inside the cell for a long period of time, and that is due to the myriad problems I have been facing. The prison officials scheduled my two-hour recreational walk for three o’clock in the morning. The purpose of such scheduling is to increase the pressure on me. At that hour, I will still be on my own, even in the rec area.” In response, Ba Odah has also gone on “no wash” protests, once refusing to leave his cell, shower or cut his nails for four months. “I looked like I crawled out of a grave. Finally the military asked me to stop and gave me back my full rec privileges.” The sad reality is that, whether alone or not, Ba Odah is often too weak to take advantage of the little sunlight he is permitted.
For allowing his Department of Defense to mismanage Guantanamo, President Obama should come in for withering criticism. Of course, even if Guantanamo were the “state-of-the-art” detention facility it is often said to be, it would do little to ameliorate Ba Odah’s suffering. Like most at Guantanamo, he is tormented by the rational fear that, after more than a decade, his cell may one day become his coffin. Nine Guantanamo prisoners have already met that fate. The failing of the judiciary and Congress notwithstanding, the president alone is empowered to avert such a disaster. From November 2014 through January 2015 – in just three months – he freed 27 men. That was more than in the prior three years combined. The White House wields remarkable power to effect transfers when it chooses to do so. Yet, all too often, it shows little interest in martialing that power.
Though Ba Odah does not despair, he is under no illusions about the Gordian knot ensnaring him at Guantanamo. No matter the occupant of the Oval Office, the partisan makeup of Congress, the base-commander presiding or the guards on duty, his detention is a game with a predetermined outcome: the prisoners lose until someone more powerful spares them. In the interim, they pay a heavy price. As Ba Odah puts it: “Freedom should be much more precious for the human being than all the desires on earth.” Detention, therefore, is brutal; indefinite detention, mercilessly so.
At Guantanamo, however, indefinite detention is compounded by the indignity inherent in a system that seems to encourage prisoners’ participation only to mock them. Why else create elaborate administrative and judicial processes – Combatant Status Review Tribunals (CSRT), Administrative Review Boards, Periodic Review Boards, Inter-Agency Task Force reviews and habeas corpus hearings – that after 13 years still have so little to show for themselves? Ba Odah, like so many others at Guantanamo, sees it as little more than the elevation of process over justice. The purpose, he says, is to pacify a prison population enduring unspeakable suffering. This is why he easily draws comparisons to the institution of slavery. “I was arrested on the second day of Eid Al-Fitr,” he writes, “then sold into the United States’ 21st century slavery market. As far as I am concerned, all of this pressure, humiliation, limitless injustice have been solely aimed at breaking me and breaking my brothers so that they could manipulate us…and plant in us despair and mentally enslave us just like they have physically enslaved those before us.”
Ba Odah finds redemption in protest, one organized around the principle of non-participation. Ba Odah refused to submit to a CSRT – the sham tribunals established by the Bush administration to determine who, among the hundreds of men then at Guantanamo, were “enemy combatants.” Ba Odah was similarly reluctant (and, in any event, physically unfit) to litigate his habeas petition. And, as I recounted, from 2008 until 2010, he would not even sit down with his own lawyer. It goes without saying, however, that Ba Odah’s refusal to eat is the most uncompromising form of resistance through non-participation. “I tell them again and again that I don’t want any food from them….I just don’t want it. All I want is for them leave us alone, lingering in these cells. They want me to eat, but first I have to be subjected to humiliation….The provocation is never-ending.” Therefore, Ba Odah says, his hunger strike will never end. “My method of delivering my message is through hunger strike. You can cut me to pieces, but I will not break it. I will stop on one of two conditions: I die, or I am freed and allowed to return to my family.”
Ba Odah’s discipline is humbling. His typical day is “split between praying, reading Qur’an…and contemplating memories of the past.” Sometimes he will practice walking in his cell for exercise, “three steps forward and three backwards.” The monotony is interrupted only when guards arrive to force-feed him. Ba Odah has explained that he views these as moments when his will is tested against the guards’. All too often discussion of force-feeding fails to go beyond the shocking physical details. That is understandable. According to Ba Odah, violently force-feeding prisoners has been the Department of Defense’s preferred approach to breaking strikes. Ba Odah’s descriptions of feeding sessions in 2006 and 2007 are grisly: “I was tortured with the restraining chair when they were filling my belly with two packs of Ensure. The doctors would introduce a 14 size tube with a metal end inside my nose to reach my stomach and sometimes my lungs, and when they would take it out it would be filled with blood.” Yet, for Ba Odah, hunger striking is an expression of his vitality. The physical pain, therefore, pales in comparison to the psychological trauma of having the very jailors responsible for his ordeal overbear his will in such an intimate way.
Though powerless to prevent the feedings, Ba Odah nonetheless takes pride in his fortitude. He believes he has accomplished a rare feat that, while a far cry from actual freedom, is profoundly liberating. As in any detention setting, much of the prison administration’s control at Guantanamo comes from providing (and depriving) prisoners of “comfort items” – books, recreational time, communal living assignments, anything that makes imprisonment more tolerable. Through his hunger strike, however, Ba Odah has removed the ultimate mechanism of leverage. In an environment as hostile as Guantanamo, for Ba Odah, even the primal drive to eat is a vulnerability to be conquered. He explained in a series of letters in 2013: “My body has become frail and weak, but spiritually I feel that I am a thousand times stronger than I was before. It has been seven years since I have tasted food.” He wrote later that “even the pungent smell that used to stay on my fingers after eating” is a lost memory. “I have prevailed over man’s innate weakness towards food and drink. I feel honored and proud because I sacrificed food and drink for the sake of my freedom.” By his own definition, Ba Odah has prevailed, and yet that victory has surely taken its toll.
During one of our meetings in 2014, Ba Odah looked particularly weary. His physical deterioration is the predictable result of his protest, but it is no less unsettling. We talked for a little while about how he is holding up. I try not to dwell on the subject, however. Ba Odah chose this course with eyes open; it is arduous enough without worrisome questioning. In any case, he knows all too well how he has been transformed. Other than the occasional wry smile, his face recalls a death mask more than that of a man in his thirties. As Ba Odah writes, “one day, I looked at my face in the mirror and was shocked; I would say more saddened. I felt the mirror was looking at me [and] asking if that was really me.” During this particular meeting, Ba Odah shared more than he usually does about how it feels to be bed-ridden in a filthy cell, carried away by force to be fed with tubes. He wondered openly how much more he will have to endure, but soon pivoted: “I am fine; deep inside, I feel fine. If I accepted all this without protest, that would destroy me.”
I had heard variations on that reassuring theme before, and yet, witnessing him persevere through this advanced stage of his strike, I found myself fixating on his physical condition: His eyes were more sunken than usual. His hands shook more noticeably. It seemed as though he could have slid his ankle out of the shackle in the floor if he had tried.
Back in my Guantanamo housing facility after our meeting, I returned to some of Ba Odah’s letters to remind myself why Guantanamo provokes in him such fierce resistance. There are many clues in the way Ba Odah describes his life before Guantanamo:
“1978 is my year of birth; but my real birth has not come yet. I have been waiting for it for 11 years. My place of birth is the Shabwah district of Yemen. I left Shabwah when I was one year old and spent my entire life in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I am the middle child. My mother and father were kind parents in a simple family untouched by typical familial problems. All that my father cared about was how to ensure happy and peaceful living for his family by providing us with education. Regarding my loving mother, she was and remains smiling all the time. I do not recall a day when she was harsh to me. We lived a wonderful family life, but all this changed since my capture….
My 11 years of time spent in solitary confinement is trying to kill the 11 years of childhood I spent in Wadi Jamilah in Saudi Arabia. Now, I live on just the imagination of my wonderful childhood….
At the moment when I am released, I would pray and kneel twice to Allah for the blessing of freedom, then go to my mother and hug her. As for my father, my chance to serve him is now gone because he passed away.”
Ba Odah’s suffering is as unnecessary as it is unforgivable. He was cleared for release more than five years ago. Virtually no one disputes at this point whether he ought to be freed. And it is possible that those men Ba Odah describes, the ones who brought him to Guantanamo on the first day, will, at long last, come to release him. Perhaps even one day soon. In the meantime, Ba Odah has taken to scrawling the word “homesick” on the walls of his cell.