THE UNITED STATES HAS DETAINED APPROXIMATELY 750 PEOPLE AT THE U.S. NAVAL STATION IN GUANTANAMO BAY, CUBA SINCE IT OPENED IN JANUARY 2002 AS A DETENTION CENTER FOR ALLEGED “UNLAWFUL ENEMY COMBATANTS” IN THE “WAR ON TERROR.” OVER THE LAST FIVE YEARS, ABOUT HALF OF THESE MEN HAVE BEEN RELEASED TO THEIR HOME COUNTRIES. LITTLE INFORMATION IS GIVEN AS TO WHY. APPROXIMATELY 390 REMAIN AT GUANTANAMO, UNCERTAIN AS TO THEIR FUTURE.
IN 2002, U.S. ATTORNEYS BEGAN SEEKING TRIALS FOR GUANTANAMO DETAINEES. THE LEGAL PRINCIPLE ON WHICH THEY RELIED WAS HABEAS CORPUS, WHICH TRANSLATES FROM LATIN AS “SHOW THE BODY.” IT MEANS THAT THE GOVERNMENT MUST DEMONSTRATE IT HAS A VALID JUSTIFICATION FOR IMPRISONING SOMEONE.
TWO YEARS LATER, THE LAWYERS WON AT THE SUPREME COURT, RESULTING IN A PROCESS BY WHICH DETAINEES COULD CHALLENGE THEIR DETENTION IN U.S. COURTS. ATTORNEYS SIGNED UP TO TAKE ON DETAINEE CASES, RECEIVED A LIST OF NAMES AND TRAVELED TO GUANTANAMO TO MEET THEIR CLIENTS. THEIR MISSION WAS STRAIGHT-FORWARD – GET THE INFORMATION THEY NEEDED TO PRESENT TO THE COURT ABOUT THEIR CLIENTS’ ACTIONS AND CIRCUMSTANCES. THEY NEEDED A STORY TO TELL A JUDGE, IF THEY EVER GOT TO A JUDGE, ABOUT WHY THEIR CLIENTS WERE WRONGFULLY DETAINED.
Pictures from Home began with eleven stories. Stories of eleven men, whose images flickered in my imagination. I had never seen them before; civilians weren’t allowed.
On March 6, 2005, my link to these men began. My husband took a plane from New York to Fort Lauderdale, and then from Fort Lauderdale to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was to meet eleven men from Yemen detained there as terrorism suspects.
I met him in Miami on his way back from Cuba. He got out of the taxi, where I was waiting for him at the hotel. So what happened? He couldn’t say.
I wanted to know about the detainees. Who are they? What do they look like?
What I can tell you, he said, is that most of them are small. One of them, Fahmi, he is really small. His feet don’t touch the ground.
Attorneys Sarah Havens and Doug Cox are my husband’s colleagues. They were the best ones to go to Yemen to meet with the families of the eleven men they represent. They speak Arabic.
They said maybe you should come to photograph? The families were awaiting news of relatives who had been absent for over three years; I didn’t want to intrude. They went alone.
When Sarah and Doug got back, I wanted to see pictures. I looked over and over again. Houses, landscapes, brothers, fathers, siblings, daughters, sons, cars, gifts, animals, stores. My eleven stories were adorned.
From there my collection began. I wanted more pictures, more stories. I went to other law firms. Did they have pictures? Could I have them? It turns out they did. Five law firms agreed they could give me their pictures, and there were videos too.
The pictures were my first entry to these men. But they weren’t enough. I wanted to know more. So I started meeting with the lawyers who had been meeting with the detainees. I asked about each man. They wanted to tell me all the reasons why their clients’ should have trials, why it could be a mistake that they are in Guantanamo, how they have been mistreated, and how the procedures at Guantanamo are unfair, unconstitutional, inhumane.
And then the story of the pictures and the stories came out. It’s a story about trust.
“After you have been burned by hot soup, you blow in your yogurt.” This is a saying in Yemen, one of the lawyers told me. Several detainees said it to him to explain their hesitancy, their lack of faith. Could the lawyers be interrogators?
This is where the photographs, videos and little stories came in. They were evidence. Documents of relationships. The lawyers brought their pictures to Guantanamo to show the detainees that they had met with their families, the families invited them into their homes, they shook hands. In their videos, they verbalized this message.
Fragments of their personal details corroborated that the lawyers knew something about who they were, where they come from.
The pictures and videos traveled one way, from the families to the prison. But the stories went back and forth through the lawyers. Stories about what is going on at home traveled to the detainees. And stories from inside Guantanamo traveled to the families. Both the detainees and their families only want to send happy messages.
The pictures became treasured objects, passed from detainee to detainee.
Margot Herster, March 2007