Sunday Conversation (NPR)

National Public Radio
By Rachel Martin
May 5, 2013


Omar Deghayes: My name is Omar Deghayes. I’m a lawyer. I graduated from law school here in the UK, and I was locked up in Guantanamo for about five years [and] several months from 2002 to 2007.

Rachel Martin: Omar Deghayes is one of hundreds of former detainees who’ve been released from the US prison at Guantanamo Bay over the past several years. There are 166 prisoners still there. Of that group, at least 100 are said to be participating in a hunger strike with almost two dozen being force-fed. President Obama said recently he has a responsibility not to let the strikers die. And he said he is still intent on closing the facility altogether. In his years as a detainee, Omar Deghayes went on three hunger strikes. His story is his own and NPR cannot  independently confirm the details of his account. Former Guantanamo detainee Omar Deghayes is this week’s Sunday Conversation. I asked him what triggered his hunger strikes.

OD: Usually it’s something drastic that took place in the camps that angered everybody collectively, and they start on and it catches up. Not from the beginning, everybody at the same time, but just slowly, slowly catches up throughout the camps. And then news just goes, reaches different places, that people are hunger striking.

RM: How were they organized logistically? How much communication did you have with other inmates? Because you were in solitary confinement, right?

OD: I was, yes, but like I’ll give you just an example, because most of it, I wouldn’t want to speak about it, because I don’t want it to be prevented inside prison there. You innovate ways to communicate by banging on the walls. You - next door, we found out that the air conditioning, if you speak very loudly inside it, that [the] person on top of your cell can hear you. And then that person can send that message through something else. Through speaking inside for example the basin where you wash your hands, and things like that. There are different ways. I don’t want to speak about all of them, but these are just examples of how people can communicate.

RM: Can you talk a little bit about what’s happening psychologically or emotionally in that moment, that you would start to purposely starve yourself?

OD: Usually, it’s a small incident, not small, but something grave takes place inside the camp but that triggers other feelings: Thinking about why we’ve been there for many, many years inside those prisons without any chance to look at the evidence or there is no hope. All that comes together and then, it’s a cry of help to the outside world, usually, it’s the last resort. And then it doesn’t help [that] the guards themselves and the military administration in Guantanamo usually take an aggressive reaction to that. My experience is that they start to forcibly feed people sometimes, they go invade peoples’ cells and beat them up and take them outside and put water, liquid inside them to maintain them alive. And maybe they think by doing so is like to break you down and make you, you know, stop the hunger strike. But what really it does, it just aggravates people and makes people more angry.

RM: What was your objective? What did you want to happen in order to put an end to your own hunger strike?

OD: At one stage, I have discussed it with one of the interrogators. One of the last interrogators I had was a lot kinder than the previous ones and I used to have some reasonable discussions with him. Because what happens is sometimes the demands start from we want our imprisonment to come to an end. We want proper cause, to have our cases listened to in court so that the final decision is made and those who’ve committed anything can be convicted and imprisoned and those who haven’t committed anything should be released. And he would discuss that, he was one of the best people who dealt with those hunger strikes in the beginning. He would say these things are not in my hands, these are political decisions. But I have in my hand to do lots of things. I can change at least the conditions, I can provide clean water for people to drink. And we gave him the chance and things really improved a lot for a length of time.

RM: There are around 90 prisoners currently who have been cleared to leave Guantanamo Bay but they are still there, have been for months on end. You are not there anymore, it’s been a long time since you were, and you don’t know the motivations of those people striking right now. But based on your own experience, do you think the current hunger strike could end if one of those detainees was released, so that the others could see that there is some finality to this?

OD: Yes definitely so. Because when I hear the reports and why the hunger strike started and everything, I can just picture everything is very, very similar to what went on when I was there. It will send a very good message of hope. It might lead to the ceasing of the hunger strike, yes. 

RM: Why do you think you were finally released?

OD: There is no clear answer to that. The problem with Guantanamo is it’s very, very illogical. Everything about it is illogical. There are some people who’ve been released and they’ve admitted that they’ve committed wrong things. And then at the same time you have people who are completely innocent and cleared for release and they’re not released. But in my case, there was lots of campaigning in the UK explaining that they have the wrong person inside prison. Because in my case ther was a mistaken identity. They had a photograph of a Chechen rebel and they thought that was me. And that was secret evidence for five years. We had people who campaigned endlessly. My family were told by the lawyer that if you don’t campaign openly, you will never get your son released.

RM: Omar Deghayes is a former Guantanamo Bay detainee. He joined us from the BBC Studios in Brighton, England. Mister Deghayes, thanks for talking with us.

OD: Thank you very much.

Listen to original here