This is a book I never imagined writing. Ten years ago I did three weeks of interviews with families in Britain with a son in Guantanamo Bay, for the verbatim play, Guantanamo, Honour Bound to Defend Freedom, and discovered the bewildering circumstances of their sons’ arrests. None of them had spoken before to any journalist as they were stunned by the avalanche of media characterisation of their missing sons – “The Tipton Taliban” etc. The fear and confusion in these households was so painful to observe that I was glad when the listening was over. But I was curious – nothing made sense in this corner of the War on Terror.
I was even more curious about the handful of families who had refused their lawyers’ suggestions that being part of the play might somehow help raise awareness of their family’s personal disaster. The one I knew least about was a Palestinian wife with five children, and she was the one I wrote to, telling her about the play and expressing my sadness for her. I knew her husband had been subjected to ‘extraordinary rendition’ from West Africa to Bagram and then Guantanamo. Sabah, whose story is Chapter 1 of my book, phoned me in response, and invited me into a home where over these years I found another world, which changed my attitudes to many things.
Gradually I met other women with husbands in Belmarsh prison in Britain, where they were for two years without trial, until the House of Lords ordered them released. Then I met women whose husbands were under house arrest. Others whose husbands were under UN or EU asset freezing orders and could have no money except £10 a week – everything else had to be handled by the wives.
I was soon getting an intimate look at the war on terror through these women’s lives. I went to court hearings, to the Special Immigration Appeals Tribunal with its secret evidence rules, to locked wards in mental hospitals, experienced abrupt removals from homes, petty cruelties of neighbours, teachers, officials across the spectrum.
However, amid the grief and the draining uncertainty of waiting, I found women who were still dignified before everything and who miraculously created fun and joy for their children. These were households where faith was the centre of everything.
In the end Sabah’s husband came back from Guantanamo, like all the others from Britain, except Zinnira’s husband, Shaker Aamer– her story is Chapter 2. There were never any charges against any of them.
A decade ago I could never have imagined that 54 countries would collude in the US ‘extraordinary rendition’ flight programme that took Sabah’s husband and so many others to the hell of Bagram and Afghanistan.
Nor could I have imagined that today there would still be 166 men, like Shaker, in Guantanamo Bay prison, and that 157 of them could be there despite having no charges against them, while 86 of them have been cleared by a Task Force of the highest ranking group of intelligence and military personnel in the US – 5 years ago. Nor could I have imagined that it is highly likely that these men may never be freed – and there is no public outrage. They have slipped off the radar.
The war on terror has numbed us all to injustice on such a scale. It is our loss that we do not know these and many other women’s stories from the war on terror, which allow us to feel what it’s cost has been to our humanity.
The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror
Victoria Brittain. Foreword by John Berger. Afterword by Marina Warner
“Thanks in no small measure to Victoria Brittain’s remarkable work, we should all have at least some sense of the horrifying events of which Guantanamo is a symbol. Here Brittain adds another crucial dimension to the shameful record, with a searching, sensitive, and wrenching account of the ordeal of the women left behind, their torment, their endurance and courage, their triumphs over the cruel “extension of prison to home.” And not least, a revealing picture of what we have allowed ourselves to become.
“This is a window into an invisible world…a reminder that abandoning normal legal standards has serious consequences for the Rule of Law.” – Helena Kennedy, QC