In early February, more than 11 years into his detention at Guantanamo Bay, a Yemeni man named Samir Naji al-Hasan Moqbel went on a hunger strike. He had company: By mid-March, The Washington Post reported 14 detainees on hunger strike; by mid-April, it was up to 43.
The camp's military guards have responded to the hunger strike with force-feedings and by clamping down on such freedoms as allowing detainees to leave their cell doors open and live communally. A recent clash between guards and prisoners wounded even some guards and ended with gunfire that included, according to a military spokesman, "four less-than-lethal rounds."
Monday, The New York Times published an op-ed column by al-Hasan describing the hunger strike that he says has cost him 30 pounds of body weight. He dictated the column through an interpreter during a phone call to his lawyers. While it does not directly address the question of why they are hunger striking (more on this below), it does describe in harrowing detail what he says is an increasingly haphazard force-feeding routine:
Last month, on March 15, I was sick in the prison hospital and refused to be fed. A team from the E.R.F. (Extreme Reaction Force), a squad of eight military police officers in riot gear, burst in. They tied my hands and feet to the bed. They forcibly inserted an IV into my hand. I spent 26 hours in this state, tied to the bed. During this time I was not permitted to go to the toilet. They inserted a catheter, which was painful, degrading and unnecessary. I was not even permitted to pray.
I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.
I am still being force-fed. Two times a day they tie me to a chair in my cell. My arms, legs and head are strapped down. I never know when they will come. Sometimes they come during the night, as late as 11 p.m., when I’m sleeping.
There are so many of us on hunger strike now that there aren’t enough qualified medical staff members to carry out the force-feedings; nothing is happening at regular intervals. They are feeding people around the clock just to keep up.
The hunger strike may have originally begun, according to reporting by the Post's Peter Finn and Julie Tate, when some guards inspecting a cell "desecrated" a Koran while looking through it. It's not clear what precisely may have happened, although the military says that Korans are only touched by special cultural advisers who are typically themselves Muslim.
But whatever began this hunger strike – camp officials say small strikes are common – perhaps more significant is the deeper anxiety that seems to have exacerbated it to such an alarming extent. Dozens of Guantanamo's 166 prisoners have actually been cleared for release, but the Obama administration has still not found a country or countries to release them into, and even recently shuttered the office responsible for this. So the prisoners are left in a state of limbo, locked up with no clear path out. A Red Cross statement last month called the hunger strike and clashes "the direct result of the uncertainty faced by detainees."
In his op-ed, al-Hasan seems to hint that the hunger strike is a response to the Obama administration's failure to secure his release. "The only reason I am still here is that President Obama refuses to send any detainees back to Yemen," he writes. "I do not want to die here, but until President Obama and Yemen’s president do something, that is what I risk every day."