They came from opposite sides of the wire - one a prisoner, the other a guard in the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention camp. But today Moazzam Begg and Christopher Arendt have met as friends. It's a remarkable symbol of unity in the week when President Obama signed the order to close the camp that shamed the US.
The ex-inmate and the ex-soldier are now on a lecture tour, continuing in Leeds tomorrow and going to Hull, York, Newcastle, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Belfast before ending in Cardiff. Moazzam, 40, from Birmingham, was held as a terror suspect for three years, before being freed without charge in 2005. Christopher, 24, served with the Michigan National Guard, on a year's tour of duty at Guantanamo. He now works with lobby groups in the US.
Today, they tell their stories to Dennis Ellam, from The Sunday Mirror.
THE INMATE :
I was kept in solitary for the first two years. I saw no one, spoke to no one, except my guard. We were locked into these tiny cages, steel with mesh sides and bright lights. All I had in there was a sheet and a roll of toilet paper. I would be shackled, sometimes so tightly I couldn't feel my hands or feet. When I asked for something I could use as a prayer mat, they brought a thin camping mat and that became my mattress for the next two years.The only time I was allowed out of my cell was to be interrogated. It was often in the middle of the night and I never knew if it would last for five minutes or 24 hours or longer, with interrogators banging on the desk to keep me awake. They would ask plainly stupid questions, like: "When did you last see Osama bin Laden?" And they told me: "You'll be imprisoned for life, or you could face execution, or both - execution after a very long time."Everything was designed to dehumanise. To keep myself sane, I read and re-read and memorised the Koran. I wrote poetry with the two-inch stub of a pencil they gave me. I cracked up a couple of times and smashed my cell - but only twice in three years. Every day used to begin the same way, before dawn. After two years of solitary, I had to file out of my cell with the others in our orange boiler suits and flip-flops and line up for prayer. Then we prayed, shook hands and went back to the endless routine... breakfast of bread and cheese, lunch of cereal, crisps, raisins, peanuts and a typical evening meal of white rice and beans, with fruit. In between there would be set periods to shower, exercise, meet with doctors and lawyers, and write mail - under supervision. But every day was the same... hopeless and pointless.
I have nightmares about the physical abuse I suffered at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, where I was first kept. This is important - because while President Obama is closing Guantanamo, the "ghost" prisons around the world, like Bagram, are staying open.
Meeting Christopher was a very special moment for us both. It was emotional, sure, it couldn't be anything else, but we were just proud to share this chance to get together. He began saying how sorry he was for everything that had been done to me and the rest of the prisoners - I interrupted him. I told him it wasn't necessary to apologise. I met many good men among the guards at Guantanamo, who had begun to question what they were doing. It helped to pass the days, chatting with them about family and politics, and the difference between the UK and the US. Christopher's a great friend now. There is no lingering hostility, or regret, there's no reason for forgiveness. I understand why he did what he did. In a way, he was as much a victim of the Bush regime as I was. It's fitting we should be together this week as the new President Obama has taken a very big step towards righting the wrong of Guantanamo. On his first day, when he just suspended the military tribunals, I worried he wasn't about to go all the way. Then he announced its closure, and I was overjoyed.The only disappointment is that it might take a year before it's finally gone - a year will be a long, long time to all those men who have already spent seven or eight years caged in there.
Guantanamo will haunt me for a long time. I still wake at night and see it. I lost three years with my children when they were growing, which I can never recover. It's taking a long time to readjust.One reason why Christopher and I can be such good friends is that he's one of the few who knows what it was really like. He saw it too, albeit from the other side.
I came to see Moazzam to make my apologies. And to meet the man as a fellow human being, without bars or locked doors or people looking over us or bureaucratic forms, without one of us in an orange boiler suit and the other in a soldier's green fatigues.
All the time I was in Guantanamo, I watched people being treated just as if they were cattle. To de-humanise, that was the principle behind it. I didn't know Moazzam in there, but I guess I might have delivered the essential supplies to him - toothpaste, toilet rolls, soap. That was my job, after I made it plain in a letter to my commanders that I didn't want to be posted there because I didn't see myself in the role of oppressor. They sent me anyway, and just gave me the menial work, walking up and down the blocks. You might wonder why I signed up in the first place. You have to realise that recruitment teams would tour the trailer parks and the working-class schools of America, telling young folk that the Army offered a good salary, a secure living, a chance to extend your education, plus an 8,000 dollar signing-on bonus.
I was 17 and keen to escape a small-town background. It seemed like a very tempting prospect. Of course, most Americans at the start had no idea what Guantanamo Bay was, or even where it was - we were simply told that this is the place where we would be shoving the terrorists, after 9/11. I remember that event very well indeed and faces of the men being blamed. That planted it in the American mind. Men of Middle Eastern appearance were guilty as hell.
I told myself the CIA guys were smart, that the interrogators were specialists in their jobs, and so they must have information on the prisoners they were holding, for them to be inside. Now I know they had no idea what they were doing. As I talked to the prisoners, I came to realise they had one thing in common, they didn't know why they were there. I was helping to guard 650 men and none of them had been told why they were being held in those blocks. Worse, I could see them losing their minds. That state would come closer and closer, for all of them.
Once I was manning a gate, next to the psycho ward, where all the detainees who had finally lost it were being kept. All night long I could hear this guy screaming and screaming and screaming. And I can hear him still. He had been brought there with his mind intact. Now he was incarcerated without hope, his family were an ocean away and he hadn't seen them for years. He didn't know why this was happening or how long it would last. And the crazy thing is, Guantanamo Bay is actually a beautiful place. First thing in the morning, when the sun was coming up over the ocean and the detainees were at prayer, singing together in Arabic, it was a very intense, very moving experience. Later in the day, you just knew, someone might be beating the s*** out of them.
It seemed all the more terrible to be wearing that uniform, with the stars and stripes on the shoulder, the flag of freedom. All we were defending was the freedom of politicians, to advance their careers while we did their dirty work. It's hard for anyone to understand what happened in Guantanamo.
But Moazzam and I, we know...
Taken from The Sunday Mirror : www.sundaymirror.co.uk
Article written by Dennis Ellam