As I read the selections in Sarah Mirk’s Guantánamo Voices, a lot of thoughts came to my mind. I knew about some of this, but I did not know about most the stuff that occurred and continues to occur at Guantánamo. I did not know a bout the bounty program that led to most of the individuals imprisonment far from their homes. I think about Dietrich Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany who once said, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” Mirk’s collection speaks, and as Omar El Akkad puts it in the introduction, “The stories in this book are, first and foremost, an antidote to forgetting.” They relay the truth, calling us to act.
I could sit here and talk about each of the stories in the collection; however, I want to focus on Mansoor Adayfi’s chapter because it is a powerful reminder of a lot of the themes that run throughout the book. Adayfi’s story, illustrated by Kane Lynch, originally appeared in The Nib under the title “Caged Lives.” Adayfi talks about his fifteen year imprisonment in Guantánamo and the animals that he befriended during his time there. His connection with Princess, the iguana that constantly visited him, and his, and his fellow prisoners’ feelings for the family of banana rats and the woodpecker that hung around the camp made me think about our humanity and our relationship with animals. It made me think about he ways that we express our humanity.
Our family has had a dog before, but due to various circumstances, it’s been a few years. During the pandemic, we finally had the chance to adopt another puppy. We adopted Bergen last summer, and while his crazy puppy stage makes him an annoyance at times, we love him. I take him for a walk each day, and during those walks, when it’s just the two of us (most of the time), I talk and think. While I may not say things out loud to him, there is a communication there. Dogs know our feelings. They react to our feelings. There is communication that takes place, and that communication reflects our humanity and our desire for connection.
Adayfi talks about this in his story. Caged even while outside in the yard, Adayfi spies Princess the iguana walking towards him as he comments, “She broke all the rules and security measures. She walked past the soldiers with their rifles, right up to my cage.” Adayfi bends down, placing his hand through the chain link fence, offering Princess some of his food as he tells her he is from Yemen and “it is our custom to be generous to our guests.” Adayfi shares some of what little food he gets with Princess, treating her as an equal and as a guest in his presence. She becomes, in a sense, human.
When he gets punished and placed in solitary, Adayfi only has 15 minutes outside each week, and during those times he saw Princess, spending his time talking with her. As he says, “I shared my dreams with her and told her about my life in Yemen.” The guards label Adayfi’s behavior as abnormal, saying his is “withdrawn” and “anxious,” but, as Adayfi says, “I wasn’t crazy. Princess helped me remember who I was.” Princess provided Adayfi with companionship, a basic human need. Princess provided him with an attentive ear, one that would listen to his hope and dreams while he remained caged at Guantánamo with no charges brought against him.
Other animals made their way to the camp such as the family of banana rats. Adayfi and some of the other prisoners saw them as started talking about how cute they were. Adayfi even says, “They had so much personality. They seemed like little people.” Adayfi and the others speculate what will happen to the rats if the guards see them, and the men start to place their situation onto the rats says that the guards will interrogate them relentlessly, asking them about Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden.
One night, one of the rats returned, possibly out of hunger, and Adayfi, as he did with Princess, shared some of his meal. While sleeping, Adayfi heard the rat yelping and running through the halls, then he smelled pepper spray. Lynch’s panel shows two American guards, laughing, as they pepper spray the helpless rat. Another prisoner yells at the guards, and one of them tells the man to shut up. The prisoner then gets fill a cup with toilet water and throws it on the guard. This, of course, led to the guards beating Adayfi and other prisoners.
Adayfi details the torture and the pepper spray, and Lynch’s illustrations show him grabbing his throat, struggling to breathe, while pepper spray gathers around him. As Adayfi lies in bed, face bruised and beaten, he narrates, “All of us got punished for that night. Solitary confinement. Meals cut.” In the next panel, Lynch shows the rat’s tracks on the floor, where it ran away, and a can of pepper spray. Adayfi states, “When you have so little, you must stand for what you have and defend those who have less and are weaker. Even if they are a banana rat.”
Lynch’s panel, coupled with Adayfi’s words, highlight the inhumane treatment of prisoners at Guantánamo. It shows that while Adayfi and the men struggled to maintain their humanity the guards and bureaucrats treated them like they did the banana rat, spraying it with pepper spray and beating it before it ran off. Adayfi and the men, caged, could not run off. They remained, imprisoned behind the fence while Princess, the banana rats, and other animals moved around freely.
After they capture a bird and release it, Adayfi looks at the bird as it flies away. He holds his hand to his eyes, shielding them from the sun, as he watches it fly into the distance, and he says, “I envied that bird.” Lynch then depicts Adayfi and the men behind the chain link fence, staring at the horizon, as Adayfi states that while the bird’s feather, which they plucked, would grow back, “We would never get back the years of our lives that were taken away from us.” America stripped Adayfi and those men of their freedom, even though he was released in 2016. He entered Guantánamo in 2002, almost fifteen years earlier.
No charges were ever brought against Adayfi, and he remained in a cage for close to fifteen years. The animals who became some of his companions, came and went, freely walking past the guards and even, at times, encountering their ire. They remained free while Adayfi remained imprisoned, relying on the animals for companionship and to remind him of who he was. Princess, as he puts it, “reminded me every week I was human and that like still had beauty.”