Two nights ago I watched The Railway Man at a local film festival. Afterwards, one of the writers, Andy Paterson, was being interviewed by Jon Ronson, the curator of the event. They discussed how Colin Firth’s character, Eric Lomax, had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of his torture by the Japanese during the second world war. Paterson had just returned from Tokyo, where it became clear to him that most Japanese people have not got to grips with what happened on the Thai-Burma railway.
I wonder how long it will take us to understand what we are continuing to do to Shaker Aamer in Guantánamo Bay?
I have represented Aamer unsuccessfully for a long time, and we have just received the first independent medical evaluation of him in 12 years. Dr Emily Keram, a respected psychiatrist, despairs for him as long as he remains in Guantánamo Bay. Her report makes for devastating and depressing reading.
Because of society’s eternal prejudices, I am loth to discuss Aamer’s mental health status, but ultimately I must. So let me preface it with an admission: I, too, suffer from PTSD, albeit on an inconsequential scale when compared with either Aamer or Lomax. My own flashbacks, black-and-white negatives of what I witnessed, stem from watching six of my clients die - two each in the electric chair, in the gas chamber and on the lethal injection gurney. The hardest was Nicholas Ingram. I was born in the same hospital as him, and he was electrocuted in a gratuitously grotesque manner.
For Aamer, yes there was all the physical abuse, from beatings, to strappado (dislocating the shoulders by hanging by the wrists), most of which happened to Lomax. But it was the second degree torture (originated by the Spanish Inquisition) that got to Aamer most - when the torturer singles out someone else for abuse and plays on your mind. The American interrogators assured him that they had his family, and they described what they were going to do to his daughter, then five years old: “They are going to screw her. She will be screaming, ‘Daddy! Daddy!’”
I have a five-year-old myself. No wonder Aamer told Keram he felt powerless, guilty that he had failed his kids, his mind imploding. He described the “microwave” where the abusers finally break your mind: “It’s easy to crack an egg from the outside. It’s hard to blow up the egg from the inside. They let you recover so you think you are strong again. But you don’t know your thoughts any more … The shell looks strong, but if you crack the egg inside you will see charcoal.”
Keram also diagnosed Shaker as chronically depressed, but that is hardly surprising: he has been held in Guantánamo Bay since Valentine’s Day 2002, the day his youngest child, Faris, was born. Aamer is a very proud father; he speaks of the reservoir of love that a parent can build up for a child, and how important those early years are. Aamer was cleared seven years ago. If that promise had been honoured, he could have met Faris at the age of five; the child is now 14 and Aamer has no idea when they might finally be together at last.
Aamer also suffers from special housing unit (SHU) psychosis. This stems from the months and years he has spent in solitary confinement. Of course, the Guantánamo authorities will insist they have no isolation cells, but that is because their latest euphemism is the “single cell operation”. It is just another of the Orwellian lies that pepper the Guantánamo lexicon. Aamer has never been on a hunger strike according to them; it’s just a “long-term non-religious fast”.
I should stress that Aamer’s mental health will inexorably improve as soon as he is released back to his family in London. His SHU psychosis will be a thing of the past when he is no longer in a special housing unit; his depression will lift when he sees his wife and four children; and his PTSD will gradually fade into the background when we get him therapy. Likewise, his physical health will improve when he is treated by the NHS rather than by a doctor who will only provide him with a blanket for his arthritis if Colonel John Bogdan says he has been sufficiently “compliant”.
As yet this is not to be, even seven years after Aamer was cleared. Imagine that the Americans had marched into the prison camp holding Lomax in 1945, several years into his torture and confinement; imagine that they said he was free to leave, but continued to hold him; imagine it is 1952 and he is still there, being terribly abused.
One thing is certain: the Conservative prime minister of the day, Winston Churchill, would have put Lomax’s predicament rather higher on his agenda with his American allies than does David Cameron.–Guardian