One of them hit me hard across the face, and quickly put the goggles on my eyes, earmuffs on my ears, and a small bag over my head. I couldn’t tell who did what. They tightened the chains around my ankles and my wrists; afterwards, I started to bleed. All I could hear was _____ cursing, “F-this and F-that!” I didn’t say a word, I was overwhelmingly surprised, I thought they were going to execute me.
Ours is a season in which, more than ever, we need a face, a name and a personal struggle to be able to take a strong position on a topic. We can take to the streets and show outrage only if we “fall in love” with someone’s story, even if he or she is not the only one in that situation.
In such a season, here comes The Guardian, with its serialization of the Guantanamo Diary, a memoir written by Mohamedou Ould Slahi, prisoner number 760 in the US detention centre of Guantanamo, since 2002.
Mohamedou’s way to Guantanamo starts long ago, in 1990, when he decides to go to Afghanistan to swear allegiance to a branch of Al-Qaida.
After that, the intelligence keeps an eye on him. Although he declares having cut every tie with the armed group since 1992, in the end of 2001 he is summoned in Mauritania to be questioned about the ‘Millennium Plot’ – a series of terrorist attacks that were planned to occur on or near the 1st of January 2000.
There, his ordeal starts.
Another team inside the plane dragged me and fastened me on a small and straight seat. The belt was so tight I could not breathe. […] I was calling, “MP, MP, belt…” Nobody came to help me. I almost got smothered. I had a mask over my mouth and my nose, plus the bag covering my head and my face, not to mention the tight belt around my stomach: breathing was impossible. I kept saying, “MP, Sir, I cannot breathe! … MP, SIR, please.” But it seemed like my pleas for help got lost in a vast desert.
Mohamedou is taken to Jordan. He is interrogated and held in solitary confinement for seven and a half months. Then, a CIA rendition team takes him to Afghanistan. From there, two weeks later, he is flown to Guantánamo Bay. It’s the 4th of August 2002.
There, he is designated to a “special project” that involves “additional interrogation techniques” such as months of extreme isolation; physical, psychological and sexual humiliation; death threats; threats to his family; and a mock kidnapping.
In the meantime, his lawyers are moving in a legal limbo. Indeed, Mohamedou is detained without any charge. Everything is based on some forced confessions that he released during his years in jail.
Time passes, and Mohamedou learns English. He decides to write down everything is happening to him on scattered sheets of paper. Guantanamo Diary comes from there.
After a long legal fight, while he is still in jail, what he wrote is declassified and people outside are free to read his story and to try to make a sense of what happened and is happening to him.
One of the guys hit me so hard that my breath stopped and I was choking; I felt like I was breathing through my ribs. I almost suffocated without their knowledge…
At this point, just before the book’s publication, along comes The Guardian. The British newspaper decides to serialize Mohamedou’s story on its website, providing chronologically ordered excerpts of the book and even calling famous actors to read it for the audience.
This is an important move for two main reasons.
- Because we need a face and a personal story to develop a moral position.
Sociologists explain that narratives work well to deliver a message — above all if, as in this case, we are remarkably far, both culturally and geographically, from what is happening.
To understand this, it is enough to think about two recent names. Raif Badawi, a young activist still in jail in Saudi Arabia waiting for the next round of lashes for having insulted his own religion; Nabeel Rajab, a long-time activist jailed for a tweet, in Bahrain. For them, we hash-tagged and took to the streets, following their own stories with attention and involvement.
In this particular case, we have a man that may not be a saint, but that should be considered “innocent until proven guilty” — although the US constitution does not state this point explicitly. This man has a story to tell us. The Guardian is putting his story on a global stage.
Having a story to follow, we will empathize with the protagonist. After having empathized, we will be ready to take a moral position about what is happening.
- Because this strategy can be systematically used to raise attention on different topics.
We are dealing with a very “hot” topic. A topic linked to the ‘Guantanamo Files’, to the Abu-Ghraib tortures and, finally, to the CIA’s report on torture, published during the last fall.
Still, each one of these scandals came and went quite calmly. Yet, we are talking about tortures, imprisonments and crimes of every kind.
What do we remember about things like these? For sure, in our eyes we still have the infamous “hooded man” of Abu Ghraib.
And what about other remarkably serious issues, like persecutions, genocides, climate change, wars, imprisonments, racism, freedom of speech?
Serializing Mohamedou’s story, The Guardian is taking a position itself, “playing” with our need for stories to achieve a particular goal: our involvement in this story.
Now, it is easy to think about some sort of commercial motivation behind this operation. After all, The Guardian is a newspaper and newspapers need to make money to survive.
Still, this storytelling strategy “pays” even in a moral way, and in different situations.
It allows us to stop our daily business for a while, to reflect on a matter and to develop a clear picture of the “how” and the “why” something wrong is happening. We can do that simply focusing on a specific event and person, linked to a broader important topic.
Finally, who knows what could happen. We might even start to do something real. We might even decide to cross the line and to enter that particular story, and to change it with our own hands.
by Emanuele Del Rosso