Guantánamo Bay art installation shares stories of people

By Michelle Williams

In Amherst, tucked away on Main Street, an art installation shares the stories of people over 1400 miles away, in Guantánamo Bay.

The exhibit titled, “Guantánamo: Ten Years and Counting,” features the artwork, poetry, photos and stories of prisoners in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp though two-dimensional panels, clips of documentaries and a life-size mannequin wearing the standard issued orange jumpsuit that prisoners wear, with a black sack on its head.

This month marks the 10th year the detention camp has held detainees.

Beginning at the left side of the gallery, the first panel highlights a phrase U.S Military Intelligence Officers said to Hadj Boudella, a former detainee of Guantánamo, “You are in a place where there is no law – we are the law.”

Hadj Boudella is a citizen of Bosnia who was detained in Guantánamo Bay for six years. In Nov. 2008, it was declared that there was not any evidence that Boudella intended to travel to Afghanistan and fight against United States Armed Forces, according to unclassified documents from the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. He was released from the detention camp and returned to Bosnia in December of that year.

Since 2002, 779 people have been sent to the Guantánamo Bay detention camp, according to the New York Times.  The first 20 detainees arrived on Jan. 11, 2002. On Jan. 22, 2009, President Barack Obama called for the closing of Guantánamo within the year. As of Jan. 2012, 171 detainees are in Guantánamo with 600 having been transferred. Eight died in custody, according to the NYT.

Additional panels focused on who the detainees are, their life at Guantánamo and the art and poetry they created.

Uthman Abdul Rahim Mohammed Uthman, a religious leader from Yemen, wrote the following poem, which was on display.

“I am sorry, my brother, the shackles bind my hands, and Iron is circling the place where I sleep.

“I am sorry, my brother, that I cannot help the elderly or the widow or the little child.

Do not weigh the death of a man as a sign of defeat. The only shame is in betraying your ideals, and failing to stand by your beliefs.”

According to unclassified documents from the Combatant Status Review Tribunal, published by the New York Times, “The United States Government has previously determined that the detainee is an enemy combatant. This determination is based on information possessed by the United States that indicates that he is affiliated with al-Qaeda and participated in military operations against the United States or its coalition partners.”

Despite this initial decision, in Feb. 2010 the United States District Court for the District of Columbia declared the detention of Uthman illegal. The ruling was then overturned on March 29, 2011 in Federal Appeals Court.

As of Jan. 2012 Uthman has been held at Guantánamo for 10 years.

“Guantánamo: Ten Years and Counting,” was created by The Pioneer Valley No More Guantánamos, a “local coalition that has come together as part of a national effort to reverse U.S. policies and practices that have denied hundreds of detainees their rights and freedom,” according to the group’s website.

“We created the group to show what Guantánamo really is. Not what prisoners are portrayed to be, so called the worst of the worst,” said Nancy Talanian, Director of No More Guantánamos.

The organization formed in 2009, and drafted resolutions asking Congress to allow detainees who have been cleared of accused crimes to enter the United States into communities that welcome them. These resolutions passed in Amherst in 2009 and in Leverett in 2010.

The resolution passed in Amherst “urges Congress to repeal the ban on releasing detainees into the United States and welcomes such detainees into our community as soon as the ban is lifted.”

The group drafted the resolutions with two prisoners in mind, Ahmed Belbacha, of Algeria and Ravil Mingazov, of Russia. These men “have never been charged with, or tried, for crimes and cannot safely return to their home countries,” according to a press release from the organization.

The stories of both men were on display at the instillation.

The exhibit is at the Nacul Center for Ecological Architecture, at 592 Main St. Amherst.

The instillation, which opened at the Nacul Center on Sunday, Jan. 22, will end on Saturday, Jan. 28 at 5 p.m, though it might be shown at other places in the Pioneer Valley.

“We do plan to have [the instillation] in other places, at different colleges in the area. If there’s a place at UMass available, we’d love to have it there. We’re talking to people at Hampshire College, Holyoke Community College, and Greenfield Community College.” said Talanian about locations the exhibit will be at in the future.

The Nacul Center was founded in 1972 by Tullio Inglese Associates Architects, a firm that works in the same building. “The Nacul Center was given this name to emphasize the Center’s dedication to the art and science of building and living in harmony with nature,” according to the Center’s website.

Michelle Williams is available at [email protected]