During a break from his emotionally draining side gig interviewing former Guantanamo Bay detainees, Peter Honigsberg went to the doctor because of an injury to his foot.
But it didn’t take long for his doctor to become less interested in his busted Achilles and more interested in what would eventually be diagnosed as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which Honigsberg developed by speaking with men who had been imprisoned for weeks, months and sometimes years at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a prison the U.S. government put to use after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks.
Government officials said at the time it was needed to house and interrogate dangerous criminals who posed a threat to the country; critics say many of its prisoners were low-level threats held indefinitely and without trials.
A law professor at the University of San Francisco, Honigsberg said Wednesday he fell into the role of detainee documentarian when he realized nobody else was doing it.
“If nobody would do it, it would all disappear,” Honigsberg told a Duke audience at an event sponsored by the Duke Forum for Scholars and Publics and the Human Rights Archive at Rubenstein Library.
Honigsberg’s work has resulted in the Witness to Guantanamo Project, a series of video interviews with 152 former Guantanamo detainees he has traveled the globe to speak with.
It’s jarring, compelling stuff. Among the video clips Honigsberg played Wednesday:
- A detainee from the United Kingdom talked about how while there was physical abuse, guards at Guantanamo could ‘destroy your life without even touching you,’ through the use of psychological tactics.
- An attorney representing several detainees became so frustrated and disillusioned she eventually quit her job and moved out of the United States.
- A British man who practiced Islam said he was locked alone in a shipping container for 18 to 20 months; he passed the time memorizing the Quran and had points where he’d be so desperate for human interaction that he’d bang his head against the wall.
- A U.S. guard working at the base said he was told the incoming prisoners were massive, frightening criminals – the ‘worst of the worst.’ But the first to arrive was missing a leg; the second to arrive wept upon setting foot in Cuba, saying later he had expected to be immediately beheaded.
Honigsberg also told the story of a young man from Uzbekistan improperly imprisoned for eight years. The man didn’t speak English or Arabic – the two languages most common among prisoners – and thus could never effectively communicate with anyone.
“There’s isolation of various kinds,” Honigsberg said. “This is linguistic isolation.”
There were 255 prisoners remaining at Guantanamo when President Obama took office in 2009, and he quickly pledged to close the prison. But it remains open today, with 41 inmates still housed there, Honigsberg said.
“We think of the United States as the beacon the hill,” he said. “But Guantanamo Bay is a black stain on America.”