Guantánamo Widow

by VICTORIA BRITTAIN

Zinnira Aamer sat on the sofa in her parents’ flat, talking so softly it was hard to hear her, in words so sad it was difficult to listen to them. She talked about her dreams, and voices in her head that told her sometimes that her husband had divorced her while he was in Guantánamo, or that he was dead; messages that were her deepest fears. When all her efforts to block out the voices out failed, she was deeply depressed. Medication made her sleepy and days slipped away in sleep and half sleep. Some days she asked for reassurance that the voices’ words were untrue, and sometimes the reassurance worked for a moment, and she gave a shy smile. Her mother sat across the room, a small warm presence in a white sari, reading the Qur’an. Sometimes Zinnira had to be in hospital, but home with her parents was more comforting, though stressful for an elderly couple in poor health.

There was another Zinnira, who learned to drive, ran her small house, took her four children to school, cooked and cleaned, taught extra classes, and spent hours in hospital beside her mother after a serious operation. Zinnira learned Arabic on the net so that when her Saudi husband returned, he would be proud. She made plans to learn sewing with her sister-in-law, and looked after other children in the family. She sent her husband letters, and photos of the children, through the Red Cross.

Zinnira’s father had come from India to be the imam at a South London mosque where he had been the guest preacher during Ramadan, and Zinnira was brought up in London — the baby in a family of 11. Going on the Hajj to Mecca with her father when she was 21 was her romantic dream come true; she prayed that Allah would let her marry a man in white robes like those she saw during that intense experience. She never doubted that her prayer would be answered.

Back home in London, a young man from Medina came to her father’s mosque, and spoke to her mother about wanting to get married. Shaker Aamer visited the family, talked to Zinnira’s parents and brothers about his plans to stay in Britain and his current work as an interpreter Shadow Livesfor lawyers. He was an attractive, confident, outgoing man, and everyone liked him. Zinnira liked him, but was overwhelmed by him. He was very different from anyone in her own community circle: he seemed “just too big”.

But Shaker’s kindness made her love him, and they were soon married. They were opposites: he was worldly, educated in the US as well as Saudi Arabia, she was a shy, sheltered South London girl with India as her hinterland; he was outgoing, talkative, always making friends with everyone. At their wedding he was chatting to the registrar so busily that she thought they must be friends. “He’s big and strong … people always love him.”

Dreams of an Islamic State

The couple had had three small children when Shaker, like several of his friends, began to think about moving to Afghanistan, to be part of building a pure Islamic state, leaving Britain and western culture behind for ever. In the aftermath of the defeat and retreat of the Soviet army in 1989, then the apparent ousting of warlords by the Taliban, they saw Afghanistan as a chance to make Islamic dreams come true. Shaker discussed his plan with his father-in-law, who advised him to go ahead and see what he could organise. There were no anxieties, just practical questions. His father-in-law had made a life-changing move for his family, uprooting from India to Britain.

Zinnira soon went, with the children. She adored her husband, never doubted his judgment, and settled down in Kabul looking after her babies in a house shared with another young couple they knew from Birmingham, Moazzam Begg, his wife Zeynab, and their children. While her husband plunged into a new life of school construction and well-digging, Zinnira felt very far away from her family. Her husband looked after her; he bought her a washing machine, which pleased her very much, and they were happy together, with their two boys and a girl.

Zeynab remembered how lovely the house had been: “My husband found the best house, a big, big house and I was downstairs and she was upstairs. She was very, very happy there, and Shaker was so pleased she did come with the family — he made a big effort to make it nice for her, always having guests, he was such a generous person.” That life, and their happiness, ended after 9/11 and the US bombing of Afghanistan.

Zinnira’s darknesses usually come towards the end of the year, as she remembers the trauma of late 2001 and the departure from Afghanistan. She blamed herself for Shaker ending up in Guantánamo. He had sent her and the children for safety to Pakistan when the US bombing of Kabul began, and she had written to him saying that she was all right there, and he shouldn’t worry about her or rush back from Kabul, where he was looking after their house. She was not all right, she was terrified for him, frightened how her life with the children had slipped into unfamiliar territory which she could not negotiate without Shaker. But she wanted to be reassuring, to be a good wife.

This preoccupation was at the centre of Zinnira’s life for 10 years after her husband’s disappearance in Afghanistan. After eight years she had been away from him longer than with him. People suggested she should divorce him, as other women in limbo did, sometimes at their husband’s initiative. But life without Shaker was unthinkable. Even absent, he was her life, as much in times of sickness as in her optimistic moments when she prepared for a future life with him. Would they live in London or in Saudi Arabia? Everything would be Shaker’s choice.

Unbeknown to her, Shaker had been captured by bounty hunters in 2001; they earned the $5,000 for every Arab or other foreigner promised in US leaflets scattered in Pakistan and Afghanistan. They bartered him with two armed groups that roamed the country in the chaos after the US bombing. Shaker was finally handed over to the Americans and ended in Guantánamo, after humiliation, interrogation and torture in Kandahar and Bagram. It was a long time before Zinnira knew any of this, and the trauma of separation, when she had been pregnant and especially vulnerable, scarred her. She returned to London in 2002 and the birth of her third son, Faris, in February 2002, was the beginning of her hard London years as a single mother with the responsibility for four children, including one who had never seen his father.

Today, there are 166 men in the legal black hole of Guantánamo Bay prison; 157 have no charges against them and 87 of those, including Shaker Aamer, were cleared for release years ago. The US Congress has, with no resistance from President Barack Obama, brought in laws that make it impossible to release them. Their women and children live with the knowledge of the prolonged isolation and physical torture their men have suffered, the hunger strikes, and the official indifference to their ordeal. They are symbols of the war on terror’s devastation of individual lives, and of the West’s lost human values.

Victoria Brittain is a journalist. This is an extract from her new book Shadow Lives: the Forgotten Women of the War on Terror, Pluto Press, London and Palgrave, New York, 2013.

This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

 

Like What You’ve Read? Support CounterPunch
Weekend Edition
July 31-33, 2015
Jeffrey St. Clair
Bernie and the Sandernistas: Into the Void
John Pilger
Julian Assange: the Untold Story of an Epic Struggle for Justice
Roberto J. González – David Price
Remaking the Human Terrain: The US Military’s Continuing Quest to Commandeer Culture
Lawrence Ware
Bernie Sanders’ Race Problem
Andrew Levine
The Logic of Illlogic: Narrow Self-Interest Keeps Israel’s “Existential Threats” Alive
ANDRE VLTCHEK
Kos, Bodrum, Desperate Refugees and a Dying Child
Paul Street
“That’s Politics”: the Sandernistas on the Master’s Schedule
Ted Rall
How the LAPD Conspired to Get Me Fired from the LA Times
Mike Whitney
Power-Mad Erdogan Launches War in Attempt to Become Turkey’s Supreme Leader
Ellen Brown
The Greek Coup: Liquidity as a Weapon of Coercion
Stephen Lendman
Russia Challenges America’s Orwellian NED
Will Parrish
The Politics of California’s Water System
John Wight
The Murder of Ali Saad Dawabsha, a Palestinian Infant Burned Alive by Israeli Terrorists
Jeffrey Blankfort
Leading Bibi’s Army in the War for Washington
Geoffrey McDonald
Obama’s Overtime Tweak: What is the Fair Price of a Missed Life?
Brian Cloughley
Hypocrisy, Obama-Style
Robert Fantina
Israeli Missteps Take a Toll
Pete Dolack
Speculators Circling Puerto Rico Latest Mode of Colonialism
Ron Jacobs
Spying on Black Writers: the FB Eye Blues
Paul Buhle
The Leftwing Seventies?
Binoy Kampmark
The TPP Trade Deal: of Sovereignty and Secrecy
David Swanson
Vietnam, Fifty Years After Defeating the US
Robert Hunziker
Human-Made Evolution
Shamus Cooke
Why Obama’s “Safe Zone” in Syria Will Inflame the War Zone
David Rosen
Hillary Clinton: Learn From Your Sisters
Sam Husseini
How #AllLivesMatter and #BlackLivesMatter Can Devalue Life
Shepherd Bliss
Why I Support Bernie Sanders for President
Louis Proyect
Manufacturing Denial
Howard Lisnoff
The Wrong Argument
Tracey Harris
Living Tiny: a Richer and More Sustainable Future
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
A Day of Tears: Report from the “sHell No!” Action in Portland
Tom Clifford
Guns of August: the Gulf War Revisited
Renee Lovelace
I Dream of Ghana
Colin Todhunter
GMOs: Where Does Science Begin and Lobbying End?
Ben Debney
Modern Newspeak Dictionary, pt. II
Christopher Brauchli
Guns Don’t Kill People, Immigrants Do and Other Congressional Words of Wisdom
S. Mubashir Noor
India’s UNSC Endgame
Ellen Taylor
The Voyage of the Golden Rule
Norman Ball
Ten Questions for Lee Drutman: Author of “The Business of America is Lobbying”
Franklin Lamb
Return to Ma’loula, Syria
Masturah Alatas
Six Critics in Search of an Author
Mark Hand
Cinéma Engagé: Filmmaker Chronicles Texas Fracking Wars
Mary Lou Singleton
Gender, Patriarchy, and All That Jazz
Patrick Hiller
The Icebreaker and #ShellNo: How Activists Determine the Course
Charles Larson
Tango Bends Its Gender: Carolina De Robertis’s “The Gods of Tango”