In a statement to his lawyer, Guantánamo detainee and hunger strike organizer Binyam Mohammed al-Habashi said of his plans to protest his unlawful imprisonment by the United States: “I do not plan to stop until I either die or we are respected. [We] will definitely die. Bobby Sands petitioned the British government to stop the illegitimate treatment of Irishmen without trial. He had the courage of his convictions and he starved himself to death. Nobody should believe for one moment that my brothers here have less courage.”
As an Irish American, Mohammed’s words resonate with me on many different levels. I was five at the time of the Irish hunger strikes in 1981, and although I don’t remember when I first heard the name “Bobby Sands,” I do know that it was at a very young age. I grew up with Irish relatives who loved to tell stories about home; my father and his family, the McCabes, immigrated to the U.S. from Tullamore, and the Sloans-on my mother’s side-are from Belfast. I was raised on the tales of Irish martyrs like Wolfe Tone, Michael Collins, Terence MacSwiney, and James Connolly; how over centuries brave men and women have fought against British imperialism in Ireland; and how that history-and the impact of partition and systemic discrimination against Catholics in the north-informed the conviction of Bobby Sands and his comrades on the hunger strike.
I had learned the names of many of Ireland’s freedom fighters well before I knew about those who had fought for similar goals in the U.S., the country in which I was raised. Learning about them, and about the rich history of the Irish struggle for independence from Britain, marked the beginning of my politicization. My early Irish history lessons led to a desire to learn all I could about global struggles against colonialism and oppression, while at the same time giving me perspective on history and current events.
When I first learned of the U.S. interrogation camp at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, I couldn’t help but notice the similarities between the treatment of the internees at Long Kesh (the British internment camp set up for the Irish) and those held at Guantánamo. They both faced internment without trial, rigged courts, torture and coerced confessions. Those with firsthand experience in British prisons in Ireland have made similar connections regarding the “war on terror” and the use of torture by the U.S. and British armies in Iraq.
As Gerry Adams, President of the pro-united Ireland political party Sinn Féin, wrote in the article “I have been in torture photos, too,” reports of the abuse of prisoners by British and U.S. soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere do not surprise residents of republican Ireland, many of whom have survived such abuse at the hands of British security forces. Irish republicans have heard it all before, Adams explains, and it appears as though the British never did stop their human rights abuses. “Although these cases ended up in Europe, and the British government paid thousands in compensation, it didn’t stop the torture and ill-treatment of detainees. It just made the British government and its military and intelligence agencies more careful about how they carried it out and ensured that they changed the laws to…make it very difficult to expose the guilty.”
In a May 2004 article in the Andersonstown News, author Danny Morrison reflected on the irony of Tony Blair’s condemnation of the mistreatment of Iraqis after a newspaper published photographs of a British soldier urinating on a hooded prisoner lying in the back of a military truck. In 1977, Morrison recalled (which Blair overlooked or conveniently forgot), the European Commission on Human Rights found the British government guilty of “inhuman and degrading treatment” of Irish prisoners interned without trial. At the time, then-Prime Minister John Callaghan condemned such treatment in the House of Commons and vowed that it would never happen again. “It happened again and again and again. A proud tradition. First in Ireland, now in Iraq,” wrote Morrison.
It was in this frame of mind that I first read about the hunger strikes that have occurred since 2002 at the Guantánamo interrogation camp. Information coming out of the prison camp is heavily censored and slow coming; most “new” reports received by lawyers and subsequently released to the media are several weeks old by the time we hear them. At the time of writing, there are about 490 detainees-some as young as 12 or 14 years old. The numbers of those on hunger strike are disputed, with military estimates much lower than those of non-military legal counsel. Numbers exceeding 100 participants have been quoted, but it is generally believed that many have left the strike due to torture and coercion on behalf of prison guards. The U.S. military has manipulated the use of language to reclassify suicide attempts as “self-injurious manipulative behavior,” so as to cover up the true numbers of such attempts. It is suspected that the numbers of hunger strikers are similarly distorted.
The U.S. military continues to force-feed hunger strikers, despite widespread belief that such practices are dangerous, barbaric, and in direct violation of prisoners’ rights. Gerry Kelly, an Irish republican ex-prisoner and current Sinn Féin MLA, was force-fed 170 times over a 205-day hunger strike in an English jail in an effort to be transferred to a prison in the north of Ireland. He described the horrors of being force-fed to the North Belfast News in 2004:
They press their knuckles into your jaws and press in hard. The way they finally did force feed me was getting forceps and running them up and down my gums. I opened my mouth, but I was able to resist after that. Then they tried there’s a part of your nose, like a membrane and it’s very tender and they started on that. It’s hard to describe the pain. It’s like someone pushing a knitting needle into the side of your eye. As soon as I opened my mouth they put in this wooden bit with a hole in the middle for the tube. They rammed it between my teeth and then tied it with cord around my head. Then they got paraffin and forced it down the tube. The danger is that every time it happens you think you’re going to die. The only things that move are your eyes. They get a funnel and put the stuff down.
Other Irish hunger strikers, such as Michael Gaughan in 1974, have died as a direct result of such inhumane treatment.
Belfast-born Dr. David Nicholl recently published a letter signed by 250 medical experts from 7 countries in the medical journal Lancet condemning the practice of force-feeding at Guantánamo, claiming that those doctors who engage in force-feeding are abrogating their medical ethics. Recent reports claim that many of those on hunger strike will eat one meal every three days in an effort to avoid being classified as on hunger strike and risk being force-fed.
What would make a prisoner go on hunger strike, one might wonder-especially if there is a good likelihood that to engage in one will lead to your death? Irish hunger striker Laurence McKeown recently recalled, “After years of being in prison you realize all the many instances that you are stripped of the sort of power you would have, just as a person, if you were on the outside.” McKeown was part of the 1981 hunger strike in which Bobby Sands and nine other men died fighting for political status and against the British policy of criminalization. The strike marked the culmination of years of protest, an escalation proclaiming that “only the loud voice of the Irish people and world opinion can bring them to their senses and only a hunger strike, where lives are laid down as proof of the strength of our political convictions, can rally such opinion,” as their statement described.
I met Laurence McKeown in the offices of Coiste na n-Iarchimí, the republican ex-prisoner organization where he works, in Belfast last December. We discussed his experiences on hunger strike and its effects on his health, the legacy of 1981, the war in Iraq, and briefly, Guantánamo. He spoke of his motivation for participation in the strikes, saying that being involved in the struggle against British colonialism in Ireland “means you’ve accepted that you would end up dead or in prison, so there was already a commitment there, an element of self-sacrifice or preparedness for it. When you think of the hunger strike, you often might say-maybe in particular if you’re American-you’re often surprised that there is that level of commitment, but there’s a different political and cultural history over here.”
Morrison and many others believe that the lack of popular British support enabled Thatcher’s intransigence and allowed ten men to die as a result of the Irish hunger strikes in 1981. There is an eerie similarity to the United States government’s arrogance regarding Guantánamo, as the Bush administration continues to deny the internees their basic human rights under federal and international law and maintains its position that the “enemy combatants” currently being held are a threat to national security despite rapidly surmounting evidence to the contrary.
McKeown thinks that the corporate media plays one of the biggest roles in the charade, allowing people to turn a blind eye. Referring to the British policy of criminalizing the political acts of the republican movement, he says, “the media were there trying to push [the idea that] ‘these people are terrorists, these people are criminals, so therefore you can do whatever you want to them.’the first thing is being able to portray them as “non-people” and in America [right now] as far as laws are concerned these are non-people.”
This classification as a non-person, in both the legal and social realms, allows the government to manipulate people’s fear of terrorism into a calculated dismissal of the conditions of the prisoners at Guantánamo.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the 1981 Irish hunger strikes. On March 1st, I stood beside Bobby Sands’ grave in Belfast’s Milltown Cemetery, on the anniversary of the first day that he went without. As I stood there and contemplated his sacrifice and conviction, I thought about the international response and outpouring of support that met the news of Sands’ death on May 5, 1981. There were dem-onstrations all over the world, from Western Europe to Australia to India to Iran. World leaders stood up to condemn the British government for allowing Sands, who had been elected a member of Parliament during the hunger strike, to die. Members of the Senate, including Ted Kennedy, sent Margaret Thatcher a letter in protest of her “inflexible posture which must lead inevitably to more senseless violence and death.” There were marches in cities across the U.S., from New York to Boston to Chicago to San Francisco. State legislatures passed resolutions: New York’s resolution expressed sympathy while condemning the British government, Rhode Island declared a day of mourning, and my home state of New Jersey officially honored Sands’ courage and commitment. On the day of Sands’ funeral, all British ships were blocked by the Longshoreman’s Union.
Standing in the republican plot at Milltown that day, I also thought about the men hunger striking in Guantánamo and how the U.S. gov-ernment does not believe that they deserve to be treated as prisoners of war as defined by the Geneva Conventions. I thought, too, about a story that Sands recounted in his Writings from Prison, called “The Lark and the Freedom Fighter.” In the story, Sands recalls a tale told by his grandfather about the lark, whose imprisonment, as the symbol of freedom and happiness, was the greatest cruelty of all. After being locked in a cage, the lark no longer sung. Her spirit of resistance and desire to be free meant that she would rather die than submit to a life lived in a cage controlled by another’s whim. Sands compares his plight to that of the lark, and contrasts both with that of the ordinary prisoner. Sands wrote: “I feel something in common with that poor bird. My position is in total contrast to that of an ordinary conforming prisoner: I too am a political prisoner, a freedom fighter. Like the lark, I too have fought for my freedom, not only in captivity, where I now languish, but also while on the outside, where my country is held captive. I have been captured and imprisoned, but, like the lark, I too have seen the outside of the wire cage.”
I do not doubt that Binyam Mohammed and his brothers imprisoned at Guantánamo have any less courage than did Sands and his fellow Irish martyrs.
This year, I will attend many hunger strike commemoration events, where I will continue to celebrate the lives of Bobby Sands, Francis Hughes, Patsy O’Hara, Raymond McCreesh, Joe McDonnell, Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Thomas McElwee, and Michael Devine, as well as Michael Gaughan and Frank Stagg-while expressing my opposition to what is happening at the U.S. interrogation camp. What better way to honor their memories, to pay tribute to their legacy, than to stand up against the disgrace that is Guantánamo and the war in Iraq.
Sands once said, “We must see our present fight through to the very end. Generations will continue to meet the same fight unless the perennial oppressor is removed.” First in Ireland, then in Iraq, now in Guantánamo. “Everyone, Republican or otherwise, has their own particular part to play. No part is too great or too small, no one is too old or too young to do something.”