On April 16, the Department of Defense issued a short press release announcing that Mohammed al-Hamiri, a Yemeni citizen held at Guantánamo Bay, had been transferred for release. Hamiri had been incarcerated at Guantánamo since 2002, when he was detained by American forces. First taken into custody at the age of 19, Hamiri spent more than a third of his life at the prison. During that time, he was never charged with any crime.
Writing was one of Hamiri’s greatest comforts during the 13 long years he spent at Guantánamo. Hamiri’s letters and other personal writings were cleared for release earlier this year through the work of lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights. The letters reflect an enduring sense of hope, love for family and friends, and a remarkably poetic imagination.
Hamiri’s release this week represents the start of a new chapter in his life, one he has spent years waiting for with both hope and trepidation. His writings from Guantánamo offer a glimpse into what the prospect of freedom meant to him during his long imprisonment. “I do not know why I am writing these words, and I do not know if my letters and my words are going to be read by eyes that know the meaning of justice,” he reflected recently, writing that prison had given him “no voice other than this pen with which to write a painful memory from the pages of my life.”
Last April, al-Hamiri sat on the bed of his prison cell in Guantánamo Bay and indulged in one of the few liberties available to him. He opened his notebook to write. “I keep looking at the sun and hoping that, maybe, it will reveal a secret that would wipe away my tears,” Hamiri put down. “But I discover that it is pointing to the horizon, to tell me that it wants to leave and not be here to witness what destiny had in store for me. So I’m left alone with nothing but the moon and the moonlight shining on me, as everyone and everything else on earth has gone to sleep.”
Arriving in Guantánamo while he was still a teenager, Hamiri spent the majority of his young adulthood imprisoned there. Despite being cleared for release in 2009, he remained behind bars six years longer, thanks to political wrangling over the fate of Guantánamo detainees, as well as civil strife in his native Yemen.
In a letter written several months ago, Hamiri reflected on the possibility of the public one day reading his words.
I want you to understand my reality. As far as I’m concerned the government has closed its door on our cases. Unfortunately, a tragedy happened on September 11, and many innocent people were killed. Every year on that same date people relive the suffering repeatedly; yet it is also saddening that other innocent people are dying or put in jail without having committed any crime. It doesn’t make sense for someone who gets stung by a thorn in his leg to start hitting everybody around him to relieve that pain, for he could be hurting innocent people.
In 2009, a multi-agency government review board unanimously cleared Hamiri for release from prison. Despite this ruling, the government failed to promptly transfer him out of custody. After the promise of the review board decision dimmed over the years, it gave rise to increasing melancholy. In an undated passage in his notebook, Hamiri wrote:
The government cleared me for release in 2009. It handed me the “cleared for release” document. In 2011, I pulled out that clearance document and I was looking at it when something very funny happened. I was reading that document which was lying on the floor and I dropped the cup of coffee I was holding my hand. The coffee spilled over the document. I did not wipe the coffee, and do you know where it spilled? It spilled on the line that says: “The United States is planning to transfer you as soon as possible.” It felt like my destiny was telling me that it was a deception.
Hamiri spent much of his youth behind bars. Like many other Guantánamo detainees captured at a young age, one of his greatest worries in prison was losing touch with trends in the outside world. In a letter to his lawyers in April of last year, he requested DVDs, including films dealing with “drama, family, youth problems, students in college, things like that.”
Hamiri asked for a documentary about Bob Marley, several popular contemporary films, and the book Humanism and Democratic Criticism by the late Palestinian-American author Edward Said. In his notes he wrote:
One night while I was immersed in my thoughts I saw that segment of a television program and it felt like a message was being sent to me from heaven. I am aware that many people don’t believe in these things, for they are too busy and enamored with money, whereas in this prison every whisper I hear and every breeze I feel mean a lot to me. Everything in this life is beautiful and everyone, with a positive outlook towards life, can make his life beautiful and make everyone around him joyful.
Along with his writing, the other great source of comfort for Hamiri during his incarceration was his friendship with a fellow Guantánamo prisoner, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif. Latif was incarcerated at the same time as Hamiri and of roughly the same age. Like Hamiri, Latif was also a Yemeni. While behind bars at the the camp, the two young men became, as much as possible in such conditions, inseparable. Their similar backgrounds and histories created a bond that helped sustain them through circumstances that offered little hope.
But in 2012, after spending more than 10 years behind bars in Guantánamo, Latif was found dead in his cell. A subsequent investigation deemed the cause of death to be suicide, although questions about the circumstances of his passing have lingered. Latif was a writer like Hamiri. In the months leading up to his death, his own notes documented him grappling with what seemed to be an unremittingly bleak fate. In one of his last letters to his lawyer, Latif wrote, “I will do whatever I am able to do to rid myself of the imposed death on me at any moment of this prison … the soul insists to end it all and leave this life which is no longer anymore a life.”
For a time after the death of his best friend, Hamiri did not pick up a pen. “I lost my dearest and most honest friend in this detention facility,” he would write, months after Latif’s passing. “He left this world after long suffering, and I got a taste of his suffering too.”
In 2013, Hamiri took part in a mass hunger strike by detainees at the prison. The strike was in protest against harsh treatment by prison guards under the command of a new officer, Col. John Bogdan, as well as what prisoners perceived as growing government indifference to their predicament. Within months, the number of striking detainees rose to roughly 130 out of a total of 166 prisoners then at the camp. Many of these prisoners were subjected to painful force-feeding procedures. Among them was Hamiri. In the midst of the strike, in June 2013, directly after a particularly painful force-feeding session, he sat down in his cell to write the following note.
We see animals killing their prey swiftly to avoid suffering and torture, yet we see human beings depriving other humans from their mothers, fathers and families just for the sake of making them feel the bitterness of deprivation and the pain of loss. Mercy is present in the ferocious animals’ instinct, yet harshness is present in human injustice.
In late 2014, the rate of transfer of Guantánamo detainees began to increase. In the last two months of the year, 21 detainees were either repatriated or transferred to third countries. Among these were a few Yemenis, who were sent to new homes in Kazakhstan, Georgia, and Slovakia. Despite being cleared for release, Hamiri was not among those transferred out. While once the release of prisoners was a cause for celebration at the camp, Hamiri told his lawyers in a meeting in late December 2014, “Now when we see brothers released, its a little bit hard. Everybody thinks, when is my time?” Increasingly despondent, Hamiri wrote then in his notes:
Guantánamo prison has undergone multiple renovations. The worn walls needed repair and the steel structure which has become rusty over time needed to be renovated. Even inanimate materials have weakened over time. If time has caused inanimate walls to tear and their colors to fade, what do you expect it did to a human being?
In 2008, the International Committee of the Red Cross won the right for some prisoners to make periodic phone calls to family members at home. In 2009, this was expanded to allow Skype videoconference calls. Hamiri was among the beneficiaries of these new measures, and was able to call home and see images of his family for the first time in years. He continued to be allowed this privilege for the rest of his time at Guantánamo. But paradoxically, this fleeting contact with his family fed a growing anxiety, as he realized the distance that time apart had created between them. His family had not seen him in person since he was a teenager. Through their calls, Hamiri found to his dismay that they could no longer interact as they once did. As he wrote in a letter from 2014:
This prison has made me forget my mother’s smile. She looks at me now as if I was never part of that family. I have been away for such a long time that now when I talk to her, she uses a formal tone, for aging has changed my appearance. She is timid and she talks to me as if I were a stranger. The only thing that I notice during the calls are her few tear drops which she cannot control when she sees me. I try to bring some humor to the conversation and remove that noticeable sadness from my mother and family’s faces, yet what I get in return is a look of pity which makes me even more miserable.
Indeed, the single most persistent theme running through Hamiri’s letters is his yearning to be reunited with his family, especially his mother. At the beginning of 2015, facing yet another year of incarceration without hope of release, he wrote a letter to her saying the following:
Dear mother, I wish I could write to you with my blood on the walls of history so that these walls could tell the story of my love and loyalty to you, and light a candle for you in history. And even then, I could not even come close to paying you back for all those nights when you stayed up so I could sleep, when you went hungry so I could eat. You cried and hoped to see me free one of these days, and each day as the sun goes down and disappears into the horizon to mark the end of a day, I remember that you are getting weaker and I start to worry.
Mother, without you, I’m like a small boat lost in the middle of the ocean waves in a scary dark night. If I could take away all your sorrows and put them in my heart, I would not hesitate to do so and keep them forever, and you would always see my smile. But I know that you would not accept any such thing, because sacrifice is your trade, love is your name and compassion is your nature. We will see each other again one day, God willing. I will carve the day in which we meet again in all my being, God willing, and kiss your head to tell the entire world that you are the breath of air that I found to become alive again.
In recent months, the rate of transfers from Guantánamo increased dramatically. Nearing the end of his term, President Obama is now attempting to keep his promise of shuttering the island prison. For those like Hamiri who were never charged with a crime and were cleared for release years ago, the futility and cruelty of their treatment has stung. “I have spent thirteen years of my life in a prison cell, though I have not done anything to cause sorrow to any human being,” he wrote recently. “I was cleared to be released six years ago, but I am still under the rubbles breathing, after this earthquake that shook the world.”
After years of longing to be free, this week Mohammed al-Hamiri was released from Guantánamo Bay. On April 16, he was transferred to his release in Saudi Arabia. For many former Guantánamo prisoners, adjusting to life outside the prison has been difficult, even impossible. Sent to unfamiliar countries far from their homes, separated from friends and family, many have been unable to find normalcy or happiness after their ordeals. In some of his last notes cleared for release this year, Hamiri reflected on his hopes for freedom after life in Guantánamo:
There are always means to happiness. Nothing is impossible in life, as long as you live and breathe. Thirteen years I’ve sat here. I’ve never lost hope that one day I will be free. … One day, our day for release will come. We’ll wear a suit. I’ll wear a black suit and I’ll shave. On the second day, God willing, I would wear that new suit, nice shoes, and just walk around the streets, meet the people. That’s if it’s a new country, to see the world, to see the people.
In its statement announcing Hamiri’s release, along with the release of seven other Guantánamo detainees, the Department of Defense reduced these men and their lives to a few perfunctory lines on a page. The hopes, fears, and personal stories of these men were elided; they were treated as simply names and numbers. But the reality of their lives is far more complex than the official narrative of Guantánamo Bay suggests. Hamiri’s own writings from prison provide a glimpse into how a young man’s humanity endured in one the bleakest prisons of the war on terror.