Ex-Guantanamo Bay guard joins former detainees for Bristol talk
This remarkable picture shows an ex-Guantanamo Bay guard taking to the stage in Bristol alongside two former detainees in order to talk about their experiences.
Chris Arendt, 24, flew over from the USA to meet with British campaigner Moazzam Begg and talk about their experiences at the controversial Cuban camp. They were joined by Jarallah Al-Marri, who just six months ago was shackled and caged in Guantanamo Bay and whose brother remains detained in the USA.
It was standing room only in the relatively small Kuumba Centre in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol for what felt like a real historic moment. More than 100 fortunate men, women and children crammed into the hall as each speaker battled their demons to talk about their experience.
"It just burns in, day after day, the smells, the sounds," Mr Arendt said. "I have seen humans behave in the most disgusting ways. Guantanamo is a pile of the worst things you have ever seen. I remember listening to a man screaming and screaming for eight hours. He had completely lost his mind. I just feel this constant barrage of conflicting and confusing emotions. I just try and block it off."
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Speaking to Mr Begg and Mr Al-Marri, he added: "My emotional problems are nowhere as close as what you have dealt with."
Mr Begg told of how he was imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay for three years, which included the year Mr Arendt served at the camp in 2004. But the duo don't recall meeting, until now.
Mr Begg, 40, said: "I came across a lot of kids, working as guards at the camp, I was old enough to be their father."
Mr Arendt, who has since received an honourable discharge from the US army, said: "We got suckered into something we just had not signed up for. A lot of us joined up for economic reasons."
He recalls the moment his life changed forever as his bosses phoned through the code word "Raging Bull".
He said: "Our commander told us we were going to Guantanamo and we were leaving in 25 days.
"In 2004, nobody knew anything about Guantanamo Bay. I was this punk rock kid who grew up in a trailer park. I did not like the government. They would send all these hillbillies down there. There were barely any sets of teeth in the whole unit."
Despite the magnitude of what they are discussing, both Mr Arendt and Mr Begg maintain an astounding sense of humour about the issue.
"It's OK to make jokes," Mr Begg said. "We have laughed and joked about what is an extremely serious subject."
Introducing Mr Al-Marri, he added: "If you think my three years in Guantanamo was something, he spent six years eight months there and was released only last July. His brother, Ali, remains in the US as the only enemy combatant – held for seven years plus without charge."
Mr Al Marri, who was imprisoned the day his son was born, said: "One of the worse things, of course, was the absence of any knowledge of when we shall be freed. Next, was the lack of communication with our families. I spent six years of my life in a cage without anything. I did not do anything wrong.
"It was like being a savage, detained in a place without any rights at all."
Mr Arendt told how the young guards were warned to hand out no more than eight sheets of toilet paper at a time – and only on request.
"We were warned about toilet paper knives, made from toilet paper and hardened spit. We had 'being stabbed training' where we'd repeat things like 'I will get stabbed but I will not die'."
Mr Begg added: "Toilet paper was not a right that somebody had."
Mr Arendt, a philosophy student from Michigan, said: "I knew that this was going to be, probably, the most horrible experience of my life.
"I was constantly anxious – and felt like the most hated dude in the whole world.
"You get more and more used to it. You find out who speaks English, who is violent; who is more comfortable to talk to and who isn't. I was one of the first people to start to talk to the detainees.
"I could not apologise enough. Everything seemed stupid coming out of my mouth.
"It's the most frustrating place, legally, on the entire planet. You're stuck in a cell, charged with these ridiculous things. The interrogators you are dealing with are idiotic and you are stuck there.
"We all knew at least one person who did not belong in there and we knew there were more.
"Anybody who's been released has not been tried, that's a total admission that these people were not guilty to begin with."
Mr Al-Marri said: "The manner with which I was brought to Guantanamo Bay was the same way in which I was sent home – tied in a three piece suit, shackled and not allowed to sit on a chair.
As a result of comparative compassion, Mr Arendt was taunted by his peers. He says he was dubbed a "rogue element" or said to be "fraternising with the enemy."
Asked whether he was a 'victim', Mr Arendt replied: "I'm a victim in that my family has been economically repressed and I was never given any opportunities. The victim of a culture that has pushed us, our whole lives, to join the military. But I made my own decisions and I have also oppressed people.
"I don't know if writing books or giving speeches helps anything, but it makes it better for me. I'm not trying to buy out of the guilt I have incurred but this is all I have to offer right now.
"I can't take back the things I have done. We are doing what we can with what we've got."
Mr Begg said the former detainees embrace what Mr Arendt is doing for the cause.
He added: "The Qu'ran says 'do not allow your animosity of people to cause you to do an injustice', that truth is enough. I don't want to focus on the abuses because I want to try and move forward."
The unlikely trio met just days earlier in London and as Mr Arendt put it had "spent far too much time together" since. But there was no animosity among the captor and the captured as they joined forces to campaign against the "unacceptable" detention of hundreds of prisoners.
He even met with Tarek Dergoul, a one-armed detainee who had assaulted Mr Arendt on one of his first shifts at the notorious Oscar block.
He said: "I remembered that dude for the rest of my time in Cuba. He for real hated me. We met two days ago, sat down to dinner and talked about things."
Mr Arendt, Mr Begg, Mr Al-Marri, Mr Dergoul and another nine detainees all met for dinner at a Turkish restaurant in London on Saturday.
"At first I apologised to everyone," the outnumbered ex-guard said. "Then we sat down for dinner and everyone just started smiling and talking. Non stop chatter in 15 different languages. And it felt good."
Mr Begg, who has previously spoken in Bristol about his experiences, said: "There were many soldiers there who may have felt the same way, but those soldiers did not stand out against the rest and tell the world why Guantanamo is such a terrible place."
But, Mr Arendt almost didn't make the visit as he was interrogated, though not in the same way as his fellow delegates were, by staff at Heathrow Airport. They wanted to know exactly what he was doing with the campaigning group Cage Prisoners and only released him after the intervention of a member of the House of Lords.
The talk marked the start of a national "Two Sides One Story" UK tour which will visit University campuses, churches and meeting houses across the country.
It also comes as US President Elect Barack Obama, who has vowed to close Guantanamo Bay, prepares to take up his role in the White House.
Mr Begg added: "When Obama says to the world, 'I intend to close Guantanamo', I simply do not believe him. If I could, I would take in a force and break them out from Guantanamo Bay."