Post by Patrick Stawski, Human Rights Archivist in the Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library
As the nation prepares to mark the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, the Duke University Libraries are excited to announce the launch of the Witness to Guantanamo Digital Collection. Witness to Guantanamo includes 153 video interviews with former detainees and other individuals—attorneys, chaplains, guards, interrogators, interpreters, government officials, human rights advocates, medical personnel, and journalists—who witnessed the impact of the Guantanamo Bay detention center in the post-9/11 years. An additional 346 short clips from the full-length interviews are also included. English language interviews are accompanied by transcripts, and we are working to transcribe those in other languages as well.
Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the American naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, became the site of the detention center for suspected al Qaeda and Taliban operatives. Peter Jan Honigsberg, professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law, began Witness to Guantanamo (WtG) in fall 2008, after realizing that no one was collecting and preserving the voices and stories of “Gitmo.” He modelled the project after grassroots truth commissions and the Shoah Foundation’s collection of Holocaust survivor testimonies. Professor Honigsberg’s book, A Place Outside the Law: Forgotten Voices from Guantanamo, narrates many of the extraordinary, powerful, and rare stories he filmed over the course of a decade and across 20 countries. His book is a tribute to the humanity we all share.
The full set of interviews are now archived at the Rubenstein Library’s Human Rights Archive and available through the digital repository. Witness to Guantanamo is unique. No one else has done this work. While there are many collections and projects dispersed around the world containing documents, case files, and data about Guantanamo and the U.S. War on Terror, WtG is the only collection that foregrounds the voices of the individuals detained there and whose lives were forever changed by the experience. The video interviews cover a wide range of topics, including physical and psychological torture, lawlessness, religious faith, medical care, interrogations, interminable detentions without charges, sham hearings, women at Guantanamo, and acts of courage.
In one interview, former detainee Mourad Benchellali reflects on his efforts to turn his imprisonment from 2002 to 2004 into something positive, in the hope that by hearing his story, young people will not join ISIS or participate in suicide attacks. “I simply tell them my story, telling them, ‘This is what I found out. This is what I saw in Afghanistan,’” Benchellali says. “I tell them about being tortured. I tell them about bombings. I tell them how groups enlist you… I tell them all of this, and I say, ‘Be careful, here are the dangers you may run into over there, as I did. I don’t want what happened to me to happen to you, but you have to decide for yourself.’”
In another interview, detainee attorney Alkha Pradhan discusses the process of trying to defend her client, Ammar al Baluchi. At one point in her interview, she reflects on how the CIA deployed its classification policy to control her client: “You know, even though these are his memories, these are his experiences, the government continues to classify them and continues to prevent him from being able to tell the world about them… by virtue of being him, by virtue of being again, brown, non-citizen, Muslim detainee in the CIA system, everything he says is classified. Everything he thinks is classified.”
These first-hand testimonies reveal the physical, emotional, and political scars inflicted by Guantanamo. They also underscore how the treatment of detainees and the use of extra-legal procedures hobbled rather than enabled the rule of law and the quest for truth and justice. They are an invaluable resource for students, scholars, and people around the world to reflect on the path taken by the U.S. in the years following 9/11. The Human Rights Archive is planning an exhibit based on the Witness to Guantanamo collection for January 2022 at the Power Plant Gallery in downtown Durham to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the first detainees arriving at Guantanamo in 2002. More information about the exhibit will be coming soon.