Sunday, 15 March 2009

'Rattling the Cage'

The gallery’s interior was stark: grey, white, black and orange – Guantanamo colours. An orange boiler suit lay spread-eagled on the floor; the walls showed photos of marches, stalls and demonstrations. Along one wall were examples of letters from MPs, ministers, government officials. Another display showed newspaper cuttings from The Argus: a history of the campaign from its beginnings in 2005. This was the ‘Rattling the Cage’ exhibition in Brighton, organised by Louise Purbrick to display the work of local activists, who tirelessly and patiently campaigned for the safe return of Omar Deghayes from Guantanamo Bay – and were ultimately successful.

The letters on one wall were a reminder of how much activism consists of patiently writing letters, over and over again, to be met often with lame, formulaic or dishonest replies from ministers and their minions. The Argus cuttings showed how hope was kept alive even when no one could know for certain if Omar would ever be free again. And a video displayed in one corner showed interviews with diverse activists from the campaign: ‘ordinary’ people who came together four years ago to educate themselves and combine their efforts against a terrible injustice, in which the ‘war on terror’ had affected a local family and put them through years of grief and psychological torture.

It was great to see our friends again in Brighton: Omar, Louise, Martin, Sally, Joy and Caroline. And Omar gave a talk which, as always, left me in admiration of his strength of character at being able to channel the effects of his ordeal into positive action. He spoke of how Guantanamo was the tip of a huge iceberg of rendition and torture; how the Americans use techniques which they learned from their own POW experiences, in World War Two, Korea and Vietnam. Bagram, he said, was like a huge Nazi camp, with barbed wire along concrete walls, and soldiers in towers with guns trained on the prisoners when they were allowed to exercise. He talked about some of the torture, of the sexual humiliations which led to prisoners resisting and thence to being beaten up. Air conditioning and bright lights left on continually for six years, so that the cells were like dazzling fridges with never a moment’s darkness. All this he described with humanity and sometimes even humour; the absurdity and irony of some aspects were not lost on Omar or his audience. And he had an appreciative audience too: understanding, attentive and indignant at the abuses of human rights described. Every time I hear Omar I learn more, and each time I realise how much more there is still to do, even if Obama does bring Gitmo itself to an end before the year is out.

Chatting to Omar, Sally and Joy after the meeting was great; it’s been over a year since Angie and I were with the Save Omar group in their home city. I took some photos of the exhibition, and we signed letters to Jack Straw and Obama, a reminder that the correspondence continues, more than a year since Omar himself returned home. The group now campaigns for the closure of Guantanamo (it hasn’t happened yet!), the safe return of the remaining British residents, and an end to torture, rendition and imprisonment without charge in the ‘war on terror’. This will be the biggest, long-term challenge; Obama recently confirmed that prisoners in Afghanistan and Iraq will remain outside the reach of law, and he has made no orders to end rendition: the kidnapping and sending of prisoners to countries that use torture. Often these victims are simply ‘disappeared’.

As we left, Brighton was basking in a glorious spring afternoon. Angie and I walked through the daffodils, then drove along the coast road by a glittering blue expanse of sea. The white cliffs of Saltdean were bathed in late-afternoon sunlight, and as so often it felt hard to imagine such darkness and suffering existing still in those secret prisons, which our own government and intelligence services are proving to be involved in. Perhaps this is partly why so many people ignore the evidence and don’t even think about such injustices; they seem so far away. But Omar’s case shows that the ‘war on terror’ can come very close to home – indeed right into our own homes. And while the liberal newspapers chatter about Binyam Mohamed and whether or not his accusations can be believed, the activists in Brighton, Worthing, Eastbourne and London continue to work patiently and persistently for an end to these brutal assaults on law and liberty in the global war on terror – which is itself an act of terrorism.

‘Rattling the Cage’ is showing at the Phoenix, 10-14 Waterloo Place, Brighton until Saturday 21 March. Opening times 11:00am - 5:00pm, admission is free.


  1. Ah yes, it was. Those Brighton activists are a very special group of people. It made me think how worthwhile it is to keep campaign materials, too; it was a great idea to present them all as an exhibition.

    I've been rather quiet of late due to a flare-up of anxiety again. Will get blogging again once I'm better. Hope all's well with you, Rachel.