In the years since September 11–and particularly at the height of President Bush’s “War on Terror”–disturbing reports have emerged about abuses in U.S. military prisons all over the world. Thousands of innocent people with no ties to terrorist organizations have been swept up and incarcerated without and legal representation. While there, many are tortured and coerced into signing false confessions. The photographs that emerged from Abu Ghraib in 2006 helped propel these human rights violations into the international spotlight and into the U.S. presidential debates of 2008, but the abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib is not an isolated incident.
Though the majority of people detained are men, women and children have been subject to terrible abuses in these military prisons as well (I find Aafia Saddiqui’s story particularly haunting to this day). Moved by the plight of children incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay–some as young as eleven years old–British author Anna Perera wrote a young adult novel to highlight some of the human rights violations suffered by these children.
Guantanamo Boy is about fifteen-year-old Khalid Ahmad, a regular British teen without a care in the world. Six months after the terrorist attacks on September 11, Khalid’s grandmother dies and the family flies back to Karachi, Pakistan to take care of affairs. Not long after their arrival, Khalid is abducted and accused of being involved with various terrorist activities. It is a moment that changes his life forever.
Though most of the book takes place inside military prisons, Perera makes an effort to establish Khalid’s life before he was imprisoned; he was a thoroughly British teen with an interest in rap music and football like any other kid. His parents are conservative, but they are relaxed in many areas of life, including religion (the family is Muslim, but they don’t adhere to strict religious practices like daily prayers). As an Arab in a post-9/11 world, Khalid is sometimes taunted and treated with fear or suspicion, but for the most part, his world revolves around his friends and video games.
Once he’s incarcerated, time stops for Khalid. He’s interrogated countless times and subjected to various forms of abuse like sleep deprivation, starvation, and being placed in extreme temperatures. Though he’s slightly more comfortable with nudity (thanks to showering in the boys locker room at school), he’s angered after witnessing the humiliation the men around him suffer at being stripped naked and forced to shower together. Khalid gets even more angry when he sees the disregard for some of the prisoners’ religious observances:
“Okay, move it. You’re done!” The photographer dismisses him. Swearing harshly at the next man in life to hurry up. The middle-aged, soft-faced man, naked, vulnerable, with tears in his eyes, glances at Khalid as if to say the experience means his life is over. It ignites a terrible anger in Khalid, who knows the shaving of the man’s beard–an important part of his Muslim identity–is the final insult for him.
The abuse gets worse once he’s transferred to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, where he’s placed in isolation for extended periods of time. Perera describes his experiences of torture and the slow crumbling of his mental state with excruciating detail; I spent the last half of the book in various states of agitation, horror, and sadness.
I admire Perera for writing this book. The politics are a bit heavy-handed at times, but I think it’s a terrific resource to use in a high school classroom; it even comes with a timeline of Guantanamo Bay and a discussion guide for teachers. It’s not a book for the faint of heart, but it also raises a lot of important points about human rights and the fact that not everything is black and white when it comes to terrorism and war.
Guantanamo Boy was reprinted by Albert Whitman & Company on July 1, 2011.