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The Shoah Foundation Inspired Me to Document the Stories and Voices of Guantánamo

By Peter Jan Honigsberg

A Navy guard assigned to Joint Task Force Guantánamo’s Navy Expeditionary Guard Battalion patrols Camp Delta’s recreation yard.
A Navy guard assigned to Joint Task Force Guantánamo’s Navy Expeditionary Guard Battalion patrols Camp Delta’s recreation yard. Photo credit: Joint Task Force Guantánamo

Guantánamo, situated on a forty-five-mile spit of land on the southeastern coast of Cuba, has become more than a detention center for alleged terrorists, in reaction to the attacks on September 11, 2001. It is more than a naval base housing nearly ten thousand soldiers and personnel, complete with McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, KFC, Subway, Starbucks, Jamaican jerk chicken, a movie theater, and navy exchange, or NEX, shops. Guantánamo is a metaphor for much that has gone wrong after 9/11.

A Place Outside the Law highlights the human side of Guantánamo. People who were held captive in the prison or who worked at the base saw their lives deeply transformed by the experience. I learned this firsthand in my role as founder of Witness to Guantánamo. Starting in the fall of 2008, I set out to film and document the stories and the voices of Guantánamo. The people we interviewed took important time out of their lives to sit down with us and tell their stories.

For a decade, my team and I filmed their stories. We were a small operation with a filmmaker, creative director/editor, fundraiser/media outreach person, producer, and me as director/interviewer. Everyone was part-time. We interviewed 158 people across twenty countries, recording more than three hundred hours of film. Fifty-two of the interviewees were former detainees. We also interviewed prison guards, interrogators, interpreters, chaplains, medical personnel, military and civilian lawyers representing the detainees, prosecutors, journalists, high-ranking military officials, high-ranking government officials, and family members of the detainees. Witness to Guantánamo gives the most comprehensive picture to date of life at Guantánamo.

Our films are the only records for many of the people we interviewed. That is, some interviewees only recorded their stories with us, and with no one else. Since we began this project, some of the people featured have died. There will come a time when these filmed stories will be the only ones we have of many of the people who were in Guantánamo. Their voices will speak to future generations. And their witness will remind future generations not to repeat what has happened there.

These are the stories of people affected by America’s response to that fateful day. They are the stories of the human toll when America strayed from honor.

In November 2008, when Barack Obama was elected president, I completed Our Nation Unhinged, a book on the war on terror. I examined human rights and rule-of-law violations post-9/11, at home and abroad, in five parts. One part was on Guantánamo. The book was a natural complement to my articles, blog pieces, and classes on terrorism, national security, international law, and human rights. It also chronicled my visit to Guantánamo in May 2007.

Once Our Nation Unhinged was published, my friends thought I would move on to other issues. The attacks on 9/11 and America’s response were fading in the sunlight of the new, inspiring president. But I was still restless.

In those early days of Obama’s presidency, many of us believed that his administration, elected on a theme of hope and change, would return our nation to its former position as the defender of human rights and the rule of law. During his campaign, President Obama had advocated for closing the Guantánamo prison camp. And on his second day in office he said he would close the prison within a year.

We believed that America’s policies of torture, cruel interrogation, and indefinite detention would come to an end. We would return to our core values and principles. Under President Obama, the world would again recognize America’s exceptionalism and its position as the shining light to the world.

However, the post-9/11 issues I had been studying and writing about were still unresolved. And I was afraid that our newly elected president would not fully address and resolve them.

During Obama’s transition to the office, when we were all optimistic, I was reminded of how my parents had escaped from the Nazis at the last moment possible. My Jewish parents were born and raised in a small town in Austria. When they married, they moved to Vienna. In 1939, my father received two notices from the Austrian authorities to appear at the train station to be taken to a concentration camp. He ignored them. The authorities sent a third notice instructing him to appear at the train station the next morning. If he did not show up, the Nazi officers wrote, they would seize him and take him directly to the station. That same day, he and my mother received visas to America.

The University of Southern California Shoah Foundation interviewed my father about his experiences in Austria. The Shoah Foundation was established to document the Holocaust, as well as to reply to Holocaust deniers. My father was one of more than forty-eight thousand survivors whose stories were told on camera to the foundation.

The work of the Shoah Foundation was my inspiration. Witness to Guantánamo was born. Even if President Obama closed Guantánamo, the stories of the people who lived and worked at the Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, detention center needed to be filmed and documented for history. It was not the Holocaust, of course. But Guantánamo was a shameful moment in the history of America.

Unlike renowned film director and producer Steven Spielberg, who was behind the creation of the Shoah Foundation, I had neither filmmaking nor interviewing experience. But no one else was documenting the first-person narratives of Guantánamo detainees on film. And the work had to be done before the memories faded and the voices disappeared.

A student in one of my classes had connections to a local family foundation. Through the student’s contact, the director of the foundation generously financed the germination of the project. With the seed money, we were able to travel to five countries and interview sixteen former detainees during the first summer of our work, in 2009. Those interviews gave us credibility. We then could apply to larger foundations for continued funding.

Like Spielberg’s videos of Holocaust survivors, the interviews recorded for Witness to Guantánamo will be here long after we are gone.

After Obama was elected in November 2008, a member of the Obama transition team informed me that Obama would create a truth commission and that I did not need to undertake my proposed Witness to Guantánamo project. I replied that I hoped the president would establish the commission, because he had the resources and the connections. I added that I was not convinced he would do it. But if he did, I would discontinue my work immediately. I was still interviewing people for Witness to Guantánamo after President Obama left office.

Throughout the years, people have asked about our work: how we found and encouraged people to interview and why we use film as the medium. As the years went by and we told people what we were doing, we would sometimes get the response, “But isn’t Guantánamo closed?” In fact, several habeas attorneys told us that they had similar reactions when they told people that they were working on Guantánamo issues.

I am not sure why people believed it was closed. I am guessing that when President Obama announced on his second day in office that he would close Guantánamo, many people assumed that he had accomplished his mission.


About the Author 

Peter Jan Honigsberg is a professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law and the founder and director of Witness to Guantánamo. His research and teaching focuses on the rule of law and human rights violations that occurred in the detention center in Guantánamo, as well as on the study of terrorism and post-9/11 issues. His books include Our Nation Unhinged and A Place Outside the Law. Honigsberg lives in Berkeley, CA.