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Reporting on Guantanamo

Former Guantanamo prisoner Jarallah Al-Marri and former Guantanamo guard Chris Arendt (in 2009).

Former Guantanamo prisoner Jarallah Al-Marri and former Guantanamo guard Chris Arendt (in 2009).

In the winter of 2007, I was hunched over a Xerox machine photocopying a comic I had drawn when I caught sight of pages spewing out of the photocopier next to me. They were hand-written memories of a young man’s time in the army. I picked one up and read that he’d started out in the Michigan National Guard and wound up stationed at Guantanamo Bay, a 19-year-old suddenly saddled with guarding the world’s “worst of the worst.” That’s how I met Chris Ardent, a young veteran who felt extremely conflicted about his time in the service, but who had nowhere to discuss his experiences except in the pages of a zine he printed himself. A few months later, I tagged along on a speaking tour with Arendt and a group of former Guantanamo detainees, documenting their stories on a blog I called Guantanamo Voices.

I had read about Guantanamo in the news, of course, but before hearing the stories of peoples who had spent time at the base, it was hard to think of it as a real place. It existed in my mind—and in the mind of many Americans—as merely a blurry photo of men in orange jumpsuits kneeling behind barbed wire. That all changed when I met people who had actually been to Guantanamo. Through our conversations, Guantanamo snapped into focus. I started to understand the complicated human impact of the prison whose abstract political and legal machinations were headline news. I began to learn a lot about the veterans, civilians, legal teams, and detainees who lived, worked, and were imprisoned on this distant naval base.

Guantanamo is a place that most Americans would rather not think about. As the detention facility there stretches into its 18th year of operation, even media outlets have tired of reporting on the prison—it feels like indefinite detention is yesterday’s news. But the stories of the people whose lives have been shaped by Guantanamo deserve to have their stories heard. Those voices will paint a crucial and compelling portrait of a prison whose existence has shaped American institutions and our image in the world in an enormous way. Guantanamo is the oldest overseas U.S. naval base in the world and has become an infamous icon worldwide. At the same time, the stories of the people who know the place most intimately are overlooked. They deserve a platform and readers deserve to hear their stories.

Here are several stories I’ve reported on Guantanamo since 2008:

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The book, Guantanamo Voices: Human Stories from the World’s Most Infamous Prison, is slated for publication by Abrams Books in 2020.

The best medium to share these vivid, personal stories is through a graphic novel. Guantanamo is a place that’s remained often unseen, so drawings of the place and portraits of the people telling these stories will make it literally visible. In the tradition of comics journalism established by authors like Joe Sacco, Art Spiegelman, and Congressman John Lewis’ March, the comics medium will infuse an essential humanity into these narratives.  Comics are the ideal medium for sharing intimate stories, because the drawing style and pace of storytelling makes it clear to readers that these are subjective, personal accounts—not official, objective news reports. Just as importantly, comics are engaging to a broad and diverse audience. People who might never pick up a book about national security issues will be drawn to a graphic novel. The comics medium will help bring discussions about the Global War on Terror to a whole new audience.

Guantanamo Voices won’t ask the simplistic, black-and-white question of whether Guantanamo is “good” or “bad.” Instead, it will document a history that’s happening right now, creating a deep, dynamic, and sincere understanding of how Guantanamo shapes our world. Some stories will be critical of the prison, some stories will be personally harrowing, some stories will be proud. Together, these voices will illuminate an honest portrait of a place that’s often obscured, misunderstood, and reduced to political talking points.  

If you’re interested in talking to me about this book project, like sharing ideas for people to interview or your thoughts on how to tell this complex story, feel free to email me at mirk.sarah@gmail.com.