Thursday, 27 November 2003

Inside View

While the rest of the media camped outside Hulme’s very own Camp X-Ray last week, a Big Issue in the North reporter spent 24 hours as a prisoner inside the compound sampling US style military hospitality.


I like to think I’m pretty much prepared for anything modern art can throw up nowadays. Once you’ve seen Gunther Van Hagens’ dead bodies and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ you’ve seen it all. Right?

But when taking in a new art project involves being bundled into the back of a jeep by armed guards in military uniform you begin to wonder. I started to wonder some more after arriving at a prison camp surrounded by coils of razor wire with a machine gun bearing down on me. More still when I was handcuffed, a bag put over my head and ordered to kneel in wet sand.

By the time I’d been fingerprinted, handed a wet sleeping bag, an orange ‘rail workers’ uniform, made to wear ear muffs and blacked-out goggles and re-named as prisoner F61274 the message was sinking in. Fast. This is no budgie shooting prank or curry carton kickabout. This is performance art with a difference. The aim? To bring the shadowy world of state terrorism into more familiar surroundings. Criticised by judges and lawyers from around the world, the US interment camp at Guantanamo Bay has been slammed as a “legal black hole”. By holding 662 ‘detainees’ without any legal rights it openly violates every international law.

So when a fully operational miniature version of that black hole turns up round the back of Asda in Hulme it’s bound to make people sit up and take notice.

And that’s the beauty of Jai Redman’s madcap creation. During the 24-hours I spent in Camp X-Ray I saw late night stragglers and drunks stagger past the compound and rub their eyes in disbelief at the sight of a sniper looming from beyond an eerily lit prison camp.

I saw children and pram pushers gawping at the sight of shackled prisoners under armed guard while in the exercise yard for our daily 15 minutes of physical activity. Mothers stared quizzically and shouted: “Is this a film set?” one of the children asked: “Mummy are the prisoners going to die?”

I heard how a newsagent from Burnley had closed his shop to come and cheer Redman’s efforts. And of how a car load of lads had driven from Newcastle just to see the camp after reading about it in a national newspaper. They wanted to register their anger at American justice.

That’s justice where ‘prisoners’ are not called prisoners. They’re not allowed access to a lawyer or a fair trial. They’re kept without being charged of a crime. Their identity is not released so prisoner’s families might not even know where they were. They’re not even granted POW status or told when they might be released. They’re simply kept indefinitely in sub-human conditions as ‘detainees’.

I heard also how Jai had been besieged by requests from mothers from as far afield as Southampton to volunteer as ‘prisoners’.

They too were angry at the American concept of ‘might is right’, appalled at what could become the most distasteful enduring legacy of the Bush administration, now on show in Hulme.

No-one stumbling across something as inconspicuous as Chandler’s tarantula on a slice of angel cake could ignore it. Not even if they tried.

But what of the conditions we volunteers endured? Did they provide any insights into the Guantanamo Bay experience?

Certainly kneeling in wet sand for any length of time while handcuffed and unable to see or hear anything is far from comfortable. The overwhelming sense of powerlessness could easily be described as soul-destroying. And for may it is.

Suicide attempts are slowly rising at the internment camp in Guantanamo Bay and you can see why. May inmates have no proven terrorist connections whatsoever and with CIA Director George Tenet announcing on Newsnight earlier this year that he believe at least nine out of 12 Kuwaitis held at the internment are innocent, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that this is far from ideal ‘catch-all’ system.

Now renamed Camp Delta, many of the inmates have been held there for two years and the thought of how someone who’s innocent would handle an indefinite stay that takes in long spells of sensory deprivation, isolation and being treated worse than a dog is extremely sobering. I felt bewildered, disorientated and dizzy after just 20 minutes of kneeling in the now customary garbs of handcuffs, ear muffs and face mask. And that was with the guarantee I could leave at any time.

Yet while Amnesty International have been refused permission to inspect conditions at Camp Delta it’s highly unlikely they’d be troubled by any human rights violations if they’d paid Camp X-Ray in Hulme a visit. If the truth were told we got off very lightly. For most of the time we were allowed to freely associate with other prisoners in the compound and after an initial welcome of the quasi-brutish discipline a jovial banter started up between the prisoners and guards. “You filthy scum, you killed my brother in Kuwait,” was a common greeting from the guards, followed by a sly grin.

For most of my stay there was a palpable tension between what the guards were supposed to be doing and what they were comfortable doing. All too often an outward display of sadistic toughness gave way to an almost caring touch. “Can you not tie my handcuffs so tightly,” I asked one of the guards. “Oh alright then,” he grumbled, loosening my cuffs and asking if I wanted a cigarette. After all, these were artists, DJs and friends of Redman’s collective. Not top military brass.

But the last word goes to Redman. Dressed in his military guard uniform he’s benn busy combining the roles of camp enforcer and media spokesman over the last week. And he’s clearly pleased at the impact Camp X-Ray has made on the community.

“if we’d had more money we would have liked to put the camp in the centre of Manchester to reach more people but in may ways Hulme is the ideal place for it,” he says.

“It’s the home of Ron Fiddler (known as Jamal Udeen) who’s one of the British prisoners in the camp. Besides, most of the people in Hulme were unaware that people from down the road in Moss Side were being dragged out of their beds and sent to Camp X-Ray.”

Not anymore it seems. By bringing an issue that’s viewed by many as being an overseas problem closer to home, Redman says he hopes more people will ask questions over the validity of US style justice. “Camp X-Ray will be remembered as a terrible abomination,” he says. “And in a couple of years time all the people involved will be apologising and saying it’s a big mistake. Or at least that’s what they would do if they were truthful. But as it’s politicians we’re talking about here, they’ll probably just hope it slips off the media agenda and is forgotten about.”

History though, might not be so kind.