How the War on Terror in England Became a War on Women and Children
Once, as a reporter, I covered wars, conflicts, civil wars, and even a genocide in places like Vietnam, Angola, Eritrea, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, keeping away from official briefings and listening to the people who were living the war. In the years since the Bush administration launched its Global War on Terror, I’ve done the same thing without ever leaving home.
In the last decade, I didn’t travel to distant refugee camps in Pakistan or destroyed villages in Afghanistan. I stayed in Great Britain. There, my government, in close conjunction with Washington, was pursuing its own version of what was essentially a war against Islam. Somehow, by a series of chance events, I found myself inside it, spending time with families transformed into enemies.
I stumbled into a world of Muslim women in London, Manchester, and Birmingham whose husbands or sons had been swept up in Washington’s war. Some were in Guantanamo, some were among the dozen Muslim foreigners who did not know each other, and who were surprised to find themselves imprisoned together in Britain on suspicion of links to al-Qaeda. Later, some of these families would find themselves under house arrest.
In the process, I came to know women and children who were living in almost complete isolation and with the stigma of a supposed link to terrorism. They had few friends, and were cut off from the wider world. Those with a husband under house arrest were allowed no visitors who had not been vetted for security,” nor could they have computers, even for their children to do their homework. Others had husbands or sons who had spent a decade or more in prison without charges in the United Kingdom, and were fighting deportation or extradition. Gradually, they came to accept me into their isolated lives and talked to me about their children, their mothers, their childhoods -- but seldom, at first, about the grim situations of their husbands.
It was a steep learning curve for me, spending time in homes where faith was the primary reality, Allah was constantly invoked, English was a second language, and privacy and reticence were givens. The reticence faded over the years, in the face of the kind of desolation that came from a failed court appeal to lift the restrictions on their lives, an unexpected police raid on the house, or the coming of a new torture report from Washington.
I met some of their husbands and sons as well. The first was a British man from Birmingham, Moazzam Begg. He had been held for three years in Guantanamo, Cuba, only to be released without charges. When he came home he asked me to help write his memoir, the first to come out of Guantanamo. We worked long months on Enemy Combatant. It was hard for him to relive his nightmare days and nights in American custody in Kandahar and at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, and then those limbo years in Cuba. It was even harder for him to visit the women whose absent husbands he had known in prison and who were still there.
Through Moazzam, I met other men who had been swept up in the post-9/11 dragnet for Muslims in Great Britain, refugees who sought him out as an Arabic speaker and a British citizen to help them negotiate Britain’s newly hostile atmosphere in the post-9/11 years. Soon, I began to visit some of their wives, too.
In time, I found myself deep inside a world of civilian women who were being warred upon (after a fashion) in my own country, which was how I came upon a locked-down hospital ward with a man determined to starve himself to death unless he was given refugee documents to leave Britain, children who cried in terror in response to a knock on the door, wives faced with a husband changed beyond words by prison. I found myself deep inside a world of civilian women who were being warred upon (after a fashion) in my own country, which was how I came upon a locked-down hospital ward with a man determined to starve himself to death, children who cried in terror in response to a knock on the door, wives faced with a husband changed beyond words by prison.
© 2013 Victoria Brittain, journalist and former editor at the Guardian. Her latest book, Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2013) has just been published.
This is an edited except from a very long article. http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/03/05-5