18 October 2016
18 October 2016 - Written by Gemma Padley
Alex Potter travels to the European outposts of Slovakia, Kazakhstan, and Georgia to document the empty and isolated lives of former Guantanamo detainees.
For those of us lucky enough to live in our own countries and homes it is easy to take the freedom we have to do as we please for granted. But the men in Alex Potter’s The Meaning of Freedom - former Guantánamo Bay detainees - must live far away from their families in new cultures and with restricted freedoms.
In the self-initiated project supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation, Potter documents the everyday lives of three former detainees who were released in 2014-15 and relocated to countries other than their own. By law, the USA is unable to send the men back to their home countries because it’s not safe, explains Potter, so they send them elsewhere and the men are expected to adapt.
Hussein al Merfedi (pictured above), Sabry al Quraishi, and Salah al Dhaby, originally from Yemen and between Yemen and Saudi Arabia, were relocated to Slovakia, Kazakhstan and Georgia respectively. Potter photographed the men, who were never charged with any crime, in their new countries, thousands of miles from their family, friends, and support networks.
Technically they are free although they’re not able to do as they please because the authorities keep close tabs on them, she says, restricting their movement around the countries and internationally.
"Sabry (above) who lives in Kazakhstan has a curfew, and is not allowed to leave the city in which he’s been placed," says Potter, who began the project in March 2015 and worked on it again between mid-December 2015 and mid-January 2016. "Although the officials are very kind on the surface, he feels as though he’s being led around like a puppy, [or has] a ball and chain. [There is a sense of] 'You’re free to do these things, but only within certain parameters'."
The men are three of hundreds of former detainees that spent more than a decade in Guantánamo Bay Prison and who are now attempting to build their lives from scratch, she explains. This is difficult to do since they are given little or no financial support or help finding a job, and are placed in cultures and religious communities unfamiliar to them, which makes integrating difficult. They also sometimes face discrimination.
"If these men could at least be sent to places where the culture is familiar, like Qatar, Oman or the UAE," she says. "If they were in an Arab country where they are familiar with the culture and where the governments facilitate reunification with their families, they would be much happier." The USA is supposedly pro-reunification because it believes it helps with integration, Potter says, but it is very much dependent on the countries where the men end up. At the time of writing, these men’s families had not been able to visit.
Potter is doubtful the men will be able to return home any time soon, if at all, although "I don’t want to say never as I want them to have hope," she says.
Without job prospects and as a result of the difficulties they face in terms of integrating into local communities, the men spend their days sitting at home. "For most, their everyday life consists of nothing," says Potter. "They may talk on the phone with their families, but most of their lives are spent alone in silence. I wanted to capture that silence and isolation."
Alex Potter is an photojournalist from the Midwest living in the Middle East. She is currently based in Yemen.
Gemma Padley is a freelance writer and editor on photography, based in the UK.
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