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A tree grows in Guantanamo

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Wednesday, February 7th, 2007 — It is one thing to share another's passion. It is quite another to articulate that passion and the events that gave rise to it without sharing the "holy ground" that is the personal experience of the other.

I found myself at such an impasse as I was preparing this column.

Last May, I sat in an audience listening to our son, a lawyer. He had been asked to present the story of his involvement with certain detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. I was moved beyond words to hear about the men and the conditions of their capture and imprisonment.

Neil brought the men and situation at Guantanamo to life. One simple story about a garden left a lasting impression. For me it was a symbol of hope for two men who could easily believe their lives had come to a dead end.

For Neil, who knows so much that I do not, it was a symbol of the strength and humanity of these men in stark contrast to the moral weakness and lack of humanity of their jailers and the system that gave us Guantanamo. Only guarded hope for any meaningful future for these men was possible, so deep is the fracture in the system in whose hands their fate rests.

The story comes from Camp Iguana in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The men, Adel and Abu Bakker, are ethnic Uighurs from China.

By now most people have heard about Guantanamo Bay and the men who were captured and brought there after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Almost 400 men are still being held as prisoners. While their stories are complicated, there are common threads: The circumstances of capture are in many cases disputed; many were turned over in exchange for bounties.

Some like Adel and Abu have been determined by the military to be innocent, and a federal court has ruled that their imprisonment is unlawful. Yet when the lawyers met them, four months after their non-enemy status had been determined, they were chained to the floor.

Camp Iguana was "home" to nine men the military admitted had never been enemy combatants. It is hot and dry, infested with cockroaches and snakes. Giant iguanas come and go freely while human, non-enemy detainees are held under 24/7 guard behind covered double fences topped with razor wire.

Five years of living in this squalor and abuse might snuff out hope altogether. One can hardly imagine conditions less conducive to gardening.

The story goes like this: During one of their lawyers' visits, Adel and Abu asked for seeds and gardening tools to plant a garden. Given what we know about the administration of Guantanamo, it's no surprise the lawyers were unsuccessful.

When the lawyers returned some months later they shared their disappointment. But their clients had a surprise.

They had planted a garden. A tiny lemon tree was proof of their success.

The soil at Camp Iguana is rock hard and bone dry. There is no running water. The detainees have no access to anything that could approximate a metal trowel. There are no seeds.

Each night the two men poured part of their cup of water on the soil. In the morning they scraped away with their plastic spoons at the dampened spot. They did this repeatedly until they had a hole prepared for a lemon seed that they had saved from one of their meals. Now the lemon tree -- all of two inches -- was their reward. But, they mused, they did not want to be around long enough to see this seedling bear fruit.

For Adel and Abu Bakker planting a garden, of sorts, became a connection to a life that operated according to predictable rules. I want to see it as a sign of hope, not only for Adel and Abu, but hope for the humanity and strength of character of our political system.

But Neil and hundreds of lawyers across the country, and especially their clients are confronted with disappointments far greater than a lack of gardening tools. They see that legally, even the slivers of hope are swallowed up by a system that has become a law unto itself.

Guantanamo Bay is symptomatic of the excessive fear that has gripped our country.

We can't, we must not, consent to this kind of nonsense. None of us can afford to be tainted by the cruel treatment of many innocent men that is right now going on -- in our names -- in Guantanamo. Most of us will never know first-hand the feelings of an innocent person who has been labeled "the worst of the worst" by the most powerful government in the world. Nor can we know the crippling disappointment of those who are in the trenches working to right this wrong.

Nonetheless, this is our story, too. Whether by the thread of association or the rope of complicity, our fate is tied to that of men like Adel and Abu Bakker. They have now been released to Albania, strangers in an alien land, but their story leaves a legacy for us.

We do not know the fate of the lemon tree -- but perhaps it had already borne its fruit.

Maybe for us, the cost of this war is looking into our hearts and finding the hostages we hold there. For our hope, like our higher selves, is sweetest and surest when shared.