GUILTY: Victoria Brittain decided to befriend the families of Guantanamo Bay detainees after she heard South African-born lawyer Lord Steyn refer to the prison as a ‘legal black hole’. Picture: SUE GRANT-MARSHALL
GUILTY: Victoria Brittain decided to befriend the families of Guantanamo Bay detainees after she heard South African-born lawyer Lord Steyn refer to the prison as a ‘legal black hole’. Picture: SUE GRANT-MARSHALL

THE notion that schoolchildren, who are using the internet for homework or playing Nintendo games, could threaten British security seems far-fetched.

Yet if you reduce author Victoria Brittain’s book, Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror, to its essentials, that is indeed what she says may be happening in some UK Arab households.

In those homes the male head is living under what South Africans during apartheid called house arrest. The British call it Control Order families.

Brittain, an antiwar activist, journalist, author and playwright who has lived and worked in Washington, Nairobi, Saigon, Algiers, London and extensively in our former frontline states, is in SA to launch her book.

Within 24 hours of her arrival, and this interview, she had already addressed three university gatherings, such is the interest in her slim (182 pages) and elegantly packaged work.

She documents the loneliness, isolation and frustration of mothers, daughters and sisters of men held in detention at Guantanamo Bay and London’s Belmarsh jail.

They live among, and yet apart, from the British and to a lesser extent the American populace (Brittain concentrates more on the situation in the UK). For such families their existence is focused on not being smeared by any association with the so-called war on terror.

They shield themselves and their children from it, living very much in a shadow world.

Nobody can visit them unless they’ve had security clearance from the British Home Office. Brittain tells the story of French-Senegalese Josephine, the wife of an anonymous Algerian detainee who was unable to take delivery of a new washing machine.

She told the astounded deliverymen to "just leave it outside".

"She couldn’t explain that their entry (into her home) would break her husband’s bail conditions and that he’d end up back in jail," says Brittain.

Finally Josephine heaved it in through the door herself and then had to ask her lawyer to get Home Office clearance to hire a plumber to install it. A government official then arrived at the same time that the plumber did, while her wheelchair-bound husband had to sit in a different room.

"None of the men whose families I interviewed, in the UK and America, have been charged with crimes," says Brittain. Some have been taken to places in Europe, the Middle East and Far East (the Americans call it extraordinary rendition) and tortured.

At one stage 700 men were being held at Guantanamo Bay in the US-occupied part of Cuba where they are not subject to American law, "so it is a complete legal black hole".

Today, says Brittain, "there are 176 men almost dead in their cages from going on hunger strikes, and all of us, including the American president, know that they are innocent".

It is an enormous subject, taken on by this tiny, light-boned journalist with her soft voice and will-o’-the-wisp air of fragility.

Though she has covered several wars, Brittain was drawn into the lives of her shadow families by chance. She had been commissioned in 2004 by the British Tricycle Theatre to do interviews for a play, Honor Bound to Defend Freedom, about Guantanamo Bay prisoners.

She co-wrote it with author Gillian Slovo.

The father of Moazzam Begg, the last British man to come back from Guantanamo Bay, was a character in the play, who later asked Brittain to co-author Enemy Combatant — the first memoir written about the notorious American detention centre.

During her interviews with lawyers, Brittain discovered little was known about the lives of these Muslim families and she grew increasingly disturbed by the treatment meted out to them.

This was piqued after she heard former South African lawyer, Lord Steyn, giving a prestigious public law lecture in which he described Guantanamo Bay, "as a legal black hole".

"When I listened to him talk about international law being flouted at Guantanamo, and heard about equally distinguished American lawyers trying, unsuccessfully, to take habeas corpus cases for the detainees, I determined to make friends with these Muslim families."

Brittain’s articles have appeared in leading American, British and European newspapers and magazines.

When Barack Obama became US president in 2009 she believed it would not be long before the Guantanamo Bay detainees were released, and said so on TV.

"They laughed at me."

Another aspect of the war on terror that concerned Brittain, "was the Americans flying over parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, dropping leaflets telling people they would be paid $5,000 for every Arab turned in".

But her focus is not on the war. It is on the unknown casualties of it — children being bullied at school, their electronic toys confiscated by the police on continual visits to their homes, their mothers suffering from depression, even mental breakdown.

The teenage child of Palestinians Dina and Mahmoud wrote: "Listen to my story, then decide if you will be able to live my life."

Brittain writes about Zannira, wife of Shaker Aamer, a Saudi "captured by bounty hunters". He is the last British resident detained at Guantanamo. He has never been charged yet has been jailed for 12 years.

Left to bring up their three children alone, Zannira has contemplated suicide, been admitted to hospital and sometimes dreams her husband is dead.

Shadow Lives was published nearly a year ago and Brittain, who has done book tours both in the UK and US, is regularly asked to give talks to literary groups, at book festivals, to psychiatrists and social workers.

"I am attacked on the internet and some audiences ask hostile questions. I don’t think my book will change anything but it does allow knowledge to circulate."