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Discovering the Truth about Guantánamo

Haitian refugees protesting at Guantanamo. It's an enduring symbol of the U.S. War on Terror.

But how many Americans realize that the naval base in Guantánamo Bay has been around for more than a century? Do they know about the 1903 lease that gives the U.S. control over a swath of Cuban soil? Has anyone experienced the art produced by Cuban and Haitian refugees held at the base?

Now, a traveling exhibit developed by students and faculty from 11 universities, including Rutgers, is providing a probing, provocative examination of the U.S. presence in Guantánamo, taking a hard look at its past and asking tough questions about its future. The exhibit will be shown at the Mabel Smith Douglass Library from Feb. 18 through March 29.

“Most people associate Guantánamo with just the post-9/11 era, if they associate it with anything at all,” said School of Arts and Sciences (SAS) sophomore Jasmeet Bawa, who is making the exhibit the focus of a research project through the Aresty Research Center. “It’s actually pretty interesting and disappointing at the same time how much we don’t know about it.”

The Guantánamo Public Memory Project, first launched by the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, is coordinated through Columbia University’s Institute for the Study of Human Rights. The exhibit is a collaborative project between universities and includes interviews, images, documentary material, video footage, and artwork never before shared with the public.

"Guantánamo is not this aberrant product of one presidential administration,” said Liz Sevcenko, director of the memory project. "It has been an integral part of American politics and policy for more than a century, and will likely be a part of how we operate for decades to come.”

At Rutgers, students in Professor Andy Urban’sCurating Guantánamo course in SAS developed the written and visual content for two of the exhibit’s 13 panels, and also produced online material.

The panels tell the Guantánamo story, from its acquisition by the U.S following the Spanish-American War to the detentions of accused enemy combatants following 9/11. The online material adds more details, exploring little-known stories and also includes interviews with refugees, detainees as well as military personnel.

Zoe Watnik, for example, contributed to the panels and also penned an online article on the sexual politics of Guantanamo, exploring how the presence of U.S. sailors changed the economic character of the surrounding communities, including one city that became known as a “large scale brothel.”

“The US presence radically altered the economy of Caimanera and other cities as sailors were allowed to run amok in the Cuban territory with impunity,” Watnik wrote.

A guard watches over the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.The exhibit does not take specific positions on whether the base or detention center should be closed. Its main goal is to expand the public’s understanding of Guantánamo and create discussion.

“In shaping the content, we focused on making it engaging and understandable to the general public,” said Watnik, a graduate student in the Department of Art History in SAS. “We wanted to write the material in ways that didn’t present (students’) views, but broadened the discussion.”

Urban, a professor of American Studies and History, who is coordinating the exhibit at Rutgers, said the project is a unique piece of public history that educates students and the larger community and draws them into the national conversation on an issue that’s constantly resurfacing.

“It demonstrates what we can do in our classrooms and how it can actually inform civic dialogue,” said Urban, who is organizing an academic conference for March 29.

Urban’s Curating Guantánamo course was offered through the program in Cultural Heritage and Preservation Studies, or CHAPS.

Meanwhile, Jasmeet Bawa and fellow SAS undergraduate Hajar Hasani will be leading tours of the exhibit and trying to prompt conversation and soul searching.

The two immersed themselves in the study of Guantánamo and then reached out to professors throughout the New Brunswick Campus whose course content has potential connections to the exhibit. The students are also organizing a spoken word performance to take place March 28.

“Our role is to engage people and get them to talk back to us,” Bawa said. “We can’t just say, ‘oh this happened and that happened.’’’

The exhibit by the Guantánamo Public Memory Project will be shown at the Douglass Library from Feb. 18 to March 29. A spoken word performance will take place March 28 and an academic conference on March 29. The exhibit is free and open to the public. For more information, click here.

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