My wee brother, Rachid - a prisoner of conscience
When Rachid called to tell me the Home Office had made the decision to extradite him to France, my heart was broken. Instead of getting my support, to my shame, I cried. Rachid is my wee brother - tied not by blood by sincere friendship. Over the past two years he has brought a new dimension to my life. I have since discovered he has the same effect on everyone fortunate enough to know him personally or through his letters. Everyone loves Rachid. He is an exceptional man.
On first hearing about Rachid, through my friend TB, I found his story incredible. Here was a young Algerian Muslim who had been held for eight years without charge or trial in Britain's Guantanamo - HMP Belmarsh. In all this time, he had not received one visitor. His loving family in Algeria had been refused visas on twelve occasions and his friends, ironically, because they are his friends, failed the vetting to visit him. Rachid Ramda - the longest serving remand prisoner in Britain - is in his 10th year of captivity.
For the first six years of his incarceration, Rachid was held in Belmarsh's Special Secure Unit, a prison within a prison, where he was cruelly kept in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day in what Gareth Peirce, his solicitor, called a "concrete coffin". This treatment had terrible consequences on Rachid's physical and psychological health. His eyesight has deteriorated with the constant use of artificial light and lack of natural light and he suffers chronic pain in all his joints due to his enforced immobility. SSU prisoner officers are rotated due to the health implications for them in this environment. Can you imagine what it did to Rachid? Those in power were well aware of their harm to him and every two years, he was transferred to the main prison for a short time for respite and then in a very cruel and calculated way he was returned to the SSU. I can't bear to think of Rachid suffering in this way, and we have never discussed it.
My first communication with him was in the form of a poem he wrote about my adventure with a spider called "The Lady and the Spider" inspired by a story I had told TB. This poem was so clever and funny that I laughed until the tears rolled down my cheeks. I wrote to him from my home in the north of Scotland and thanked him for brightening up my day and we have corresponded ever since. He says in his first letter - "I received your letter with joy and delight. It's very kind of you to give me some of your time and generosity to ease the wilderness of this place". Sometimes I don't receive Rachid's mail and although all his letters are special, it is often the extra special ones that fail to arrive. He sent me all his poems and I never received them. He once wrote about his eight years incarceration and his cry never found its way to my door. I call the days I receive his letters - my blue moon days - and he laughs. He is the happiest person I have ever met. His last three letters haven't reached me and recently he has been refused contact with his extended family.
Belmarsh claims he submitted wrong numbers and upsettingly was told that one of his contacts didn't want his calls. All lies. A few days ago he got the news that another one of his friends had failed the vetting to visit him.
There is a definite move on to break Rachid's spirit. A forlorn hope. After nearly 10 years in an English gulag, under intolerable pressure 24 hours a day, Rachid is sustained "with the support of Allah" and our support, he adds.
A year ago I started visiting Rachid. Can you imagine? - I was his first visitor in nearly nine years! I was very excited at the prospect of meeting my wee brother at last! I recognised him straight away. Out walked this gentle giant with a big, big smile on his face - Rachid is over 6 feet tall - and he immediately brightened up the visiting room. This may sound like poetic license but it's true. Rachid radiates! He touches the hearts of everyone who is privileged to know him (prisoners and even prison officers) or to be acquainted with him through his phone calls or his written words. He inspires everyone. I have shared lots of special moments with Rachid in this unwelcoming room but in his company I don't notice the surroundings - Rachid fills the space.
On that first visit, Rachid never looked around the crowded visiting room at all. I don't think he could allow himself to be part of the outside world again after so many years of deprivation but he has mellowed out over time. Perhaps he has allowed himself to feel that he can one day be free. He says "it's only a hope but life can't withstand without hope".
I could speak more eloquently about Rachid if I had the gift of the Arabic language. I could write so many stories about Rachid's generosity; his compassion; his humanity; his kindness; his fortitude; his constant thirst for knowledge; his strength of character; his gifts for language and mimicry; his poetry; his intellect; his devotion; his unswerving faith - but it would make Rachid blush as he is a very modest man.
The "real" world to Rachid is Belmarsh and I am certain he is deliberately hidden away so we, in the "unreal" world, can never discover how unique he is. We are diminished without him.
This is a few of the verses of one of Rachid's favourite poems, "Still I Rise" by Maya Angelou. Perhaps she wrote it with Rachid in mind.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still. Like dust, I'll rise.
Out of the huts of history's shame
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Rachid's imprisonment is politically motivated - he is an innocent pawn in "their" game. Please find half an hour of your time to help with the campaign to halt Rachid's extradition to France. You will find the campaign information on the websites of www.cageprisoners.com and Scotland Against Criminalising Communities. Please help me wee brother.