Georgetown Mural on U.S. Detainees Brings Worldwide Attention and Tears


Who would have thought the launch of a black-and-white art exhibit of 18 somewhat fuzzy larger-than-life head shots, glued with wheat paste onto a craggy brick wall in a long Georgetown alley, would attract dozens of photo journalists and reporters from around the world and cause some to tear-up?

That’s what happened at 11:30 a.m., July 20, in the alleyway off M Street between 31st Street and Wisconsin Avenue NW, when grieving family members, a State Department spokesman, a New York Congressman and members of the “Bring Our Families Home Campaign” displayed photos of their sons and daughters, husbands and wives, dads and moms, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles and neighbors who have been held incommunicado and often tortured in filthy crowded prisons abroad, some of them for as long as ten years.

“These are the last photographs many of the families have of their loved ones,” said artist Isaac Campbell as he fought back tears during the presentation. “It was my honor that they let me use them for this exhibition to bring attention to them, to try to make sure they are not forgotten, to give the families and hopefully the some 65 Americans wrongly detained abroad, some hoping that people are working together for their release.”

The 18 photos include a head shot of Olympic gold medalist and Women’s National Basketball Association player Brittney Griner, held for 153 days in Russia as of July 20, for drug possession. Mystics team members in D.C. for a game helped to paste up Griner’s image — she plays for the Phoenix Mercury — and stood with the families during the presentation.

Roger Rusesabagina son of the well-known Rwanda Hotel hero Paul Rusesabagina — who in 1994 gave refuge to and saved the lives of  over 1000 tourists and residents in the hotel during revolution/genocide in Rwanda and who later became a U.S. citizen — spoke in a choked voice of the severe detention of his father in Kigali the Rwandan Capital since 2020 on charges of terrorism.

Alexandra Forseth told The Georgetowner of the unexpected detention of her father and her cousin in Venezuela in 2017 while there on a short-term business assignment with Citgo Oil Company. They have been charged with spying and the family has had only sporadic communication with them. But it is generally agreed that almost all the detainees are being held as political hostages.

The detainees’ families spent 11 hours Tuesday helping Campbell place the images on the wall. “Time” is the theme of the installation, the images and the art form, even the families’ participation Campbell said. “The images are ephemeral, but time is their message and their hope.” His words were met by teary eyes all around.

Of the 18 pictured on the alley wall between Levain Bakery and the former home of Rí Rá Irish pub, eight have been wrongfully imprisoned and detained in Venezuela, five in Iran, two in Russia, one is Syria, one in Rwanda and two in China. “We are working 24/7 to get all 65 released,” said State Department Special Presidential Envoy for Hostage Affairs Roger Carstens.

“Are you optimistic?” The Georgetowner asked Carstens.  “Have to be!,” he answered. “But I believe things are on an upswing right now. “This event is a new way for American families of wrongfully detained around the world, to work together, share strategies and experiences, bring awareness to the urgency and to use all our tools to get them released.” Carstens was greeted by loud applause by detainee families; he has been allowed to visit many of the detainees.

“I am doing all I can to actively engage Congressional representatives on this issue,” Rev. Thomas Suozzi (D-N.Y..) said at the alleyway launch. He has one constituent who is imprisoned in China since 2016 on charges of espionage. But he said awareness of the growing numbers of wrongful detentions and the urgency to react is growing.”

“There’s no question in my mind that Griner’s detention has been game-changing for this issue,” Suozzi campaign spokesman Jonathan Franks said. “It’s raised the profile.”

On July 19, President Biden signed an executive order to increase the government’s ability to combat wrongful detention. “The problem has been getting worse, and until now, we have been failing to adequately combat it,” the President said. “The wrongful detention of U.S. nationals abroad constitutes an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” Biden’s order will allow U.S. agencies to target assets and individuals who are complicit in what some call diplomatic hostage taking.

A. Image of basketball player Brittney Griner, held for 153 days in Russia as of July 20, for drug possession, heads up the lineup of the exhibit. Georgetowner photo.

 

Georgetowner photo.

The family and friends of Matthew Heath stand near his image on the mural. Photo by Peggy Sands.

 

Roger Rusesabagina, son of the Rwanda Hotel hero Paul Rusesabagina, spoke about his father, a U.S. citizen, imprisoned on charges of terrorism. Photo by Peggy Sands.

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