United in grief, relatives of 9/11 victims mark 20th anniversary in Guantanamo Bay

The anniversary coincided with the resumption of pretrial hearings in case against ‘9/11 Five’

Family members of victims of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks stand under the American flag at US Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Photo: Willy Lowry / The National
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Standing under the baking Caribbean sun, a handful of relatives of victims of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks watched as three sailors and two firefighters raised the American flag at US Naval Station Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, on Saturday, the 20th anniversary of the Al Qaeda strikes.

The family members had travelled to the remote US penal colony, whose image is forever linked with America’s war on terror, to attend the pretrial hearings of five men accused of assisting the 9/11 hijackers.

Elizabeth Berry lost her brother Billy Burke, a captain in the New York City Fire Department. He was last seen on the 27th floor of the North Tower, telling his men to get out and that he was coming behind them.

Ms Berry believes her brother stayed behind trying to help a paraplegic man who was unable to get down the stairs.

Ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the attacks were held throughout the US on Saturday, but Ms Berry said she was determined to spend the sombre occasion in Guantanamo Bay, where the so-called “9/11 Five” defendants are detained.

“I felt, what better place to honour my brother than here with other family members and with the prosecution team, the people who’ve been very supportive of me over the years? This is where I want it to be,” she said.

Over the years, Ms Berry has made frequent trips to the base to watch the men accused of planning the attack that killed 2,977 people from more than 90 countries in New York, at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania.

The 9/11 Five, some now in their sixties, are whispers of their former selves, prematurely aged by years of confinement and harsh treatment during CIA interrogations. They are among the 39 detainees still housed at Guantanamo.

Seeing them can be a challenge for victims’ relatives.

The case has dragged on for over a decade and Ms Berry worries the world has forgotten that justice still has not been served.

“A lot of people in the United States today, especially young people, were not even born on 9/11. So it’s not something you hear a lot about in the media any more and, just personally, coming down here allows me to keep in touch with what’s going on,” Ms Berry said.

Hearings in the case, which is still in the pretrial phase, resumed this week after the pandemic halted proceedings in February 2020.

Ms Berry said she is hopeful progress will finally be made.

The family members joined dozens of military personnel for a special ceremony inside a chapel, which overlooks the bay’s emerald waters.

US flag is raised over Guantanamo Bay 20 years after 9/11

US flag is raised over Guantanamo Bay 20 years after 9/11

“On this naval installation, more than any other place in the world, we remember this every day,” Navy Capt Samuel White, the commanding officer at the base, told those in attendance.

“We remember 9/11 every day. We think about it every day.”

On television screens on either side of the altar, the names of all the victims slowly scrolled by.

Liam Canavan, 19, who was not born when his uncle Sean Canavan was killed, spoke of the lasting impact the attacks have had on his family.

“The one thing that brings peace to my family is knowing that the men responsible for such pain are locked up here,” he said.

Updated: September 11, 2021, 9:57 PM