Life in Guantanamo Bay: Praying and playing at the world’s most notorious prison

Published: November 11, 2011
Detainees are seen being escorted by military personnel at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba PHOTO: US DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE

Detainees are seen being escorted by military personnel at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba PHOTO: US DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE

Detainees are seen being escorted by military personnel at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba PHOTO: US DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE
Detainees are seen playing football at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba. PHOTO: US DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE
Detainees are seen praying at Guantanamo Bay prison in Cuba PHOTO: US DEPARTMENT OF DEFENCE

The flight to Guantanamo Bay, from Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, lasts barely three hours, but for the passengers aboard the aircraft – military personnel, family members of victims of the USS Cole attack, lawyers, human rights representatives and journalists – it is a long, apprehensive ride.

As the aircraft nears Guantanamo, one can see the shores of Cuba on the right. Miles of deep blue ocean later, we land in sunny, humid Guantanamo.

This is a trip under stringent supervision of the US Department of Defense (DoD), which has allowed the media, under certain rules, to cover the arraignment hearing of Abdal Rahim alHusayn Mohammad Nashiri, accused of bombing the USS Cole. One gorgeous sunset, and a fitful night of sleep at the ironically named Camp Justice later, journalists are escorted to the heavily fortified Camp 5 and 6.

The entrance to the detention facilities is guarded by Joint Task Force (JTF) personnel; about a 1,000 work here, many of whom look no older than 22. It is in these two camps that the majority of the detainees live, 171 in total. Fifteen of the maximum-security detainees, including reportedly Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, live in the off-limits to media, Camp 7.

Camp 5, inside out

A 100-bed facility with four primary sections – Alpha, Bravo, Charlie and Delta – Camp 5 was constructed in the summer of 2003, at an estimated cost of $17.5 million, and detainees were transferred there in the spring of 2004. Today, about 20 to 30 detainees live here, including those on a higher security level and those serving “discipline time.”

We are escorted quickly through the passages to a vacant cell, where items provided to detainees have been laid out, including a Quran, Sudoku books, and clothing items. The cell itself is a mere 95 square feet, and detainees spend up to 20 to 22 hours of their day here. This, the officer-in-charge informs us, is according to the Geneva Convention. Sunlight filters through a narrow window in the cell which also includes a washbasin, mirror, toilet and hooks for those who want to wash their clothes in the sink and dry them. They are all designed in a way to ensure that detainees don’t inflict harm upon themselves.

At least six detainees have allegedly committed suicide in Guantanamo Bay, says Commander Tamsen Reese, Director of Public Affairs at JTF-Guantanamo. Investigation into one of the suicides is currently underway. She added that 12 detainees were currently on a hunger strike as well. “The numbers can fluctuate on a daily basis, but detainees have chosen to use hunger strikes as a form of protest for several years for a variety of reasons.”

Camp 5 is also the facility where detainees who break rules are sent to carry out their discipline time. Infractions range from not obeying verbal orders, to physically assaulting the guards by throwing faeces or urine at them. One can see faeces splattered on the roof in cells at Camp 5. The officer in charge says he does not know when the incident occurred, that led to the stains on the roof, but shows how the doors have now been designed to stop detainees from doing so. We are also shown how food and other materials are passed through a special tray that passes through the door.

Recreation at Guantanamo

In a space used as a media room next to the cells, a sofa chair with ankle straps makes up the décor with a TV. There are Arabic and English newspapers, and an ominous red button at the far end of the wall facing the chair that says “duress”. Prior to its use as a media room, the room was reportedly used to conduct detainees’ interviews, and the duress button would be pressed if the detainee attempted to assault the interviewer, which would send a signal back to the camp’s control center.

Detainees, usually clad in a white uniform, are made to wear the infamous orange jumpsuit, symbolic of Guantanamo, when they are serving discipline time, ranging from one to 20 days. Guards walk through the halls to check in on the detainees every one to three minutes.

After nearly 30 minutes, the media is escorted to Camp 6, where approximately 80% of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay reside. It is also referred to as the communal blocks where detainees spend time together.

“Camp 6 is fun”, says the officer-in-charge, who shows the media the PS3 that detainees can play on, a sample of artwork one has created and classrooms, where detainees receive Arabic to English and Pashto to English, computer and time management classes. Each desk has ankle straps attached to the floor, where they must be strapped in when in the classroom. With seven blocks, and 22 cells each, detainees here are allowed more time as part of recreation.

As we peer through the glass and the wires, one can glimpse unnamed detainees walking around – some are offering afternoon prayers, and in another room, one is watching TV. In the lounges here, detainees are provided TVs and radios where they receive channels in their native languages, including Arabic. The officer was unable to name the channels available, but said that they received news 24/7. Detainees here have access to a pantry, fridge and microwave, where they kept non-perishable food items. The officer said that at times detainees create their own food from the items that they are served.

Less than a 1,000 guards work at Guantanamo Bay, and some constantly stand guard in the communal areas. They are separated from the detainees through wire and glass. The media is not allowed to film any detainee’s face, nor can they show a JTF’s guard’s face. No access to detainees is provided by the JTF.

As we leave, one can hear the azan in the air – an officer informs me that a prayer leader has been appointed to give the call for prayer. Near the gate, a plaque marks the inauguration of Camp 6 and bears the names of former US President George Bush, and former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Unfulfilled promises

When Guantanamo Bay’s detention camp opened in January 2002, the detainees, arrested from Afghanistan and Pakistan were sent to the infamous Camp X-Ray, which, in the 90s, held Haitian criminals. It was closed in April 2002. A trip to the camp could not take place due to activity on the shooting range, but one could get a bird’s eye view of the cages, glimmering in the sunlight. Detainees were moved to Camp Delta in 2002, which comprises Camps 1 through 4. Camp 4 is currently under renovation, but hosts a detention hospital and a library, from where those at the camps are provided books.

Before assuming office, US President Barack Obama said he would close the detention camps at Guantanamo Bay in a year. Nearly three years after he made that promise, it appears unlikely that such a move will take place – largely due to resistance from Congress, resistance from different states to allow detainees to be transferred in federal prisons and the legal complexities that surround the cases. Only four detainees have been convicted since 2002, and many who were wrongly picked up and innocent have been sent back to their native countries. Now, just 171 people live here, and their fate remains unknown.

Published in The Express Tribune, November 11th,  2011.

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Reader Comments (19)

  • Javed Afridi
    Nov 11, 2011 - 9:49AM

    I am impressed with the description of the facilities being provided to the inmates, which I can safely presume, are free. I am sure 80 percent of Americans would love to live in such a facility. Good Job, Huma !!! Keep it up.


  • RizwanTKhan
    Nov 11, 2011 - 9:58AM

    Obama, you made tall claims that after coming into power you would close this barbaric cell immediately. But like millions other false claims of yours, this one also added to the list. Obama, the biggest terrorist (after bush) of present time.


  • shafiq chughtai
    Nov 11, 2011 - 10:21AM

    wow .. after all they got from USA , i think this is a luxury provided free of cost from the self claimed super power…..shame to USA for there crimes on POW and against the civilians in afghanistan and iraq


  • Shahbaz Younis
    Nov 11, 2011 - 10:48AM

    Great facilities provided by a super power…… that’s why detainees are unable to walk on their own feet ….


  • Kafka
    Nov 11, 2011 - 10:55AM

    “Only four detainees have been convicted since 2002” This is the outcome of war on terror. Four convicts……….. and how many dead? countless.


  • Cautious
    Nov 11, 2011 - 11:11AM

    Anyone visit a Pakistani jail lately? — suspect some would consider Guantanamo a resort hotel by those standards.


  • Fahad Raza
    Nov 11, 2011 - 12:02PM

    The double standard of the world. Innocent in Pakistani jail rot , alleged in Gitmo play, and convicted in Norway get the benifits of a 5 star hotel in Holdgen Prision.


  • Talha Khan
    Nov 11, 2011 - 12:18PM

    thumbs up US…!!!
    torchbearer of human rights…

    good effort to make this world a safe place by convicting those four fatal prisoners….

    those four could have burnt this globe to ashes..
    its such a luxurious place… obama should shift there instead of white house as he is also innocent as the other remaining detainees….


  • Serenity
    Nov 11, 2011 - 1:02PM

    Obviously when you have the scholarship from the US you would expect such stories to be filed


  • Nov 11, 2011 - 1:09PM

    Alas, the good old Gitmo. a paradise and a strong and persistent longing as a final abode.


  • anybodyagree
    Nov 11, 2011 - 1:19PM

    @Huma Imtiaz
    are u telling us the TRUTH . . .????


  • Hamid
    Nov 11, 2011 - 2:17PM

    If the facilities provided there are really there and not farce to show the media, then I think thats a great move. The inmates would definitely recover and would be rehabilitated through mind and body. The US should start convict those involved and start a case against them because if they really are guilty they should know why they are imprisoned and they don’t say they are innocent anymore. Those who are innocent should be allowed to go to their countries.


  • anjum shabbir bhatti
    Nov 11, 2011 - 5:12PM

    I don’t believe this is what really is happening in Guantanamo Bay. If prisoners are provided with such luxuries of life then why they are suicides committed by six detainees and they also throw feces on guards. Its totally ironic.


  • Adnan
    Nov 11, 2011 - 5:44PM

    @Javed Afridi:

    What an awesome Answer Javed Afridi. I just simply Love it!


  • John B
    Nov 11, 2011 - 6:17PM

    Apart from the restrictions of incarcerations, the US prison system is not bad. But in a civilized world, I would prefer a Swedish prison system. US prison system is still of 10th century concept with modern amenities as many western prisons are.

    The 21 century interstate conflicts bring in a new dimension. In world war II or as late as in Bangladesh war, the armies on both sides acknowledge the surrender of their battalions, and the prisoners are exchanged. The story was simple. In the Guantanamo cases, neither Taliban government nor Pakistani government wants to get involved with the individuals. As such, they become state less mercenaries and only those from Saudi, UK, Canada, and some influential Taliban guys hired lawyers to get their cases heard.

    All the inmates have a lawyer to look after their cases. Yet, I personally feel these guys should be tried under federal court, as Somali pirates. The foreign states should come forward and receive their citizens whom the US is willing to let go. But many foreign states including Saudi and Pakistan refused to accept their citizens, let alone Afghanistan. There are few PAK citizens, including a female ISI agent sent to Guantanamo, sent back.


  • Umm Kay
    Nov 11, 2011 - 6:45PM

    Great job Huma! You made the worst place on earth sound right like an all-star review from Lonely Planet website. I am sure the prisoners appreciate the “gorgeous sunset” and “deep blue ocean” which they can see right through their cage cells.


  • Adnan
    Nov 11, 2011 - 10:05PM

    WHo says only Mullahs are funded? If Mullahs funded by Saudis/Wahabi(As these wannabe liberals) claim then these elite extremists are being fed by Americans to promote their agenda.


  • Just 4 show
    Nov 11, 2011 - 11:16PM

    My dear Huma could you all so tell us how many innocent people have been imprisoned in this HELL HOLE and how they have been treated behind closed doors you did not mention the 95 yr old man who was realised without charge, The 14 yr old who was recently released again NO charge he was caged like a animal at the age of 11, Please grow up and stop glossing over this HELL HOLE..


  • BillyGun
    Nov 18, 2011 - 10:50AM

    Thousands of innocents suffer in jails like those! May be you forgot how people were tortured in that jail with the permission of department of defence USA, That whole system is responsible for all the Human Right Violation and they should be punished for it.
    Try not to stand here and clear image of such jailsRecommend

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