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.
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.