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Dispatch from Gitmo: Infamous prison, surreal experience

Up close and personal at US base in Cuba at center of international controversy over detention of 160 inmates

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GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba — As a van passed through a security checkpoint en route to the prison camps of Guantanamo Bay, the sun rose in a tropical sky and the official army radio station blasted Jimmy Buffet's famed song "Margaritaville" over the airwaves.

"Wastin' away again in Margaritaville," the song warbled on Radio GTMO — the naval base's official station, whose maxim is "Rockin' in Fidel's backyard."

The ditty, about laid-back living in a steamy paradise, took on new meaning as a military guard and two public affairs officers attached to Joint Task Force Guantanamo escorted Al Jazeera into Camp 6 to observe prisoners who have spent a decade of their lives locked up in 10-by-7-foot cells here.

The song choice was one of the many sad ironies that surfaced during a weeklong visit to one of the most notorious prisons in the world. Twelve years ago this month, former Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel attorney John Yoo and a colleague wrote a legal memo for the Defense Department’s top lawyer that explained why Guantanamo was the perfect place to hold “enemy combatants” captured in the war on terrorism. Essentially, the move set up the base in a legal limbo — far from the jurisdiction of the mainland — allowing prisoners to be effectively held without charge.

But now, more than a decade later, and with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over or winding down, the detention center at Guantanamo Bay remains open. Though its prison population is much reduced, it remains an international public-relations thorn for President Barack Obama’s White House. Still riven by a hunger strike among its detainees and clouded in secrecy, few people really expect the base to close anytime soon.

On one morning last week, five prisoners in Camp 6 emerged dressed in white-and-brown prison garb. Some wore headphones, a sign that they were watching television. Their skinny physiques and graying beards made them appear old and weak, not like the hardened terrorists that military officials say they are.

Breakfast had just been served on a communal block where the men freely interact with one another and enjoy “luxuries” such as personal DVD players, video games, books, magazines and satellite television that the military believes will make indefinite detention bearable.

Sgt. Joseph Boudreau, a guard in charge of one of the blocks at Camp 6 and one of two military personnel willing to provide his full name, marveled at the prisoners’ culinary skills during an interview.

“They’ll take peanut butter and mix it with cream cheese to make frosting,” he said. “It’s amazing to watch.”

Soon, the prisoners began their morning prayers. But that morning, with the temperature already in the 80s, they decided to take prayer rugs outside into the recreation yard to pray.

The guard, a 20-something male with a thick Spanish accent who was deployed to the prison in October, was closely monitored by the public-affairs officers to ensure he was not asked questions about the prison’s operations, which he is not authorized to answer.

But he was refreshingly blunt on one point: Guantanamo Bay, he conceded, isn’t for him.

“I want to go home,” he said, refusing to disclose where his home is in the U.S. “I’m ready. I want to get out of here.” 

Gitmo
This main road is lined with fast food restaurants.
Jason Leopold

Visiting Guantanamo is a surreal experience. It has the appearance of a small American town rather than of a notorious prison. A 45-square-mile naval base that the U.S. has leased from Cuba for a century, it is roughly the size of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., and is dotted with fast-food restaurants — including McDonald’s, Subway, KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut — and a coffee shop that sells freshly brewed Starbucks. There are movie theaters, a high school, a bar called O’Kelly’s (the “only Irish pub on communist soil”), beaches, single-family homes and town houses. Its radio station boasts one of the biggest vinyl collections (more than 20,000 records) in the American Forces Network.

Several gift shops on the base hock Guantanamo swag, such as mint green “I ♥ GTMO” lip balm, bottle openers, shot glasses and magnets. They also sell T-shirts emblazoned with slogans like “Guantanamo: Like no other place on earth,” “Peace, love, sand & sun: Guantanamo Bay” and “Joint Task Force Guantanamo: Operation Enduring Freedom: Detainee Operations.” For the kids, stuffed turkey vultures, iguanas and banana rats — rodents native to Guantanamo — are for sale.

But amid the souvenirs, the base’s serious side is never far away. It is still an active intelligence-gathering hub, and activities here are highly sensitive. Underscoring that fact is a sticker on one of the telephones inside the media operations center near Camp Justice that reads, “DO NOT DISCUSS CLASSIFIED INFORMATION. This telephone is subject to monitoring at all times. Use of this telephone constitutes consent to monitoring.”

Gitmo
A gingerbread house being prepared for the holidays.
Jason Leopold

The military personnel and contractors who call Guantanamo home are getting into the Christmas spirit. A gingerbread house and Nativity scene are on display at the chow hall inside Camp America on the Joint Task Force side of the island where the prison is located.

The naval side of Guantanamo, a few miles away, has a Christmas tree and a huge postcard-ready display of holiday lights. A sign welcoming cars driving up the main road toward the Jerk House Jamaican restaurant says, “Season’s greetings from Guantanamo Bay.”

It seems most people are oblivious to the fact that Guantanamo houses 160 prisoners, a majority of who have been indefinitely detained without charge or trial. Talk on the island centers on the Army-Navy football game or on the $4.60 surf and turf (lobster tails, crab legs and steak) being served at the dining hall. 

The base is dotted with fast-food restaurants – including McDonald’s, Subway, KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut – and a coffee shop that sells freshly brewed Starbucks. There are movie theaters and a bar called O’Kelly’s.
Guantanamo
The “Public Affairs Smart Card.”

Guantanamo tours are scripted and choreographed to provide the military an opportunity to impress upon the media its take on life inside the wire.

Guards, military personnel and even the contractors who support the prison operations cite the same talking points. When queried about their feelings about Guantanamo’s critics, they say, "We’re focused on the mission."

Military personnel routinely mention the challenges guards face from uncooperative and ungrateful prisoners who, they said, frequently “splash” the guard force with a “cocktail” of bodily fluids.

The responses matched official Guantanamo talking points on a “Public Affairs Smart Card” obtained by Al Jazeera. The wallet-size folded handout advises public-affairs officers what they can and cannot talk about with the media. On a list of topics that can be addressed are “Mission: Safe, humane, legal, transparent”; “Challenges: Splashing, spitting, biting and assaults” and “My ‘day in the life as a guard’ story.”

The card reminds its bearers to “own the interview” and “stay confident.” It also warns against certain topics. Off-limit subjects include the names of any of the detainees and why they might be detained, funding, the release of detainees, remarks about Guantanamo by President Barack Obama and suicide.

The standard Guantanamo tour consists of a visit to the prison, the detainee library, the inmate hospital, the food-preparation facility and Camp X-Ray, where the first prisoners were held, plus a conversation with “Zak,” the Muslim cultural adviser, who told Al Jazeera the prisoners waging the hunger strike are “trying to discredit the United States.”

“Milton,” a former Army infantryman who screens books, magazines, video games and DVDs before making them available to the prisoners, runs the detainee library out of a rusty old trailer. There are several hundred video games, 2,100 movies and 20,000 books, more than 90 percent of which are in Arabic. Prisoners are not authorized to have access to legal books, Milton said — except for a novel written by John Grisham. One recent addition to the collection is David Beckham’s autobiography, “From Child to Champion.”

Over the years, Milton has rejected scores of books and movies.

Guantanamo Bay
Magazines in the detainee library.
Jason Leopold

"No violence, like cutting someone’s head off, and no sex,” he said. The last film he censored, about six months ago, was “Airplane,” starring the late Leslie Nielsen. The movie had been requested by a prisoner whose name he would not reveal, but the request had to be turned down because it depicted nudity and oral sex.

“I can’t believe I had to reject it!” Milton said, expressing some empathy that he was unable to allow the prisoner to watch the comedy classic.

Zak previously worked as a translator in Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. He decided to work with the U.S. military, he said, to prove his loyalty to the United States. A civil engineer by training, Zak has lived in Guantanamo with his family since 2005.

“It’s not my job,” he said, when asked whether the prisoners should be freed. “How they got here — I keep that out of my lane. Is it the story that somebody was at the wrong place at the wrong time? Yes, probably. Mistakes do happen. Unfortunately, everyone wants to make us look like the bad guys. It’s not like everyone had 100 years of experience creating a Gitmo. Since Day One, it’s been experimental. We’re learning as we go along.”

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