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.”
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.