June 29, 2003

In The Land of Guantánamo

I. Dropped From the Sky

The juvenile enemy combatants live in a prison called Camp Iguana. It looks like a pair of tennis courts surrounded by fence lined with a few extra layers of the usual green-nylon wind screen. It is perched on a bluff overlooking the sea; the breeze is warm and pleasant. Not far away is a beachside park for barbecues and picnics and a wildlife-viewing area, but the young detainees don’t visit these places. They must remain in one bedroom of a small cinder-block hut inside the fence or, for two or three hours a day, in the grassy yard that adjoins it.

There is a soccer ball in this small yard, and a Nerf football. A translator who is here all day long — the same one who leads their study of the Koran, who is also trying to show them how to write their own names in English — has taught them how to throw the football. They also play board games like chess and something called Popomatic Trouble. They pray. When they are done with their studies, they are given ice-cream sandwiches, which the guards say they love, and they watch videos: Disney cartoons and documentaries about the sea. ”They’re very interested in the ocean,” a guard tells me. They can see it through a wide window that has been cut in the green fence-netting on the ocean side.

There is only one feature film in the stack of videos: ”Cast Away,” starring Tom Hanks as a FedEx employee who is stranded on a desert island when his plane crashes. Though I doubt that they can understand the words, the plot must be familiar: they, too, dropped from the sky onto a tropical island, where, far from home, they experience an indefinite detention. The soldiers here say that every homey detail of Camp Iguana — down to the calming ”Carolina Blue” shade of the wall paint — was carefully thought out before the juveniles’ arrival. If that is so, I wonder, who made the weird and brilliant choice of this film?

There are apparently three detainees, boys between the ages of 13 and 15. They are just a few feet away but out of sight on the other side of the hut. Single cots bolted to the floor fill the bedroom; the living room has two cushioned chairs and a table. Pieces of blue tape on the floor delineate the areas that are off limits: the kitchenette, the space near the front door.

Guards — selected for their experience in working with young people — are here around the clock, but otherwise there is not much visible in the way of security. This seems a bit strange, given that Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said that they are very dangerous: ”Some have killed. Some have stated they’re going to kill again. So they may be juveniles, but they’re not on a Little League team anywhere. They’re on a Major League team, and it’s a terrorist team.”

But if they hate the United States, the juvenile enemy combatants do not seem to show it. For example, they respectfully rise to their feet whenever a soldier enters the room, says a Reserve sergeant from Michigan who has apparently never seen anything like it at the junior high where he teaches.

If anything, they seem more troubled than dangerous. One suffers frequent nightmares and what a military psychologist says is post-traumatic stress disorder. (He leads a regular group-therapy session that he says the youths ”love.”) They were captured on the battlefield; they are child soldiers. One — a Canadian national reportedly held with the adult detainees — is said to have killed an American soldier with a grenade, but Maj. Gen. Geoffrey D. Miller, who commands this detention operation at the naval station in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, won’t comment on that.

Rather, his tone is sympathetic. ”We’re doing our best to give these juvenile enemy combatants options to be able to be integrated back into their societies,” he says after a prayer breakfast. ”These despicable terrorists have decided to use younger people as a part of their army. They’re the ones who decided to impress, kidnap and force them into service. Their treatment program started the day that they came here. And so, like anyone freed from an intolerable situation, they’re returning to what we’d consider normal.”

What is normal for teenagers who were made to fight in a war? Do we have any idea? Could being locked up ever be therapeutic? I mean these as real questions, not rhetorical jabs, and I recently visited Guantánamo to try to get a sense of how, a year and a half after its creation, the detention-and-interrogation center, this place where hundreds of people are being held indefinitely so that we might find out what they know, had evolved. What kind of community had grown here, and what might it say about America’s attitude toward these prisoners of war?

II. Beachfront America at the Edge of Nowhere

Most of the roads around Guantánamo Bay are restricted to 25 miles per hour. Most of the buildings are low, made of wood or cinder block and painted a pale yellow with brown trim. Utility poles are stained a pleasing Forest Service green; the overwhelming impression is of suburban America circa 1950. At night, crabs scuttle across the road ahead of advancing cars; by day, iguana-crossing signs — and the big, basking lizards themselves — are commonplace. There is a golf course and Cuba’s only McDonald’s and Little League teams and a shopping mall staffed by guest workers from Jamaica and the Philippines.

The United States presence here dates from the Spanish-American War in 1898. The last lease, signed in 1934, granted the United States indefinite use of this 45-square-mile corner of the island in return for an annual payment of $4,085. Fidel Castro, who once called the base ”a dagger plunged into the heart of Cuban soil,” has always refused to cash the checks.

It feels surreal to be on an American naval base inside the territory of a Communist country. And it feels doubly strange — like a parody of a David Lynch movie — to cruise slowly by little town-house subdivisions, past batting cages and even by a rocky outcrop where high-school students spray-paint their names, then come suddenly upon a prison camp in the ”war on terror” wreathed in razor wire.

Prisoners from the Afghan war first arrived at ”Gitmo,” as locals call the base, in January 2002. The first 110 men were brought to a makeshift set of cages called Camp X-Ray and were made to kneel, shackled and blindfolded with special blacked-out goggles, while soldiers trained rifles on them, an image captured in the first news photographs of them. Then, last spring, they were all moved to a newer, larger facility, Camp Delta. Unlike X-Ray, Delta has running water, indoor toilets and plenty of unused capacity. (There are 680 prisoners housed there now, with room for about 1,000.) Soldiers call Camp Delta ”the Wire,” and it has plenty of that — rows of chain link and concertina. Rising behind them are plywood guard towers, some draped with American flags, and an array of lights for night.

At the camp’s main gate, a 4-foot-by-8-foot sign attached at eye level says ”Honor Bound to Defend Freedom.” This is the slogan of J.T.F./Guantánamo, the joint military task force — 2,000 strong — that runs the detention-and-interrogation operation. It is printed on handouts and official documents and signs and is constantly recited, soldier to soldier, at the camp’s checkpoints. As I arrived at the main gate for the first time, I turned to the first lieutenant who was escorting me. ”Isn’t that a little strange,” I offered, ”a slogan about freedom on the gate of a prison camp?”

He looked at me flatly. ”Doesn’t seem strange to me,” he said. ”Does it seem strange to you?”

III. A Very Long Way From Geneva

The detention-and-interrogation operation at Guantánamo Bay is clearly a problem area of America’s war on terror. In mid-April, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sent Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld a strongly worded letter that cited complaints from our allies that the indefinite detention of foreign citizens undermines efforts to win international support for the campaign against terrorism. And yet, two months later, the children are still there, the prisoner count is up by 20 and tribunals have yet to be scheduled.

Combatants from 42 countries are held at Guantánamo. Most, apparently, are from Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Pakistan, but others are citizens of allies like Canada, Sweden, Australia, Britain and Kuwait. The indefinite detention of the young is a small but revealing part of the operation. There is practically global unanimity that children deserve special protection by governments; the Convention on the Rights of the Child (C.R.C.), adopted by the United Nations in 1989, is the most widely ratified human rights treaty ever. It specifies that detained juveniles shall have the right to legal assistance and to a court’s prompt decision on their detention. We are not providing either.

But the main action at Guantánamo is Camp Delta. What the detention of teenagers is to the C.R.C., you might say, conditions at Camp Delta are to the Geneva Conventions.

Except for a new unit — Camp Four, which now holds about 125 detainees — it appears to be a prison based on the supermax model of solitary confinement that has become popular in the States during the past 25 years. Except, in many ways, Camp Delta is harsher. Each prisoner lives in a separate cell that is 6 feet 8 inches by 8 feet. The door and walls are made of a tight mesh through which it would be hard to pass anything larger than a pencil. Unless rewarded for good behavior, each prisoner is allowed out of the cell only three times a week for 20 minutes of solitary exercise in a large concrete-floored cage, followed by a 5-minute shower. Before coming out of the cell, he must submit to a shackles-connected-to-handcuffs arrangement known as a ”three-piece suit.” Guards escort him on either side.

Twenty-four of these cells, constructed out of Connex shipping containers placed end to end, are situated opposite 24 others, and a roof with ventilators is constructed overhead; this assemblage of 48 cells constitutes a cellblock. So far, there are 19 of these cellblocks at Camp Delta, suggesting a capacity of approximately 1,000.

The United States, for what the administration says are reasons of national security, has chosen not to designate these combatants from the war in Afghanistan prisoners of war; this means that they are not protected by the Geneva Conventions. If they were, the prison camp would look a lot different. The Third Geneva Convention, which pertains to P.O.W.’s, says that ”close confinement” settings are acceptable only ”where necessary to safeguard their health.” It says that prisoners should be allowed to keep ”all effects and articles of personal use,” that they should be permitted to smoke and prepare their own food when possible, that their religious leaders ”shall be at liberty, whatever their denomination, to minister freely to the members of their community” and that the ”Detaining Power shall encourage the practice of intellectual, educational and recreational pursuits, sports and games amongst prisoners.” Most relevant to the operation of Camp Delta, it says that prisoners, when questioned, need never answer with more than their name, rank, date of birth, and serial number.

The conventions are famously important to the military, and those working inside the Wire take pains to emphasize the ways they are abiding by them. Exhibit A in this regard is how the military is bending over backward to respect Muslim religious practice at Camp Delta. Every prisoner is provided a prayer mat, prayer beads, oil, Koran, Islamic prayer book and access to a Muslim chaplain (who is American). On the floor of every cell are spray-painted an arrow and ”MAKKAH 12793 km.,” so that prisoners know which way to face during prayer. The call to worship blares out over Camp Delta’s public-address system five times a day (the chaplain downloaded from the Internet recordings of it from Mecca and Medina), the only American government facility in the world, it seems, that does that. The camp commander will tell you that meal times were changed to accommodate Ramadan, and Chief Warrant Officer James Kluck, the kitchen head, will talk about the baklava he added to the menu.

Exhibit B is the health care, which I was told several times is better than most of the detainees ever received in their lives. Capt. Albert J. Shimkus, the command surgeon for the joint task force, proudly shows the lab where a lot of tests can be done, the surgical theater, the X-ray machines, the examination rooms and the dental-care room, which is also used for physical therapy and prosthetics; several of the prisoners, Captain Shimkus explains, are amputees. Eighty-five operations have taken place so far, he says, mostly orthopedic. The average prisoner, I am told, has gained 13 pounds since arriving at Guantánamo.

But despite the hospital, all is not well with the detainees. In 2002, there were 10 suicide attempts. Then, in just the first three months of this year, there were 14 more, by 11 individuals. Almost all were by hanging. Most of the would-be suicides were not badly injured, but one suffered brain damage and at the time of my visit was in a ”persistent vegetative state,” according to Shimkus, was being ”fed by a medical device in his stomach” and required ”24/7 care.”

I ask where he is, and the captain points behind him to a room where the beds are; the patient is just a few yards from where we sit. I cannot see him. I was told at the outset that I would not be allowed to see any prisoners. (To deny the press access to prisoners, the military invokes, of all things, the Geneva Conventions article stating that P.O.W.’s ”must at all times be protected . . . against insults and public curiosity.”)

In late March, a special mental health unit was opened inside Camp Delta. I am told that there the emotionally ill are given special treatment and that since it opened there has been only one additional suicide attempt. (Three more have occurred subsequently, bringing the total to 28 attempts by 18 individuals.) About 90 detainees are under mental health supervision, the camp psychiatrist tells me, with about half of those receiving psychiatric drugs regularly. (Though Shimkus stated that no detainee had ever been forcibly medicated, one released prisoner, interviewed recently in Afghanistan by The New York Times, said that after a suicide attempt, he had been given an injection by force that left him ”unable to control his head or his mouth or eat properly for weeks.”)

But providing psychiatric care does not change other factors that surely underlie the despair. First there are the physical conditions of confinement: even in most American supermaxes, the cells are larger and prisoners are let out for at least 30 minutes of exercise daily.

But another factor in despair is the way prisoners think about their confinement. At the Sing Sing Correctional Facility in New York, where I spent nearly a year as a correctional officer, inmates understandably attach a great deal of importance to the lengths of their sentences, their first possible parole dates, prisoner offenses that could extend the time they serve, et cetera. Each passing day represents some tiny fraction of the whole, slow progress toward a goal. Having a sense of the length of the tunnel appears to make being in the tunnel more bearable. But all this is missing at Guantánamo: nothing is known of conditions for release, and there is no judicial procedure. Officially, the P.O.W.’s are being held for interrogation, but clearly, to judge by the conditions, they’re being held for punishment as well. But for how long? Who decides? Under these conditions, it would seem, hopelessness is inevitable.

IV. What Can’t Be Guarded Against

Next door to Camp Delta is Camp America, where many of the soldiers live. Like Delta, America is hot and treeless and fairly grim. I ate some meals in the Seaside Galley mess hall there, where every table has folded cards with slogans like ”How to Respond to a Potentially Suicidal Person” and ”Symptoms of Depression.”

”This is to educate you about how to handle suicidal detainees, right?” I asked a soldier one day at lunch.

”No,” he corrected me. ”This is about us,” he said, and pointed to a card, on which someone had written in pen. ”Symptoms of Depression” had been amended to read ”Symptoms of Gitmo.”

The guards who work inside Camp Delta are mainly reservists from military-police companies; about half do some sort of police work back home, and many are in corrections. They have in common with the detainees a certain anxiety about how long they will spend here. Several, having nearly finished their usual six-month tours, had just been informed that their postings had been extended an additional six months.

The guards told me striking stories about the detainees and what it was like to work inside the camp. Sgt. Jason Holmes of the 438th military-police company from Kentucky said that it was hard not to show negative feelings toward the detainees, ”keeping it in mind that you’re here just to serve a purpose, not pass judgment on anybody or condemn anybody. They’re just as curious about us as we are about them” — and they’ll often want to talk about their personal lives, even if the guards won’t reciprocate. (To keep the prisoners from learning anything personal about them, the M.P.’s ”sanitize” their uniforms before entering Camp Delta: they put a strip of green duct tape over the names monogrammed on their breast pockets. Off duty, many store these strips under the brims of their caps.)

”Did any prisoner ever refuse his weekly exercise?” I asked Sergeant Holmes. ”Occasionally,” he said, ”there are some that do not want to go, but depending on the M.P. at hand, generally, after a minute or two, they’ll usually go. They use the question ‘Why?’ a lot. I reply: ‘Why not? There’s a soccer ball out there — why don’t you go out and kick it around?”’

Specialist Lily Allison Fritzborgen of the 344th M.P. company out of Connecticut said that if they want a guard’s attention, they usually call ”M.P.!” Sometimes in her case, however, they also call ”Woman!” which she does not appreciate. ”We present it to them that we’re all M.P.’s — if they don’t like it or won’t speak to us, they’re not going to get anywhere.” Had she had any problems with respect from the detainees? ”I’ve had things thrown on me,” she said. ”Bodily fluids, all that a man is capable of.” Among the penalties for such behavior, I later learned, is being moved for up to 30 days to an isolation cell — the same size as the others but with solid doors and walls and only a small window to let you know if it’s day or night.

”Do they ever sing or make music?” I asked. Specialist Fritzborgen said she had heard some of them humming or even outright singing songs from the Backstreet Boys. Holmes said, ”There are some new beds that are enclosed on three sides, and when you hit them, it sounds like an African drum, so some make pretty decent music.” He had heard two detainees drumming together.

Sgt. First Class Bill Lickman, a correctional officer at a prison in Michigan, said his son had been working at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. Being posted here was part of coming full circle, he said; the circle would be finished when he finally went back home. He said that these prisoners could be manipulative in the same way as prisoners back home: one might claim that a female guard had inappropriately watched him in the shower, for example, in the hope of getting her in trouble. He spoke of one prisoner known to guards as ”the General” because of the way he could command everyone’s silence when he had something to say or the way he could lead the block in a period of jumping jacks. And then there was ”the Riddler,” who would always try to amuse them with lame jokes like: ”Why did the cat go into the barbershop? Because the door was open.”

I heard the Riddler story again the next day, over lunch with one guard who struck me as exceptional. She didn’t work inside the Wire anymore, said Staff Sgt. Laura Frost of the 785th M.P. company from Michigan, and it was probably just as well.

Sergeant Frost is warm-faced, with a ready laugh and a smoker’s rasp. Her job, she said, had been to distribute writing materials to the detainees so that they could send letters home. But then people like the Riddler would want to talk to her — women make up 10 to 15 percent of the entire force, and there are not many around Camp Delta.

”He would want to tell a riddle or a joke or whatever — I tried to stay professional and stay focused, but it was really, really hard . . . some of the letters were so sad. You know, they talk about asking their families for prayers, and their safe return, and that they were sorry because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. I would get questions like, ‘How do you spell amen?”’ Frost got a bit choked up.

”What do you mean, they ask how to spell amen?” I asked. ”Were they writing the letters in English, instead of their own language?”

Yes, she said, ”a letter in English goes out faster.” Letters in other languages had to be translated so that the intelligence personnel could review them first. And likewise, all letters they received from abroad had to be first translated into English so that they, too, could be reviewed.

They had temporarily moved her out of work in the Wire when her security clearance lapsed; while she was waiting to have it renewed, she settled happily into an administration job. ”As I look back on it, I think it’s probably a good thing,” she said. ”I had felt very heavy in my heart for what was going on in there. You know, there’s things that’ve happened that I’m glad I wasn’t there to see.”

V. The Question of Questioning

”We do nothing here in Camp Delta that we wouldn’t be proud of,” said General Miller when I asked what the interrogation consisted of. I asked more pointedly, ”What did they do to get people to talk?” He said drugs were never used in connection with interrogation, nor was ”violence or infliction of physical pain or anything psychological other than standard interrogation techniques.” And what were the ”standard techniques”? Miller declined to say, asserting that to do so might aid the enemy and put at risk American troops and his mission.

I pursued this further with Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, head of public affairs for the joint task force, telling him that I flat out didn’t believe that military interrogation could be all about decency and respect. ”This is not a coercive effort,” he replied, ”because as you coerce people, they will tell you exactly what they want you to hear — and that does us no good. We have to have accuracy and facts, and people need to be willing to give you that. It takes motivation, not coercion.” The recent inauguration of medium-security Camp Four inside Camp Delta, according to Colonel Johnson, was about that kind of motivation: in Camp Four, detainees live in small dormitories and can eat, pray and exercise together. They wear white prison suits instead of orange. It is held up as a place you might get to if you cooperate. Most of the detainees released this year were all recent residents of Camp Four.

Unbidden, Johnson added: ”You asked about pain. I would say fear is very different than pain.

”I would say there are a lot of detainees who fear what faces them when they return to their own countries — because of what people might think or believe they’ve been involved in.”

”You mean the suspicion that they’d snitched?” I asked. Johnson would not respond, and I got nothing further.

One reason the interrogation process has dragged on for months and months, however, is that joint-task-force investigators are not the only ones doing the questioning. Presumably because each has a slightly different intelligence agenda, any interested government agency, including the F.B.I., the Justice Department, the State Department, the Pentagon, the C.I.A. and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, is given a shot at interrogating Camp Delta’s detainees. It is easy to imagine that it could go on for a very long time.

One evening, as Johnson drove me in his Jeep Cherokee to a bluff overlooking what is now the abandoned Camp X-Ray, where the detainees were originally confined, I pestered him again about the issues nagging me. Everyone knows the detainees are kept at Gitmo because they have no constitutional rights here, I said to him. (Responding to a complaint brought last year by families of Kuwaiti, British and Australian detainees, a United States court of appeals has agreed with the administration’s claim that because Guantánamo is leased, it is not officially American soil.) Johnson smiled, but again did not respond.

Later, in an e-mail message, I pestered him some more about the extraordinarily tight security at Camp Delta. Are these soldiers considered more dangerous than enemy soldiers from any other war? Johnson replied: ”Unlike conventional soldiers who abide by certain laws of war, and who would also be bound by the III Geneva Convention to act in certain ways when confined, the enemy combatants in the high-security section committed themselves at some point to killing Americans, period. They are not obedient soldiers defending a nation, but individuals who are motivated for whatever reason to kill Americans.”

We can all argue about the nature of those who were defending Afghanistan against the American attack that followed 9/11; perhaps the jihadists are really just undisciplined murderers and not soldiers. But were the Nazi storm troopers or the suicidal Japanese soldiers of World War II any less hateful or fanatical? Certainly war has changed, but did the America that signed the Geneva Conventions ever think that detaining enemy soldiers would not involve having to manage antipathy?

It was just a little too dark to get a good look at the remains of Camp X-Ray by the time we got there, so we turned around and headed back. Johnson had James Taylor playing on the Jeep’s stereo, and he was singing about the ”turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston.” In the dusk, I thought about how Johnson was a smart and likable guy and about how the soldiers were good, decent people and about how whatever bad we were doing at this new American gulag we must be doing out of fear.

Later, as we passed by two housing subdivisions, Tierra K and West Iguana, I also thought of the ending of ”Cast Away,” in which Tom Hanks, off the island at last, returns home to the suburbs. Moviegoers will remember what happened there: his fiancée, hearing no news of him for years, wrote him off as dead and married somebody else. He has survived, but his life is destroyed. Being incommunicado so long, as prisoners all over the world can tell you, is a sort of death.