It Don’t Gitmo Better Than This
Inside the Dark Heart of Guantánamo Bay
Jul 31 2013
T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan IT DON’T GITMO BETTER THAN THIS is perhaps the definitive physical manifestation of globalization. Sewn in Honduras and sold by Jamaican contractors on land rented from Cuba, the shirt celebrates an American prison holding Muslims who’ve been declared enemies in the war on terror. It’s a popular item in the Gitmo gift shop (yes, Gitmo has a gift shop), displayed next to the stuffed banana rats and shot glasses engraved with GUANTÁNAMO BAY: DIVE IN.
Built in 1898, the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base looks like a US suburb. There’s a McDonald’s, a Subway, and even a Christmas parade. On Halloween, military members dressed as zombies complete a 5K run. Winners of the Mr. and Ms. Gitmo Figure and Fitness Competition arch their backs on the cover of the Wire, the base’s in-house magazine. The Team Gitmo outdoor movie theater screens all the big blockbusters (when I visited it was World War Z), and in the evenings, visitors can eat jerk chicken next to swaying banyan trees, get drunk at O’Kelly’s (“the only Irish pub on Communist soil”), or sing karaoke.
But since the Joint Task Force (JTF) arrived in 2002, Guantánamo Bay has been home to the world’s most notorious prison.
Gitmo’s prison camps were built, in principle, to hold and interrogate captives outside the reach of US law. Nearly 800 Muslim men have been imprisoned since it opened, and the vast majority of them have never been charged with any crime. Since he was inaugurated in 2008, President Obama has twice promised to close Gitmo, but 166 men still languish in indefinite detention. It is a place where information is contraband, force-feeding is considered humane care, staples are weapons, and the law is rewritten wantonly.
Nabil Hadjarab arrived at Gitmo 11 years ago, in an orange jumpsuit and a diaper, his head covered by a hood, eyes blinded by blackout goggles, mouth gagged, and with headphones blaring white noise into his ears.
At 34, Nabil is four years my senior. We both speak French, draw pictures, and, in our youths, liked to travel to desolate places and have adventures. But Nabil’s days of wanderlust may be over forever. Although he’s been cleared for release since 2007, the US will not return him to his family in France. He has vowed to remain on a hunger strike till he finds freedom or death, whichever happens first.
ne doesn’t expect the Gitmo press office to be delightful, but Lieutenant Colonels Pool and Breasseale (the latter was a Department of Defense consultant on The Hurt Locker) are tasked with being our friends. With warmth, charm, and helpfulness, they kept us far away from the prisoners we had come to write about. They know how to play the game, and they do their homework, making sure to gush over my past work, as well as that of my fellow reporters. The underlying assumption seemed to be that we were all bleeding-heart lefties, so they were sure to emphasize their fondness for Al Jazeera and support for getting green energy onto bases.
Lt. Col. Pool had nicknamed me “Molly Worrywort” because of my badgerlike inquires about press credentials. Before I arrived, he suggested that I bring a swimsuit. Apparently the big bad terror camp was near some great beaches. Though there are nearby hotels, visiting journalists sleep in Army tents, in a subdivision called Camp Justice, and the pressroom is inside an airplane hanger—Gitmo is a “battlefield,” after all.
At the Naval Exchange, Filipino contractors bagged our groceries for tips. A JTF guard flirted with me until he heard that I was a journalist. He then turned to the Jamaican cashier, scowling. “She’s going to write how bad we treat the detainees.” I bought cherries, Knob Creek, and a pair of flip-flops.
For all their friendliness, the JTF controls what the media is allowed to see. Photos are prohibited in most places, and whenever I sketched a scene, press officers swarmed around me. The pressroom was filled with soldiers watching our laptops, listening to us talk. US cell phones don’t get service at Gitmo. There’s a sticker on all the landline receivers inside the compound: use of this telephone constitutes consent to monitoring. Badges that read military escort at all times are required to be worn at all times. We were given them inside something called a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility, which is plastered with propaganda posters. One features a woman in a ski mask pointing a gun straight ahead; underneath it reads: keep talking, we’re listening. practice opsec [operations security]. I took notes on the back of a pamphlet listing banned items. The security officer inspected my notes, worried that I copied a classification chart. Like so much of Guantánamo, the chart itself was classified.
At Camp Justice, a press officer showed us the only corner of razor wire that we were allowed to photograph. The military must approve all photos, and when our articles come out, they will rate us as “friendly,” “neutral,” or “adversarial.”
When I interviewed Captain Robert Durand, a spokesman for JTF, he told me that too many reporters think that Gitmo is a Potemkin village, covering up some hidden face the military doesn’t want us to see. Durand denied this; however, reporters are not permitted to speak to the detainees. We signed contracts promising not to interview the Filipino guest workers. We visited during the 9/11 military commissions—the Gitmo Military Commissions were invented in 2006—that are a mash-up of civilian and military courts. While they were happening, we weren’t allowed anywhere near the prisons. The prison tours showed us only the smallest sliver of the camps.
The only journalist who has ever really seen Guantánamo is Al Jazeera cameraman Sami Al-Hajj—the US government imprisoned him in Gitmo from 2002 to 2008, mostly to interrogate him about his TV station.
n Gitmo, nothing is certain. All participants are biased, and facts about detainees are hidden behind classifications, razor wire, and improvised legalese.
As I researched Nabil before my trip, there was little information available other than what was relayed by his lawyer, Cori Crider, and a cachet of tribunal transcripts leaked by Bradley Manning. The DoD refuses to comment on individual detainees, and any communication with the prisoners themselves is forbidden. Details of Nabil’s life, unless otherwise specified, come from Crider.
Crider told me that Nabil’s father fought on the French side in the Algerian War, and on occasion served as a guard for Charles de Gaulle. Born in Algeria, Nabil arrived in France as an infant. His first language is French and his half-siblings from his father’s first marriage are all French citizens—one even earned a National Medal of Honor for his service in the French army. But because Nabil was born in Algeria, earning his French citizenship was a process. At 21, he hired an immigration lawyer to file his residency papers. The lawyer told him to leave the country while the papers were processed. Not wanting to return to Algeria, Nabil bought a fake passport, and then took off to England.
London can be a rough place for immigrants without the proper paperwork. Going broke while working off the books at a pizzeria, Nabil took the advice of a friend from his mosque: in Afghanistan, living was cheap, papers were superfluous, and you could study the Qur’an while the bureaucratic wheels churned in France. So, in the spring of 2001, Nabil decided to have an adventure.
Nabil’s first stop was a Kabul guesthouse, where his host gave him a gun for self-defense. Then, in September, everything changed when two planes smashed into the World Trade Center.
As American bombs fell on Afghanistan, Nabil started hearing reports that locals were rounding up Arabs. With his housemates, he fled into what the Department of Defense described as the Tora Bora mountains. Wounded by US bombs while trying to cross the border, a few “friendly” townspeople brought Nabil to a local hospital.
According to a report by the Seton Hall School of Law in 2006, only 5 percent of the 517 detainees then in Gitmo were captured by US forces. Eighty-six percent were turned over to US Armed Forces by Pakistan, the Northern Alliance, or random Afghans. The US was offering bounties of thousands of dollars a head. In an impoverished land known for kidnapping and extortion, this was a fortune of almost unimaginable proportions. One flyer dropped in Afghanistan read: “You can receive millions of dollars for helping the anti-Taliban force catch al Qaeda and Taliban murderers. This is enough money to take care of your family, your village, your tribe for the rest of your life.”
“There are awkward parallels between the failed reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the failed purpose of Guantánamo,” Peter Van Buren, a former State Department official, and the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, told me. “In both instances the US believed that money, lots of money, could solve any problem. The US believed that despite its own ignorance of the politics of bounty hunting and a third-country national presence, as well as the true reconstruction needs of Afghans, that was no reason not to act. Lastly, the US believed that even when failure was clear, it was crucial to pretend the opposite. So reconstruction projects are all labeled a success, and anyone in Guantánamo is obviously a terrorist.”
In the US, you’re innocent until proven guilty. At Gitmo, the opposite is true. According to his Combat Status Review Tribunal Summary, Nabil was a member of al Qaeda. By way of proof, they have only that he was in Afghanistan, owned a gun, and had attended a London mosque known for its extremism. To flesh out his “terrorist” profile, the official summary adds tales of a terrorist training camp and a grenade-filled mountain trench. No member of US forces has ever reported laying eyes on either, but this doesn’t matter because the secretive tribunals at Guantánamo allow hearsay as evidence against detainees.
Add in circumstantial evidence, confessions extracted under torture, and “the presumption of regularity,” which means the presumption is that US officials are nothing but honest. Following this logic, the truth itself is impossible to prove beyond a reasonable doubt—buried somewhere in the Tora Bora mountains.
Afghans sold Nabil to Afghan forces from his hospital bed. Injured and terrified, he huddled together with five other men in the underground cell of a prison in Kabul. Interrogators whipped him. The screams of the tortured kept him awake at night. According to a statement filed by Clive Stafford Smith, Nabil’s lawyer at the time, “Someone—either an interpreter or another prisoner—whispered to him, ‘Just say you are al Qaeda and they will stop beating you.’”
At Bagram, Americans held Nabil naked in an aircraft hanger that was so cold he thought he’d die of exposure, while military personal in warm coats sipped hot chocolate. When Nabil tried to recant confessions he’d made under torture, the soldiers just beat him more, according to a statement filed by Clive Stafford Smith. Finally, the military transferred Nabil to Kandahar, and then to Guantánamo Bay.
Nabil arrived at Gitmo’s Camp X-Ray in February 2002. With its watchtowers, clapboard interrogation huts, and rings of barbed wire, X-Ray looks nothing but surreal—a concentration camp on the Caribbean. For the four months it took the JTF to build permanent prisons, Nabil lived in a metal cage under the burning Cuban sun. For hygiene, he had one bucket for water and another for shit. During the seven hours it took me to complete a drawing of X-Ray, I nearly passed out from the mosquitos and heat.
Camp X-Ray has been abandoned for over a decade. Birds nest on the razor wire. Vines have overtaken the cages. With the breeze and butterflies, one could think it is just a still-standing reminder of a shameful past. For the current prisoners who passed through X-Ray, it is still part of their reality. They may have left, but they are not free.
In X-Ray’s interrogation huts, and later in the permanent prisons of Camp Delta, Americans practiced short-shackling, stress positions, dry-boarding (stuffing rags down a man’s throat and taping his nose and mouth shut), and sexual humiliation. Female interrogators molested detainees and smeared them with fake menstrual blood, according to Inside the Wire, a book written by a former sergeant who witnessed the incident at Gitmo. Former detainee Ruhal Ahmed described being chained in a squatting position and left for days to defecate on himself while dogs growled in his face. A memo by JAG (Judge Advocate General Corps) lawyer Diane Beaver, “Legal Review of Aggressive Interrogation Techniques,” describes water-boarding, using extreme heat and cold, beatings—termed “non-injurious physical contact”—and convincing the detainee that his family was in danger of torture or death as totally A-OK once approved.
Nabil does not like to speak about his time at Camp X-Ray.
n 2010, Colonel Wilkerson, chief of staff for former Secretary of State Colin Powell, told the Times of London that “[Former Vice President, Dick Cheney] had absolutely no concern that the vast majority of Guantánamo detainees were innocent.”
Of the 779 men detained over the years at Gitmo, 604 have been transferred or released to other countries. This could mean an Albanian refugee camp, a Libyan prison, or a comfortable research job in Germany. The majority have demonstrated no terrorist leanings after Guantánamo.
Among them are the Tipton Three, British dude-bros of South Asian descent, who, planning to attend a wedding in Pakistan, decided to play war tourists in Kabul. Then there’s Sami Allaithy, a teacher at the University of Kabul. He was beaten so badly he’s now a paraplegic. Murat Kurnaz, the German-born son of Turkish guest workers, was only 19 when the Pakistan authorities pulled him off a bus on the way to the airport. Cleared of all accusations five years later, he flew back to Germany from Guantánamo, shackled and hooded in a private plane full of marines. The flight cost US taxpayers more than $1 million.
In 2004, the court case Rasul v. Bush established that detainees had the right to challenge their detentions; however, most prisoners lacked lawyers or means to even contact them. They were expected to navigate the tribunal system on their own, in a language they often didn’t understand, with laws that were being improvised on the spot.
The US refused to release detainees’ names, afraid that if they were made public, skeptical lawyers would take up their cases pro bono. Finally, in 2005, JAG lawyer Matthew Diaz hid a list of detainees inside a Valentine’s Day card and mailed it to the Center for Constitutional Rights. Diaz told me that the JTF had ignored his abuse reports. His hope was that once detainees lawyered up, guards would be less likely to abuse them.
Prisoners didn’t just suffer enhanced interrogations. ERFs (Enhanced Reaction Forces) pepper-sprayed, beat, and restrained less-than-compliant detainees. Nabil once threw his food tray through the bean hole in his cell, splashing a guard with milk. His JTF assessment classified this as assault. His family learned he was in Gitmo in 2002, but it was not until 2005 that a fellow detainee signed Nabil up to be represented by lawyers from Reprieve, a British legal charity that represents prisoners from death row to Guantánamo.
My assigned press officer adamantly denied that detainees were ever beaten at Gitmo. I brought up Specialist Sean Baker, who in 2003 played a detainee in an ERF training drill and whose resulting brain injuries landed him in Walter Reed for 48 days. She said that she had never heard of Baker, claiming that detainees throw themselves off stretchers, hoping to show off the resulting bruises to their lawyers.
Guards dole out “comfort items” to reward compliance. According to Terry Holdbrooks, a former Gitmo guard and author of the memoir Traitor?, even toothbrushes were privileges. These same guards complain that as they pass by the cells, detainees splash them with shit. After 11 years of indefinite detention, it’s probably all some prisoners can do.
By 2009, Gitmo somewhat resembled a US prison, with collective living, a soccer field, and a library. Bush’s slogan “Honor bound to defend freedom” became Obama’s “Safe, legal, transparent, humane.” Over a direct message on Twitter, the author Neil Gaiman told me a detainee was a fan of his books. To keep prisoners busy while they waited for the war on terror to end, Gitmo offered art classes, hanging the drawings in a room only the press could visit. According to Captain Durand, detainees are permitted to call their families once a quarter; however, they were never allowed a visit.
Along with the JTF, many in the press thought the detainees should be grateful. I imagined some self-righteous hack nodding along with the official tour: “These prisoners are spoiled. They even have lemon chicken.”
Who needs a future when you have lemon chicken.
very morning, the DoD emails the official tally of hunger strikers to the press. Out of the 166 men at Gitmo during my visit, 106 had joined the strike. Forty-five have lost enough weight to be, as the JTF calls it, “enterally fed,” which means there’s just enough flesh on their bones for them to survive. Nabil Hadjarab is one of them.
The hunger strike kicked off in February to protest guards’ alleged mishandling of Qur’ans, but that was just the catalyst. Bob Gensburg, a lawyer for detainee Abdul Zahir, told me, “The hunger strike is the culmination of 12 years of abuse, the end to which none of them can see. They believe they will be there forever, helpless, humiliated, stripped of their humanity.” Carol Rosenberg, who has been covering Gitmo for the last 12 years, wrote in a report for the Miami Herald that when detainees covered surveillance cameras in their communal cellblock, guards stormed in with rubber bullets and locked detainees in single cells. With this act, the “golden age” of Gitmo was over.
Nabil loves soccer—his favorite player is Lionel Messi. He used to practice classical Arabic calligraphy. He also used to work out and became fluent in English, with dreams of becoming a translator. He kept his mind on a future beyond Gitmo, but as the years passed since he was cleared for release, that future became a mirage.
On March 18 of this year, the Army announced it had begun force-feeding hunger strikers. Twice a day, guards tie Nabil to a chair and push his head back. Doctors shove a length of surgical tubing through his nose, down his throat, and into his stomach. Then they pump a can of Ensure through the tube. Nabil is masked (“spitting is a tactic [used by detainees],” according to Gitmo spokesman Captain Robert Durand), and left tied to the chair until he has digested the Ensure.
“We will not allow the detainees to harm themselves, whether by hoarding pills, making weapons, or starving,” Lt. Col. Breasseale told me. He also said that some detainees don’t even need to be tied down, but would rather lie back and accept the feeding tube. Detainees even get to choose their flavor of Ensure.
Force-feeding, while practiced in some American prisons, is condemned by the American Medical Association. It is intensely painful, and can cause pneumonia if liquid drips into the victim’s lungs.
Force-fed detainee Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel described the experience in an editorial for the New York Times. “As [the tube] was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up... There was agony in my chest, throat, and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before.” When I brought this up to Lt. Col. Breasseale, he responded, “They’re detainees. They’ve had their liberty removed. No one likes that. But that in itself is not torture.”
It is Captain Durand’s view that what detainees are really starving for is attention. “They’re seeing their lawyers on television and seeing media attention from it,” he said. “That encourages more people to join.” He added “I think it’s interesting that the Taliban were the first to report about [the hunger strike].”
Throughout our trip, press officers told me and the other reporters present that no one suffers negative repercussions for going on hunger strike, but Captain Durand said that detainees won’t go back to communal living until they eat on their own. So Nabil sits alone in his cell, his family letters and drawings confiscated, with only his Qur’an for company. If he wants to speak to his lawyer, guards search his genitals before and after he uses the phone.
“Solitary confinement is a very emotionally charged phrase,” Captain Durand continued. “But, single-celled detention is not solitary confinement. They can still talk to one another. Their cell ports are open.”
During his last phone call, Nabil told Cori: “I am desperate for freedom. In our brief lives, freedom is all that matters. Things like privileges and food are secondary and meaningless. Force-feeding us is a way of burying what we have to say. In this place, isn’t the last thing I have left the ability to decide what to do with my own life? Will the military be allowed to take this from me too?”
n the days following 9/11, flyers bloomed on every wall in New York, posted by family members searching for husbands, sisters, children. These flyers stayed up for years, fading until the sun and mold made them illegible; they became the city’s scar tissue. But the faces on those flyers were buried beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center, never to see New York again.
My arrival in Guantanamo coincided with the pretrial hearings of “9/11 mastermind” Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a.k.a. KSM, and his alleged co-conspirators. The DoD flew down relatives of those killed on 9/11 to watch the proceedings, who held a Q&A for the press.
Rita Lasar’s brother, Abraham, worked on the 27th floor of the ninth tower. He died next to a quadriplegic colleague whom he would not abandon. “He was my kid brother,” Rita, 81, told us. A look of devastation overcame her face. “He did a decent thing. The country needs to do the decent thing by having a fair trial. In spite of who they are, they deserve the fairest, most transparent trial.”
“My mom died of cancer and there aren’t bumper stickers everywhere saying NEVER FORGET,” said Glenn Morgan, whose father was buried alongside FDNY rescuers when the second tower collapsed. “Sometimes you just fucking want to forget. But you can’t.” Glenn identified his father by the serial number on his titanium hip. “There is a desire to kill and a desire for revenge, and I have that desire. The Constitution protects from people like me, who would be vengeful.” Rita and Glenn both said that they wished KSM had been tried in New York.
After a 15-minute break, the press was allowed to speak with the chief prosecutor, General Mark Martins. He spoke in the meandering, sound-bite-free style of a seasoned lawyer, but what he said shocked me so much I asked him to repeat it: only 20 detainees are actually chargeable. Looking at the nonplussed press, I felt naïve. Did that mean that the other 146 men held at Gitmo would never even be charged with crimes? The general tells me yes, that is the case.
After the press conference, Lt. Col. Breasseale pulled me aside. It was lawful to detain those men till the end of conflict, he explained, just like we detained Nazi soldiers till the end of WWII. But, if it’s impossible for a country to surrender in the war on terror, what does winning mean? At Gitmo, no one knows the answer.
n 2002, KSM bragged on Al Jazeera about masterminding 9/11. Forensic vein matching proves his hand beheaded journalist Daniel Pearl. In KSM’s case, unlike most prisoners held at Gitmo, there’s enough evidence of his atrocities to make torture-derived confessions superfluous. Yet today he’s held in the same prison as Nabil and 145 other men who will never be charged with a crime. At the KSM hearings, viewers are allowed to bring nothing with them but a notebook, or, in my case, art supplies. I drew the proceedings behind three layers of bulletproof glass. There was a monitor for sound, but it ran on a 40-second delay to allow our minders to censor sensitive information. Security officers had to approve our drawings before we took them from the courtroom, leaving Post-it notes in my sketchbook telling me when I misspelled a name.
During recess, I stared at KSM through opera glasses. With fruit juice, he’d dyed his beard Sunny-D orange. You’re the one who blew up my city, I thought. He stared back at me and rubbed his nose.
Stapled documents aren’t permitted inside the courtroom, based on the logic that the staples could be used as weapons. On previous trips, spiral notebooks were forbidden in the viewing gallery for the same reason.
On our second day in court, security confiscated my opera glasses as well as those of official Gitmo sketch artist Janet Hamlin. Janet’s been documenting the facility for seven years—her sketchpad is the only visual record of the court. “I’ve been using these for three years,” Janet told the guard, but he banned them anyway, deeming them “prohibited ocular amplification.”
The pretrial hearing concerned itself with violations of attorney-client privilege. Members of the defense team later described their work to me in patriotic terms, as “holding up the Constitution from both ends.” The defense lawyers are sharp and committed, but Gitmo itself is naturally slanted against them. They testified that the JTF had ransacked their clients’ legal mail, bugged smoke detectors in the rooms where they had had their meetings, and banned them from bringing notes when they met with their clients.
Language mutates in Gitmo. In court, bland, corporate-sounding terms like privilege team and baseline review referred to government censors and cell searches, respectively. The word contraband didn’t mean guns or coke, but knowledge. James Connell, a lawyer for 9/11 defendant Ammar al Baluchi, told me: “The ‘informational contraband’ restriction prohibits attorneys from discussing important topics with their clients, including the people who tortured them or the whole idea of jihad.”
The defendants’ opinions and experiences are classified—especially their memories of rendition. Connell added, “The government can only classify information it owns or controls. By classifying the ‘observations and experiences’ of the military commission defendants, the government is claiming something new and horrifying: the power to own and control the minds of the people it has tortured.”
During the press conference, a reporter asked Glenn Morgan what he’d come to see. He said, “[I’d like KSM to think], Holy shit, I can’t believe they gave me a fair trial. What a fucking country.”
But the trials don’t conform to American standards of fairness. At Gitmo, innocent bleeds into guilty. A young man traveling on a whim, like Nabil Hadjarab, is equivalent to the mastermind of 9/11.
t. Col. Breasseale told me that the JTF has hired eldercare specialists to fly to Gitmo and take care of the aging prison population. Despite Obama’s promises to close Guantánamo, those 166 detainees won’t be going anywhere soon.
When Bush called these men “the worst of the worst,” he bestowed on them a scarlet letter. Congress has banned spending money to transfer detainees to the US. Sending them home is also fraught. Some countries torture returning detainees. Others won’t monitor them to our specifications.Third-party countries (countries that are neither the US nor the detainee’s countries of origin) aren’t eager to clean up what they see as America’s mess.
Speaking about Congress, Hina Shamsi, director of the ACLU’s National Security Project, told me that “sending the message to our allies that we wouldn’t take detainees but they should have made it harder for us to place people in third-party countries. It was irresponsible fear mongering instead of responsible policy based on fact, to the detriment not just of these human beings’ lives, but to our national security.”
The only proof that many of these men are terrorists is that they were “picked up on the battlefield.” But where can one find the battlefield in the war on terror? In a war without end, the world is the front line. Muslim men are presumed enemies for existing.
Over a beer, a press officer might call Gitmo a “pile of poo” left on the floor by a civilian government for the military to clean up. But however victimized they might feel, the JTF will carry out their mission. At the same time, they’ll hide everything they can behind layers of classification so that the public never comprehends what their mission is.
We will spend $150 million a year to detain 166 men until the end to the war on terror. But, like the war on drugs, the war on terror will never end. And when detainees try to starve themselves to death out of hopelessness, we’ll keep them alive by pumping Ensure down their throats.
During our interview, Captain Durand said, “One thing our chain of command has made sure of is that we do not worry about the externalities, but just focus on doing it safely, doing it legally, doing it right.”
On my final night in Gitmo, I watched the Miami Heat game at O’Kelly’s. During halftime, a young girl dressed in white sang the national anthem. Her voice was pure and true: “Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave / o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
The bar burst into applause.
efore my flight, my press officer escorted me up to Windmill Hill to survey the island. I’m not allowed to draw the JTF side, but I can remember.
Camp Iguana, which was built for juveniles but now holds compliant detainees, overlooks the glittering bay. Military families sunbathed below. The hills are as lush as a Watteau painting. Hazy in the distance, I could see the buildings of Camp Delta, where Nabil is indefinitely held.
On Nabil’s most recent visit with Cori Crider, his uniform sagged off his thin frame. He was losing his vision. He was too weak to hold up his head.
During his June phone call with Crider, Nabil said, “It’s disappointing that the government can watch all of us starve for four months without reaching out to us, trying to negotiate about how we can regain our normal lives as free men.
“I don’t know if I will be able to make it to the phone next time. Please understand it’s nothing personal—I really appreciate everything you are trying to do. I’m just very, very tired and I am not sure I can keep doing this.”
Crider asked Nabil when he would stop his hunger strike.
Nabil told her, “I will consider eating when I see people leaving this place. Not before.”
n Guantánamo, iguanas are endangered. Killing one will get you a $10,000 fine. Military transport skids to a halt to let them cross the road.
A few days before I left Gitmo, I sat at Camp X-Ray alone with Press Officer Forbes. We heard the first bars of the anthem from a loudspeaker. Forbes popped up, turned in the direction of the flag and saluted. Later that day, 106 hunger strikers, alone in their cells, would hear the call to prayer. They would turn toward Mecca and bow.
The JTF and the detainees are enemies together, trapped on a horseshoe-shaped piece of Cuba. In Gitmo, only the animals are free.
Update: The above piece appears in the August print edition of VICE. On July 27, approximately two weeks after the issue went to press, the White House announced that it is planning to repatriate two unnamed Gitmo detainees back to Algeria. Nabil's lawyer, Cori Crider, told me that she is certain Nabil Hadjarab is one of them. On August 25, Nabil will step off a plane and plant his feet into an uncertain future on Algerian soil. Former detainees are kept under intense travel restrictions long after they are allowed to leave the base, and it’s highly unlikely he will be allowed to see his family in France.
“There’s a form they try to make you sign,” Cori told me when I interviewed her following the announcement of the first instances of repatriation from Gitmo in nearly a year. “I tell them not to sign it,” she continued. “It says, ‘I admit that I was al Qaeda or Taliban. I will not return to the battlefield. I will bring no claims against the US government.’” Nabil has been cleared for release since 2007, but the Department of Defense doesn't admit to making mistakes.
As of July 30, 68 Gitmo detainees are still on hunger strike. Forty-four are being force-fed. Out of respect for Ramadan, soldiers insert their feeding tubes at night.
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