It Don’t Gitmo Better Than This

Inside the Dark Heart of Guantánamo Bay

By Molly Crabapple

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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. 

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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.

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