It Don’t Gitmo Better Than This

Inside the Dark Heart of Guantánamo Bay

By Molly Crabapple


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 soccerhis 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?”