It Don’t Gitmo Better Than This

Inside the Dark Heart of Guantánamo Bay

By Molly Crabapple

I

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.

I

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.

L

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. 

B

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.”

O

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.

UpdateThe 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.

@mollycrabapple

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Molly Crabapple Draws Guantanamo's Camp X-Ray

Molly Crabapple Sent Us Sketches from Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s Pretrial Hearings at Gitmo

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