Pearl of the Antilles

The elephant in Guantanamo's living room gets 4,200 calories a day and a Koran

 Editor's note: This article was published on June 8, 2006. Two days later, three Guantanamo detainees committed suicide. Shortly afterward, the Pentagon indefinitely suspended war crimes tribunals.

East Caravella. It sounds like a meadow in Narnia but looks like a suburb of Phoenix. East Caravella is a complex of townhouses situated along a curved road. The streets look newly paved, but the lawns are uniformly dead. Fifteen dollars a night here gets you a two-level apartment to share with a German Public Radio reporter, a backyard patio overlooking a neatly manicured slope of brown grass, and a fully equipped kitchen.

Sunset over the bay.
photos by Emily Witt
Sunset over the bay.


See also:
Postcards From Guantanamo
Photo gallery by Emily Witt

The bedspreads match the window dressings. Dried floral centerpieces and plastic plants adorn tables and corners. Each townhouse has three televisions with cable, fake wood floors, and toiletries (Gilchrist & Soames; Est. London, England). Central air conditioning purrs cool breezes over pillow-bedecked beds. In the bathroom, a paper strip labeled "Sanitized for your protection" is attached to the toilet seat like the ribbon on a gift-wrapped present.

Also under the pretense of protecting you, just a few miles away, the government has imprisoned 460 men in metal cages, communal barracks, and concrete cells. Surrounded by concentric chainlink fences topped with concertina wire, they fall asleep under dimmed fluorescent lights. They are dressed in orange, beige, or white: the Guantanamo Bay color spectrum that distinguishes bad behavior from compliance with prison rules. Rotating shifts of 300 vigilant guards in desert camouflage keep watch.

In recent weeks, this epicenter of the war on terrorism, 400 miles southeast of Miami, has reached a crisis point. As the camp's population has dwindled from more than 700 to about 460 detainees, frustration and anger among those left behind appears to have increased. The morning of May 18, three detainees attempted suicide by ingesting large doses of antianxiety medicine. That evening, a fourth staged a suicide ruse in a communal barrack. When guards entered the bay to investigate, 10 detainees wielding improvised weapons of fan blades and broken fluorescent lights pounced en masse. Just a few days ago, a Guantanamo spokesman announced 89 prisoners were on a hunger strike.

The whole thing was planned in advance, said the military, from the hoarding of pills to refusal of meals. It was just an "attention-getting" tactic—ostensibly Al Qaeda attempting to eclipse the American public's hatred of terrorists with something like worried concern.

It's difficult to know whether the detainees are worthy of concern. The evidence against them is often classified—to them and to the rest of us. Even for those found innocent of war crimes charges, the future is detention, perhaps indefinitely.

The United Nations and many of America's closest allies—including the United Kingdom—have called for Guantanamo's closure, complaining of inhumane treatment and the suspension of fundamental legal rights. But you'd never know it from visiting the base. If 10 days at the camp teaches you anything, it's a lesson on acting like nothing is wrong.

If you hear anything or see anything that hasn't been heard or seen before, they screwed up. — Carol Rosenberg, who has covered Gitmo for the Miami Herald since before the detention center opened in 2002

The most important things are what you won't be seeing. The most important thing to remember is that nobody who has spoken to the detainees can speak publicly about it. — Katherine Newell-Bierman, an attorney with Human Rights Watch

The food is good, the bedrooms are clean, and the health care is very good. There is a library full of Islamic books, science books, and literature.... Sport, reading, and praying, all of these options are not mandatory for everyone, it is up to the person. — Unattributed "contrasting detainee comment" from the Joint Task Force press kit

The media tour of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay is a near-weekly event. Dozens if not hundreds of reporters have visited the base, along with VIPs like U.S. senators and governors, foreign diplomats, even Miami Police Chief John Timoney. It's a two-day excursion that covers the basics of detention and the various ways prisoners' cases are reviewed.

"We are making a conscious effort to reach out to all the media so that you can see what's happening here—that it's good, that it's not all the horror stories you hear out there," said Army Brig. Gen. Edward Leacock, deputy commander of detention operations, in an introduction to reporters May 10.

The tour begins with Camp Delta. The sprawling complex contains five detention camps and a sixth presently under construction. It's located a 15-minute drive from East Caravella, through a hilly cacti-filled landscape. Iguanas waddle along the side of the road, and vultures gaze down from telephone poles. Four enormous windmills—futuristic, three-prong propellers—rotate slowly atop a distant ridge. Satellite dishes and radio towers mushroom periodically from the hilly landscape. Occasionally a winding turn reveals a sudden glimpse of the Caribbean.

The security measures begin well outside the camp where prisoners stay. First there's a canopied checkpoint about a half-mile away that looks like a tollbooth with guns. When a van arrives there, two soldiers open its doors, check identification, and salute. Another young man, perched on a platform some eight feet high, watches over the proceedings while holding an M-16. The guards work 12-hour shifts. They appear bored and hot.

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