Pearl of the Antilles

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

"You want me to say I'm a terrorist? Are you going to let me go? Are you going to let me sleep?" So I said, "Okay. I'm going to tell you whatever you want. Yeah, I'm a terrorist, now go to your bosses." And they left me.

Al-Noaimi was transferred to Guantanamo shortly afterward and detained there for more than three years.

The detention camp's reputation was further tarnished when descriptions of brutal interrogation practices reached the press. Perhaps the most damning was a series of FBI memos made public in 2004. They alleged detainees were shackled in the fetal position for more than 24 hours, left without bathroom breaks until they soiled themselves, wrapped in Israeli flags, subjected to music at ear-splitting volume, and intimidated with dogs. One soldier even talked of a case—later confirmed—in which a female interrogator smeared fake menstrual blood on a prisoner's face.

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

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See also:
Postcards From Guantanamo
Photo gallery by Emily Witt

In June 2005, Time magazine obtained the interrogation log of Mohammed al-Qahtani, the so-called "20th hijacker." His interrogators had hydrated him with an intravenous drip to the point where his feet swelled and he urinated on himself.

Today Camp X-Ray—overgrown with flowers and fluttering with butterflies—has the aura of uncomfortable history. Sitting amid tranquil blossoms and creeping vines, one can only imagine the potent combination of fear and hatred once rampant on both sides of the cages' walls.

Things are better for detainees. Jakob Kellenberger, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross, recently told the National Journal: "Our recommendations have been taken seriously, and there has been progress on conditions. But that does not mean, and I repeat, that does not mean that everything is fine."

For visiting media, the military constantly references past embarrassments but rarely admits mistakes. It makes for a bizarre vocabulary: Suicide attempts become "manipulative self-injurious behavior" or "hanging gestures." Cutting oneself or banging one's head against the wall is a "self-harm incident." Solitary confinement is "segregation." Hunger-striking becomes "fasting." And the 38 detainees determined not to be enemy combatants? "No longer enemy combatants," or "NLECs."


Aside from a large metal ring in the floor for securing shackles, and a big red button on the wall labeled Duress, the room looks like a teacher's lounge. It has white cement-block walls and a concrete floor, but a large Persian rug softens the bleak appearance. There's a coffee maker (Starbucks Barista Quattro), a television, and a DVD player. Three black office chairs face a dark wood coffee table and a plush blue La-Z-Boy chair.

"Interrogation at Guantanamo is voluntary," says Capt. Daniel Byer, referring to the room where detainees are interviewed. The chummy army public affairs officer from southern Illinois has an accent as Midwestern as a cornfield. His deployment in Gitmo began this past March. "We've found that the best way to get good intelligence is to develop a dialogue over a period of time." When asked if interrogations had always been voluntary, even in the Camp X-Ray days, he looks distressed. "It's hard to know what went on [there]."

Today the detainees who are still interrogated regularly—about 25 percent of the camp's population, say officials—apparently nestle into a recliner.


"Comfort items."

The interrogation room is a fixture of the media tour of Camp 5, Delta's 100-cell maximum-security facility. Completed in April 2004, it is a high-tech cement-block version of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon: computerized locks. Glossy interiors of one-way tinted glass. An enclosed column in the middle of glowing touch-screen monitors and closed-circuit television sets. The cells are like small, fluorescent-lit, air-conditioned mausoleums. A narrow rectangle of frosted Plexiglas passes for a window. Hooks to hang towels give when tugged hard—no one can hang himself here. Even the toothpaste is labeled, in black letters, "Maximum Security."

A reporter asks how detainees communicate. A guard who declines to give his name replies that no one is in solitary confinement. "They speak to each other through the walls and the cracks in the door," he says. "And they have constant interaction with the guards."

The army oversees Camp 5, but numbers 1 to 4 are under navy supervision. (The camps are numbered in the order they were built. Kellogg, Brown & Root—a.k.a. Halliburton—is building the $30 million Camp 6.)


The navy part of the tour is led by Cmdr. Catie Hanft, the senior officer in charge of Camp Delta's guard force. Hanft has short hair and a tropical tan. She smiles in a way that indicates towing around the media is not a favorite activity. Her explanations are well rehearsed.

The long, perforated metal corridors of cells in Camp 2 are painted light green, "because it's calming and soothing," she says. The detainees, who hail from more than 30 countries, have "Asian-style squat toilets, like they are used to." While explaining the amenities of a sample cell in an empty corridor, Hanft places particular emphasis on religious freedom: The sinks are at knee level so detainees can perform feet-washing ablutions; the black arrow in every cell is aimed at Mecca; the Koran each detainee receives is wrapped in a surgical mask so guards don't touch it. There's the recorded call to prayer that's played over the loudspeaker five times a day, and the yellow traffic cone marked with a black p—for prayer—that's placed in the middle of the cell block corridor for 30 minutes after the call.

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