By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
For Khadr, nothing changed. He continually wrote letters home, promising his mother that Allah would protect them. In an interview with the CBC, his mother, dressed in a black burka that covered everything but her eyes, said she would be happy to see her son die a martyr. She also admitted that when the planes hit the World Trade Center, her first thought was, "Let them have it." As for the American medic Khadr reportedly killed with a grenade in 2002, his sister, Zaynab, was unapologetic. "Big deal," she said with a shrug.
It's an early January morning at Guantánamo. Omar Khadr sits slumped over a defense table in a convincing replica of a U.S. courtroom. He is no longer the frail, clean-shaven teenager who begged Army soldiers to kill him. His lanky, six-foot-one-inch frame stretches a white prison uniform, and his face is slack with boredom.
For six and a half years, through torture and isolation, he has awaited his day in court. Next door to the multimillion-dollar courthouse hosting Khadr's hearing, inside a double-wide trailer tucked into the
corner of a cavernous, dusty hangar, a reporter watches the proceedings on a flat-screen mounted on the wall. It's as close as the Pentagon allows the media.
A Navy lawyer finishes questioning an FBI agent just after 11 a.m., and the camera shifts to Army Col. Patrick Parrish, who is presiding in a judge's flowing black robes. "Because of the inauguration, then, we're going to recess for the rest of the day," he says.
In that instant, the TV set broadcasting Khadr's hearing flips to live coverage of President Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony. Khadr's slumped figure is replaced by the black-robed figures of the U.S. Supreme Court, tromping down the icy stairs of the U.S. Capitol.
With George Bush sitting nearby, Obama repudiates what Guantánamo Bay has come to represent. "We reject as false the choice between our safety and ideals," he says, setting in motion plans to close the camp within a year and throwing Khadr's case into limbo.
The next day, the brass at Guantánamo try to wrap their minds around what has happened. Army Col. Bruce Vargo—the detention camp's top commander—keeps an office inside a fluorescent-lit trailer in the heart of Camp Delta, where the best-behaved prisoners are held. An Ohio native with meaty, pinched features and a booming voice, he seems the perfect officer—in control and unflappable. "Look, we are responsible for the safe, humane, and transparent legal care and custody of these detainees," he says matter-of-factly. "That has not changed, all right?"
Vargo won't talk about conditions prior to his 2007 arrival, but it is obvious much has changed since the early days at Camp X-Ray. Today, detainees live in sterile, modern prison cells—guards proudly display spartan cells with shatter-proof mirrors and collapsible "suicide-proof" clothing hooks.
Senior Chief Jodi Myers, a well-spoken 41-year-old from Pennsylvania, says prisoners quickly learned of Obama's order to close the camp from their lawyers and word-of-mouth. "They know what's going on; they know the dates and stuff like that," she says, surrounded by empty cells in the common area of an unused block. "The guards maintain a very professional attitude, so we never give [detainees] any information. But they get to read the newspaper."
Jeff MacRay, a heavyset 32-year-old guard from Michigan, says the prisoners are tough to deal with, but the uncertainty over the camp's future and the widespread hatred of Guantánamo back home are worse. "It's a difficult occupation," he says softly. "Sometimes, things get misconstrued, and it's frustrating."
Cultural advisers now teach guards about Ramadan, fasting, and the importance of daily prayers to Mecca. For inmates, officials say, there are art classes, a couple of hours of daily rec time, specially prepared halal meals, and a library with more than 14,000 books in 22 languages. "We take great pains to respect the religion of these men. Five times a day, they get prayer calls—we have respect for their Korans, we have respect for their communal rules," Vargo says.
The way Vargo sees it, what has been lost in all the handwringing over the treatment of the detainees is why these men are here. He insists no one has been tortured on his watch and disputes the idea that holding them without charges is against international standards—because they're "prisoners of war."
"These guys are bomb-makers, forgers, leaders. You know the list of who is in here, you know the type of acts they've done, so you know what that says about them," Vargo says. "What they will be like in the future, I suppose, is up to them. I'd say bomb-makers are pretty dangerous people."
Later that day, in a double-wide trailer across camp, a translator named Zak offers a different perspective. A Jordanian in his fifties, he has a prominent nose, light skin, and salt-and-pepper hair. Before moving to Guantánamo in September 2005, he lived in Baghdad, where he risked his life to work as a translator for the U.S. officials who decided which Iraqis to imprison and release.