72 hours at Camp X-Ray
By PAUL DE LA GARZA, Times Staff Writer
GUANTANAMO BAY NAVAL BASE, Cuba -- It begins as a shiny speck in the southeast skies of the lone landing strip here at Gitmo, the oldest U.S. base overseas. Within minutes the lumbering, gray C-141B Starlifter flies low over the tarmac and over a patch of palm trees, as if part of an annual air show. On a hot and windy afternoon, the deep blue waters of the Caribbean serve as the postcard backdrop.
When the cargo jet finally lands, approaching the landing strip from the west, the noise is deafening.
Almost immediately a crack security force of mostly baby-faced Marines surrounds the plane. They wear black baseball leg guards and bulletproof vests and carry M-16 rifles.
Meanwhile, Humvees mounted with .50-caliber machine guns and 40mm grenade launchers take their positions. A Navy helicopter whirls overhead.
Once the aircraft is secured, the freak show begins, a sort of "Hannibal the Cannibal" production. Down the back ramp of the mammoth aircraft, the guards slowly unload the latest detainees from the war in Afghanistan, 34 altogether.
Wearing bright orange wool knit caps, blacked-out goggles, earmuffs, white surgical masks, bright orange jumpsuits, denim jackets, beige mittens (taped around the wrists), handcuffs and ankle shackles, the detainees don't look natural.
They look like giant bright orange flies.
After a 25-hour flight of mostly sitting, the prisoners hobble along as the Marines, who look twice as big, walk them out and frisk them. One soldier handles a captive like a mannequin -- moving him back, forward, and to the side -- before lifting him straight off his feet and onto one of two waiting buses.
"Walk! Walk!" the guards shout.
"Shut up! Head down!"
"Man, they must be so scared," says a TV camerawoman watching with an international media pool from about 400 yards away.
"It must be freaky," chimes in her colleague.
The prisoners are here because the military considers them "hard-core" terrorists -- willing to escape, to kill themselves and others. But now they do pretty much as directed. They walk, they shut up, they lower their heads. They board buses that will take them to a ferry that will take them across Guantanamo Bay to a detention facility known as Camp X-Ray.
A sign near the ferry slip conveys some of the strange vibe of Guantanamo, a 45-square mile naval base in which the detention camp comprises some 3 acres. The sign touts the area's wildlife -- the brown pelican, the Antillean manatee, the bottlenose dolphin, the hawksbill turtle.
"Watching wildlife can be a lot of fun," says the sign. "A pair of binoculars is helpful."
Last Wednesday, the 10th flight from Kandahar to the southeastern tip of Cuba arrived, bringing the total number of detainees at Camp X-Ray to 288. A day later, another 12 came, effectively filling the camp to capacity.
Base officials allowed reporters to record audio and report the landings live via cell phone for the first time since the flights began arriving Jan. 11. They refused to allow cameras.
The last time the Pentagon released pictures of the detainees -- on their knees, wearing the goggles, and surrounded by guards -- the images created an international uproar. Rights groups cried inhumane treatment.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld denied the allegations, insisting that the detainees have it better here than in Afghanistan.
And he did what he routinely does when questioned about the way the United States is prosecuting the war on terrorism: He reminded critics of Sept. 11.
When the detainees arrive at Camp X-Ray, they are told they're in Cuba and then undergo a 45-minute intake process, which, like the airstrip landing, is monitored by the Red Cross.
The routine includes a delousing, or chemical washdown, and a physical. The detainees also get fingerprinted and photographed.
They get a toothbrush, mint-flavored toothpaste, a bottle of "Lively Salon" antidandruff shampoo, soap, flip flops, a foam sleeping mat, two buckets, a washcloth, a canteen, a prayer cap, two blankets, a sheet, a Koran and two towels, one for praying.
And, strangely, they get to write home. It's not that the U.S. military has a soft spot for the mothers of the Taliban or al-Qaida. Instead, base officials try to glean the prisoners' real names from the letters, as many tend to give multiple aliases during interrogations.
When they're done, they're assigned to the cells in which they will begin their new lives. These are 8-feet-square, with chain-link sides and tin roofs. The Halogen lights stay on all night.
The next day starts with prayer call about 5 a.m. A sign on a pole at the edge of the camp points the direction to Mecca. The prisoners come from 31 countries, including Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Pakistan, Algeria, England, Egypt, Australia, France, Russia, Belgium and Sweden. Base officials say there are Christian prisoners as well as Muslims.
After prayer, the detainees' day goes like this: breakfast, a shower (every other day), sick call, noon prayer, lunch, recreation (15 minutes a couple of times a week), mail call, sunset prayer, dinner, evening prayer and bedtime around 9 p.m.
Each meal the detainees get is considered halal, or religiously appropriate for Muslims. A typical breakfast includes oatmeal, an orange, fresh bread and a bottle of water. For lunch, it's pasta or vegetable stew, dry cereal including Froot Loops, a box of raisins, two granola bars, a bag of chips, and bag of peanuts and water.
For dinner they get white rice, red beans, a banana and water.
U.S. Army Capt. Sean Campion, one of the camp guards, characterizes life at Camp X-Ray as "utter boredom."
"If you do your job right," says Campion, 32, of Kansas City, Mo., "nothing is scheduled to happen."
The guards mostly communicate with the prisoners via simple English commands and hand signals.
"We're not holding any lengthy debates with them or anything," Campion says.
Marine Corps Lt. Abuhena Mohammad Saiful-Islam, 39, speaks more with the detainees than almost anybody at the camp. As the Muslim chaplain, he ministers at the facility up to five hours every day.
He says that with the start of the Muslim month of pilgrimage, during which the faithful journey to the holy city of Mecca, he detects more anxiety in the camp. Base officials are considering a special meal for March 10.
"The role of chaplain is unique," Saiful-Islam says. "We don't go with a preconceived idea that the person is so and so. As a chaplain we approach them as a human being.
"We don't hate the sinner," he says, "but we hate the sin."
Somebody asks Saiful-Islam if the relationship between the detainees and God has changed since their capture.
"They haven't said that God has abandoned them, because they know," he says. "That's the hope that they have, that God is their only hope.
"They do ask me what's going to happen. At this moment, I don't have an answer."
Concertina wire and nine guard towers surround Camp X-Ray. The American flag is everywhere -- painted on the guard towers, flying high in front of the facility.
Unlike other parts of the base, the camp does not have a pretty setting. Turkey vultures hover over thick brush and scraggly hills.
It is day two at X-Ray for the 34 newly arrived from Kandahar. A German shepherd and his handler patrol the camp's perimeter. Bright orange figures sit in their cells, some of them praying. One or two prisoners run for exercise in a fenced area, wearing handcuffs but no ankle shackles.
Every so often a prisoner is led to one of five interrogation rooms, freshly built wood buildings with air conditioners and no windows. Three guards accompany him -- one on either side and one behind.
One of the guards puts a hand behind the head of the detainee, forcing him to look down. This is done to "provide positive control," says U.S. Army Col. Terry Carrico, in effect the prison warden.
"It means he can't look ahead. He can't make a plan. They don't know where they're going. That's a technique across correctional facilities in the United States."
Except for an occasional spitting incident or threat, officials say, the prisoners are docile. Base officials suspect that the people already in custody pass the word along to the new arrivals that they will be treated okay.
"In the beginning, they were very unsure," says Carrico. "They didn't know if we were going to take care of them, hurt them or kill them."
Some guards don't want to talk about their views of the prisoners. But U.S. Army Capt. Darrell Sides, 30, of Fort Benning, Ga., makes no bones about considering them terrorists.
"We were all watching television Sept. 11," he says. "The security here I would consider tighter than death row in a prison in the United States."
The morning run to Fleet Hospital 20 takes place as scheduled. This is for prisoners needing medical attention, as a fair number do. Some are underweight, others are missing toes, fingers and limbs.
The hospital is several miles from Camp X-Ray, off Recreation Road. Along the way, if allowed, the detainees would get to see a bit of Americana, a portrait built over the past century.
U.S. forces seized Guantanamo Bay during the Spanish-American War. In 1903, the U.S. government signed a lease with the Republic of Cuba. That contract, extended indefinitely in 1934, can be broken only by mutual agreement.
The growth of the base has left Camp X-Ray surprisingly close to a suburban-style military community of beige, green and yellow houses in subdivisions with names like Caribbean Circle and West Iguana.
Two boys in white karate outfits run down palm-lined Sherman Avenue. Another child, no more than 3 or 4, plays on a gym set, with a young woman keeping a watchful eye.
Also up the road is the W.S. Sampson Elementary School, replete with yellow school buses, the Morale Welfare and Recreation Cooper Field with baseball and soccer fields, and the base's outdoor movie house, which is playing the movie, The Majestic.
The 20-bed hospital is a high-tech, air-conditioned white tent which looks like a futuristic movie set, with low ceilings, fluorescent lighting, and padded white walls, floors and ceilings. The staff calls it a "temper tent."
On this morning, U.S. Navy hospital corpsman Shuron Jerome, 19, of Houston is poring over a box of Valentines sent to Guantanamo by schoolchildren in Pennsylvania.
"Wish you could be with your family," one child has written.
Jerome says the hospital feels no different than a hospital in the states, save for the high security and the various languages the detainees speak, including French, Russian, Urdu and Arabic. Most understand a little English, she says.
While she sees the detainees as patients, she allows that they're not "regular patients." She often finds herself thinking, "Oh, my God, they could be related to this or related to that. But I still try to treat them as a patient."
Fleet Hospital 20 has nine patients today. The bulk of the work includes blast and gunshot wounds from the war in Afghanistan.
Just the other day, however, a surgeon took out the eye of a patient who had suffered a sports injury when he was younger. The pressure on the eye had become unbearable.
The story got international play because it seemed to underscore the fact that tensions between the Americans and the detainees were easing. Indeed, the patient invited the surgeon for a cup of tea after the operation.
The staff gives reporters a quick tour of the hospital, allowing photographs of some sections but not of the patients.
As an al-Jazeera television crew walks through, the staff rolls out a patient who has just had his right index finger amputated as a result of a gunshot wound. The cameraman continues filming while a nurse covers the patient's face.
In the recovery room, the patient's body starts trembling. The doctors explain this is a common reaction as patients awake from anesthesia. Still, it provides a bit of drama.
"Michel! Michel!" yells a doctor still in her operating clothes. "You're doing good."
Another doctor, speaking with a French accent, adds, "Good job, buddy."
Finally, an interpreter comes in to talk to the patient. Eight other young-looking men, with shaved heads and beards growing, recover in their cots. Most of them sleep.
The medical staff relies on linguists to help communicate with the patients, but they've also come up with their own inventions, such as a longhand list of English phrases and their Arabic counterparts. In a pinch, they show the patients the list, which includes the following phrases: I'm in pain. Thirsty. Hungry. Bathroom. Urinate. Arm. Hand. Leg. Back. IV Hurts. Cold. Hot. Sick, will throw up.
While calm has returned to Fleet Hospital 20, officials elsewhere on the base are bracing for what they say may be inevitable: the death of one of the detainees. Not at the hands of the guards. But with 300 already in custody, and scores in poor health to begin with, they say something is bound to happen.
In a briefing with reporters, Marine Corps Brig. Gen. Michael R. Lehnert, the commander of the prison project, says, "We continue to work to improve living conditions for both the detainees and our security forces."
Within a couple months, he says, the operation will move to another part of Guantanamo called Radio Range, where utilities are more readily available and cells will have cots, air conditioning and toilets. The general is awaiting congressional approval before building for Radio Range begins.
For now, with the camp at capacity, flights here have stopped.
© 2006 • All Rights Reserved • Tampa Bay Times
490 First Avenue South St. Petersburg, FL 33701 727-893-8111