Pearl of the Antilles

The elephant in Guantanamo's living room gets 4200 calories a day and a Koran

The three fences that surround the camp, which opened in April 2002, are enmeshed in an opaque green cover. Upon entering, you pass through a series of three large cages, called sally ports. They work like this: A guard opens a gate to the port. The van is driven in. The guard locks the gate behind. All passengers disembark, show IDs, and then stand around in the beating sun for five minutes as guards check under the vehicle with a mirror, a jumbo version of what a dentist uses to look for cavities in molars.

Then there's a review of the rules: No photographs of empty guard towers. No photographs that include two guard towers in one frame. No photographs of the guards without their permission. Photographs of detainees are allowed only below the neck or from behind. These rules are cautionary, because everything is reviewed and censored. No visits are unannounced.

The interior side of the third sally port is opened. You are now, in the local parlance, "inside the wire."

Brian Stauffer
The military commissions room
Emily Witt
The military commissions room


The U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba measures 45 square miles and is located near the southeastern tip of the island. The United States began leasing land on both sides of the natural harbor in 1903, an agreement that can be terminated only by mutual consent. The arrangement has withstood the dissolution of cordial relations between the two countries. The U.S. sends an annual check for $4080 to the Cuban government, and every year Fidel Castro fails to cash it. A seventeen-mile perimeter fence separates the base from Cuba proper, and an hourly ferry travels between its two shores.

Because the land is technically in a foreign country and is not a U.S. territory like Guam or Puerto Rico, the White House long ago determined that U.S. laws were not necessarily applicable here for noncitizens. From 1994 to 1996, more than 40,000 Haitian and Cuban rafters were housed here while politicians debated their refugee status, a history that links the naval base closely to many immigrants in Miami.

In 2001 George Bush faced a difficult problem. After declaring that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to enemy soldiers in his war on terror, he couldn't bring them to the United States. Stateside they could pose a threat or more easily sue the government. So the White House began sending what it termed "enemy combatants" to the extrajudicial haven locals call "Gitmo." The first arrivals were housed at Camp X-Ray, where unruly migrants had been kept in earlier days.

The Herald's Carol Rosenberg remembers watching the first prisoners arrive in January 2002. Dressed in orange jumpsuits, blacked-out goggles, and face masks, they had just completed a twenty-hour flight from Afghanistan. "As soon as they got off the plane and hit the heat, they wobbled, and the Marines just eased them down on the ground," she says.

Though the facility was open only four months, the photographs from Camp X-Ray remain the most pervasive Guantanamo Bay images. They show detainees in chainlink cages, shackled to stretchers, and kneeling on the ground in masks.

The old migrant cages were ill-equipped to deal with maximum-security inmates. Detainees were issued buckets for toilets. The doors lacked the rectangular openings (called "bean holes") to pass food through, so Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) were slipped through the door frame.

"I wouldn't call it a dog kennel. I call it a cell ... an outdoor cell," Col. Terry Carrico, commander of the military police unit at the time, told reporters in January 2002.

Almost from the beginning, U.S. officials backpedaled. Though Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld described inmates as "the most dangerous, best-trained, vicious killers on the face of the earth," camp officials admitted there were at least 150 whose affiliation to the Taliban and Al Qaeda was uncertain.

Humanitarian groups like the Red Cross voiced immediate concern. Consider the following story, from released detainee Abdullah al-Noaimi, which aired on the radio show This American Life. Al-Noaimi, a Bahraini who studied for a time in the United States and speaks English, was nineteen years old when he was picked up in Pakistan, where the U.S. allegedly offered bounties for suspected Al Qaeda or Taliban members. He was imprisoned in Kandahar before being transferred to Cuba, and recalled his battlefield screening this way:

There was two interrogators. They wanted me to say I was a terrorist. I told them: "No, I'm not," and everything. The interrogator was smoking. He blew the smoke in my face. Then he came very close, very, very close to my face, and brought the cigarette between my eyes, and he said, "I swear to God I'm going to put it in your forehead if you don't tell me what I want to hear." So I just said, "Whatever you want to hear from me, I'm going to tell you. What do you want me to say?"

He said, "Say that you are a terrorist."

"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.

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