Camp Gitmo -- not as bad as you think

Camp Gitmo -- not as bad as you think

September 26, 2010, Sunday/ 12:30:00/ MEHMET DEMİRCİ
Life at the US detainment facility at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, which once shocked the world with allegations of torture of convicts, is not what you'd expect.Following a waiting period of three months and filling out dozens of forms, Sunday's Zaman received permission to enter the base at Guantanamo.

Since early 2002, the beginning of the US-led War on Terror, the base has housed those suspected of terrorist activity or of having ties to al-Qaeda or the Taliban. In addition to being a detainment facility, Guantanamo is also an important US naval base.

 It was not easy to fly to Guantanamo, as only one company, Air Sunshine, has flights to the area.

Guantanamo has an area of 121 square kilometers, and it cannot be entered without permission from US authorities.

There are currently 176 inmates in the prison, which was once described as “a knife stuck in the heart of Cuba's dignity and sovereignty” by Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Most of these inmates are from Yemen.

Guantanamo, which is the world's most protected and expensive prison, has the potential to become one of the most popular tourism resorts in the world -- if only the prison and the US naval base weren't there.

The Guantanamo prison has three blocs numbered four, five and six in which inmates are placed according to their compliance with prison rules.

In what might come as a surprise to many, there are many recreational facilities at the naval base, from a golf course to an open-air cinema as well as a Starbucks Coffee and a McDonald's restaurant. Ninety percent of those working in the service sector are Filipinos and Jamaicans. There are 2,000 soldiers and 5,000 civilians.

Detective stories popular

A library for the prisoners at Camp Delta has 20,000 books in various languages such as Turkish, Arabic, Pashtun and Persian. A library official, who declined to give his name, said the prisoners are mainly interested in detective stories like those of Agatha Christie. He said DVDs of cartoons are popular for religious reasons. The library official said Turkish books were put in storage because there are no Turkish prisoners, although books by Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk are in the library. The prisoners are provided newspapers two days a week, Wednesday and Friday, and the newspapers are USA Today, Al Sharq and Al Ahram. For Afghan prisoners, printouts of Russian and Pashtun newspapers that are posted online are available. The library official said photos of women in the newspapers are censored by demand of the prisoners. When asked if “Escape from Alcatraz” is in the DVD archive of the library, he said no; and even if it was there, nobody would be interested in watching it.

Life at Camp 4 the most comfortable

After the library, the next stop is Camp 4 which is for prisoners who obey the rules. There are basketball courts and football pitches, and prisoners can spend 12 hours outside. This camp differs from the other camps in that the prisoners here spend four hours in cells and can spend time with other prisoners during the rest of the day. Every prisoner has a personal copy of the Quran, a prayer rug, rosary, toothbrush, toothpaste, three sets of underwear and two sets of clothing (one white and one gray). Nobody wears the infamous orange clothing. Officials say those orange clothes were only worn by prisoners in the first three months of the prison at X- Ray Camp, which has been closed.

Officials, who refused to give their names, did not give the exact number of prisoners in the camp. They say the number of convicts in this 160-person-capacity camp range between 40 and 60.

There is only one electronic game that prisoners are allowed to play at the prison -- Playstation -- but officials did not say how often prisoners are allowed to play this game.

There is also a hospital in Guantanamo for the prisoners. A military doctor at this hospital, who wanted to remain anonymous, said the hospital is open 24 hours a day and is equipped to perform open-heart surgery. He said prisoners mostly resorted to doctors for sport injuries and that while there is one doctor for 390 US citizens in the US, there is one doctor for 57 prisoners in Guantanamo.

Cultural expert at prisoners’ service

There is a cultural expert of Jordanian origin at the prison who only revealed his first name as Zeki -- the only civilian at the prison with whom prisoners can communicate. He is a middle-aged US citizen who speaks English fluently. He has been working at the prison complex with his family since 2005. He said nobody knows he is working at Guantanamo apart from his family. Zeki said he teaches short courses about Islamic culture to US soldiers and informs the guards at the prison about the Quran and Muslim prayers. “I inform the guards about the way Muslims pray. For instance, I inform them about things like if a prisoner is praying, he cannot respond to a guard because speaking is not allowed when praying. Such information is useful for both sides,” Zeki said.

Noting that he began his work at Guantanamo by meeting with one convict every day, Zeki said although everyone has a bad impression about Guantanamo, things at the prison began to change for the better after it was opened to the media. He said some prisoners do not even want to go back to their countries. “I know some families who tell the convicts: ‘At least you are in a secure place and can eat three times a day. We can only eat once a day here.' Even I had a different impression about Guantanamo before I came here,” Zeki said.

Zeki also said the prisoners are not marginal people with regard to their lifestyles. “They may be radical about the activities they were involved in, but their lifestyles are not radical. They want to watch TV and demand different TV channels. They are not as religious as they were thought to be. They use religion as a tool,” he said.

Watching the world cup matches for the first time

Even though the prisoners were not able to watch the world football cup games live, they watched them several hours after. Zeki said football is the most popular sport in the prison, and many of the prisoners became quite animated during the world cup games, which they were not allowed to watch in 2006. He noted that Spain winning the world cup surprised the prisoners.

If prisoners want rights, they need to comply with the prison rules, said Zeki. “If you want hot sauce for your food, you need to obey the rules. If you spit in the face of the guard who serves you or you do anything wrong, your rights will be taken away from you. As long as the prisoners do not abuse the rights granted to them, everything is all right,” he added. “In 2005, there was a TV in Camp 4 that was used from time to time. When the prisoners broke the TV into pieces, they were not allowed to watch TV. After a long time a new TV was put in place. The prisoners were given control over the TV, and there have been no problems,” said Zeki.

Ramadan at Guantanamo

Zeki said the Muslim holy month of Ramadan is observed with enthusiasm at the camp. A predawn meal is served for prisoners who want to fast during the day. Non-fasting prisoners are served their regular food throughout the day. Prisoners are allowed to break their fast and pray together during Ramadan. During the three-day Ramadan festival of Eid al-Fitr, the prisoners are served a special menu.

Camp 5 the venue of disobeyers

In the words of the soldiers at the camp, Camp 5 is the home of “rebellious” prisoners who do not comply with prison rules. They stay alone in cells and can meet with other prisoners for only two hours a day. There is a bed, a basin and a WC in the cells. There are signs that show the direction of the Kaaba. The temperature of water for those who want to have a shower in Camp 5 is set by the guards, who wear masks because some prisoners in the past spit in their faces or threw excrement.

Guantamo commander: Abu Ghraib torture photos were a shock to me

The commander who heads the military troop in Guantanamo, Col. Donnie L. Thomas, is an experienced soldier who worked in Iraq for years. Playing an active role in the training of the Iraqi police force, Thomas has been serving in Guantanamo since 2009. Visiting many prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said he inspected those prisons to see whether they ran according to the rules. Thomas said he was shocked when he saw photos of torture at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison.

Beginning in 2004, accounts of physical, psychological and sexual abuse, including torture, rape, sodomy and homicide of prisoners held in the Abu Ghraib prison came to public attention. These acts were committed by military police personnel of the US Army together with additional US governmental agencies.

Thomas said things are on track in Guantanamo and that US President Barack Obama will make the final decision whether to close down this prison. He said he saw many journalists who visited the prison and left with good feelings.

As one of his first acts as president, Obama ordered the US military's detention center in Guantanamo Bay to be closed, yet he has not taken any step to close down the facility so far.

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