The soldiers in the Guantanamo Bay camp hospital don't go by their real names, using car names as aliases instead. Chief medical officer Audi walks us into a clean empty room lined with beds, where hunger-striking detainees are force-fed. Cans of Ensure sit on a small table, along with a thin yellow plastic tube that is pushed through the nose and down into the stomach of the striking detainees. Officer Audi claims that some prisoners prefer to take their nutrition in this way, and she tells an anecdote of a former base admiral who volunteered to be force fed for a week, and even gained four pounds. In a corner of the room a large speaker plays the sound of a bubbling brook.
Chief psychiatrist Gallant insists repeatedly that his work with Guantanamo prisoners is very similar to his old practice in the States. When asked about rates of depression, mental problems, and suicide among the detainee population, he reminds us that we all suffer from anxieties and stresses. The staff inform us that the most common injury they treat in their state of the art medical facilities are ankle sprains from soccer games.
Since we've arrived for a two day media tour of Guantanamo Bay, we've seen those soccer balls, in various states of disrepair, littered in the outdoor areas of the detention facilities. The morning we got in we were driven past the local McDonalds, a church, and a golf course on our way to the camps. The maximum driving speed limit on the island is 25 MPH, which gives the impression that everyone is very relaxed. Three-foot long iguanas bask in the sun, protected against harm by a $10,000 fine. Apparently, the Endangered Species Act is strictly enforced on the island.
As we begin our initial round of camp visits, we see our first detainees, a pair talking to one another through a tall mesh fence. We will see detainees only three more times during our two full days of visiting the camps. The controversy of Guantanamo is conspicuously absent around us. Over 300 journalists have visited Gitmo this year alone - but they mostly see empty cells, empty rec yards, the empty hospital. Eventually, touring yet another meticulously clean and well designed empty common room, a reporter in our group wryly observes, "Well there's no doubt that America can build beautiful prisons."
In one such room, the faces on the foosball machine pins have been filed off. The guards claim this is in accordance with detainee wishes. "They don't worship idols," a guard explains. "We didn't go to school for this. We learned it when we got here." A nearby classroom has the English and Arabic alphabet on the walls, a fresh painting on an easel in the corner, and large leg shackles and handcuffs chained to the bottom of every desk. Each room has an arrow painted on the floor pointing towards Mecca. Two flat screen televisions sit behind heavy glass - Jessica Alba burns her clothes off by accident in Fantastic Four on one screen, and Jackie Chan drinks himself into a stupor in Drunken Master on the other.
We are driven to Camp X Ray, the first facility utilized by the Bush administration in 2002. The old mesh structures no longer house any prisoners, but the camp has been left untouched, "for evidence" we are told. Vines creep up the sides of the cages. Orange flowers and small berries grow among the coils of barbed wire. We walk through the dilapidated wooden sheds that were once interrogation rooms, and wade through thick knee high grass to where the famous photos were taken of shackled and hooded men on their knees in orange jumpsuits, wearing gloves and goggles. Now the area is empty, overgrown with plants and buzzing with insects. It's only 10 AM, but the heat and humidity are already oppressive.
The media liaison at the Gitmo Navy building is a friendly man with a stocky build, and a pleasant permanent grin. While we wait for an interview with the Commanding Naval Officer, he tells us how excited he is to take his wife snorkeling over the upcoming weekend. He hopes to eventually convince her to scuba dive through Gitmo's reefs, which are supposed to be among the best in the world. He praises the lovely weather and abundance of outdoor activities available to servicemen and their families living in Guantanamo Bay. "Yep," he declares, "we just love it here." He is looking forward to his wife's parents coming to visit, and explains that he asked to be transferred here to be with his family. His last posting also had great weather, but his wife couldn't join him there. "Diego Garcia," he grins. "I loved it there, too."
The detainee library is stocked with over 16,000 books. We pass rows of Harry Potter volumes in a dozen languages to get to the magazine section, where the librarian informs us that car magazines are particularly vexing, as they contain a high number of suggestive pictures of women, which she must black out with a thick marker. She assures us this is according to detainee wishes.
We get up at 3 AM one morning to sit in a guard tower, for an opportunity to observe detainees practicing their religion. The guard who we join explains that the soldiers work 12-hour shifts. He considers himself lucky to work overnight in the guard towers - the soldiers patrolling cells in higher security areas are responsible for looking in on each detainee once every three minutes. Around 5 AM we begin to hear the morning calls to prayer from across the camp, and we watch groups of detainees line up to begin their morning ritual.
At the end of each day, we screen our tapes for the media handlers, who point out which shots "can't go off the island." I am expected to use my own camera to edit and delete footage. I am told in the case of journalists who don't know how to edit in camera, the army must "err on the side of caution," and keep whole tapes. We delete shots of detainee's faces, empty guard towers, non-military workers, frames showing too much landscape, and others. A handler laughs at a photograph taken by another reporter of duct tape on the floor of an interrogation room and asks if he found any bloodstains. Another rolls his eyes at my shot of detainees praying through barbed wire on which a bird is sitting. He's seen it a hundred times before.