"Welcome to Guantanamo Bay"

A feeding chair in Guantanamo. August 7, 2013. AFP Photo / Chantal Valery

A feeding chair in Guantanamo. August 7, 2013. AFP Photo / Chantal Valery

By Chantal Valery

“Welcome to Guantanamo Bay,” the pilot says after we land, though the message feels rather ironic. Though you feel the tropical heat, there’s nothing here that’s particularly welcoming: the barbed wire, the military barracks and hangars perched on arid hillsides. The prisons, which of course are why we are here, are over on the other side of the bay.

We wait for a ferry, then climb aboard amid the acrid smell of diesel smoke, and cross the bay to what’s known as the Windward side of this US enclave stuck incongruously on the eastern end of Cuba.

As soon as I arrive in Guantanamo, on the only commercial flight of the week, I am handed my army clearance pass that gives me access to the US naval base. Stamped across the pass are the words “Escort Required”, so I need to be accompanied almost everywhere I go.

We may be surrounded by Cuba, but Guantanamo has nothing in common with its neighbour. There’s a McDonald’s, a navy supermarket, a souvenir shop and even an O’Kelly’s bar that boasts of being the “only Irish pub on communist soil”.

During my week on the base, I am never allowed to be alone. My photos and videos are carefully checked at the end of each day and the team in charge follows all the rules to the letter: no face shots of guards or detainees, no shots of the enclosures, or the layouts, no pictures of doors opening or closing in the areas of detention, no images that could help show the prison’s whereabouts in relation to the coast, no pictures of strategic installations or checkpoints, and so on.

A general view of the US base, on August 9, 2013. AFP Photo / Chantal Valery

A general view of the US base, on August 9, 2013. AFP Photo / Chantal Valery

I’m here to write about the hunger strike, which has been going on just short of six months when I arrive. Now there are only about 50 hunger strikers, but in June, 106 of the 166 detainees were refusing food.

A Norwegian TV reporter is the only other journalist accompanying me on this visit, which has been planned to the minute by the military. I’d asked for two interviews, one with the contentious prison commander, who’s been criticised over prisoner searches, and that of the newly appointed base commander.

I was given both interviews, though I had to share the time with my Norwegian colleague. We were each given 15 minutes, exactly. I’d been hoping for a little more flexibility.

No sooner were we off the boat than we were driven to interview Captain Robert Durand, the head of media relations, and meet with his deputy, Captain Andi Hahn, a young woman in camouflage fatigues who set the programme. She has just arrived in this posting and is overseeing a team of young service members, aged between 19 and 25, who had been deployed for a period of nine months to Guantanamo.

A fence at Guantanamo Bay. AFP Photo / Chantal Valery

A fence at Guantanamo Bay. AFP Photo / Chantal Valery

They’re in charge of media relations ahead of numerous hearings before military tribunals. I’ve been here regularly myself for the hearing of the five accused in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, including the alleged mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. The public affairs team takes good care of us, ordering Subway sandwiches, taking us to the Irish pub and fetching us a blanket when it gets too cold in the overly air-conditioned tents.

However, there’s obviously very tight restrictions or total bans on those who we really want to talk to: the detainees. I saw them once, a year ago, during a visit to Camp 6 organised while we were at Guantanamo for a hearing.

But this sort of access is no longer possible, and officials are now extremely judicious about what they let us see. They got into hot water after showing off a brand new soccer field for the detainees, built at huge expense, just as the US was talking about trying to shut Guantanamo.

Now, journalists can no longer visit detention camps during court hearings. As for Camp 7, it’s never the right time to see that. This camp, which holds the 15 or so high-value detainees who were incarcerated and sometimes tortured in secret CIA prisons, is top-secret. Few people even know where exactly it is.

The highlight of the week is a demonstration of forced feeding. In our programme, which starts daily between 6 and 7 a.m., this demonstration happens on the third day. First though, we’re given a tour of the camp’s kitchen and invited to taste the halal dishes that are offered to prisoners. These are actually not bad.

The feeding chair, into which prisoners are strapped for their force feeding (officials prefer the expression “enteral feeding”), looks a little bit like the electric chair I just saw at the museum of prisons in Huntsville, Texas, the US capital of executions.

The chair is fitted with straps and shackles that cover a prisoner from head to feet. The one we see has been set up for the press in a room of the prisoner hospital. There are no prisoners. To one side on a little table, we are invited to touch a thin rubber pipe that is used to feed the hunger strikers. Inmates prefer olive oil to be used to grease the thing so it slides more easily from the back of the nose, down the gullet and into the stomach. Officials claim it’s not at all painful -- just uncomfortable.

Nutrients and equipment for “enteral feeding”. AFP Photo / Chantal Valery

Nutrients and equipment for “enteral feeding”. AFP Photo / Chantal Valery

I ask if I can be intubated, but of course the officer in charge says no -- it’s against regulations. According to numerous accounts from hunger strikers and their lawyers, being force fed is agonising.

Next we speak to a string of medical assistants, nurses and guards who all say the force-feeding process is well run and the method is commonly used in hospitals across the world and conforms to American federal prison regulations. After a nod of approval of the public affairs officer, they concede that sometimes the detainees struggle, spit at them or splash urine or excrement.

Then, the head doctor arrives. Like the others, he doesn’t tell his name. He concedes that it’s not a procedure that’s emotionally easy for guards to perform, and he says they’ve also "resuscitated" several inmates. When I think of the daily news communiques from the prison spokesman, who says that no hunger striker has been in danger of death in six months, I think I have what I need for a story.

But Andi Hahn insists that I wait until the next day. Apparently, there’s an awesome group of nurses who I need to talk to. Seeing as I need to wait to transmit a video report anyway, I decide to hold on for this series of interviews. But all I get are a series of pre-hashed statements that tell me nothing new.

The same evening, we have a meeting at Camp 6, where most of the detainees are held, about 130 usually according to estimates, but much less today since a riot in April at the height of the hunger strike. Since then, the hunger strikers and anyone else who won’t follow the rules is confined in individual cells at Camp 5. I go there too but only see an empty corridor and the inside of a cell that had been set up for reporters to inspect. The famous orange jumpsuits, saved for the non compliant inmates, are there for display.

A cell in Guantanamo. August 9, 2013. AFP Photo / Chantal Valery

A cell in Guantanamo. August 9, 2013. AFP Photo / Chantal Valery

At Camp 6, we are expected for 5 p.m. prayers. We go through security an hour before. I ask to use the toilet, an unusual request. They take me to the guards’ facilities. The toilet paper dispenser falls by accident. Underneath, I read the words: “Fuck Gitmo”.

I leave all my recording devices at the prison entrance before passing through a heavy gate that the guard opens with enormous keys that look like the sort of thing you could buy at an Alcatraz tourist shop.

Camp 6 is built in the form of a star, with each arm a detention block radiating from a central patio onto which open about a dozen cells. Guards watch from behind a two-way mirror and stroll along a darkened corridor. They emerge from time to time behind a fence, wearing a visor to protect them from spit and other splashing. This is where we will see the communal prayer. We are told to remain silent -- the prisoners must not see us or else they’ll create a ruckus. They stick thick tape over a sensor on my camera that is blinking red. We wait and whisper, to eventually be told that the prisoners have decided to pray in the recreation yard and we won’t get to see them after all. “We’re very sorry,” our escorts say, but there’s nothing they can do.

A photo taken by Guantanamo’s media relations team shows the author and an escort. Guantanamo Public affairs office photo

A photo taken by Guantanamo’s media relations team shows the author and an escort. Guantanamo Public affairs office photo

My Norwegian colleague and my self are not ready to let it drop. We make another request. It’s the end of Ramadam and we can't accept to leave without having seen a prayer. We didn’t come all this way to only see what the officials want to show us. We’ve been very "compliant", we say, using the expression guards like to use for detainees. I insist, saying I’ve come about 10 times in two years, that I’m with a global press agency, and that it would be wholly unacceptable to leave without even seeing a prisoner.

I keep pushing, threatening to complain higher, to mention it with the camp commander or even my contact at the Pentagon. Finally, it works. On the day of our departure, we are shown a group of detainees at 4:15 a.m. It's very dark but we can see them wearing white tunics and traditional headwear. We hear them praying for about half an hour, until the lights go out again.

They go back to bed.

A soldier walks through a disused part of Guantanamo. August 9, 2013. AFP Photo / Chantal Valery

A photo taken by Guantanamo’s media relations team shows the author and an escort. Guantanamo Public affairs office photo

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