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Guantanamo Bay
APRIL 2005
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Guantanamo Bay @ National Geographic Magazine
By Jeannie Ralston Photographs by Robb Kendrick
Serving time at Guantanamo Bay.

The night before I left for one of the most controversial spots on the planet, the movie A Few Good Men was on television. "I eat breakfast 300 yards from 4,000 Cubans who are trained to kill me," Jack Nicholson's Marine colonel snarled at Demi Moore. The chilling monologue underscored how very much has changed at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. When the movie came out in 1992, Guantanamo was famous as the only American base in a communist country. Today, with no threat from the Red Menace, Guantanamo gets its notoriety from 550 detainees—allegedly members of al Qaeda or the Taliban—who arrived in early 2002. The original plan was to interrogate the men and prosecute the worst before military tribunals, yet three years later few have been brought to trial. Critics question the decision to classify the detainees as enemy combatants rather than prisoners of war, which exempts them from the provisions of the Geneva Conventions—allowing for more coercive interrogations and indefinite detention. Once a relic of the Cold War, Guantanamo has suddenly become, in the words of its commander, Capt. Les McCoy, "the most highly visible U.S. base in the world."

Under scrutiny, perhaps, but hardly visible. Media access to the base has been tightly controlled. When photographer Robb Kendrick and I secured permission to visit Guantanamo with a group of reporters, we knew we would only be allowed to see what the government wanted us to see. Lying in the rain shadow of the Sagua-Baracoa mountains, the terrain surrounding the bay is as brown as cardboard and nearly treeless. "Tucson by the sea" is how the U.S. soldier sitting next to me on the charter plane described it as we arrived. Along the eastern shore lies the main part of the naval base—a sprawl of offices, barracks, storehouses, and a tiny "downtown" where soldiers go to shop, watch a movie, or eat at one of nine restaurants. A narrow ridge separates the main area from Camp Delta, a series of prisons facing the ocean. Nearby is Camp America, where the soldiers live in metal warehouses partitioned off with shower curtains into "hooches"—cubicles little bigger than a queen-size bed.

Troops here say they are serving a role as important, if not as dangerous, as the one being played by soldiers in Iraq. Yet they describe life in Camp America as painfully dull. "It's like Groundhog Day—the same day over and over," says Sgt. 1st Class Steve Segin, a National Guardsman. Many seek diversion by scuba diving or tucking swatches of Astroturf into their golf bags so they can tee off on a grassless course.

Guantanamo might not rate as a tourist spot, but it's proved the ideal place for keeping the detainees in legal limbo. Not wholly American, not wholly Cuban, the naval base operates under a lease that dates back to 1903. After fidel Castro came to power in 1959, the U.S. military encircled the base with a 17-mile fence topped with barbed wire and dotted with sentry towers and planted some 60,000 land mines. Today marines still speak lock-jawed so Cuban soldiers watching them through binoculars can't read their lips. One marine I met keeps a dog tag around his neck and another in his boots in case his lower body gets separated from his upper body. Yet such vigilance seems to be mostly habit. The U.S. dug up the minefield in the late 1990s, and Captain McCoy meets with his Cuban counterpart to discuss such banalities as joint fire drills.

Now there is a new enemy. At Camp Delta detainees are sorted into different security levels. Under a reward system established in 2003, those who cooperate are transferred to a medium security facility where they wear white clothing instead of orange uniforms and share sleeping quarters and meals with other detainees. They may spend nine hours a day outside, play soccer and chess, and watch movies. The majority, however, lead a bleaker existence, housed in a maximum security facility and allowed only 30 minutes outside every other day. On a tour of this area, we walked through a cellblock reminiscent of a dog pound. In outdoor pens, one detainee kicked a soccer ball against the fence, another sat for a haircut, while a third shouted in Arabic to the guy in the next pen. The most dangerous are kept in a 19-million-dollar super-max security unit.

The U.S. government asserts the detainees receive first-rate medical care and that food is prepared to meet Muslim dictates. "Some say they've never eaten so well," says Chief Warrant Officer Thelma Grannison, who headed the cafeteria. "A lot have gained weight." But many detainees have succumbed to depression—and some have attempted suicide—not knowing when, or if, they will ever be free. During my visit an officer and a translator read a statement to each detainee through a cell door describing the Supreme Court's decision last June to allow them to challenge their detention in U.S. courts. Before I could gauge their reactions, we were hustled away and told a detainee was about to make a scene.

Several released detainees have alleged abusive interrogation methods such as beatings, humiliation, and sleep deprivation—charges supported by an International Committee of the Red Cross report, as well as by recently released internal government documents. The U.S. military says any wrongdoing will be investigated. "We get painted with the same brush as Abu Ghraib," Brig. Gen. Martin Lucenti, Sr., told me as a waiter at the Bayview Club restaurant filled our wineglasses. "We are not Abu Ghraib."

I came away from Guantanamo with the sense that the clarity that stirred the pulse of the soldiers during the Cold War was gone. Even though the war on terror has revitalized the base's purpose, the mood was strangely lethargic. The detainees are in limbo, and the soldiers are too—serving their time but yearning to get back to their lives. Even the fate of Guantanamo itself is up in the air, since it may no longer make sense to keep detainees at a base so far from U.S. courts.

"Right now everything is under review," said press officer Lt. Col. Leon Sumpter. In this gritty place—shaped by decades of fending off an enemy right outside its fence—such uncertainty may be the hardest burden to bear.

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