GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- It’s 3 a.m. on the third Tuesday of Ramadan — the 11th in U.S. custody for most captives, the first for most of their guards — and the American soldiers are moving stealthily through a maximum-security lockup.
The guards pass out breakfast boxes to the prisoners to eat before the predawn fajr prayer. They’ve got oatmeal, yogurt, eggs, milk, pita bread plus peanut butter and jelly. Two hard-core hunger strikers spurn the meal. So the guards pass the extras to a pair of captives sitting inside a pen in the outdoor recreation yard.
Few visitors to the prison camps get to see this. But the military agreed to a Miami Herald request to see what goes on inside the cellblocks — night and day — during the holy Muslim month. Judging from what the military permitted a reporter and photographer to see and hear during a three-day visit, the mood is mellow.
“It’s calm. It’s quiet, really quiet,” says Zak, a Muslim cultural advisor who has worked for the Pentagon here since 2005 and has seen episodes of unrest and suicide.
He credits the calm to “the Ramadan spirit.” For the holy month — which ends this weekend — observant Muslims shun food and water during daylight hours and emphasize prayer, reflection and the evening meal called iftar.
For sure there are still detainees badgering and berating the guard force — Zak sees them as the 1 per centers.
Earlier in Ramadan, a captive splashed a foul brew of his bodily fluids on a passing guard in a somewhat universal prison protest that, at Guantánamo, gets a guard a medical checkup, a clean uniform and a return to the same block in the same shift. An audio recording of the call to prayer at Charlie Block, Camp 5, captured a particularly belligerent captive in lockdown, pounding on his steel cell door, complaining that a female guard was on the block then ordering a male guard to get ready for the midday call to prayer.
But for the most part, spot visits around the clock showed the men preoccupied with other pursuits — praying, sleeping, eating and exercising in outdoor fence-ringed recreation yards at night once the scorching heat eases.
“It’s very laid back,” says Army Capt. Lamar Madison, in his sixth month here and now the officer in charge of the biggest prison building, Camp 6. It houses about 100 captives who are considered cooperative enough to roam freely between their cells and the open-air exercise yards.
The Pentagon holds 168 men in detention at Guantánamo. Four are convicted of war crimes. Six are facing death-penalty trials for the Sept. 11, 2001 and USS Cole attacks. The Obama administration has sought to negotiate the safe release for resettlement or rehabilitation of more than half of the men. The remainder are held in a status of legal limbo, either as indefinite detainees or for possible trial.
All the captives are under constant surveillance — from guards just outside the cellblocks and in watch towers, and through an array of cameras that look into each cell. But the prisoners mostly fend for themselves. They dish out their own meals, do their own laundry, conduct block-by-block prayer calls, and share a flat-screen TV that lets them watch borrowed videos and live satellite broadcasts from the Muslim world.
“There’s less requests. There’s less issues. There’s less complaints,” says Madison of the Ramadan mood. “They’re pretty much into themselves, into their prayer. You still get one or two people asking for stuff. But other than that they’re very docile around this time.”
Critics in Congress have complained that the Pentagon coddles its prisoners. Human rights advocates have argued that letting visitors watch prisoners kneel in prayer invades their privacy.
Still, this day and night escorted visit to the lockups that house about 130 of the 168 captives demonstrates how routine Ramadan has become at the detention center that President Barack Obama couldn’t close.
The Guantánamo guards, some veterans of Iraq or Afghanistan, adopt what they call a different “battle rhythm” during Ramadan compared to the normal routine in the prison.
Hunger strikers whose weight dips dangerously low are strapped into feeding chairs at night, instead of day, and tubes are snaked up their noses to pump Ensure into their stomachs. That way, they can observe the daytime fast, too.
Detention center staff wouldn’t disclose how many of the 168 captives were force-fed during our visit. Instead they emphasized how plentiful the food is in a meal schedule that is upended to respect the daylight fasting. The iftar dinner arrives in the evening, before the last pre-meal prayer. The cellblocks are abuzz with activity by midnight and then some men are snoozing by the pre-dawn breakfast. One Camp 5 captive’s cell had a note for guards to do a wake-up tap on his steel cell door for “0400” and “1600” — military time for 4 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Guards distribute about 40 lunches each day to captives who may want to end their fasts on their own timetable. Rather than track who took lunch, the kitchens sends up evening meals for everyone. The menu one night last week was five dates, manaeesh dough, yogurt, honey, Nutrigrain bars, fresh fruit, hot tea and Bok Choy Sinagang soup. The recipe is Filipino, reflecting the cuisine of the contract kitchen staff; the lamb for the soup was imported from Australia.
Defense lawyers don’t schedule meetings during Ramadan, which means one less source of tension between captor and captive because guards shackle the captives at wrists and ankles to move them to their attorney-client conferences. It means one less source of information, too: Because reporters are forbidden from talking to detainees, only their lawyers can speak for them.
At the library, circulation has slowed, says a Pentagon contractor who identifies himself only as Milton. One day last week sent a bilingual edition of Nizar al Qabbani’s Arabic Love Poems to the cellblocks — a detainee had requested it, the librarian said — plus some novels, religious books and car magazines.
Ramadan has become routine for the International Red Cross, too. Before the holy month began, delegates gave each captive water from the cherished Zamzam well in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and handed out 1,200 messages from family. They took back about 2,000 return greetings, said ICRC spokesman Simon Schorno.
Commanders describe the camps in Year 11 as a mix of conservative and more liberal Muslims. But in Week 3, they reported, all prisoners were participating in the fasts of Ramadan, which end this weekend with the Eid al Fitr feast.
“It’s become a much more communal time to be with brothers and to celebrate this period within their religion and culture,” says the officer in charge of Camp 5, which houses 20 to 30 captives, some under 22-hour lockdown because they are chronic rule breakers.
The officer is a woman, an Army captain who served in Afghanistan. She wouldn’t give her name for this article but talked matter-of-factly about her role, confided that she’s a Catholic and turned to Islamicfinder.org to figure out via the Internet when each day’s fast should end.
And she displays a measure of empathy for the men observing the holiday period with no end to their captivity in sight.
“It always sucks to celebrate holidays away from your family,” the Army captain said. “I would know.”