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.”