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.”