GUANTANAMO BAY NAVY BASE, Cuba -- On a weekday during Ramadan, soldiers usher reporters to a window looking in on Echo Block where about 15 men are at afternoon prayer. The prisoners stand hip to hip in two rows, kneel then rise in the only glimpse of the captives the reporters will get in a weeklong visit.
As the military tells it, an angry hunger strike is cooling, and Islams holy month is a new beginning. But this guarded glance at the 12th Ramadan for most Guantánamo detainees shows no fellowship, no festive meal in the blocks.
And it is the complete opposite of a generous, confident Ramadan visit of a year ago. Then, the prison gave the Miami Herald night and day access to prayer and meals at different times in different cellblocks, to look and listen from unseen vantage points while commanders unhurriedly stood inside prison corridors chatting with confidence that they were doing the right thing.
Last year, the Herald got to record a prisoner under lockdown berating his guards before settling down to call his fellow captives to prayer through his steel cell door.
This year, it is the job of the Pentagon salaried cultural advisor called Zak to tell their story, from behind a desk at the command headquarters.
In the places where the reporters cant look or listen, says Zak, himself a Muslim, the detainees are praying, reading the Quran, meditating, being on their own.
Lockdown has ended for dozens who are allowed to live communally now, if not as liberally as before. They watch TV, he says, and a recent report on Al-Jazeera about plans to hold parole-style reviews for indefinite detainees went over well.
Ramadan is just a time when detainees spend worshipping, he adds. It gives the guards a break from putting up with the detainees.
It is the first Ramadan at Guantánamo for most U.S. soldiers here and, coming after months of lockdown and hunger striking, the prisoners most austere in years.
Midnight meals come in Styrofoam boxes slid through a slot in each captives cell door. Even those the military says are eating and behaving are locked alone inside a cell for six hours, then let out in time for dawn prayers.
Conversations with lawyers, in person or by phone, take place in a different building. So guards are under orders to search each mans genitals, twice, an invasive procedure the prison implemented after Ramadan last year.
As a result, most captives are refusing to speak with their lawyers, leaving attorneys like Cortney Busch to conclude from scant meetings and phone calls that her clients spirits are broken.
Throughout the holiday we have learned that communal time, a tenet of Ramadan, is used as a reward for those who give up hunger striking and a punishment for those who refuse to do so, she wrote from the base after several clients wouldnt come out of their cells to see her. Certainly there is nothing to celebrate this Ramadan, and the mood of the camp reflects this.
Thats a change, too. Last year, commanders said that because hunger striking was a legitimate protest, a handful of prisoners who had refused to eat for years were entitled to the perks of communal life as long as they compliantly took nourishment through tubes snaked up their noses. The procedure was done at night to let them observe Islams Ramadan fast, too.